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Damming Magdalena: Emgesa Threatens Colombian Communities

by Jonathan LunaSpecial to CorpWatch
July 21st, 2009

Photo by Jonathan Luna

A small path descends from the town of La Jagua, crossing a field and forest until it ends at a cliff overlooking the Magdalena River. Pairs of buff-necked ibis take flight announcing their local name, “cocli cocli.” Above the beach where children swim, the rock is carved by erosion and dotted with small holes occupied by birds. The landscape is dotted, too, every 100 meters, with concrete markers declaring the land, river, and everything else a “public utility” that Colombia has given to the energy company Emgesa as part of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project.

Quimbo’s developer, Bogotá-based Emgesa S.A. Empresa Generadora de Energía, projects costs at $700 million for the hydro component and $200 million for substations. The Ministry of Environment granted a construction permit in May, and the dam is scheduled for full operation by 2014.

“If completed, it would be the first of multiple Emgesa dams proposed for the river in the department of Huila, along the country’s longest and most economically important river,” said Miller Dussán, a leader of the grassroots coalition Plataforma Sur de Organizaciones Sociales and professor of philosophy at the Universidad Sur Colombiana (USCO).

The Quimbo dam would inundate about 8,800 hectares (ha) (34 square miles), displace some 1,500 rural peasants and eight community-owned cottage industries, and flood 842 ha of riparian forests and 2,000 ha of cultivated land, warned Dussán. It would severely cut “Agrado’s agricultural potential, resulting in its gross domestic product decreasing by at least 30 percent.”


Discussion has been heated on radio and in the Colombian legislature which, in November 2008, held a televised nine-hour debate. Endangered Huila communities have mounted opposition marches, camps, and local and regional social forums. Plataforma Sur is spearheading the effort, which includes regional youth, USCO academics, the Regional Council of Indigenous Peoples of Huila, Colombia’s largest labor union (CUT), various social and environmental NGOs, autonomous collectives, and politicians including a former governor of Huila. The campaign is part of REDLAR, the Latin American Network against Dams.


Also in November, Radio Garzón invited Emgesa director Lucio Rubio Díaz to respond callers’ questions about the Quimbo project. Marta Ramirez, a lifelong inhabitant and community leader of la Escalereta, was one of the few to get through the jammed phone lines. “How is it that these people [Emgesa], who are not even from here, come to our homes and do not even ask us what we want or how we feel about this project?” demanded Ramirez. “They just come here to inform us that our land is no longer ours, and that we better sell our land at an undervalued price, or we will be drowned with it and receive nothing. Do you have no soul? No heart? Do you know you are tearing us from the only thing we have ever had, our land?”

Díaz responded that he “understood” but that “this was necessary for the development of the project.”

Emgesa: Generating Discontent

Emgesa is part of a tangle of energy companies that service large swaths of Europe and South America. In 1997 Emgesa had merged with Colombia’s Betania to become the country’s number one electricity producer. By 2007 it was generating 11,930 GWh of electricity or 22.4 percent of the country’s electricity output, according to its website. Emgesa itself is a subsidiary of Endesa- Empresa Nacional de Electricidad S.A., a Spanish energy giant specializing in natural gas and hydroelectric dams. Endesa S.A. is Spain’s largest hydropower generator and Latin America’s largest private power producer, serving 23 million customers in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Brazil.

In February, Enel SpA, Italy’s biggest utility, bid $14.3 billion and succeeded in buying out 25 percent of Endesa from Spanish builder Acciona S.A., boosting its stake to 92 percent. Enel SpA’s acquisition would “help the Italian utility to expand in South America, where economies are growing,” according to Bloomberg News.

Emgesa, the profitable Colombian subsidiary of Endesa, has drawn accusations of labor rights violations and environmentally destructive practices. In July 2008, it was among the 43 companies that the Colombian Session of the Peoples’ Permanent Tribunal accused of bad business practices and involvement in the country’s armed conflict. The tribunal charged Endesa-Emgesa with “violating the labor and union rights of its workers to freely associate, for infringing on the norms of industrial security and for the environmental deterioration of the River Bogotá, the River Guarinó and others.” Emgesa, like most of the accused companies, ignored invitations to participate in the proceedings.

The Upper Magdalena River Valley: A Territory Disputed

Emgesa’s dam project also threatens traditional Huilense culture, critics charge. Before the European invasion, la Jagua on the Magdalena River was a ceremonial center for indigenous groups. The arrival of the Spanish sparked a 500-year struggle for survival. In the 1530s, when General Pedro de Añasco beheaded a traditional leader, he set off an uprising. La Gaitana, the assassinated leader’s mother, led 15,000 warriors, many of them women, to force the Spanish out for several years. In a later attack, Gaitana escaped by diving into the river from the cliffs of Pericongo Canyon, a proposed dam site.

While some descendants survive, the most evident vestiges of the advanced societies that once inhabited this region are the archeological remains in areas including San José de Isnos, another proposed dam site. Current residents are mostly campesinos of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent who cultivate cocoa, tobacco, corn, banana, passion fruit and rice. The river system threatened by the dam irrigates their crops, supplies fish, and provides them work as day-laborers and fishermen. It is also rich in exotic and endangered flora and fauna.

In 1997, when Emgesa first presented plans for the Quimbo dam, the Ministry of the Environment denied the project because “none of the remediation plans presented in the environmental impact study were viable.” By May 2009, after scores of protests, the license granted Emgesa included social and environmental mitigations expected of the company. 

Local critics charge that despite those requirements, the Quimbo dam would still cause major harm, displacing numerous communities including the village of La Escalereta.  In the 1960s “when we started here it was so nice, everyone worked together with the idea of making a community here,” elder Belén Ramirez told CorpWatch. “In those first years it was hard. We were neglected by the state, and had to do everything. Together in minga (collective communal work), we built the water pumps, dug irrigation channels, planted crops, constructed our homes, the school and the main road” said Ramirez as she spread cocoa seeds to dry in the sun. “It breaks my heart to know that our story here will be gone.”

Jobs, Protests and Threats

Throughout the approval process activists have charged a too cozy relationship between Bogotá and Emgesa. In late 2007, in violation of constitutional Article 6, Law 56/81, the Colombian government allowed Emgesa to perform its own environmental impact study for the Quimbo. Nearly a year later, without consulting local or regional governments, and without significant changes to the rejected 1997 plan, President Alvaro Uribe signed into law Resolution #321, granting Emgesa “all the land necessary to construct the Hydroelectric Quimbo project.” 

In the televised debate in the Colombian legislature, the local non-profit Autonomous Environmental Corporation of the Upper Magdalena River Valley and opposition senators showed that utilities revenues would recoup the initial $700 million investment for the main dam in about 12 years. For the remaining 38 years of the dam’s life expectancy, Emgesa would generate $26 million, of which a mere $6.22 million will be reinvested locally, in a single payment. 


During a televised community consultation in La Plata in October, Díaz refused Uribe's request to consider making Huila Department a shareholder. Uribe later asked Díaz if his company would help train locals for projects such as tourism and aquaculture that the dam could generate. “These projects were a possibility,” Díaz responded, but “the company was not responsible for that.”

Despite this lack of commitment, Emgesa representative Sandra Chavarro Montero would later tout new local jobs and industries as ways the dam would help the region. Job creation was just one of project's benefits that would outweigh any damages since “the Quimbo and Betania [another company-owned dam] would produce 8 percent of Colombia’s electrical needs," she said, and "secure self-sufficiency [while] contributing to the control of the flow of the Magdalena River.”

Many in the affected communities were not reassured. In December local youth embarked on the “First Territorial Running Against the Quimbo,” a two-day, 55-kilometer hike through the proposed reservoir to highlight impacts on the community. “Weeks ago they said in congress that homeowners who live where the reservoir is [planned] would get up to 10 ha of land in a newly irrigated district," said Ms. Clara, a San José de Belén resident who refilled water gourds for the hikers. "A week later the newspaper says it will be up to 5 ha, and now, that only those with deeds will get that deal. Most of us have been here since our grandparents, and have no deeds.”

While the youth hiked, members of la Escalereta community and the Plataforma Sur met in Bogotá with Emgesa representatives, the governor of Huila, and Uribe. The president called the dam a “done deal” because Colombia cannot afford to “lose the faith of foreign investors.” Quimbo is integrated into the multi-billion dollar Project Mesoamerica (formerly Plan Puebla Panamá) and the Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America (IIRSA).

The “Quimbo and the other dam projects that are part of Plan 2019/Visión Colombia are important energy generation projects in the country,” said Emgesa representative Montero.

Some critics suspect that the government is using protests over the dam to militarize the territory and suppress opposition. Currently riot police—ESMAD units—are being placed in the region’s larger cities, and a new army battalion is being built in La Jagua.

Asked about the militarization, Montero replied that Emgesa “respected the government’s actions,” and was not the proper entity to respond to the government’s decision to construct a battalion near the end of the reservoir.

Selling Power


The Ministry of Environment has played a key role in the dispute between locals and Emgesa. Initially it blocked the project. In February, while the dam's defenders were upholding their right to build the dam, the Ministry fined Emgesa for failing to obtain the required environmental permits when it constructed a tunnel to divert the river during construction. Then on May 15, the Ministry issued a license for the Hydroelectric Quimbo Project that included “stricter regulations regarding environmental and social impacts.” (See box.)

May 15 Ministry of Environment-Issued License # 150509

The license for the Hydroelectric Quimbo Project says Emgesa must:

    •    Relocate 360 families;
    •    Create a 20,000 hectare reforestation project;
    •    Provide “housing that is equal or better than their current housing” for those affected, regardless of whether they have legal status on the land or deeds;
    •    Relocate people to 5-50 hectare plots "adequate for life-sustaining uses”;
    •    Compensate people such as fishermen and truckers whose life-sustaining activities are disrupted.
    •    The company study, recreate, and maintain appropriate reproduction and migration habitats for local fish species, and assist local aquaculture and agriculture projects;
    •    Invest 1 percent of total costs to maintain local watersheds, and create corridors by connecting protected tropical forests; and
    •    Invest 6 percent of annual profits into the regional environmental corporations and municipalities.

 While the terms are a substantial victory for the dam’s opposition, the Ministry document failed to deal with previous fines against the company or the project’s fundamental violation of Law 2 of 1959 which designates 95 percent of the dam’s region as part of a Protective Amazonian Forest Reserve.

Those omissions fueled charges that either the company, the state, or both had bought off the Autonomous Environmental Corporation of the Upper Magdalena River Valley that is now on board with the project.

On June 5, International Environment Day, two dozen youth occupied and halted a meeting of the Departmental Gathering of NGOs and Community Environmental Promoters that convened in Neiva to showcase government-sponsored environmental projects in the region. The vice-minister of the Environment, the director of Autonomous Environmental Corporation, and hundreds of people watched as protesters performed an interpretive dance and read a declaration against the dam. Three days later, Plataforma Sur issued a resolution denouncing the project's assaults against the region’s biodiversity, communities and existing legislation, and demanded that the license be revoked.

On June 23, a paramilitary group identified as the Nueva Generación de Águilas Negras circulated pamphlets on Neiva's USCO campus targeting 14 members of Plataforma Sur. It identified students, alumni and faculty as “military objectives." Despite the threat, activists are planning an international camp against the dam in November.

The Quimbo Huilense

Bogotá and Emgesa promote the dam as “necessary” to an area long forgotten by the state: It will, they say, create jobs and development opportunities in aquaculture, tourism, irrigation and construction.

An alternative plan, el Quimbo Huilense—designed and backed by communities, academics, educators, and other Huilense people—counters that the best path for sustainable development is a widely integrated, multi-faceted rural development project. This regional scheme would create opportunities for local inhabitants to establish small-scale agricultural cooperative industries, and create protected habitats, irrigation districts and more agricultural land.

Quimbo Huilense addresses energy needs with a smaller hydroelectric dam at the Quimbo site that would inundate 3,600 ha, affecting only the municipality of Gigante. A local utilities company would run the project, and provide irrigation for 148,262 hectares.

In its reliance on community input to create a self-reliant local economy with sustainable environmental practices, Quimbo Huilense stands in direct contrast to the government and Emgesa’s plans for the region.

“What Plataforma Sur is suggesting for us is a first,” said Marta Ramirez as she surveyed a flock of birds feeding in her yard. “They are consulting us as residents about the possible future of our territory and our lives.”