The Violence of Extractivism: Mega-Dam Projects Now a Site of Heightened Conflict in Post-War Colombia

Protest against El Quimbo Dam in Colombia (Source: Polinizaciones/International Rivers)
Protest against El Quimbo Dam in Colombia (Source: Polinizaciones/International Rivers)

Colombia’s 52-year-long war came to an end in September 2016, when the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed the historic peace accords. The peace process has been slow, and the newly signed accords have faced steep challenges in being implemented. Colombia’s left has now confronted new threats, including targeted assassinations by paramilitaries, and criminalization for defense of land and the environment.

The 400 megawatt El Quimbo dam sits on the Magdalena river in the south of Colombia in the southern province of Huila. Construction began in 2010, but the plans date back to 1995, when companies began to look upon the region as an area for development. The dam is owned by Italian energy giant, Enel, but it was constructed with investments made from Spanish company, Emgesa, and Colombia energy company, Energía Bogata. It is the project is the first privately funded development project within the country.

The project came online in December 2014. Today, communities are now demanding the closure of the dam due to the impacts on the region.

“We do not accept the presence of transnational companies within our territories Miller Dussán, a professor at the University of Southern Colombia, and a key organizer with The Association of those Affected by the El Quimbo Hydro Project (ASOQUIMBO). This group organized against the construction of the dam.

“We are the owners of of lands and territories” said Dussán. “We will not accept that these companies come and impose these businesses that dispossess lands and destroy our lands. In Latin America, and in Colombia, these projects are not part of the national interest. These projects are dirty, and only there to accumulate capital.”

He adds, “This project is not for the benefit of the country. Rather, the energy is for other extractive projects, such as fracking, mining, and exportation.”

The case of El Quimbo is especially reflective of the rise in social conflicts and criminalization in post-conflict Colombia that was brewing prior to the official end of the war.

The emphasis placed on the development and exploitation of Colombia’s vast natural resources has led to the continuation of social conflict across the country. The department of Huila is one where the conflict is most heavily felt.

“In the department of Huila there is a strong presence of the FARC, where they had a lot of power,” said Dussán. “Now after the demobilization, there are paramilitaries entering into the regions where the FARC were, and there is a rise in common crime.”

The peace accords do far more than end combat, but rather increase the confidence of transnational capital interested in exploiting vast natural resources in the region. Many of such resources are in regions that were once controlled by the FARC.

“In the post-conflict, or post-accords, the minister of mining has insisted that transnational companies begin entering into regions that the FARC is now leaving,” said Dussán. “Previously, these companies could not enter due to the presence of the guerrillas.”

This rise in the presence of extractive industries threatens some of the best protected ecological zones.

“In the regions where there was the insurgency today is where there are the best conserved ecological areas; they preserved nature,” said Dussán. “But now the worry today is that there are transnational companies, paramilitaries, and common crime entering these zones to take these territories to impose projects.”

Criminalization of Protest

On March 30, 2017, a Colombian court issued its decision on one of the cases against Dussán and activist Elsa Ardila. Both Dussán and Ardila are accused of a number of crimes, including being the intellectual authors of invasion of land, and obstructing transit and public mobility, among other charges.

“They have made it appear that I am the worst terrorist (in Colombia),” said Dussán of the charges in an interview over the phone. Dussán has challenged all the charges, leaving the charges of land invasion and obstructing transit.

In the March 30 hearing, judge Jairo Fernando Fierro Cabrera resolved the case regarding the obstruction of public mobility against Dussán and Ardila, abstaining the case. The decision provides a victory for the movement against the dam.

“The strategy of [the company] to try to [criminalize] the environmental leaders of ASOQUIMBO with the idea of ​​attacking the organization did not work,” said German Romero, Dussán and Ardila’s lawyer, in an interview with the organization, The Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. “On the other hand, it shows that the protest that ASOQUIMBO made is absolutely legitimate and is in accordance with the constitutional rules Colombians.”

The decision came after the public prosecutor announced it would be dropping the charges, following an international campaign led by the Democracy Center in solidarity with Dussán and Ardila.

The case represents the increased criminalization of those that challenge the expansion of extractive industries in Colombia. These charges reflect a common trend across the region of cases being brought against organizers by the companies themselves. In this cases, according to the Thomas McDonagh with The Democracy Center, the charges were brought against Miller Dussán and Elsa Ardila by the company.

“The company is indirectly trying to undermine the legitimacy of the leaders,” said McDonagh in an interview via skype. “In response to our accusations [that the charges come from the company], the company made accusations that ASOQUIMBO did not represent the communities, and that they were not on board with [the movement].”

In terms of the remaining charge, the court held a preliminary hearing for the charges in 2012. According to McDonagh, the company offered to drop the charges against Dussán if he paid the company an exorbitant amount of money.

The remaining case is still advancing in the courts, as the public prosecutor formalizes charges.

Exporting Energy, Leaving the Communities with the Costs

Residents along the river mobilized to challenge the construction of the dam soon after learning of the plans to build the project along the river. They were driven to organize the project due to the great cost of land for campesinos, as well as the environmental damage that the project would bring. The communities have carried out consistent protests against the project, arguing that it doesn’t benefit the community.

Like similar projects across the region, the energy generated at the Quimbo dam is exported to neighboring countries, including Panama and Ecuador, as well as north to Central America.

Dussán also challenges the argument that Colombia has an energy crisis, stating that there is a surplus of energy. He adds that the expansion of energy projects has done little to improve infrastructure, and lower the cost for consumers across the country.

The construction of the project has affected six municipalities in Huila, Garzón, Gigante, El Agrado, Paicol, Tesalia and Altamira. It has affected the local economies of the farmers of the region.

“(The Quimbo dam) has destroyed 5,200 hectares of land that were in production of crops that will never be recuperated,” said Dussán. “The lands that were destroyed were the best lands of the region.”

According to Dussán, the project effects 1,500 people were effected directly, and 1,800 people indirectly. Many of those effected, many of which were rural famers, were left without any options for work. Dussán estimates that specifically tobacco farmers lost 20 million Colombian Pesos annually due to the construction of the dam.

Linking Resistances across the Americas

The struggle against ENEL and against the El Quimbo project in Colombia links the communities along the Río Magdalena with the resistances against mega-projects across the hemisphere.

“The struggle and resistance against Quimbo is a struggle against the entire model of extractivism, financed for dispossession: they dispossess the lands of communities, they destroy ecosystems, and they destroy heritage,” said Dussán. “It is not simply a struggle against one project. We want to describe how every Transnational Company operates in the same manner in whatever part in the world, and with which ever mega-project.”

“All those affected (by mega-projects) are the victims of development,” he adds,

In an example of this transnational resistance, in 2012, ASOQUIMBO issued a statement in solidarity with the Maya Ixil communities of San Juan Cotzal, Guatemala in their struggle against the construction of another ENEL project in Guatemala, the Palo Alto dam.

“(We) express our support in solidarity with the indigenous communities’ resistance struggle against the Palo Viejo hydroelectric plant in Cotzal in the Ixil Region of Guatemala, built by the company ENEL, violating their ancestral rights to mountains, forests and rivers and the laws National and international standards, such as ILO Convention 169,” wrote Dussán and the others of ASOQUIMBO. They added their demands that the Guatemalan government suspend the operations pending the rectification of problems with the project.  ASOQUIMBO has similarly expressed solidarity with movements against similar mega-projects in Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

Dussán has also worked with the Italian human rights organization, Stop ENEL, in organizing and working to address the human rights violations carried out through the construction of ENEL projects.

Yet the communities are not without alternatives. The model proposed by Dussán incorporates the use of small hydro facilities, and solar panels to produce energy for the communities.

“We are not only in resistance to the model, we are also promoting an alternative model,” said Dussán. “In Colombia we are promoting a new energy model that comes from the base, and is autonomous, and that comes after questioning our communities.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at the Progressive Magazine, the North American Congress on Latin America, Truth-Out, and VICE News. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo