Women leading the fight against plundering

Illustration: Emma Gascó

The proliferation of hydroelectric dams is one of the ecosocial conflicts – or new wars – creating the most victims around the world. In Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Ecuador, people who oppose these dams in defense of the commons are criminalised as ‘terrorists’, persecuted and even murdered.

“I don’t know how to read or write, but I come to the river to pan for gold for my daily wage and get fish to feed my children and grandchildren. I grow corn and coffee… And that’s how I saved up to build a little house and raise my family all by myself. Because the paramilitary killed my husband.”

Her husband and most of Eva Luceli Higuita Oliveros’ uncles and cousins. “I’ve suffered through forced displacement by armed groups four times, but the worst will be this fifth time with the Hidroituango hydroelectric company, because the river is my father, my enterprise. How are we going to live when we can’t keep coming here?” she says at La Garrucha bridge, from where the paramilitaries used to throw their victims into the rapids, in the region of Antioquia, Colombia. 

From a young age, Eva Luceli, now 52 years old, learned to multiply loaves and fishes by sifting the sands of the majestic Cauca River until she discovered dazzling nuggets of gold in the river’s silt. Her hands performed the miracle of transforming seeds into food, and the physical and mental strength of her little body has managed to fulfill the needs of her children and grandchildren for decades. But all of this knowledge and all of these results that have no stock market value – and were not able to stop the bullets of the war in Colombia – will be wiped out by Hidroituango, one of the more than one hundred dams being constructed in Colombia. The country already produces more energy than it consumes, but without these dams it would not be possible to provide the more than 9,000 mining exploitation licences granted through 2015, nor to complete the strategic plan to become a hub of electricity generation for all of Latin America. Even if this entails plundering and exhausting the commons that have guaranteed the livelihood of thousands of people. 

In fact, Eva Luceli, like most of the region’s population who live off of agriculture, fishing and gold panning, has already been banned from accessing the 128 square kilometers of the Cauca River canyon, which has been privatised by Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) for the construction of the third largest dam in Latin America. 

“I do believe that they will kill us. When we went to protest against the dam in Toledo, the people shouted, ‘The guerrillas are here.’ And when I go to the river to collect gold – not fish because ever since they built the embankment, there are hardly any left – we have to be careful because you run into armed strangers. I’m scared, but what can I do? I don’t have any other choice. The people who brought EPM here don’t like us.”

On May 2nd, Hugo Albeiro George Pérez was murdered. He was a peasant involved in the fight against Hidroituango and the third deceased member of Ríos Vivos (Living rivers), a Colombian social movement that brings together many of the different fights against hydroelectric companies. 

As with the previous two executions, the circumstances are still unclear with no accountability, which is also the case in the murder of at least 600 victims, and the disappearance of hundreds of people at the hands of the paramilitary – in alliance with the Colombian army – between the 90’s and 2010 in the twelve municipalities affected by Hidroituango. So much terror was generated by the massacres that 110,000 of the 170,000 inhabitants fled, losing their land and their homes.

The history of the Hidroituango dam is closely tied to the past two decades of the Colombian conflict. Two days before Álvaro Uribe Vélez, then president of the Antioquian government, completed his term, before throwing himself into the presidential race, the regional assembly approved the creation of the public enterprise Hidroituango. It was December 29th, 1997, the year when the paramilitary would carry out some of the most bloody massacres in the region affected by the dam. The municipality of Aro was also affected, for which the Colombian state was condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights not only for failing to avoid the massacre when they knew about the torture, quartering, skinning, raping and all the other brutalities that were committed against the population over the course of a week – as well as the murder of fifteen peasants – but also for ‘their participation and direct collaboration’ through the army.

In 2018, the Superior Court of Medellín requested that Uribe Vélez be investigated for his possible ties to this massacre, because, according to various paramilitary testimonies, he was present at the planning meetings and one of his government’s helicopters was hovering over the town while it was being massacred. His brother Santiago is being tried for allegedly creating the paramilitary group Los Doce Apóstoles (The Twelve Apostles), whose slaughtering contributed to the mass exodus of the region’s population.

“This political and military project in which the paramilitary, the police and the army participated, set the ideal scene for the arrival of Hidroituango. The company found itself in a vacated territory, among a decimated and grieving population that was looking for the dead and would scarcely be able to oppose the dam due to the sheer terror generated by the massacres. That is how I understand the origin of all the displacement, massacres and pain that we have endured,” explains Cristina Isabel Zuleta, sociologist and leader of the Ríos Vivos movement, who had to abandon her life in Ituango as an adolescent because of her family’s fear that paramilitaries would sexually assault her, as they were known to do to young women. 2010, the year when construction began on the dam, was the year when the most people were extrajudicially assassinated in this region.

While outside of Colombia there is talk of peace by demobilising the FARC guerrillas, the residents of the twelve municipalities affected by the dam continue to be suppressed by paramilitary control – in towns such as Valdivia we were witness to how they continue to impose curfews – but also by the militarisation that tends to surround these macro-projects in order to guarantee the eviction of the communities that live or work in the privatised area, and also to protect the building work from the hostility that they tend to provoke. In the case of Hidroituango, a military base has been constructed next to its embankment.

In a region where 70% of the population live below the poverty line, a large portion of them have experienced what it means to live as a displaced person in cities or outside of their communities: more misery, hunger and begging. And they are not willing to go back to living that way even if it puts their lives at risk, as Ríos Vivos receives death threats, both as a collective and as individual members. And like Cristina Isabel Zulueta or Eva Luceli Higuita Oliveros, many of those who have risen to positions of leadership in this resistance movement have been female peasants.

False green energy that is not renewable

The big hydroelectric companies have posed themselves – backed by organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – as generators of ‘green energy’ and, therefore, as a strategy for combating climate change. However, there are many studies that show that their environmental impact exceeds the supposed savings in greenhouse emissions that they claim. In 2014, a team from Oxford University analysed the financial investment required for the construction of 245 large dams, concluding that it outweighed the benefits. They also explained that other methods of energy production such as wind, solar or small hydroelectric plants set up on irrigation canals are more competitive and also have less socio-ecological impact.

Furthermore, the maintenance of the large dams requires investments that surpass the funds needed for construction. This is why most of them end up generating less voltage than anticipated and tend to not be shut down when they stop being profitable, because the cost of relocating and recycling millions of tonnes of cement and brick – two of the industries that have polluted and benefited the most from the rise of hydroelectric power – as well as recovering the watercourses would again surpass the initial investment for building a new one. Countries end up increasing their public debt – and therefore their dependence on organisations such as the IMF – not only because of the high construction costs, but also because the additional costs tend to be 100% of the initial budget: the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil has already cost over 9,500 million euros to build and was sold in auction for only around 5,000.

But aside from the environmental impact that comes with flooding the territory, changing the natural course of the waterways, decimating the population of 9,000 aquatic species that live in the river ecosystems, and managing the sediment concentrated in the reservoir by the embankment, we must keep in mind that the enormous quantities of methane, emitted by the decomposition of flooded flora and the accumulated sediment, far exceed the supposed reduction in emissions that would result from not burning combustible fossil fuels or biomass. According to a study by the University of Washington College of the Environment in Vancouver, the amount of methane emitted by the decomposition of flooded vegetation and accumulated sediment is over 25% greater than the estimated amount at the time of the report’s publication in 2016. Although methane only remains in the atmosphere for a decade, according to Bridget Deemer, the main author of BioScience magazine, “during the last twenty years, methane has contributed to global warming almost three times more than carbon dioxide.” These emissions are especially high in tropical climates, in which half of Latin America and Africa are located. 

None of these revelations have slowed down the dam construction craze, and neither has the verified increase in poverty generated among the residents of the communities that are driven out of their territory because of this construction, as well as on the coastal shores where rivers empty; even though they promote corruption by the enormous economic interests that are involved; even though many of the people who refuse to leave their homes, their way of life and their source of sustenance suffer harrassment, persecution and even murder in certain countries. In 2017 alone, more than 210 environmental defenders were killed while fighting against huge extractivist projects such as hydroelectric dams. 

Illustration: Emma Gascó

Not only Berta Cáceres

Edizângela Barros is one of the 40,000 people – 8,000 families – who have been forced to abandon their territory because of the Belo Monte Dam, which mutilated the Xingu River in Amazonia, Brazil. After eight years of fighting against its construction as part of the Movimiento de Afectados por las Represas (Movement of those affected by dams), her role currently is to demand that the company – mostly public shareholders – keeps the promises made to the communities. In her community, the number of annual murders grew from 48 to 86 between 2011 and 2014. 

Only 4% of the displaced people have had their right to housing recognised, while 75% were given compensation that is not enough to secure a new home, according to the NGO Instituto Socio-Ambiental. Given that they affect rural areas and indigenous communities, the underreporting of impacts is common with mega-projects since people usually do not have property contracts in comunal territories.

“Displacement has broken community bonds. The few of us that have actually managed to have their right to housing recognised in the encampments built by the company have nothing to live from because we were fishers or farmers… And, on top of that, the cost of life in the cities is much more expensive. Paradoxically, many affected families cannot afford electricity. The company committed to transfering us to neighbourhoods with schools and health centres, but they have not kept their word. This has resulted in, among other things, an increase in domestic violence,” explains Edizângela Barros over the phone from her new home.  

The Public Ministry of Brazil has accused the State and the Consórcio Norte Engergia – created ad hoc by Lula da Silva’s government in order to undertake this mega-project – of ethnocide, i.e. the cultural extermination of indigenous peoples. This accusation could also be extrapolated to other countries, such as Honduras, the most deadly nation for defenders of the environment: 130 people have been killed and many hundreds imprisoned since 2009, when Porfirio Lobo’s coup regime began to issue the more than 110 hydroelectric and 500 mining permits to national and transnational companies that we see today. The most infamous assassination was that of Berta Cáceres, after which the world began to understand that being an environmentalist goes far beyond buying from a certain shelf in the supermarket, that saying ‘no’ to governments and transnational enterprises that impose an ideology based on the looting of common goods can be life-threatening in certain contexts where accountability is lacking.

The Honduran peasant Albertina López, from the Lenca Jilamito community, is facing up to four years in prison along with four other activists. They are accused of occupying private property during a protest at the Hidrocep dam, the construction of which has already turned the river water that 170 families drink from into mud.

“Workers from the company tell us that they are going to contract hitmen to kill us. They also paid off the neighbours, the town council, the police…, but they will never buy our dignity because this encampment has turned into a sisterhood and brotherhood,” Albertina explains. Since 2017, tens of men and women have taken turns to stop the construction; they are putting their lives on the line because “Water is life,” they claim.

The panorama does not vary much in Ecuador, where peaceful protests against mega-projects are also met with violence and accusations of terrorism or uprising. That is the case with Manuela Pacheco, whom they have charged with the aforementioned and other crimes committed during a fortnight of actions opposing the dam that had been built in her isolated community, San Pablo de Amalí, and whose shareholders include the Basque company Ingehydro SL. Now that it is in operation, they do not even allow the population to take enough water to water their crops, she tells us over the phone.

Manuela, together with her husband Manuel Trujillo, became a symbol of the fight against extractivists after both of them came out of the court with their arms raised and cuffed. In 2016 the court declared them innocent of the organised terrorism charges, revealing the hypocrisy of Rafael Correa’s Bolivarian government, which had criminalised social protests. 

“They offered me money, cars, a house… in exchange for stopping. In one meeting with people from the government, they told me that they could kick me out of the country and that there was no point in going back home because there was nothing there, nothing worthwhile. Remember, that’s how they see our lives: worth nothing.”

Executives – regardless of political affiliation – present these people as enemies of their countries for standing against a supposed development that is nothing but a new form of colonialism based on accumulation by means of dispossession, theft or plundering. Extractivism is more than an economic model: it is an ideology that imposes a certain social, economic and cultural worldview. 

Which is why organisations fighting against these dynamics have been working to redefine the lives of victims, as Cristina Isabel Zuleta explains: “The first exercise that Ríos Vivos did was to help us recover pride in who we are because violence takes it away from you. It makes you feel like nothing. You don’t want to be a woman because that comes with a risk. You don’t want to be a farmer because that comes with a risk… Violence takes away your roots, your identity, and the first thing we need to regain is the certainty that we are worth something, that we do not deserve what they are doing to us and that we need to seek justice. And that gives us the possibility of being reborn with the others. The possibility to feel better about ourselves.”

The new wars are environmental

“Extractivism is a kind of war on communities and their ways of being in the world, as well as against the environment,” explains Daniela del Bene, coordinator of the Atlas de Justicia Medioambiental (Atlas of Environmental Justice), which compiles data on more than 2,400 ecosocial conflicts throughout the world. 

There are still no laws for this war. There are no international rules that regulate the liability of transnational companies, an impunity against which organisations like the Observatorio de Multinacionales de América Latina (Multinational Observatory of Latin America) (OMAL) have spent years proposing a road map, as Erika González, researcher for OMAL, explains: “At the international level, we should adopt a mandatory agreement that forces transnational companies to comply with international human rights law, labour laws and environmental laws… And an international court that can judge the executives and their enterprises – not only the parent companies, but the entire value chain of the transnational corporations: suppliers, subsidiaries and contractors.”

Meanwhile, those who are persecuted, erased, imprisoned and even murdered are the people who have everything taken away from them so that energy can be produced to swell the coffers of those who have the most. And they are giving their lives to defend life, the life of everyone.


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