Water rights and the peace process in Colombia

The vision of a future national territory completely full of mining, monoculture, and hydroelectric dams is a real one, and one that the current laws are on their way to realising

Gina Spigarelli
24 November 2016
In Andes, women perform theatre about the connection between the environment and womens rights during protests in August.jpeg

Theatre connecting the topics of women’s rights and national sovereignty is performed in Andes, Antioquia during the protest, Un abrazo a la Montaña.

Land disputes in Colombia often revolve around the use of one resource in particular: water. Colombia is one of the richest countries in the world when it comes to freshwater supply, placing it at the forefront of a global economy where water is in high demand.

Thanks to the increasing privatization of water, both in terms of the decisions about its use as well as its contamination and appropriation by private, national and multinational mining and energy companies, water rights have been a major focus of Colombian social movements over the last few years as a direct result. Whether for public or private enterprise, the practices of mining, fracking, monoculture agro-industry, as well as the creation of dams for hydroelectric energy all come back to the common denominator of water.

The department of Antioquia, located in the central northwest, brings together many of these country-wide issues in one territory. Unlike other departments suffering the consequences of these dynamics, Antioquia manages to remain one of the wealthiest and politically most powerful departments in the nation. That wealth and power, however, remains in the hands of few. The capital city, Medellín, has the greatest wealth divide in Colombia, which, in turn, has one of the greatest wealth divides in Latin America.

Pastor Alape, member of the Secretariat of the FARC-EP, is originally from Antioquia and considers the history of violence and forced displacement in the department to be directly related to protecting private economic interests. In an interview during the Tenth Guerrilla Conference in September he explained: “the government needs to guarantee the security of the projects and the security is the displacement of farmers so that transnational capital can come in, allowing a few large land-owners to seize the land”.

It is true that human rights violations accompany economic investment in the department; over the last decade, the Eastern Antioquia Human Rights Committee has reported massacres, threats, torture, assassinations, land mines, forced displacement, and paramilitary presence in the form of ‘protection’ to mega-projects, including paramilitary encampments installed on the premises of the public-private entity Empresas Publicas de Medellin.

Organizations from Southwestern Antioquia participa  te in 10 days of protest, un abrazo a la montaña_0.jpeg

The COA organised a ten day protest through South-western Antioquia in August called, ‘Un Abrazo a la Montaña’Between the years of 1993 and 2005 a large portion of the region’s population was displaced to the department capital of Medellin. This reorganisation of demographics and rural-urban dynamics occurred at the same time that mining titles were being solicited in the region. In 2011, the Coporacion Juridica Libertad reported that during the first decade of the new century, 139 titles were solicited for hydro-electric projects in Eastern Antioquia. Human rights groups in the region have named the interests and actions of both private and public entities including: Cornare, the local, regional and national government, Anglogold Ashanti, EPM, ISAGEN, Drummond, Gramalote Colombia Limited, Generadora Alejandria, Argos, Ecopetrol, Nutresa, Corona and Asocolflores, as contributors to human rights atrocities and environmental destruction.

Like a stone in the shoe

Following the country’s general displacement patterns, there are many cases in Antioquia of communities displaced by paramilitary forces that in turn lead the way for massive development projects. One example is the hamlet of El Pescado, which is now home to the hydro-electric station San Miguel: in the 1990s, 100% of the population was displaced through paramilitary violence.

In 2011, the federal government responded to high internal displacement numbers by beginning the Land Restitution Programme. Farmer Amado Salas became a beneficiary and began to farm again. Salas had been displaced twice by the armed conflict within Antioquia, first in the ’70s and then again in the ’90s. He was given land by the government through the Colombian Institute for Rural Development and spoke about his experience last month in the town of San Luis, during the 8th Annual Water Festival.

“Right now we have cacao, plantain, animals, and then right next door we have a giant multinational, ISAGEN and ISAGEN sold to another multinational which is now causing us a lot of anxiety due to the fact that we may have to sell the land and be displaced again, this time not by an armed actor, but rather for mining and energy projects, with plans to dam the river,” he says as we look out over the still free-flowing Rio Dormilón.

The rivers that are dammed for hydro-electric energy projects often become private property in Colombia, cutting off local access to water. Salas explains the position locals are put in within the frame of the national economic model: “We are like a stone in the shoe of the government right now, because both nationally and internationally (through international humanitarian law) we have legal status not to be displaced again after being moved here with the Restitution Law,” he says. 

Farmers in rural areas, historically under-served by the state, are often wooed into selling their land to private investors who pitch rural development as a key piece in their natural resource acquisition. According to Salas, this is precisely what is is currently happening to him and his neighbours: “they (the company) said they would help us with health clinics, with a sports field, with roads, especially the highway, and I had to tell them, ‘look guys, what you are offering are already rights guaranteed to me by the state, the state has to provide health care and recreation spaces, it also has to respect the environment’ so of course, I was not happy with their offer (…) I am protecting the forests here, and I should be the one to say what water is necessary for my use.’”

The five hydroelectric plants in the water-rich region of Eastern Antioquia produce 29% of the national energy, and 73% of the energy in their home department. Freddy Diaz of The Corporation for Popular Education and Investigation (CED-INS) considers the government’s program unsustainable: “The government agenda prioritizes the over-exploitation of water to produce wealth, while putting the water security of the country at risk, through contamination and destruction of ecosystems.”

According to Andrea Echeverri of the Social Movement for Life and Defense of Territory (MOVETE), Colombia produces more energy than it consumes and her organisation questions why there are mass media reports on national water shortages and why the government rations water for civilian use in various national territories: “45.5% of the hydroelectric energy produced nationally is used by industry, 21% of it by mines and quarries and less than 5% on gas, energy and electricity for the population,” she says. 

In addition to the issue of water access and usage, hydro-electric dams on rivers also have many devastating affects on the environment including flooding of fertile lands, displacement of farming and fishing communities, erosion, loss of flora, fauna and water species, which result in food insecurity, for the region and as Diaz points out, “some studies have shown that dams can produce earthquakes,” particularly dangerous for a country sat on active fault lines. 

“Jihadist environmentalism”?

Mining operations require the use of an immense amount of water, from the process of extraction through to transportation of raw materials, while simultaneously polluting natural water sources near extraction sites. Nationally the department of Antioquia is a mega-mining region that produces 75.7% of the gold, 68.8% of the silver, and is the fastest growing region in coal, clay, limestone, copper, plaster, and manganese. Gold mining jumped from 5,000 tons in 1995 to 25,000 in 2010 - a 500% increase.

It’s not only the government and private enterprise that are causing waves regarding the way they promote and sell mining projects; recently environmental activists have highlighted the “shameful” alliance between the public National University of Colombia and the gold mining company AngloGold Ashanti. According to the Environmental Committee of Jericó the National University has, “put itself at the service of the mining multinational” in order to, “trick Colombians, especially the inhabitants of South-western Antioquia… to justify mining practices in peaceful agricultural and touristic regions, zones of great importance for the conservation of natural heritage and regional water, which would be left in social, economic and environmental devastation… to obtain copper, gold and silver, metals that in their entirety would be exported to the benefit of great international capital gain”.

The environmentalists protest the use of the public university in propaganda campaigns for the multi-national company and called specific attention to geologist Oswaldo Ordoñez, who has dubbed the opposition to multinational mining as “jihadist environmentalism”. Daniel Urrea and CENSAT have analysed some of the suggestions that the United Nations has given to Colombia as the country transitions into its post-accords phase and mining is of particular concern: “There is no way to consider mining a sustainable activity. Sustainable mining is a contradiction of terms, this extractive activity is unforeseeable in its consequences and irreparable in its impact (3).”

Civil society participation

Alape described how the FARC-EP and the government faced differences of opinion around territorial development during their negotiations, including in regards to Antioquia: “The government considers Eastern Antioquia a post-conflict zone... they already have demining (land-mines) programs as well as various social assistance programs… but there continues to be marginalization of communities and there are large land-owners who pressure famers into selling their land. Currently there are many issues that are sprouting up around land use.”

Alape believes the signed peace accords open up space for new kinds of civil society participation in governmental projects,  “First,” he says, “to avoid community displacement and second to maintain protection of the natural environment… the territorial focus would mean that local production would be profitable and sustainable.” This kind of participation will be crucial if existing policies around water usage and access continue to be problematic, particularly during efforts to revise them for success at the local level.

Organizations from Eastern Antioquia report injustices during the 8th Annual Water Festival in San Luis_0.jpeg

Organisations from Eastern Antioquia report injustices at the 8th annual Water Festival in San Luis, Antioquia.Communities in Colombia are speaking up about the issues surrounding development projects and water rights in relation to the peace process. In the Urabá region of Antioquia, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó continues to report paramilitary and military violence in their territory and question the viability of development projects planned in their local mountain range, the Serrania de Abibe, after the peace accords are implemented. In Eastern Antioquia the community Tulpa Juvenil stated that, “Peace without social and environmental justice is not possible” and that, “both Uribe and Santos are imposing the extractive industry on our territory, it’s easy to see - all of their theatrics aside - that they will always align themselves at the last minute to defend privatisation and allow harm to communities and the environment.” South-western Antioquia coalition, Cinturon Occidental Ambiental (COA) produced a manifesto about territorial peace in their region.

COA considers environmental conflict a constant threat to peace, proclaims the environment a victim of both the armed conflict and the economic development model and brings attention to environmental and social damages caused by hydro-electric projects currently promoted in their territory. The vision of a future national territory completely full of mining, monoculture, and hydroelectric dams is a real one, and one that the current laws are on their way to realising.

MOVETE understands the current environmental crisis to be caused by the very economic model and political decisions of the the national government over the last few decades, with grave consequences both in terms of human and environmental rights. They view the legal mechanisms for coal and water industries, such as emissions reduction (REDD) and clean development (MDL)  as problematic because they, “promise to alleviate the crisis by putting a price on contamination...with disregard for the political origins of the problem.” On the national level there is a growing movement against these and other green economy laws, directly related to the movement against rural reform laws like ZIDRES and PYMES, which will later be discussed in this series.

Great National Dialogue

In an open letter to President Santos, the Cumbre Agraria Campesino y Popular, a massive movement for the defence of the Colombian territory responsible for the national strikes beginning in 2013, suspended their negotiations with the government, which may well result in a return to strikes. The People’s Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos) is calling for a Great National Dialogue (Gran Dialogo Nacional), declaring that “participation is peace” and encouraging society to have a more active role in the peace process. This resonates with Andres Duque Franco, a resident of Eastern Antoquia, who asks rhetorically about pending governmental projects to dam his local river, “Does it make sense that other people get rich off of what has always made us happy?”

The impending return to national strikes and the dialogues between the government and the ELN have the potential to open up the national debate about territorial peace to the constituents, something urgently needed in Colombia’s peace process. In the current political crisis, uncertainty and government dealings behind closed doors, it is important to highlight the continued efforts of social movements to shift the conversation toward the economic model and the use of natural resources.

The effects that regional populations are suffering due to land sales in water-rich areas are now acute enough to make water itself a central topic for arguments against the current economic model. In the coming months, Colombian organizations will most probably continue to report human rights and environmental abuses around water privitization as well as actively proposing alternative models for territorial peace in regards to land and water rights.

Rio Dormilón, Eastern Antioquia.jpeg

Rio Dormilón, San Luis, Antioquia.

All photographs belong to the author.

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