The ceremonial killing of 

River Sinú

An environmental catastrophe in Córdoba, Colombia


Kashyapa A. S. Yapa

The heavy, humid air was boiling under the harsh midday sun.  I sought refuge under the banana groves by the banks of Caño Grande, an old course of River Sinú.  This drowsy hour, the coastal inhabitants spend rolling in their hammocks, but we could not afford such luxury; we had barely begun our fact-finding tour in the Sinú delta.  ‘Peep, peeep, peeeep,’ our team leader, Ivan, leaned on the car hone.  No sign of our driver, Carlos, yet.  Don Jesús, our host, dug his pole in the muddy bank and slid his canoe down the river in search of Carlos.  I began seriously contemplating the only alternative to this involuntary sauna: a dip in the murky waters of Caño Grande?  At last… Carlos came up, running, holding a small packet tight under his armpit.  No matter it cost him a sweaty run of half an hour, and who knows how many thousands of pesos, he had to share a part of his ‘treasure’ to placate Ivan’s anger.  And what exactly was it? Just four small Bocachicos!

Caño Grande

The Bocachico, once the most abundant migratory fish species in the River Sinú and its hundreds of flood-fed shallow lakes (ciénagas), has now become so scarce that Carlos almost sacrificed his job, just for a tiny catch of the fish. The Urrá dam, a 73m high wall across the path of the migrating fish, had, in just two years of operation, wiped out the entire population of Bocachico in the River.

Don José, a lower Sinú fisherman, nostalgically reminisced the good old days; “During the Christmas season, we would drown in beer, while the river would go into labor for us.” (Nosotros bebiendo, el agua pariendo.)  That’s the time the Bocachico struggled upriver, looking for spots where crystalline waters run over clean gravel beds –its favorite maternity room.  The floods in April brought into the ciénagas a fresh stock of Bocachico.  When they matured, the fishermen could bring home a canoe-load of fish in a few hours of work.  Not that it made them millionaires: middlemen exploited them cruelly; yet they could rest assured because, year after year, the River delivered.

While the Bocachico labored up the river, the fishermen turned to another bonanza: the rich floodplain soil, along the river Sinú and around its chain of ciénagas.  When the floodwaters receded, every inch of these no-man’s-lands was covered with blooming and ballooning watermelons.

That’s why the words of Don Andrés of San Sebastian, a village by the Ciénaga Grande de (Great Lake of) Lorica, astounded me: “We never were fishermen, nor farmers, by profession.”  Historically, they had proudly followed the millennium-old Zenú pottery traditions.  They sure did catch fish and grew maize to eat, but nobody bothered to sell them.  Nobody wanted to buy either; Sinú produced enough for all to eat.

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

All that changed with the arrival of Montería–Lorica highway in the 1950s.  The road embankment cut-off many canals (caños) that linked the Ciénaga Grande with the river Sinú, immediately reducing the lake’s water level, and opening up huge lots of dry land around it.  These lots and others nearby, cultivated seasonally by the villagers around the ciénaga, suddenly found new owners: the cattle-raising land barons, who invaded the zone right behind the road machinery.  The highway also brought another invasion, a positive one of sorts: that of the fish buyers.  Almost overnight, the ceramists dropped their traditional occupation, and dived into the rich ciénaga waters, teeming with fish.

The 2400-strong indigenous group Embera-Katio, who inhabits the upper reaches of River Sinú, a part of the Paramillo National park, considers the river as the mother of its creation.  At its headwaters, the Sinú rushes over greenish boulders, churning and foaming, under the tall tropical canopy.  But, nearing Embera villages, it switches to a gentle trot, over the wide, clean, cobble-laden beds, providing them with a paradise to live in.  The birds, animals, fish, fruits, cereals… all that sustain their families’ well being, they owe them to the river.

Rafting in upper Sinú

Their internal and external communication networks depended almost totally on the river.  They would float down the river for days, on simple log rafts or canoes, and exchange their products at lower Sinú ports, for some essential food items, or bright-colored beads for their traditional collars.  Lately, as illegal colonizing dwindled the wild animals, they relied almost entirely on the migrating fish, especially the Bocachico, to supplement their carbohydrate diet.

Urrá Project – the curse of the river Sinú
The life of every traditiosnal inhabitant of the Sinú valley, thus became entwined with the river and its ciénagas.  No wonder they view the Multipurpose Urrá Project as a multi-million dollar coffin that slowly entraps and drowns every one of them: literally overnight, it decimated the river’s livelihood fishing; its reservoir displaced hundreds of settler (colonos) and indigenous families, and continues to threaten many more, with serious health problems; it permanently blocked the Embera river navigation; it converted the ciénagas into murky, contaminated pools, infested with disease-laden insects; it aggravated salt intrusion problems of the lower valley rice fields and mangroves, increasing the threats of invading shrimp industry; in short, the Urrá Project rapidly achieved fame as the curse of the River Sinú!

The Project did not spring up overnight, but formed a part of a long-range plan, hatched by the local power players –the land barons, the paramilitary forces and the corrupt business and political class.  During the heydays of river damming, a great hydropower complex, consisting of a huge upper dam (Urrá II) that would have flooded the whole of Embera-Katio reservation and a greater part of the Paramillo National Park, and a small lower dam (Urrá I), had been planned for the River Sinú.  In the early ‘80s, when the Colombian government, with the help of the World Bank, pulled together the funds for the project, dam-related environmental disaster awareness had already reached Latin America.  After a fierce struggle against the environmentalists, the World Bank had to withdraw its backing, and the project collapsed.  Those dormant plans gained a sudden spark of life after the countrywide blackout of 1992, caused by ill-planned expansion of the economy.  By then, the shrewd and powerful Arabic-descent families (turcos) of the province of Córdoba had secured a greater portion of the political pie in Bogotá, and they concocted an energy plan around Sinú to ‘save the nation.’ 

Their sinister plan received ample help from the river itself.  Heavy riverbed sedimentation, accumulated as a result of continued denudation of the forest cover, forced it to run-over the banks, year after year, with ever-increasing levels of economic destruction.  During the last few decades, waves of migrating village farmers, displaced under the intense political violence fomented by ruthless land barons, have begun occupying the swamp lands around cities like Montería, the Provincial Capital of Córdoba. The rapidly expanding floodplain-slums, frequently the scene of desperate people, trapped by floodwaters on their roof-tops praying to be rescued, provided the propaganda backdrop, for those advocating to control the ‘devastating’ floods of River Sinú. 

Urrá I dam site

Having learned from the failure in the ‘80s, the new dam pushers changed the strategy: knowing the inability to secure sufficient funds locally for the complete project, they opted to push for building only Urrá I, the smaller, lower dam in the original plan.  (The international environmentalists viewed positively the abandonment of the bigger dam, but did not comprehend the disastrous chain of events the new plan would unleash.)  

Simultaneously, the Cordovan big wigs moved into full gear their political, propaganda and also the paramilitary machinery, with which they would silence whoever dares to oppose ‘their’ project.

In Córdoba, the cradle of Colombian paramilitary forces, the difference between them and the government military has been a mere theoretical nuance.  Once, during the Embera protest march, we camped in a village directly opposite the immense ranch of Fidel Castaño, the sanguinary paramilitary commander.  The village had no drinking water supply, other than the stock of treated water in the club run by Castaño.  To resolve the issue, the march organizers sought out the military squadron who accompanied us.  I watched astonished, as the cordial relations between the ‘para’ and the military permitted the full stock of water be distributed among the marchers, free.

The Cordovan game plan for Urrá worked.  In 1993, under veils of secrecy and hypocrisy, the government entity then in charge of the environment, INDERENA, made a mockery of the Colombian laws by dividing the environmental license into two, one for construction of the dam and another for its operation, and despite the pathetically erroneous environmental impact studies, issued a permit for building the dam.

The builder, Skanska-Conciviles (Swedish-Colombian) joint venture, installed rapidly at the construction site, some 30 kilometers upriver from Tierralta, under no apparent protest, not even by the Project’s immediate victims –the colonos and the indigenous who would be displaced by the reservoir.  During the previous dam building attempt, the colonos in the area had raised vociferous protests, but this time the dam-pushers had taken the right precautions: even before they obtained the construction permit, their paramilitary forces combed the zone, mercilessly shooting down every possible voice of discontent.

Do Wabura – Good Bye River!
The Embera, however, could not be intimidated into silence.  Their native tongue and their age-old traditions keep them united and they block obscure forces from penetrating their reservation.  Yet, the politically controlled media empires did not pay attention to their lone voice of protest.  The Colombian indigenous groups gained certain benefits, like the inalienability of communal lands, from the 1991 Constitution, modified under the influence of ex-guerrilla-turned-politicians.  However, the political oligarchy deliberately stalled repeated attempts to make those changes effective.  Seeing that neither civil, legal nor political group steps forward to help them, the Embera devised an ingenious protest: they launched 'Do Wabura Dai Bia Ozhirada,' a ceremonial way to say good-bye to the River Sinú, because after the dam, it wasn’t going to be the same.  The protest took the form of a celebration, instead of a confrontation; an opportunity to give thanks to the river for all its products Embera enjoyed up till then.  This way, they managed to enlist even the client company of the Urrá dam to foot the cost of the event.

Invited by the ONIC, the national indigenous organization, I visited the Embera reservation on the eve of Do-Wabura to explain them the impacts of the hydropower project.  Despite my concerned attempts to simplify the engineering details, the Embera fixed their attention rather on this dark-skinned, bare-footed fellow, speaking ‘gringo’ Spanish.  Their curiosity soon spilled overboard, and I found myself spending more time making them the round, intricate drawings of the Sinhala Alphabet, my mother tongue, and explaining them the million uses of the coconut tree. 

A meeting in an Embera village

Do Wabura Flagship

When I returned a week later, the turnout by the river took me by surprise: everybody wanted to float downriver it seemed.  The Embera had put together 42 rafts (balsas), mostly all huge floating mansions, complete with cooking huts and the roofs thatched with wild banana leaves.  In all, some 660 adventurous men and women, old and young, including some breast-fed babies, had come out of the jungle, with their large, wide-open eyes registering everything strange in the outside world.  For most, Do-Wabura marked their first excursion outside the reservation.

As the huge flotilla anchored for the night at Tierralta, the first town downriver of the reservation, the word spread like wildfire: ‘the Indians are here!’  Next morning, the whole town gathered at the spot; the mestizos (racially mixed) peeping on Embera women dressed with only a colorful wrap-around from waist to knee, and the Embera, watching with sympathy at the mestizos frantically wiping off the sweat oozing out of their layers of ‘civilized burden.’

Embera woman painting faces

Colorful Embera participants

The national media could not resist the temptation of reporting such a colorful, numerous, and original protest march, and surrounded the balsas like piranhas.  The local authorities, in a feeble attempt to kiss the hand that they could not cut off, sent a boatload of military to ‘safeguard’ the march.  At first, the Embera decorated their balsas with painstakingly prepared flags immortalizing the river-based fauna, but later, encouraged by the attention garnered, they began to verbalize the protest with placards.

The floating protest reached Montería on the fourth day, amid the cheers of thousands, teeming along the riverbanks and on the bridge.   The Embera, emboldened by the overwhelming public response, demanded that the Provincial Governor hear their grievance, emphasizing that with a long, vociferous march to his office.

Do Wabura entering Montería

Marching to Governor's Palace

Little Embera kids, who had never before seen a masonry building, a car, or for that matter, a paved road, headed the demonstration through the city center bare-foot, their eyes gleaming in awe.  Afraid of getting caught in front of flashlights, with no answers to pointed questions of Embera, the authorities scattered around.  Undeterred, the flotilla proceeded downriver to Lorica, the traditional regional market for river-based products.

The week prior to Do-Wabura, I crisscrossed the lower Sinú region to measure the project impact awareness among the fishermen and the farmers there, since they too would bear the consequences of damming the river.  To my shock, hardly anybody uttered a word against Urrá!  Knowing the players behind the Project, they probably suspected foul play, yet they would keep it all inside.  The obscure forces that reign the region had the poor and the powerless completely mesmerized with fear: whoever breathes aloud in protest would be labeled as a guerilla sympathizer, and everyone knew the consequences.  With the help of some brave schoolteachers, and under the guise of raising environmental awareness, I presented myself at many school assemblies and classrooms, and spoke directly to the alumni, whose families depended directly on River Sinú for sustenance.  I explained them the negative consequences of Urrá, and asked them to persuade their parents to visit and support the Embera, when Do-Wabura would reach Lorica.

Even this educational exercise had its risks, and I had to move discreetly and constantly, not to attract attention.  Within the Zenú indigenous reservation, where a confrontation with land-stealing cattle ranchers had already cost the lives of over a dozen community leaders, I dared not sleep two nights in the same house.  Once, looking for a friend of a friend, I was kept at the door and interrogated for 15 minutes by a young fellow, who finally shook my hand and said, “I am the one you are seeking to meet.  Sorry about the painful but necessary precautions.”

Do Wabura reaching Lorica

Press conference at Lorica

The huge crowds that lined the historic commercial landing of Lorica gave the Embera what they sought, the publicity.  In front of flashing cameras and TV microphones, they challenged the authorities to hear their voice, face to face, at Lorica; “We won’t go back to the reservation until you come, Mr. President.  We are prepared to wait here, as long as it takes!”

Their threat caught us, the Do-Wabura support group, totally unprepared.  Providing security, shelter, food, sanitary and health facilities for 660 people, totally green to the mayhem of city life… not an easy task.  With the help of conscientious schoolteachers and local community organizations, we managed to put together some rudimentary facilities.  The starchy diet, intense heat, unbearable humidity and contaminated water, caused severe health problems among the Embera, but they held on.

The Central Government authority could no longer ignore their plight, but the Cordovan power brokers pressured it not to give-in.  So, President Samper laid the Embera leadership a trap: he airlifted the 19 Embera village headmen to Bogotá, to negotiate.  Once removed from their vociferous followers and the media limelight, the Embera found themselves powerless, and had to agree to ‘study the impacts of Urrá’ simultaneously with its construction, in exchange for a few footballs and a couple of outboard motors.



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