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Putting a community, and its land, underwater

Peasants are angry about being pushed off their land for a hydroelectric project whose energy might not even go to Colombians.

A stretch of the Magdalena River near the town of Gigante that will be flooded. (Courtesy Plataforma Sur)

NEIVA, Colombia — As the muddy waters of the Magdalena River meander south of the sweltering city of Neiva, its banks give way to some of the most fertile land in the country.

Crops of cocoa, coffee, maize, plantains, yucca and tobacco creep up hillsides.

If the peasants have their way, they will continue to cultivate their land, tend to their cattle and live in their tightly knit communities as have generations before them.

If the government and the Colombian arm of Spanish energy giant Endesa have their way, more than 21,000 acres of land will be flooded in several years time and turbines will churn out 2,216 gigawatt-hours annually through a dam that will be blessed, cursed and known as El Quimbo. 

The dam, constructed on the country's largest river by Colombian subsidiary Emgesa, would create a reservoir 34 miles in length, displacing some 1,500 inhabitants and uprooting eight cottage industries and various jobs in the local economy.

The project is part of a plan to encourage international investment in the country and has been sold as part of a national plan for energy security, but it is unclear how many of El Quimbo’s kilowatts will stay in Colombia. “Colombia has been self-sufficient in energy for many years,” said Colombia’s minister of energy and mines, Hernan Martinez Torres, adding that El Quimbo will only contribute 2.5 percent of the country’s energy production (Emgesa put that figure at 5 percent). Colombia is already a net exporter of energy.

“El Quimbo is an environmental and social catastrophe,” said Miller Dussan, a professor at the University Surcolombiana in Neiva and leader of Plataforma Sur, a coalition of social organizations in southern Colombia opposing El Quimbo.

Inhabitants who will see their towns flooded have staged protests, interrupted government meetings and voiced their opposition en masse in forums, along the way feeling more and more abandoned by their elected officials. “They haven’t represented us because the people have always said we don’t want this,” said Humberto Espinoza, a resident of the town Gigante who raises cattle on the Magdalena’s banks.

At one point, they had some allies in the government. The inspector general requested the Ministry of Environment not grant a license, pointing out it would be hard to replace land that has some of the highest agricultural potential in the region. The regional environmental authority originally said mitigation efforts weren’t enough to compensate for the dam’s myriad environmental impacts.