David Bacon Stories & Photographs

Latin America

By David Bacon
The American Prospect, January/February 2007

Development projects anywhere in the world often have a high human cost. In Colombia, the price is often measured in human lives and blood.

Esperanza (she would risk her life, she says, if her real name appeared in print) saw her neighbors pay that price in 2001. Her house sits on the bank of the Rio Salvajina, in the Afro-Colombian municipality of Buenos Aires in Cauca province. “I saw armed men arrive in cars,” she remembers, “with two, three, four, even five people tied up. They dragged them onto the bridge, shot them two or three times and threw their bodies into the river.” When the paramilitaries came to her own home, she was so frightened she lost the baby she’d been carrying for five months.

Today Esperanza is a community activist organizing against the hydropower project for which her neighbors were killed. If ratified by Congress, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signed in mid-November, could lead to more such projects, she fears, and more such violence. “It will permit many more development projects by multinational companies. Many more people will be displaced. And if they won’t leave voluntarily, there will be more assassinations. We know this because we live with it already.”

Esperanza’s experience is a microcosm of the large-scale impact of corporate development in Colombia’s countryside. One quarter of Colombia’s nearly 43 million people are Afro-Colombian, and most live in rural areas, where resources like hydropower and gold and mineral deposits are concentrated. Far from enhancing the villagers’ lives, however, these projects more commonly despoil their lands and force them to flee.

Esperanza’s family was first displaced by construction of the dam on the Rio Salvajina in 1984. Along with 3,600 others, her parents and brothers were compelled to leave the valley. Behind the dam, water flooded schools, homes, churches, even cemeteries. And when the turbines started to roll, the Spanish energy conglomerate, Union Fenosa, had plenty of electricity to sell on Latin America’s power market (the dam’s purpose was to generate power that Union Fenosa could market to other countries).

A number of community leaders who resisted removal were killed or disappeared. “The company didn’t kill people directly,” Esperanza cautions. “It asked the state, through the army, to force people to leave so they could run their business.”

Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities insisted that the country’s Constitution, rewritten in 1991, recognize their right to their historical territories. Law 70, passed in 1993, said these communities had to be consulted and give their approval prior to any new projects planned on their land. Having a law is one thing, however. Enforcing it is another.

By 2001, silt had begun to build up behind the Rio Salvajina dam. Power generation, and Union Fenosa’s income, dropped. The company then proposed a new megaproject, to divert the Rio Ovejas from its course in the next valley into the Rio Salvajina reservoir. Knowing families couldn’t survive the loss of their river, local communities refused to consent. Union Fenosa asked the government to put the project on hold.

Then right-wing paramilitaries moved in.

Because the government is under pressure to respect international human rights standards, it’s not as easy to use the army to drive out people as it was 20 years ago. “They use the paramilitaries,” Esperanza says. That’s when she saw the bodies thrown into the river in front of her house. “Leaders began to disappear. There were massacres, not just of people living in the area, but even those who’d fled to other places. Their bodies were dumped here. And after the paramilitaries arrived and the resistance was weakened, they came back with the proposal again.”

Another megaproject is planned for the same area. Anglo American, the South African gold mining consortium, wants to pulverize a nearby mountain and extract gold from the ore. For generations, families in nearby Buenos Aires and Palo Blanco have depended on small-scale gold mining to survive. It’s a hard living, however. Many women already leave their children in the care of neighbors and family to work as domestics in Cali, the closest city. “If we can’t mine the gold the way we’ve done in the past, we won’t even have that to sustain us,” says Palo Blanco resident Ana Valencia (whose name also has been changed for fear of reprisals).

Large gold mines often leave behind huge mountains of tailings, and ponds filled with chemicals used to leach the metal from ore. Pollution will also make subsistence farming harder.

Power and gold sales create dividends, but the only Colombians who really benefit from them are a handful of brokers in Bogota. The Colombian government, however, like many in thrall to market-driven policies, sees foreign investment in these projects as the key to economic development, and thus revenue. It cuts the budget for public services needed by Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other poor communities. The collusion of the Colombian government with business has also made Colombia the most dangerous nation for union activists, more of whom are murdered there every year than in any other country—and in some years, than in every other country.

In Washington, leading members of the incoming Democratic Congress have called for stricter labor and environmental standards for proposed free trade agreements; some have labeled the agreement with Colombia a non-starter. And while a number of prominent Democrats oppose the U.S. military aid program, Plan Colombia, which underwrites much of the Colombian military budget in the name of curtailing drug production, its fate is not so clear. What is crystal clear is that a number of leaders of rural Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities who stand in the way of such foreign investment will, like the leaders of Colombia’s unions, in all probability disappear or die. And while most displaced Colombians become internal migrants in the country’s growing urban slums, that migratory stream will eventually cross borders into those wealthy countries whose policies have set it into motion.


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