Photos: Social Movement for the Defense of the Sogamoso river, Carolina Caycedo & Polinizaciones
From our initial connection with the process of the people affected by the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project, we've been able to build relationships with the entire Ríos Vivos Movement. The Ríos Vios Movement is the process of the communities affected by dams in Colombia which also pushes for a new energy model for and by the peoples. Even though in Colombia there is more than 200,000 people directly affected by dams, the regional processes organized by watershed that are prominent within the Movement are the Cauca River canyon (Antioquia), the Upper Cauca/ Lower Ovejas (North of Cauca), the Lower Sinú (Córdoba), Upper Magdalena and the Colombian Massif (Huila), and the Sogamoso and Fonce Rivers (Santander).
The movement was born in 2011 and is composed of women and men of all ages, peasant farmers, fisher people, artisinal miners, indigenous people, Afro-descendants and mixed peoples. Coming from the last Political School, which was held in La Jagua last year, we deepened our relationships with other regional processes in the Movement. In the school's third session we had the opportunity to meet and share with all the members of the Movement on El Ramo creek in the area affected by the Hidrosogamoso Dam in the Department of Santander.
Going up the western foothills of the Andean eastern mountain range, inside the National Natural Park Serranía de los Yariguíes, the mountainous system with the highest altitude in the western foothills of the Andes eastern mountain range of Colombia, is the birthplace of the Sogamoso river formed from the union of the Chicamocha and the Suarez rivers. The Sogamoso basin is fed by smaller watersheds such as the Paramera Creek, Los Medios Creek, Chucurí river, Las Cruces and el Ramo Creeks amongst others. The communities who live in the Sogamoso basin have done so through a variety of labors including fishing, artisanal mining and agriculture, cultivating coffee, cacao, plantain, yuca, avocado, citrus and other fruits. All of these practices have been jeopardized by Hidrosogamoso.
The Sogamoso basin from its formation in the Yariguíes mountain range until its mouth in the Yuma river (Magdalena) passes through ecosystems such as mountain top moors, Andean forests, sub-andean forests and humid tropical forests. This variety of ecosystems is the habitat for a great diversity of plant species, many in danger of extinction, such as oak (Quercus humboldtii) and other trees such as the; Orphanodendron bernalli, Pitcairnia petraea, Asteraceaes Espeletia incana, Tamania chardonii, Lessingianthus yariguierum, Hebeclinium squamosum and Condylopodium hyalinifolium, this last one being endemic to the North-eastern Andes in Colombia.
Animals of the area include endemic species such as a subspecies of the night monkey (Aotus cf. lemurinus), the runcha squirrel (Microsciurus santanderensis), the little Andean poisonous frog (Ranitomeya virolinensis), the Santander partridge (Odontophorus strophium), the blue-beaked curassow (Crax alberti) and the yariguíes wild sparrow (Atlapetes latinuchus yariguierum).
There is also the presence of animas species such as the brown spider monkey (Ateles hybridus), the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), the neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis), the jaguar (Panthera onca), the pakarana (Dinomys branickii), the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the little red brocket deer (Mazama rufina), and a wide variety of bats, fish, birds, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians are also present.
We have also seen Isagen undertake what they refer to as “ecological endeavors” for the “protection of the environment”. At first sight these efforts seem to be of goodwill, though looks can be deceiving. AS we have seen with Conservation International (CI) and the coal mine Cerrejón as well as the Natura Foundation with the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project, companies have used these types of projects to ¨greenwash¨ their image, attempting to appear that they do good for the environment. All of this while companies continue to exploit natural beings, calling them ¨natural resources¨, of which their extraction projects depend on.
Such have been the collaborations of Isagen and Hidrosogamoso with the National Parks System of Colombia and the Fondo Patrimonio Natural (Fund of National Patrimony) in the Yariguíes National Park. The Fondo Patrimonio Natural is an organization that focuses on acquiring and restoring ecosystems in Colombia with the help of organizations such as The World Bank, The Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, International Conservation, USAid, and businesses such as Emgesa, Isagen, and Bavaria.
A report created by these organizations titled Huella Yariguíes (Footprints of the Yaguirí people), details great amount of endemic biodiversity in risk of extinction that can be found in the Serrania. In addition, the report calculates that this ecosystem provides 17.000.000 square meters of water per year to the Magdalena River. It also notes that in the year 2011 Isagen financed a diagnostic for an ecological restoration in the Yariguíes National Park with a cost of COP $96.583,000 (USD $33,222.620).
Once the diagnostic was completed, Isagen funded the ecological restoration of 8,000 hectares, of which 4,000 will be located in the buffer zone of the reservoir and 4,057 inside of the Yariguíes National Park with an investment of COP $12.498,000,000 (USD $4,299,062.0400). Part of this restoration aims to connect the protection zone of the Hidrosogamoso reservoir by a conservation corridor running between the Serrania La Paz and the creek El Ramo. This ecological restoration also began in 2011 and culminated in November this year.
The construction of Hidrosogamoso, is located on the Sogamoso river, which forms a canyon that connects to the Serranía de la Paz, 75 km above the river mouth in the Magdalena river. The dam has an installed capacity of 829 mW that will produce 5.056 kW/year. It is 190 meters tall and 345 meter wide at the top, with a spillway 72 meters wide. The reservoir, currently the biggest in the country, covers about 7.000 Ha of the municipalities of Girón, Betulia (where the dam construction is located) Zapatoca, Los Santos and San Vicente de Chucurí.
The construction company and owner of Hidrosogamoso is Isagen, headquartered in Medellín and linked to the Ministry of Mines and Energy of Colombia. Isagen is the third largest producer of energy in the country with a share of 16% in the National Electric System (SIN). It has an capacity of 2.212 mW distributed among five power stations, one thermal and additional 150 mW a result of the interconnection with Venezuela.
The desperation of the population in the region impacted by the destruction caused by Hidrosogamoso came together in 2008 to form the Movimiento Social por la Defensa del Rio Sogamoso(Social Movement for the Defense of the Sogamoso River). It has since then denounced social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts in the peasant-farmer and fish-people communities through strikes, marches, lawsuits, public hearings, forums, public denouncements within the region, as well as throughout the country and abroad.
In 2009 Isagen started the construction of the dam and in early 2011,when the Sogamoso river was diverted, the peoples impacted by the construction went on a strike from March 14-16. This strike forced Isagen to meet with the affected communities who did not demobilize until a 17-point agreement was reached, of which Isagen has not kept any of their commitments.
Instead of listening to those who were affected, Isagen and the government of Santander disregard the proof and facts that were made public and at no point have they acknowledge much less denounced the persecution, labeling of « terrorists » and death threats against local organizers. Since 2009 various social leaders near the Sogamoso river have been killed, crimes that remain unpunished.
On October 31st, 2012, Miguel Angel Pabon Pabon, leader and founding member of the Social Movement in Defense of the Sogamoso River and the Movimiento Rios Vivos, was disappeared from San Vicente de Chucurí. Colleagues carried out brigades searching desperately for Miguel Angel, whose disappearance was reported and generated solidarity actions in more than 80 countries.
Miguel Angel, father of two girls, lived in the municipality of San Vicente de Chucuri, where he devoted his life to the defense of the river, the environment and the peasant-farmers and fisher-people of the Middle Magdalena. Miguel Angel was last seen on October 31, when conducting a community workshop regarding a fumigation that would occur due to an outbreak of dengue.
Since 2014, their has been a law suit in Santander for the damages caused to the environment and to the rights of collective reparations. However, the company has refused to give clear answers to over 2000 families and worst, to the communities downstream of the dam. As in the case of La Playa, it refuses to recognize the impacts downstream of the dam wall, therefore there is no damage to repair or necessity of relocations, according to the company.
Similar to the case of the Quimbo, the area of the Hidrosogamoso dam converges several fault lines that have increased tremors, jeopardizing all communities downstream of the dam and seriously damaging the psychological state of the communities that the company refuses to recognize as affected down river.
In 2014 Isagen started filling the reservoir, which was completed in six months, generating energy for the National Electric System. In June, during filling, there was a failure with the gates of the Hidrosogamoso dam and the Sogamoso river downstream remained dry for more than 10 hours. The company announced this disaster to have had no major impact resulting in only a few hundred dead fish. However, the disaster left the river so low that humans could walk across and in reality thousands of fish died.
The nerve of Isagen’s lies regarding this disaster caused by the company´s incompetence, led the river´s inhabitants; fisher-people, farmers, and miners to block the main highway to the Middle Magdalena region preventing the passage in the area. Residents of the area received death threats because of these actions.
Another idiotic mistake caused by Isagen´s incompetence was in late 2014. The company did not remove the needed biomass from the flood zone before the filling. This resulted in the decomposition of trees and vegetation, emitting methane gas and hydrogen sulfide producing strong odors and health problems throughout the population surrounding the reservoir.
The rotting of this biomass and the subsequent smell resulted in the loss of water quality, nausea, vomiting, headaches, skin infections and hair loss in the region´s population. Following this, affected river dwellers mobilized again and the Santander Administrative Court ordered the company to remove the biomass from the reservoir in less than 6 months.
Following the constant string of abuses of the company left unpunished by the State and the government of Santander, on Monday, March 16, 2015, the March of Women started with just over 50 women of the Social Movement in Defense of the Sogamoso River, marching towards Bucaramanga to demand the rights of affected families.
After three days they took the main park of Bucaramanga in front of the Department Capital Building, living in provisional tents made of plastic and cardboard. In the park, they have had to put up with the need to go to the bathroom all night as they had no bathrooms around. Even in these inhospitable conditions, the women stood there demanding their rights since back home in their communities, there is nothing left, they have nowhere to return to.
Women and their families campedfor more than 90 days in the city center, where the police harassed them and they had depend on the solidarity of a a few Bumangueses (People from Bucaramanga). All this while the Governor Richard Aguilar has refused to talk to them. After three months in the park, the women chained themselves to the entrance of the Capitol Building where the police forcibly removed them and since then have denied them entry to the government.
The third session of the political school of Rios Vivos came to this scene. The first day of school was spent in the park accompanying the members of the Social Movement for the Defense of the Sogamoso River in what was their day to day in this place. Some people pass by, greet and sometimes bring food contributions. But overall, most of the people are apathetic, not looking and not interested in their equals who have been forced to take these methods of directs action to demand their rights.
The next day the people who participated in the school moved to a farm on the El Ramo creek. All along the drive to the farm, the reservoir could be seen. Even though it had been way over 3 months from the ruling of the Administrative Court of Santander, it was very apparent that Isagen had not yet chopped down, much less removed the biomass in the flooded area.
Once the was reservoir filled the water level dropped slightly and left a 5 or 6 meter wide ring around reservoir of dead vegetation. The mountain peaks within the reservoir that are now islands show a steady erosion of their borders that have led to sink holes and the earth moving under the new road created by Isagen as the old road was left under water. The remaining fish in the reservoir are grouped near the mouths of the Sogamoso river, the Chucurí river, and the El Ramo creek, desperately seeking oxygen since the relatively still reservoir and the rotting vegetation have created an anaerobic environment without oxygen.
The people who lived on the farm that hosted the school told us that when the filling of the reservoir began, a multitude of animals were fleeing from the rising water. Animals that had never been seen before in that area like monkeys, aguoti and ocelots who faced the farm dogs and had to fight them to survive. The farmers understand the despair of fleeing animals and let them eat their crops and fruits, leaving farmers without food or products to sell.
Since the filling was completed, the avocado trees bloom, they begin to bear fruit but almost all of it dries and falls off before they can ripen. None of the agricultural projects that Isagen supported in the surrounding areas of the reservoir have worked and the company has had to compensate the affected peoples in the area by creating pig farms and livestock projects since the crops haven’t been able to adapt to the drastic climate change.
Like in previous schools, the people of each region had the opportunity to participate in the construction of collective knowledge since a basic tenants of the school is that no one knows everything and everyone has something to contribute to this group work. Among the presentations, exercises and group dynamics, mystic- spiritual activities, bartering of seeds, we also took the time to refresh ourselves in El Ramo creek since the ambient humidity was something higher because of the resevoir.
All of the school had sessions between avocado trees, where we were visited by a variety of animals such as lizards, herons, iguanas and many small birds such as a variety of tanagers. One day during the Ríos Vivos school in La Jagua we had the chance to display Mesoamerica Resiste banner, but being the hosts and coordinators with Decolonizing La Jagua and Asoquimbo of the school, no to mention the art activities and actions for the defense of territory as part of Geochoreographies, we didn’t have the opportunity to share the banner or the experience of the Beehive Design Collective, this time we did.
Some of the processes and people of the movement were already familiar with the Beehive Collective graphic campaigns, such as the communities of the Lower Ovejas in Northern Cauca where we first visited in 2008. In this school session, we could present the work of the hive and provide a didactic explanation of the meaning and methodological process of creating Mesoamerica Resists. In this space, where all the processes were involved, the strategies that were highlighted of most interest was the process against La Parota dam in Guerrero, Mexico, that has over 10 years of popular resistance that has not allowed the construction company to enter machinery to the region of interest.
The focus of this school was the importance to "remain in the territory", this was highlighted in several scenes of the graphic campaign such as in the scenes that relate to ; the solidarity economy, cooperatives, productive projects, and seed banks. Regarding the cooperatives and barter we also spoke of "time banks" that exist in other countries. Although the time was short and thus rushed to share Mesoamérica Resiste, the work had a positive reception, the explanation reinforced topics discussed earlier about the failures of the current energy model and those present were left with the task to answer the following questions for the next school : Do you believe that this method of telling stories through graphics useful? And… Do you think that the story of the communities and the Movimiento Rios Vivos can be told in this way?
For next year the bees are safeguarding pollen and honey for an epic tour that we're preparing, Polinizando Rios Vivos (Pollinating Living Rivers). Starting in 2016 we will take off from our home in the Alto Magdalena to begin a journey of more than two years in the territories of the Movimiento Rios Vivos.
In order to help consolidate and strengthen the movement to which we belong, we want to offer our drops of honey of support to all regions affected by dams and striving to live in territories of flowing rivers and free peoples. All this through works of ; art trainings and actions, creation of journalistic material, self documentation of affected biodiversity and political education. Through these tangible contributions we will help to boost regional processes of the movement as we have in other regions we have worked in.
Polinizando Ríos Vivos will keep an eye on its schools’ next responses and will also carry out the first round of research for the creation of a graphic campaign, by and for the communities affected and resisting the dams in Colombia, a graphic about the Movimiento Ríos Vivos Colombia.
For those interested in supporting the Polinizando Ríos Vivos initiative and the formation of a graphic campaign of the Movimiento Rios Vivos-Colombia, you can contact the pollination bees at: firstname.lastname@example.org.