Make your own free website on



The ceremonial killing of 

River Sinú


Sinú valley and its surroundings in the Province of Cordoba
Detailed maps: 1-delta, 2-left bank lakes near Lorica, 3-Ciénaga Grande




An environmental catastrophe
Having negotiated the silence of the only group that dared to publicly oppose the hydropower project, the dam building proceeded without hindrance, and in January 1996, the river was diverted through two tunnels to pour concrete for the dam foundation.  Their usual route now blocked, the upriver migrating Bocachico found themselves facing the dire prospects of negotiating these high speed tunnel flumes for several hundred meters, in order to reach their only spawning grounds, up in Embera territory.  

Tunnels under construction

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.

A part of ciénagas and swamps of Sinú - map detail 2

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.   

A day's catch in 2002

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.

Cíenaga Grande, today

Ciénaga Grande de Lorica and other smaller swamps - map detail 3

Playón, a village by river Sinú

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.

The Sinú delta - map detail 1

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.  

La Doctrina canals

Deltaic rice fields

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 prices.

Constitutional tutelage – overruled!
While the water level behind the dam rose, the authorities held public hearings –a prerequisite to grant URRA S.A. the environmental license to operate the hydropower project.  Having already tasted the ominous consequences of the river closure, against the project surged the public opinion, spearheaded by Bogotá- based environmental groups, some brave local intellectuals and a few organizations of local farmers and fishermen who chose to fight for survival.  Since Do-Wabura, the Embera had tried, in vain, to convince the Central Government to implement the recommendations of their Urrá impact study, so they too joined in. Yet, the hearings constituted a mere formality, for the authorities had already made up their minds.  Sensing the imminent passage of the last obstacle to the project, the Embera played the last trump: they filed suit, at the Constitutional Court, seeking protection against the Project.  The Court, after a lengthy hearing, accepted the charges in September 1999, and ordered the Government to withhold the environmental license, until the dam operator negotiates with the Embera and complies with mitigating and compensating measures acceptable to them.

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. 

A community fish tank in Purisima

What about the project benefits?
The promoters revived the Urrá project promising to supply the national grid with hydropower during the periods of shortfall.  However, URRA S.A., as an energy producer, has failed to play an important role at neither the national level nor the regional level.  The installed generating capacity of the Project amounts to less than 3% of the national total, and the actual energy production lags way behind.  Within Córdoba, the problems of power rationing and supply instability have shown no improvement after the Project.  The peak energy production period of Urrá I (during the months of peak river flows), coincides with the time when many other dams in the country produce energy at much larger scale and at much smaller unit costs, preventing URRA S.A. from selling its production at a profit.  The root of the problem lies in the original project design.  Urrá I was planned to operate only as an auxiliary to a greater reservoir upstream; so, it doesn’t have the capacity to store the peak flows and spread energy production over a long period.  Besides, its low pressure head and the high volume of water required to operate its turbines make the cost of power production of Urrá I exorbitantly high.  The Cordoban power brokers simply ignored this technical fact while promoting the construction of only Urrá I (or may be… they conspired to force the Central Government to build the bigger Urrá II subsequently, in order to salvage the inversion on Urrá I.)  After only two years of operation, Urrá I has created an enormous hole in the public treasury.  And that, without even considering its true social and ecological costs, which run into billions of dollars.  Then, how in the world they got the economists to approve the Project?  The key word: Multipurpose!  The promoters fattened the project benefits with the possibility of ‘recovering’ 300,000 ha of swampland and that of ‘flood control.’

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 seen.

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.

Ancient canals in lower San Jorge

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 fertilizer.  The 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 nature.  Centuries 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
Not so hard to visualize one group who really benefits from Urrá: the owners of huge cotton, corn, or sorghum plantations that have propped up all along the lower Sinú.  There, poison-spewing spray planes whirr barely overhead, as if they also want to fumigate and eliminate the poorer neighbors.  These rich farmers aren’t worried about the termination of natural soil enrichment; tons of more poison would ‘fertilize’ their plants.  Neither worry they about the lowering freatic surface; bigger pumps would suck up groundwater for irrigation, no matter what the neighbor thinks.  Living in peace with nature?  A tale of subsistence farming!  They merely want the authorities to ‘control’ the nature –the river; till they siphon off the maximum from the nature before it is too late.

Some others have converted to own benefit, the irrecoverable denudation Urrá I caused, in and around its reservoir.  Instead of reforesting the upper Sinú, the resources for mitigation have been diverted to massive commercial plantations in the lower Sinú.  Just one example: one ex-Minister for the environment, José Vicente Mogollón, has acquired, at ridiculous prices, thousands of hectares of land covering the low hilly range of Cispatá, the last parcel of native forest in all of lower Sinú.  For his most ‘nature-friendly gesture’ of planting trees there, the Government will reimburse him 80% of the cost.  And, he will pocket the full income from the sale of the forest too.

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’!

'Eco' tourists in Caño Grande

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.

-Castaño's gift of meat-
His lieutenant has a white towel over the shoulders & his social secretary films the event 

The kiss of death
Cunning Cordovan strategists, like the paramilitary chief Castaño, sensed well in advance where to direct the economic windfalls of Urrá, and also how to pacify the resulting grave social consequences.  Castaño made sure that the Embera, the first victims of the dam, were well received during the protest march Do-Wabura; at our night-stop opposite his farm, his armed henchmen killed four heads of cattle, and donated them for our consumption.

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!”

Kimi Pernia(L) with then ONIC President during Do-Wabura

Embera kids during Do-Wabura 

A hope for the future
Not all is lost yet, however.  Despite the unrelenting fear mongering in the Sinú valley, or probably because of it –when cornered, people have no other recourse than to fight back- more and more grassroots organizations are confronting these ‘development’ projects, the corrupt political elite try to force through their throats.  The younger generations of both the Embera and the Zenú are arming themselves, with advanced educational and technological tools, to lead their communities in the arduous fight for survival, and to avoid the stumbling blocks their forefathers faced.

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.  

Kids of Sinú delta

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 equally.  They 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.   

Final goal - Dismantle Urrá I dam!

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.


I have been anxious to tell this story since 1994, but various circumstances did not permit me to tell it as I wanted, till now.  Many people, not only those mentioned by name in the article, played and keep playing active roles in it, and also helped me weave it.  I would like to thank especially the friends and members of Embera-Katio and Zenú communities in Sinú valley, the friends of ONIC, ASPROCIG and the ‘Urrá’ coalition of CINEP.  I would dedicate this piece to those friendly and courageous Cordovans and Colombians in general, dead and alive, who opened their doors and hearts and minds to this ‘crazy hat’ from Sri Lanka.



Alzate Patiño, Alberto y otros (1987) “Impactos sociales del Proyecto Hidroeléctrico de Urrá” Fundación del Caribe, Montería, Colombia.

ASPROCIG (2002) “Aumenta rechazo público hacia Urrá I” Boletín, Lorica, November.

ASPROCIG (2002) “Identificación y caracterización de megaproyectos en la cuenca hidrográfica del río Sinú” Boletín, Lorica, October.

ASPROCIG (2001) “Cuchilla de Cispatá: Plantaciones Comerciales” Boletín, Lorica, July. 

ASPROCIG (2001) “Talleres de divulgación, sensibilización y concertación sobre reglamentación pesquera”, Santa Cruz de Lorica, Colombia.

Calderón, Mario (1995) “Urrá: otro elefante blanco” en Cien días visto por CINEP, vol 7, #28, pp. 24-25, Bogotá.

CORELCA (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. 

CVS (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.

Guzmán Arteaga, Ramiro (2001) “Urrá: ¿Desarrollo o fracaso?” El Tiempo, 27 de Agosto, Bogotá.

Negrete 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, pp. 48-58.

ONIC (1994) “Construir la represa Urrá I es insistir en el caos” Informe preparado en vísperas de Do-Wabura, despedida del río Sinú, Bogotá, Colombia.

Plazas, 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.

Pernia 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. 

Urrá S.A. (2001?) “Urrá”, Montería, Colombia.

If you would like to begin a discussion, please send me an email. Write to me

Back to the top