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COLOMBIA: Fighting Energy Companies Over River Pollution

by Suzanne TimmonsCatholic News Service
May 26th, 2005

Every Tuesday before 6 p.m., Father Wigberto Suarez prepares for evening Mass in the Colombian town of Sibate. Among his rituals are gathering bug spray, a hand-held pump and a bottle of insecticide.

"If someone wants to come here to pray, (he) can't, because the mosquitoes bother him," he said, as he sprayed bug spray around a bank of white kneelers and pews inside the church. For his own nighttime prayer, Father Suarez hangs white mosquito netting around a small space near the altar.

Over the past few years, a mosquito plague in Sibate has disrupted not just church services, but life in general for the town's 32,000 residents. Millions of mosquitoes that breed in the Muna reservoir on Sibate's outskirts have made life so difficult that residents cannot study, read, watch TV or sleep peacefully at night.

Muna, once a pristine reservoir that attracted tourists for water sports and recreation, is now a source not only of mosquitoes, but also of foul odors, rats and gastrointestinal, respiratory, dermatological and other disorders, residents said.

The problems stemmed from a decision decades ago that allowed the Empresa de Energia de Bogota, a city-owned electricity company, to reroute the Bogota River away from its natural course and into Muna to supply water for two hydroelectric generating plants.

Now, the Bogota River is a stew of industrial waste, heavy metals and raw sewage due to industrial dumping and a dearth of waste treatment plants in Bogota and other towns that use the river to dispose of their sewage. As a result, Muna has become what Sibate councilman Alfonso Gonzalez calls "the world's largest open sewer."

"This is a clear example of environmental injustice, where the violation of human rights, of health rights, of the right to a healthy environment and the right to a decent life affects local residents daily," said Paula Alvarez of the environmental organization Censat Agua Viva, the Colombian branch of Friends of the Earth.

The power plants are now operated under a 1997 concession by the multinational corporation Emgesa, which is controlled by Spanish electricity giant Endesa and majority-owned by Empresa de Energia de Bogota.

For years, a handful of town activists have fought to rid their town of the river pollution.

But in Sibate "economic rights are guaranteed over social and human rights," said Mayor Ana Leonor Gantivar.

Over the past several years local residents have sued for damages, promoted congressional hearings and appealed to environmental authorities. Last year, some 10,000 local residents gathered in the town square for a peaceful protest.

Father Suarez, who recently received a visit by Emgesa officials to explain their perspective on the controversy, has rallied local residents to support community leaders and participate in the protests.

Part of his efforts are aimed at "encouraging people to join the campaign, because people are very passive," he said.

Father Suarez views his support for town leaders as a way of spreading the Gospel and emulating Christ. "Jesus was neither oblivious nor indifferent to the problems of his time," he said. "We, too, must raise public awareness through holy Mass, in sermons, from the pulpit."

Local residents have reacted favorably to Father Suarez's stance on the issue, he said. "It is a way to reinforce people in their faith. Faith in God grows ... knowing that he is a God that worries about all of our needs and all of our problems," the priest said.

However, the town's demands have prompted Empresa and Emgesa to spend $8.5 million over eight years to help solve the problems. They have soaked the town in insecticides, dried up sections of the reservoir that once embraced the town's outer limits, and built a barrier to keep reservoir waters at a distance. Nevertheless, "the quality of life for local residents has not improved in the least," said Orlando Guaqueta, who has lived most of his 43 years in Sibate.

Sibate is now pressing for a more drastic solution: an order prohibiting Emgesa from pumping the Bogota River through Muna.

The Autonomous Regional Corp., a regional environmental agency, threatened just that in a March 28 resolution. But first, the corporation gave the companies 18 months to implement specific environmental measures to reduce the mosquito population. The corporation will only stop the companies from pumping the river through Muna if the measures fall short of the targets.

Closing off Muna from the Bogota River would also stop Emgesa from generating electricity at the plants fed by Muna. "Closing Muna is the worst solution (the regional corporation) could take," said Lucio Rubio, Emgesa general manager, in April.

Emgesa said the move would increase the risk of power cuts, drive up electricity rates, pollute additional communities, and contribute to global warming as gas generators replace hydro plants.

At the same time, Emgesa said it is not responsible for Muna's river-derived pollution. "Thirty years of environmental irresponsibility regarding the Bogota River cannot result in any penalty at all for Emgesa," the company said.

Local residents disagree. The companies "are the ones polluting Sibate, because they are the ones that pump the water and bring it here," Guaqueta said.

The administration of President Alvaro Uribe Velez, meanwhile, has drafted a $2.5 billion, 15-year plan to clean up the Muna reservoir and the Bogota River.

But just as local residents doubt that the Autonomous Regional Corp. resolution will bring either lasting solutions or the closure of Muna, they also are unwilling to wait 15 years to have their environment restored.

"What can change in 18 months, if it hasn't changed in 10 or 20 years?" said Gonzalez. "If Sibate doesn't find a solution to this problem soon, we're going to use more drastic measures."

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