Friday, 2 March 2012

The Urrá Dam and the Embera-Katío of #Colombia

I started working on this issue - with Kimi Pernia Domico and the Embera government - 15 years ago. This is how I initially became involved in Latin American Indigenous issues. This is why I learned I could understand all the articles and e-mails I received from the Embera government. So I could post them to the website we had created as part of the work the Red de Apoyo por Los Embera-Katío de Colombia was doing from here in Canada.  This is how I became friends with Kimi Pernia Domico who in 2001 was kidnapped and disappeared. Kimi was a strong, energetic and well spoken traditional leader of his people. He spent his life fighting for the Embera and against the Urra dam. He is incredibly missed. I miss him. 

Kimi Pernia Domico
Photo: Sofia Smith

Here is the story of the Urrá Dam and the Embera-Katío of Colombia in short:

The Urrá I dam was built on the Sinú River in Colombia's northeastern department of Córdoba, between 1992 and 1998. This is the region where the country's paramilitary forces began and are strongest. The dam has caused severe environmental destruction within the territory belonging to the Embera-Katío indigenous people. The Embera-Katío led the unsuccessful opposition to the project, which is supported by wealthy landowners allied with the paramilitaries. Their determination has been strong in the face of violent intimidation, including assassinations and disappearances.

The Urrá dam has always been a project advocated by the wealthy landowners of Córdoba, at least some of whom are allied with the counter-insurgency paramilitary forces. Brutal pressure by the paramilitaries stifled dissent from most of the settlements that would be negatively affected by the construction of the dam. The notable exception was the indigenous Embera-Katío people, who carried out a well-publicized "celebration" of the ceremonial murder of the river.

Embera-Katío activists and leaders have been murdered and kidnapped for their opposition to the dam and their insistence on their legal right to a seat at the negotiating table. Despite the existence of Colombian and international laws unambiguously requiring prior informed consent by indigenous peoples of development projects affecting their lands, requirements that were upheld by Colombia's Constitutional Court in this case, it was only after 150 Embera-Katío people camped out on the grounds of the Environment Ministry that they were able even to bring the government and the company into negotiations. Some agreements were finally reached, but they have not been carried out, and the Embera-Katío continue to suffer both from the unmitigated environmental devastation wrought by the dam and from the violent conflict surrounding and often directed toward them.

Negative environmental effects of the dam are many. The principal effect, which was foreseen but glossed over in impact studies, is the decimation of the migratory fish population, especially the bocachico, which had been the primary protein source in the local diet. The near-total loss of the fish population has ripple effects throughout the food chain and the ecosystem in general. Other effects include degradation of water quality both in the river proper and in the seasonal marshes, disruption of natural flooding cycles that used to renew water and soil, stagnation of marshes that have become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, increased salinity of the water, and others.

Time Frame:
50+ years: Urrá was first proposed in 1951.

Continent: South America
Region: Western South America
Country: Colombia, Department of Córdoba

  ACCU: the paramilitary organization Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá.
  the Government of Colombia
  Urrá S.A., the dam corporation
  the Embera-Katío indigenous nation
  fishing and peasant communities in the project zone
  people displaced into the project zone by paramilitary violence
  other armed actors: guerrillas, regular military

Environmental Effects of the Urra Dam:
The Urrá project has been environmentally devastating. The most significant impact is the near-complete disappearance of the bocachico, the fish that previously provided the main source of protein in the diets of the Embera-Katío people as well as neighboring fishing and peasant populations1. The main problem for the bocachico is the same one facing salmon in dammed North American rivers: it is impeded from swimming upstream to spawn. The Urrá company offered tank-farmed fish as a mitigating measure, but it has not been successful.

Some 8,500 people were displaced by the construction of the Urrá I dam and the filling of its reservoir2. The flooding occurred despite an order by the Constitutional Court forbidding the company to proceed with filling the reservoir because of its failure to reach an agreement with the Embera-Katío people. Embera leader and anti-Urrá activist Kimy Pernía Domicó alleged, in a speech at a 1999 forum at the National University in Bogotá, that the license to fill the reservoir was granted by the Environment Ministry in response to a letter circulated by the paramilitary suggesting that those who opposed the dam did so under pressure from the guerrillas and demanding that it be filled immediately3. The flooding was also carried out in a reckless manner, without notification4 and without measures to safely evacuate those residents who had refused to voluntarily cede to the disastrous project5.

In the same 1999 speech, Pernía Domicó claimed that “the purpose of the dam was to drain the marshes and bogs, so that INCORA [the Institute for Agrarian Reform] could deed them to the landowners of Córdoba, and we all know who those are and how they act. The Constitutional Court ordered INCORA to put a halt to those illegal land grants, and ordered the municipal governors to see to the return of those lands to the nation”6. Tragically, Kimy Pernía Domicó was abducted by armed men in June of 2001, and has not been seen since. He is only one of dozens of anti-Urrá activists and Embera leaders who have been killed, disappeared, threatened, or forced to flee the country by the paramilitary forces backing the dam project.

The environmental destruction caused by Urrá includes many other serious impacts. In addition to homes, some of the Embera-Katío nation's most fertile lands, as well as sacred sites and burial grounds, now lie at the bottom of the reservoir. Salt water now penetrates deeper inland, further degrading once-fertile soils, which moreover no longer benefit from the nutrients that were once deposited by seasonal flooding. Brackishness and sedimentation of the river have deprived communities of drinking water. In an area with no roads, blocking the river and draining wetlands has cut off the primary mode of transportation. The newly-stagnant bogs, that used to be refreshed with the periodic rise and fall of water levels, have become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

1Correa, Iván. “Urrá Dam, Colombia”, panel discussion at a conference of the World Commission on Dams, August 13, 1999.
2Castro, Margarita de. “Lessons from resettlements of Urrá Hydropower Project”, discussant at the above-mentioned panel.
3Pernía Domicó's speech is reproduced (in Spanish) at
4“Urrá inicia la Inundación!”. Statement issued by the Embera-Katío nation, November 18, 1999.
5“Inundación Irresponsable”. Statement issued by the Embera-Katío nation, December 4, 1999.
6Pernía Domicó speech, op cit.

Outline of the Conflict:
The conflict is a civil war with three major parties: the revolutionary guerrillas, the Colombian military, and the counter-insurgency paramilitaries. There are several revolutionary armies, all nominally – and perhaps in their genesis idealistically – Marxist. By far the most significant group is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). On the right, the paramilitaries are more or less united under the umbrella of the so-called Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), although their unity has been strained by internal divisions as well as external pressure against their drug-trafficking that financially sustains them. The AUC was organized in 1997 by brothers Carlos and Fidel Castaño, leaders of a particularly feared paramilitary organization in the province of Córdoba (ACCU, Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá). This is where the Urrá dam was built on the Sinú River, in the territory of the Embera-Katío indigenous people.

The paramilitaries are said to be engaged in a sort of agrarian counter-reform. They practice a war of displacement, terrorizing and even massacring villagers in order to clear territory, which is then available for a variety of income-producing activities, from licit agriculture to coca cultivation, mineral extraction or, in the present case, a major hydroelectric project. Although Colombia leads the region in legal recognition of indigenous rights, including broad territorial rights, in practice those rights are not vigorously defended by the state. On the contrary, the links between the official military and the paramilitaries are well documented. The guerrilla forces are also implicated in many abuses; however, the area where this case takes place is much more dominated by the AUC.

The Embera-Katío, like many of the indigenous peoples in Colombia, have asserted their non-alignment and non-involvement in the civil war, and have declared their territory off-limits to both combat and coca cultivation. Nonetheless, community leaders have been the victims of assassination, kidnappings, and intense intimidation for their opposition to the Urrá I and II dams. Moreover, their territory has been invaded by people displaced from the surrounding area by paramilitary pressure. Finally, they have failed to prevent the construction of the Urrá hydroelectric project, whose environmental impacts have devastated their habitat and way of life.

Environment and Conflict Overlap:
The Embera-Katío nation has overwhelmingly opposed the Urrá project, for its fatal impact on their ability to continue to exist as a people. The Embera culture is intimately related to the riverine habitat, which has always provided the basis of their economy, and the stewardship of which gives structure to their value system. Indigenous peoples the world over have, by definition, a special relationship to their homelands, which states are obligated to respect under international law1. Colombia also has its own national constitutional and legal standards requiring respect for indigenous peoples' rights to self-governance, territorial integrity, social and cultural uniqueness, and informed participation in decisions impacting them and their lands. Specifically, the lack of early, transparent consultation on the Urrá project violated national and international law.

In response to their determined opposition to the project and insistence on respect for their rights, tribal leaders and activists were terrorized by the ACCU, the brutal local paramilitary organization. Numerous assassinations, kidnappings, threats, and burning of homes and boats failed to convince the indigenous communities to give up their campaign. Like other indigenous nations in Colombia, the Embera-Katío has distanced itself from all of the parties to the civil conflict and has declared its territory off-limits to all armed combatants. Nonetheless, because its property – its territory – is considered of value to the landowners who are aligned with the paramilitary organization, the Embera-Katío nation has been victimized by the violence just the same. Even in lands not directly degraded by the dam project, the tribe has had to deal with the invasion of their territory by other non-combatants who were violently displaced from their own lands.

At its heart, this is a case of conflict over incompatible environmental and economic value systems. Up until the time that Urrá I was built, the Embera-Katío people enjoyed a prosperous subsistence economy built on the values of indefinite sustainability and environmental stewardship. The ethos that supports megadams such as Urrá, especially in the atmosphere of conflict characterizing Colombia in general and Córdoba in particular, is one of immediate gratification, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, continual increase and accumulation of personal wealth, even at others' expense.

1Most significantly for its groundbreaking nature, Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

Environment-Conflict Links and Dynamics:
DIRECT. The conflict is over the Embera-Katío's lands. The dam not only degrades the worth of the land to the tribe, but by draining wetlands it makes land available to the paramilitary's allies.

Kimi Pernia Domico:
Kimy Pernia Domico, traditional leader of the Embera-Katío, led his people’s fight against the Canada-supported Urra hydroelectric project, which flooded thousands of hectares of land occupied by 2,800 Embera-Katio Indians. The Embera Katio have been struggling for their survival in the face of a Urra 1 dam megaproject. Because of their struggle, the Embera Katio have been the targets a systematic terror campaign.  

Kimi visited Canada on a number of occasions to testify about the devastation caused by this dam, which was partially financed by our tax dollars through Export Development Canada.” In April 2001, he spoke at the People’s Summit in Quebec City against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Kimy Pernia Domico was abducted on June 2, 2001, by heavily armed men on motorcycles from his village of Tierralta, Cordoba. Kimy was leading the Embera-Katio’s efforts to draw international attention to the effects of the Urra hydroelectric dam on their traditional lands and livelihoods. In Canada, Kimy remains highly respected for testifying to parliamentarians in 1999 about the devastation caused by this dam, which received some $25 million in financing from Export Development Canada. 

Kimy testified that the dam had dried up the Embera Katio’s staple diet of fish, and had brought environmental destruction and malaria to their community. He explained that in organizing and demanding their constitutionally protected rights, the Embera leaders were accused of collaborating with the guerrillas of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and were considered military targets. With chilling foresight, Kimy also revealed to Canada’s parliament, the dangers of speaking out:

“…saying these things to you today puts my life in danger. The [paramilitary] gunmen have set fire to our boats to prevent us from going to meetings. They have set up checkpoints on the rivers and detained our people. Anyone who dares to speak out about Urra is accused of being involved with the guerrilla and with that pretext, they have declared both our communities and leaders to be a military target. You can understand that my people live in great fear both of imminent attack, as well as what the future holds for us without land or fish.”

Extract from Kimy’s testimony to Canada's Standing Committee 
on Foreign Affairs and International Trade 
November 16, 1999

Eleven Embera-Katio leaders had been killed since 1994, when the community began its struggle to oppose the Urra dam project. And then Kimy disappeared as well, two days after he spoke with a Rights & Democracy/Assembly of First Nations Mission to Colombia. His disappearance met with widespread national and international concern. In Colombia, more than a thousand people mobilized to search for Kimy. In Canada, fifty-six members of Canada’s Parliament signed a letter of concern, which was sent to the President of Colombia, and vigils were held in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto. In 2003, Kimy received in absentia Canada’s prestigious John Humphrey Freedom Award for his dedication to human rights.

It was put forward at that meeting that an International Tribunal and Verification Commission be established in order to investigate and make visible the ethnocide of Colombia's indigenous people by armed actors, particularly the paramilitaries.

Kimi Pernia Domico was never found.

Level of Strategic Interest of the Area:
Primarily SUB-STATE; but, also State in that the conflict in Córdoba is related to the civil war taking place throughout Colombia; and also Multinational, insofar as the dam builder, Swedish firm Skanska, and financier, Canada's Export Development Corp, faced pressure from domestic and international environmental and human rights NGOs.

Outcome of the Conflict:
COMPROMISE, in that a negotiated agreement was finally reached between the Embera-Katío, the state, and the Urrá corporation. However, in that the government and the company have failed to meet their commitments, it might be considered a stalemate.
Sources for the above information:

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