In early March CPT Colombia accompanied Giordano of CAHUCOPANA and a small delegation of popular education specialists to a rural sector of Tierralta, a town in Cordoba. (One of CPT Colombia’s local partners is CAHUCOPANA–a grass-roots campesino human rights organization of north-east Antioquia.) The communities are located on an artificial lake created by the Urrá hydroelectric dam. They are only accessible by water via the small port of Frasquillo after passing through military checkpoints of the adjacent military base. Since the building of the dam this busy little port has been under curfew; it former residents must now vacate the area before nightfall and are only allowed to return after sunrise. From the port we made the half-hour trip by motorized canoe to another port, and after a twenty-minute bus-ride arrived in Crucito—the central community of the 40 hamlets in the area.
Ironically, despite the thirteen-year presence of the Urrá hydroelectric dam, none of these communities are provided with electricity. The only available electrical power comes from a handful of small gas-powered generators owned by local private businesses.
Local residents told us of how things were thirteen years ago, before the construction of the hydroelectric dam. Then most of the communities were accessible by road. Travelling was much less complicated and much more economical. Travel by land was also far less restricted. Now the only water port—Puerto Frasquillo—means that local residents can only enter and leave the area by passing through military checkpoints during daylight hours. Much of the local population that once lived on the fertile lowlands were flooded out by the dam. They had to abandon their homes, crops and fruit trees to relocate and rebuild on higher, less fertile ground. The fishing too—a former source of sustenance and income—has been all but lost because the fish can no longer migrate up and down the river.
The communities are seeking CAHUCOPANA’s help to organize themselves better in the face of threats by the various armed actors operating in the area, and the immanent implementation of Phase Two of the hydroelectric project. The local population is convinced that the primary task of the military is providing security for the dam, not security for the civilians who live in the area. In addition to the military there are other illegal armed actors operating in the area. Paramilitaries and FARC guerrillas are vying for control because it is a major corridor for the trafficking of drugs and arms. Phase Two threatens the communities with even greater violence, flooding, displacement, and destruction of local resources. (Brutal repression and the extrajudicial killing of Kimy Pernia and other indigenous leaders cleared the way for phase one of the Urrá dam project back in 2,000. See: ENVIRONMENT-COLOMBIA: Controversial Dam Begins Operating –Financed, in part, by Canadian money channelled through the Export Development Corporation)
During our four-day visit the local community leaders attended workshops organized by CAHUCOPANA to learn about their options in the the face of the powerful interests that threaten their survival: workshops on human rights; workshops on leadership; workshops about joining and forming Campesino Reserves—sort of reservations intended to protect the culture and lifestyles of campesinos from powerful economic interests that seek to take over the area’s local resources. CAHUCOPANA and community leaders also made plans to host a Humanitarian Action at the end of April—similar to other Humanitarian Actions CAHUCOPANA has organized in the north-east Antioquia region to draw national and international attention to their situation in which they invite hundreds of Colombians and foreigners to the affected area to see for themselves.
CPT Colombia’s contribution was primarily providing international accompaniment to increase the security and autonomy of the community in case of interruptions by armed groups. One such group arrived on the very first day. A small group of community leaders, CAHUCOPANA and CPT Colombia went to intercept them before they could interrupt the workshops. They wore no insignias on their uniforms, but identified themselves as the guerrilla. It didn’t really matter who they were. Our message would have been the same. We asked them to leave the area as soon as possible for two reasons: they are a military target, and by their very presence put the civilian population in danger, and; state authorities might well attribute the workshops to the presence of the armed group instead of the initiative of the civilian population, thereby undermining the credibility of all community decisions, initiatives and activities resulting from the workshops. Although a few armed actors lingered on to make purchases in the local stores, by mid-afternoon they had all left the area.
Although Tierralta is in Córdoba—not part of the Magdalena Medio—CPT Colombia was glad to accompany CAHUCOPANA in this important work. It was sad to see a community so alone and with so few allies in their valiant struggle for survival. Despite the formidable challenges, the communities will hopefully continue to organize, find additional long-term allies, and ultimately regain control over their own local resources and future. Only then can they regain their ability to resist, not only the impositions and threats of the various armed actors present in the area, but also prevent further destruction of their local resources by outside investors and mega-projects such as the Urrá hydroelectric dam.
Humanitarian Action Update
As the town of Crucito prepares for their first Humanitarian Action, an event scheduled for the 26th and 27th of April in order to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in the area of Tierralta, Cordoba, they have faced even more threats to their security. While campaigning for the event, many of those involved have been threatened, harassed, arrested, and assassinated. Furthermore, the military has planned a Civic Military Day in Crucito on April 26th, an act that puts the community at higher risk of being linked to the armed conflict. CAHUCOPANA, along with other social organizations have published a series of three complaints, denouncing the violations of International Humanitarian Law by the military and demanding authorities to call off the Civic Military Day and ensure the freedom of movement and safety of the participants involved in the Humanitarian Action event.