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Thousands of people are resisting the construction of the Hidroituango mega dam in Antioquia in the northwest of Colombia, which aims to generate an additional 2,400MW of energy for export to other Latin American countries and for domestic consumption by extractive industries in Colombia. If it goes ahead, the project will cause irreversible damage to the Bosque Seco Tropical in the north of Antioquia, a biodiverse-rich old growth forest area. It will also displace the communities of small-scale farmers, fisherpeople and traditional artisanal gold miners who inhabit the 3,800 hectares of land set to be flooded and the additional 24,000 hectares of surrounding land that is being established as a ‘conservation’ area around the reservoir.
The project is currently jointly owned by the local government authority of Antioquia and construction company Empresas Públicas de Medellín (Grupo EPM), based in Medellín, Antioquia, Colombia, which has the majority share in the project. There are plans to issue market bonds shortly which could open up the project to international investors in its subsequent phases.
The project is already giving rise to major social and environmental conflicts. Overall, the project will affect 12 municipalities in the north and west of the department of Antioquia. Local people have already suffered significantly from several displacements and massacres as a result of the armed conflict in the area involving guerrilla, paramilitary and state security forces that has been ongoing since the 1990s.
Despite the major impacts it will have on their land and livelihoods, local people have been provided with very little information or say in decision-making about the Hidroituango project. The project developers have also failed to recognise the rights of the artisanal miners who come from traditional communities in the region and whose mining practices involve the small-scale extraction of gold from the Bajo Cauca river without any use of artificial chemicals or industrial processes. Small-scale mining has already been prohibited in many places in the reservoir site, and once the reservoir is flooded these mining communities, along with the small-scale peasant farmers and fisher people – who also derive their traditional livelihoods from the area’s natural resources and contribute to the sustainable management of those resources – will all permanently lose access to their homes and livelihoods.
In 2013, more than 250 local people took part in a seven-month long peaceful mobilisation, aiming to establish dialogue between the local government and EPM to secure recognition of the basic rights of communities living in the affected area. These efforts were unsuccessful, and the displacement of communities by the police without compensation or consultation has already begun, resulting in their jobs lost, their way of life jeopardised, and many of their “cambuches” (artisanal houses by the river) burnt down.
Community members have also suffered harassment and detentions by the state police force in response to their peaceful protests against the construction of the mega dam. 12 people arrested on 16 March 2013 and charged with obstruction of public roads were released after a judge in Santa Rosa de Osos, Antioquia declared that the detentions were illegal.
The affected communities are demanding the establishment of a high level commission involving representatives from the national government and human rights organisations to report on the human rights situation in the north and west of Antioquia. Friends of the Earth Colombia is working as part of Movimiento Ríos Vivos Antioquia, the local branch of the national Colombian movement for the defence of the territory and people affected by dams, to help affected communities secure the establishment of the commission and recognition of their social, economic and environmental rights.
The community members are now facing serious threats to their individual and collective safety. On 17 September 2013 community leader Nelson Giraldo Posada was killed. Another community leader, Genaro Graciano, his family and neighbours were injured in an explosives attack on his home. The Rios Vivos Antioquia movement believes that the attacks are connected to the community leaders’ activism against the mega dam. The movement, and international organisations like CIDH (the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights), have called upon the Colombian government and the Governor of Antioquia to identify those responsible for the attacks and their motives and to guarantee the safety of the other community members set to be affected by the dam.