The ceremonial killing of
An environmental catastrophe
|Don Andrés, a seasoned fisherman, understands well the plight of Bocachico; “It isn’t that strong a swimmer. It swims upstream in zigzag to overcome the river current. How could it swim against that chute in the tunnel?” People still recount vividly the pathetic scenes at the tunnels: schools of Bocachico, frantically somersaulting across the tunnel outflow, only to be washed down again and again by the torrent -an act of communal suicide. Thousands of fish began to float down, dead. The word spread like wildfire, and many city folks raced up to the dam site to bring home sacks of banked dead fish. Those responsible for the debacle moved-in quick, to cover up the ecological disaster –they trapped the dead in large nets and, with a backhoe, gave them mass burials right by the bank.|
However, the authorities failed miserably in covering up their fallacious impact assessments on the project, because the worse was yet to come. In 1992, CORELCA, predecessor of URRA S.A., the owner-operator of the dam, published its impact assessment, emphasizing that Urrá I would not cause significant hydrological or biological changes in the ciénagas along the River Sinú. Then, in 1993, CVS, the regional environmental authority, issued the concession of water use for hydropower by CORELCA, claiming that releasing a certain quantity of water downriver from the dam, during the months of May and June, would safeguard the reproduction of migrating fish species.
The fact remains that, after 1996, Bocachico never returned to any of the hundreds of ciénagas in the Sinú system. The destruction of Sinú fishing caused a chain reaction: over-fishing decimated this vital resource in the whole region. Now, in once immensely rich fishing grounds of lower San Jorge and Cauca rivers, the fishermen can’t even cover their fuel costs. The famous tourist city nearby, Cartagena, today airlifts Bocachico, from Argentina!
|Not just fishing, Urrá I threatens the mere existence of the ciénagas themselves. In 1999 January, the dam contractor, ignoring the lack of a permit, commenced filling the reservoir under the guise of running wet trials of the turbines. Since then, the life of every ciénaga inhabitant has taken a nosedive. The feeder canals, long sedimented and abandoned, could not divert enough supply from the meager river flow to the ciénagas. Their own diminutive catchments, now denuded and converted into agri-pastural lands, bring in only contaminated water, if at all. As the ciénaga water level dwindles, farmers or cattle owners encroach the fresh, moist beachheads, increasing the contamination further. Since the Urrá dam attenuates the annual floods that, till yesterday, cleansed and replenished the ciénagas, these adorable water bodies that once sustained an abundance of life, today face disgrace, humiliation and eventual extinction. From their stagnant pools, rise clouds of mosquitoes that carry diseases never before known to valley inhabitants.|
As Don Andrés of Ciénaga Grande de Lorica put it, “Now, when the dusk falls, even the donkeys clamor for mosquito nets!” The same conditions prevail around the Urrá reservoir where the tropical biomass decomposes in stagnant waters, and the Embera kids, lacking natural defenses against these new epidemics, easily fall prey to them.
Though the dam operator has been releasing a minimum flow below the dam even during the drought, the river has now lost its vitality. Very few of the villages that perch on the Sinú banks have potable water, and the rest relied on the river for all their domestic needs –drinking, bathing, washing and irrigating. Not any more. Not since the dam. Don José of Playón, near Lorica, explains: “Now the river water has a color like that of copper. I don’t feel like even taking a dip there. Just imagine, before, we simply dipped a bucket into the river…” Now, they are caught between a rock and a hard place: drink the greenish river water or that of a ciénaga turned into a stagnant pool.
|Apparently, the rich tropical biomass at the Urrá reservoir bottom has begun decomposing anaerobically, and the river below the dam receives this oxygen-depleted, sulfur-rich, sterile water. In many tropical reservoirs, such as neighboring Bayano in Panama, Brokopondo in Suriname and Curua Una in Brazil, oxygen-rich surface water never reaches the bottom layers because they all suffer from thermal stratification –the layering of the water body, with water temperature varying from surface to bottom. The Urrá I lake, being narrow, deep and small in surface area, has hardly any possibility of wind-aided mixing of water taking place there. Despite decades of experience with such malfunctioning reservoirs, Urrá planners never seemed to have bothered about these ‘tropicalities,’ and simply transplanted the designs from temperate climates, where seasonal air temperature changes automatically shuffle thermal water layers.|
Since URRA S.A. began filling the reservoir, saline water has penetrated with vengeance some 20 kilometers upriver, irreversibly destroying the agricultural lands and the mangroves that supported over 2500 families in the Sinú delta. In its water use concession for Urrá I, the CVS asked the dam operator not to permit salt penetration above 7.3 km from the coastline; however, such figures only seem to have theoretical importance. The salt water has encroached the pump intake of the 3000-hectare irrigation district La Doctrina, which requires constant water pumping to maintain its rice production.
Further downstream bloomed salt flowers, instead of rice, in the 3500-hectare agricultural zone along the caños Sicará and Grande. As a result, many families were forced to join the poverty belts of Montería. A major river course change, from Caño Grande towards the bay of Tinajones, in the 40s, initiated salinization of this zone. Yet, by the 80s, this old delta reached a healthy equilibrium between salt and fresh water, its ciénagas again rebounding with fish. After the recent salt intrusion, pressured vigorously and constantly by those who stayed to fight back, the authorities began cleaning and deepening the caños, to feed more fresh water to the zone. But the powerful shrimp industry, which has already encroached the delta from the coast, has other plans.
|The shrimp lobby intends to convert the whole of
this ancient delta to a brackish swamp –a necessary step
before condemning the land and dividing it into shrimp ponds;
and, the Urrá Project, run by the same corrupt elite, provides
the best circumstances. They forced a halt to the canal refurbishing in the zone, and
have been using the rotten government bureaucracy to intimidate
the villagers to handover their land possessions at rock bottom
Constitutional tutelage – overruled!
The court decision caused a pandemonium
among the ranks of Cordovan political racketeers.
They cried out to the Central Government; “…How could
we waste a 900 million dollar inversion, simply because it
inconveniences a few indigenous?”
They tried to buy out the indigenous leaders (and they
succeeded in bribing a small group.)
Finally, those who have the last word, the paramilitary,
sent a letter to the Government accusing the Embera being
guerilla sympathizers. Less
than a week later, on 5th of October 1999, then
Minister for the environment, the self-defined front line
environmentalist Juan Mayr Maldonado, issued the license to
operate the dam, completely ignoring the Court order.
URRA S.A. hands out compensations as it sees convenient: the group of Embera, who signed a document approving the project, has received monthly monetary handouts, which pretty much destroyed their traditional lifestyles; they moved to the city, turned to alcohol and prostitution, and even prostituted their culture. Those who challenged the project, had to escape to high ground as the lake water level rose. The resettlement of those families did not go beyond mere propaganda. A subsidy for all the Embera, negotiated as a compensation for the grave impacts caused by Urrá I, has unleashed a corruption scandal, amounting to the disappearance of over a million dollars, which involves some Project officials too. What did the indigenous of the Zenú reservation receive as compensation for their fishing and farming revenues lost? A truckload of chickens and pigs!
Even after decimating the Sinú fishing, URRA S.A. has no shame in bragging about its great plan on reorganizing the fishing industry. They talk about repopulating fish in the valley, but nobody knows where such fish had gone. Their promises to supply larvae to the fishponds, dug up all over the lower Sinú region by desperate fishermen, have been limited to nice words. Since Bocachico never reproduces in ponds, such projects can never be sustained without a continuous introduction of larvae.
What about the project benefits?
Today, URRA S.A. conveniently dilutes its
initially proclaimed flood control benefit of its reservoir, to
that of ‘partial flood control.’
Because it can’t do any more: its smaller retention
capacity barely allows attenuating smaller peak flows that
return year after year. Such
annual floods used to bring lots of benefits; they cleaned the
river of detritus and contaminants, replenished the ciénagas
with fish and nutrients, fed the groundwater aquifers, washed
deltaic salt intrusions, etc.
Yes, lately, they did become an irritant in the eyes of
the inhabitants of the immediate floodplain too. The
‘control’ exercised by Urrá I on the river flow would
create among them a sense of safety, but in a false sense!
More people would invest in ‘recuperating’ the lands
closer and closer to the riverbanks, only until a high flood
like that of El Niño hits!
The devastation will be worse than what one has ever
The ‘recovery’ of swamplands has turned into another myth. True, withholding the floods that annually fed the ciénagas frees up a large acreage of cultivable land. However, cultivating them, year in year out, requires an expensive infrastructure of irrigation and drainage, and continuous injection of fertilizers. The District of La Doctrina in Sinú delta provides a clear example: it requires three times more water to wash the soil than to irrigate the plants. And, URRA S.A. has not a penny allocated for such infrastructure. Besides, prior to Urrá I, in every dry season, these lands yielded short-term agricultural products and pasture for small farmers. The ‘recovery’ could mean passing such lands into the hands of voracious land barons, who have the power to manipulate public funds for own benefit.
Is a calamity like Urrá I indispensable, simply to control flooding and to cultivate in the floodplain? Over a millennium ago, the predecessors of the indigenous group Zenú clearly demonstrated otherwise! From the first centuries after the Christ, they established an ingenious hydraulic engineering system, changing the landscape of some 150,000 ha in lower Sinú region and of another 500,000 ha in lower San Jorge valley, excavating numerous canals and raising agricultural and housing platforms, using only manual labor and their rudimentary tools. And, a system truly multipurpose!
|Long and wide canals, connecting the river and
the caños to permanent ciénagas, would rapidly
evacuate floodwaters to lower basins; meanwhile, other shorter
canals, dug perpendicular to the first, would disperse the water
to reduce its velocity, permitting it to dump its sediment load,
rich in nutrients. In
shallow swamps, where water flow has no definite direction, they
built short canals in dense groups, one group perpendicular to
another, which facilitated the sedimentation and the retention
of humidity. The
soil, dug out of the canals initially and also during the annual
cleanup of their beds, were used to raise above the water level
the platforms between the canals, making them ideal locations to
grow, guaranteed against the floods and enriched with natural
canals provided sustenance through aquatic fauna, and also
permitted easy canoe access to cultivating lots.
Here, no dike ‘controlled the river.’
They simply had learned to live in harmony with the
of neglect and the ‘modernization’ have erased from the Sinú
valley all traces of that vast system, which had distributed its
benefits equally among all.
The real beneficiaries of Urrá
The famous ‘Ecotours’ represent the most pathetic scheme of these elite. They bring in rich city folks, and take them down the narrow caños of Sinú delta, in motorized dinghies, up to the few remaining ciénagas, right next to huge shrimp ponds. Traditionally, the delta farmers block advancing saline water, erecting rustic barriers in these canals. Now, these boat operators, using shadowy powers of their masters, harass the poor farmers and destroy the barriers, to facilitate their clients capture the best nature shots. If the shrimp lobby, led by the same Mogollón, would have its way, soon, the only background available for the ‘nature shots’ would be their ‘square seas’!
|In addition, the Cordovan economic interests have hatched a whole package of mega projects around Urrá. They are currently seeking funds for a coastline highway, from Urabá, the heart of the banana export industry, to a deep-sea port, planned for San Antero in Sinú delta. Some 15 publicly funded irrigation districts in the Sinú valley have passed through the draftsman’s table; already, the CVS has issued the environmental license for one of them, covering 18,000 ha near Cereté. The authorities never have bothered to call for public hearings on any of these projects, neither have they published any environmental impact assessments. The biggest assault planned on the public coffers? Urrá II, a reservoir 10 times greater than Urrá I, a dagger right through the heart of Embera reservation, located within the Paramillo National Park.|
The kiss of death
Well, Professor Alberto Alzate Patiño of
the University of Cordoba also perceived where the wind blows,
before its time: he published a well researched book about the
impacts of Urrá Master Plan in 1987, and reemerged as an
outspoken opponent of the project since Do-Wabura.
May be he knew too much and too well; he was assassinated
in 1998. Mario
Calderón, an investigator of CINEP –a Jesuit think tank in
Bogotá, who mobilized the social conscience against Urrá at
the Capital, faced the firing line next, along with his family.
While the Constitutional Court deliberated the lawsuit
filed by the Embera, the paramilitary launched their campaign of
intimidation inside the reservation, assassinating in cold blood
Lucindo Dómico, a young Embera schoolteacher and their
spokesman during Do-Wabura.
In the year 2000, after an international tour seeking
support for the plight of Embera, their principal leader Kimi
Pernia was kidnapped in Tierralta by the same group; no word on
his whereabouts so far.
Many more unnamed and unsung heroes have followed the same path of terror, to pave the way for the Cordovan mafia empires. Upon my reentry to Colombia, towards the end of 2001, I phoned my friend Armando in Montería, a schoolteacher who gave vital help to my whirlwind informative campaign in lower Sinú, just ahead of Do-Wabura. His mother answered the phone, and burst out in tears; “No my son, Armando is no longer here. Only six months ago, ‘they’ ordered his death!”
A hope for the future
Many visionary schoolteachers manipulate the innocuous aperture in the curriculum for environmental education, to inculcate in the young minds, how to observe and investigate the impacts of Urrá and other similar projects, instead of gulping down the official lies.
Every year, a few more locally trained professionals sign up for the technical resource pool available for community organizations, instead of enslaving for the rich and the powerful. The best promise for the future lies in the resurgence of community activism, and the lower Sinú valley, which had the weakest organizations only a decade ago, now leads the way.
ASPROCIG, formerly an alliance of a few
fishermen’s collectives located around Ciénaga Grande de
Lorica, now boasts a membership of hundreds of community
organizations, including many from the Sinú delta.
In 1994, Do-Wabura woke up the petrified mentality of
valley inhabitants, and the subsequent loss of Bocachico jerked
them into action. They
rallied behind their organization to fight for survival, instead
of facing the slow, sure death, under subjugation.
As an immediate goal, ASPROCIG focused on
improving the dire economic situation of the local population,
directly affected by Urrá I.
The fishermen organized themselves to regulate fishing in
the few remaining ciénagas and distribute the income
pressured URRA S.A. for financial help to build community
fishponds, as a measure of mitigating the economic impact, and
also demanded larvae to populate them.
With the help of some international NGOs, ASPROCIG
organized a rotating fund for agricultural loans.
They forced the authorities to refurbish the caños, especially
in the Sinú delta. Such
measures have serious limitations though: URRA S.A. routinely
breaks its word on supplying larvae and other logistical support
for the fishponds; sudden, irregular changes in river flow
frequently destroy farmers’ entire agricultural inversion in ciénaga
beachheads; recently, the shrimp industry halted the efforts to
recover the salt-laden rice fields in the delta.
So, as a medium term strategy, ASPROCIG works on legal and political fronts, to compel the authorities declare, the still salvageable, important ciénagas and swamps, as natural reserves. Already, some have received the designation, but the corresponding legislation and control activities take time. These steps strengthen their protest campaign, against the shrimp industry encroaching further in the Sinú delta, and also against the attempts to convert the Cispatá forest into commercial plantations.
|Yet, they have realized that, as long as the
mother of all these problems remains intact, none of the above
would bring peace and prosperity to the region. Therefore, on
November 2002, along with many other similar minded
organizations, ASPROCIG launched a campaign towards their
ultimate goal: Dismantle Urrá I dam!
-April 2003, Riobamba, Ecuador.
Alzate Patiño, Alberto y otros (1987) “Impactos sociales del Proyecto Hidroeléctrico de Urrá” Fundación del Caribe, Montería, Colombia.
(2002) “Aumenta rechazo público hacia Urrá I” Boletín,
y caracterización de megaproyectos en la cuenca hidrográfica
del río Sinú” Boletín, Lorica, October.
(2001) “Cuchilla de Cispatá: Plantaciones Comerciales”
Boletín, Lorica, July.
(2001) “Talleres de divulgación, sensibilización y
concertación sobre reglamentación pesquera”, Santa Cruz de
Mario (1995) “Urrá: otro elefante blanco” en Cien días
visto por CINEP, vol 7, #28, pp. 24-25, Bogotá.
(1992) “Las ciénagas del Sinú en el contexto del proyecto
Urrá I” en En busca del desarrollo: Memorias del taller
nuestras ciénagas, Ed: Victor Negrete B., Fundación del Sinú,
Montería, pp. 69-79, Apr.
(1994) “La concesión de agua” en En busca del desarrollo,
Boletín 9: Memoria de la campaña el reencuentro con el río
Sinú, Ed: Victor Negrete B., Montería, pp 59-63.
Arteaga, Ramiro (2001) “Urrá: ¿Desarrollo o fracaso?” El
Tiempo, 27 de Agosto, Bogotá.
B., Victor (1994) “La expedición del reencuentro” en En
busca del desarrollo, Boletín 9: Memoria de la campaña el
reencuentro con el río Sinú, Ed: Victor Negrete B., Montería,
(1994) “Construir la represa Urrá I es insistir en el caos”
Informe preparado en vísperas de Do-Wabura, despedida del río
Sinú, Bogotá, Colombia.
Clemencia & Ana Maria Falchetti de Sanez (1981)
“Asentamientos prehispánicos en el bajo Río San Jorge”
Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, vol 11,
Banco de la Republica, Bogotá.
Domico, Kimi (2000) “El proyecto Urrá, según lo hemos visto
los Embera” en Para dónde va Urrá, Ed: Gloria Amparo Rodríguez,
Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, pp. 21-31, August.
S.A. (2001?) “Urrá”, Montería, Colombia.
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