The Nasa indigenous communities of Florida, in Valle del Cauca, reports the violence they are suffering as a result of their struggle against a 1,490 kilometer road that –as they say– will affect the Las Hermosas and Las Tinajas moorlands, and could force them to displace from their territory. Their leaders are receiving threats.
It was just before six o’clock in the morning of that Saturday in January 2020 when two men on a motorcycle arrived at his house to look for him.
—Is Nilson there?
—No, he does not live here.
The men hesitated, but did not leave.
—What is your name?
—Oh, then you must be the one we are looking for. See, we’re asked to tell you to stay still.
Jorge Milton Conda. Milton. Nasa indigene. Forty years old, father of two daughters. Environmental and social leader. Human rights defender. Milton, not Nilson.
—And I also ask you to please tell your bosses that I won’t stop fighting for the indigenous peoples.
Milton recounts this episode on board a vehicle traveling the road between the municipality of Florida, in the southeast of the department of Valle del Cauca, and the community of La Rivera, where he lives, in the Kwesx Yu Kiwe reservation, a name that means ‘water territory.’ He tells it and laughs. As if he had made a prank or as if it weren’t with him or as if he had nothing left to do but laugh.
The guys who came to his house said they belonged to “Los Pelusos”, a dissident fraction of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL in Spanish) (a guerrilla group demobilized in 1991) that today is considered by the security forces as an organized armed group (OAG) and that mainly engages in drug trafficking. Two months earlier, they also went to look for him at his mother’s house. That time, they were supposedly emissaries of the Dagoberto Ramos column, a dissident fraction of the FARC guerrillas that did not disarm with the 2016 peace agreement and that today is trying to retake control of Valle del Cauca and Northern Cauca through blood and fire.
In pamphlets thrown outside the office of the indigenous house, the main headquarters of the Kwesx Yu Kiwe reservation in Florida, the criminal structure warned him and other Nasa leaders to “stop messing around and stop talking about defending the land. In another flyer that circulated, attributed to criminal gangs operating in alliance with FARC dissidents, they declared him a “military objective” and accused him of “not allowing the development of the Orinoquia-Pacific road to move forward”.
“Not long ago, some armed men came to the community where I live, gathered the people together, told them about the Orinoquia-Pacific mega road and said they were coming to fight for the people. We are not opposed to development, but we report the tremendous environmental damage that this road will cause.
The Pacific-Orinoquia Connection, which is the name of the road Milton Conda is talking about, is a 1,490 kilometer route that seeks to cross the three Andean mountain ranges, something unprecedented in the country, in order to connect the Pacific region from the port of Buenaventura, with the Magdalena River valley and even Puerto Carreño (Vichada) in the eastern plains in the border with Venezuela.
The official data from Invias and the Propacifico Foundation (which supports the construction of the road) are impressive: Approximately 50 trillion pesos of public-private investment (exceeding by almost 34 trillion pesos to the Hidroituango project, which would be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the country); 250 thousand new jobs derived from rice, corn and soybean crops and livestock activities; 7 trillion pesos projected in economic benefits, mainly for agriculture, livestock and agribusiness; an approximate 27% decrease in the cost of freight transportation per ton and the consolidation of Colombia as an agricultural power. That is the ‘A-side’ of the project.
This ambitious work is included in the Intermodal Transportation Master Plan (PMTI) 2015-2035, an infrastructure network designed to improve the country’s connection through roads, airports, ports and railroads. The presentation of this ‘roadmap’ took place on November 25, 2015 in Cartagena, at the National Infrastructure Congress, and was led by the then Vice President German Vargas Lleras.
“The Transportation Master Plan is Colombia’s horizon, a technical and scientific exercise that aims to bring it out of the backwardness in which it finds itself and put it at the forefront in Latin America in the coming years,” said an exultant Vargas Lleras, the then number two in the administration of Juan Manuel Santos.
In figures, the PMTI covers 101 road projects (12,681 kilometers), 52 in integration networks (6,880 kilometers), 5 railroads intervened in the railway network (1,769 kilometers), 8 rivers intervened in the fluvial network (5,065 kilometers), 31 works in airports, and dredging in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The annual average investment has been 10.4 trillion pesos over twenty years.
Since Vargas Lleras’ announcement, the Vice-Presidency, the Ministry of Transportation, the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI) and Invias have been working on its execution.
The interdepartmental road begins at the port of Buenaventura. There are eight road sections that directly involve 34 municipalities in five departments: Valle del Cauca, Huila, Tolima, Meta and Vichada (representing a population of near 9 million inhabitants) and indirectly to another 350 municipalities in thirteen departments of the Central, Orinoco and Pacific regions.
25% of the route has already been built (378 kilometers in sections between Mulalo and Florida, in Valle del Cauca, and between Mesetas and Puerto Gaitan, in Meta); 16% is under construction (240 kilometers between Buenaventura and Mulalo, between La Uribe and Mesetas, and between Puerto Gaitan and Puente Arimena); 55% is under study (819 kilometers between Florida and the municipality of Colombia, in Huila, and between Puente Arimena and Puerto Carreño) and the remaining 4% is “to be defined” (53 kilometers between the municipality of Colombia, in the department of Huila, and La Uribe), according to Invias.
The ‘B side’ -and less known- of the Pacific-Orinoquia Connection, included in the National Development Plan of the current administration of Ivan Duque, is that it borders a number of sensitive ecosystems and fundamental biological corridors: The Las Tinajas and Las Hermosas moorlands (Valle del Cauca and Tolima), the Nevado del Huila National Natural Park, the Meridiano Moorland Regional Park (Tolima) and the El Tuparro National Park (Vichada).
According to the National Commission of Indigenous Territories, the mega road passes through or borders the collective territories of at least eight indigenous peoples including Nasa, Nukak, Sikuani, Amorua, Misak, Jiw, Emberas Chami, and Totoro. This means that there is still a trail of doubts about the environmental and social impacts the road could have.
The route between Florida and the municipality of Colombia has a budget of approximately 22 trillion pesos and covers 140 kilometers divided into three sections. The section linking Florida to the village of La Herrera (Tolima) is as ambitious as it is daring in terms of engineering: A multimodal railway tunnel with a platform for trains that will transport vehicles from one end to the other and will cut through the central mountain range at a depth of 2,500 meters. It will have an extension of 40 kilometers, almost five times the size of the controversial tunnel of la Linea -8.65 kilometers and the longest of its kind in Latin America-.
The community council of the black communities of The San Antonio de los Caballeros rural district and the Nasa indigenous reservations of Kwesx Yu Kiwe, Kwe’s Kiwe, Cristal Paez, and Nasa Tha, located in Florida and Las Mercedes, in the municipality of Rioblanco (Tolima), are located right where the mega-tunnel has been designed.
Kwesx Yu Kiwe -where Milton Conda lives- would probably be the most affected by the future tunnel.
But it does not even appear on the 2015 maps of the Agustin Codazzi Geographic Institute (Igac) that Invias used as the basis for the design of that route.
It is as if it did not exist.
Kwesx Yu Kiwe is made up of seven Nasa indigenous communities: El Salado, La Rivera, Granates, Altamira, Nuevo Horizonte, La Cumbre and Nueva Esperanza. There are about 666 families which, together, total about 2,100 inhabitants, spread over 2,539 hectares and 8,975 square meters officially declared as a reservation, although the indigenous authorities claim that their ancestral territory extends over 41,000 hectares.
The veredas are located around the Las Tinajas moorland, which belongs to the Las Hermosas moor complex. For these peoples, their deities live at the bottom of the lagoons and in the mists of the moorland of the mountain range. Their beliefs and symbols go beyond the political, economic and social spheres. The land is the house, it is life, and it is respected.
For as long as he can remember, Milton has seen himself running from bullets. He says he is alive by miracle. It is not hard to believe him. A report by the Victims Unit recognizes 15.6% of Florida’s population as victims of the armed conflict, which is equivalent to 9,000 of the nearly 60,000 people living in the municipality.
During the times of the M-19 guerrillas, in the 1980s, they displaced all the communities that lived in the territory now occupied by the reservation. The FARC also arrived, two of which extinct structures – the Sixth Front and the Gabriel Galvis Mobile Column of the Commander Alfonso Cano Bloc – turned this land into their criminal fiefdom.
Between 2001 and 2002, when he was already serving as secretary of his organization, Milton had to resist two paramilitary takeovers by the Calima Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC in Spanish) that left a lot of dead in their path. He had to pull out some children in the midst of an all-out shootout. He had to bury two uncles: One who was held by the paramilitaries at a checkpoint and killed with acid and another who was murdered by the guerrillas.
In recent years, it has also buried several members of the indigenous guard, those men and women who guard the collective territory and withstand, unarmed, the increasingly insane onslaught from the violent. At this point, many inhabitants of this region of the country feel that peace was an illusion that vanished in the blink of an eye. The years of negotiations in Havana and the signing of the agreement with the FARC filled them with a fragile hope that ended up fading away. Here peace looks blurred, muzzy, like when you insist on remembering, upon waking up, a dream that escapes from your head.
The reality today is that drug trafficking, guerrilla dissidents and residual groups from demobilized paramilitaries – known as ‘bandas criminales’ criminal gangs) or ‘bacrim’ – stalk the territory. The Ombudsman’s Office issued an early warning in 2018 for Florida and another municipality, Pradera, where it warned of the serious situation and confirmed the presence of dissidents of the FARC’s Sixth Front, the EPL, the ELN and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (also known as Gulf Clan), heirs of narco-paramilitarism. It is within this context that Kwesx Yu Kiwe resists.
In September 2019 and after an intense judicial battle, the third civil judge of the Specialized Circuit on Land Restitution of Cali, Diego Sossa Sanchez, ordered the recognition of the reservation as a victim of the armed conflict and the restitution of 5,021 hectares of ancestral lands. Ruling 57 recognizes that the inhabitants of this reservation were victims of the M-19, the FARC and the security forces and that they suffered harassment, forced displacement, confinement, dispossession and selective homicides.
That was the first sentence on land restitution for indigenous communities in Valle del Cauca, which is part of a policy that began a decade ago to repair the victims and return the land taken from them by the violent. Just a month earlier, in August of that year, Kwesx Yu Kiwe had been legally registered as a reservation through agreement 96 of August 2019 between the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Land Agency.
But now, when they have won the right to be recognized as a reservation, the indigenous people believe that their existence is in danger. If before they were threatened by bullets, now they are also threatened by development.
El Salado is a community located 1,800 meters on the central mountain range. On this bright November morning, a cheerful and expectant retinue welcomes visitors. There are children running around and adults standing on the corners, such as the school teacher, Dora Lilia Baltazar and the leader (traditional authority) Francisco Antonio Yonda.
-“We are very concerned because we believe that they have not studied the consequences of the road in our communities or the impact on the environment. The route passes through the soccer field, by the school, right here where we are standing,” says Yonda, a 55-year-old father of two
“he route passes through the soccer field, by the school, right here where we are standing”Francisco Antonio Yonda, traditional authority
When he speaks, he lowers his gaze. An air of sadness marks his face. “Shoots have come from all around. From one side and from the other. And we’ve had to get used to it. As far as I remember, we have been displaced three times. First, the M-19 in the 80s and then the paramilitaries in the 2000s. And now we are in the same situation again, with the FARC dissidents leaving threatening pamphlets, harassing, extorting. And on top of that we have the problem of the road. We live from the cultivation of coffee, bananas, plantains, cassava, arracacha, beans, corn; all that would be lost. Where will we go if we have to leave here?” asks Yonda.
On the other side of the reservation, to enter the communities of La Rivera and Granates, you must first pass through the indigenous guard checkpoint. Two men and a girl no older than thirteen welcome you. Then, their biosecurity ritual against Covid: A perfume with medicinal plants of rosemary and eucalyptus and an aromatic drink.
This territory seems suspended in time. Without internet connection, so far away from everything, surrounded by mountains and unpaved roads; with some houses built with cement and small terraces full of colorful plants, and crossed by a river: the Frayle, which rushes down from the Las Tinajas moorland. A green Andean landscape where silence rules, only interrupted at times by the song of the birds that cross this sky. The vegetation is lush and the air is pristine. An environment so beautiful and generous that even intimidates.
A few minutes’ walk separates La Rivera from Granates. A single dirt road connects them. There where the road ends, in Granates, there is a huge soccer field, a wooden bridge over the river and the starting point of the trail that leads to Las Tinajas. The indigenous people say that reaching the heart of the moorland takes between one and three days, a high mountain ecosystem of great ecological value that remains relatively unknown to the country (as it was a refuge for armed groups for years) and so fragile that any intervention derived from infrastructure works can be catastrophic.
The Las Tinajas moorland, which is part of the Las Hermosas moor complex, covers an area of approximately 18,400 hectares distributed between Palmira, Florida and Pradera. According to the Valle del Cauca Regional Autonomous Corporation (CVC), the regional environmental authority, it is a “fundamental water regulating ecosystem” because both the vegetation and the soils act as a “sponge” that naturally retains the liquid during the rainy season and gradually releases it into the Valle del Cauca aquifer system in the summer.
In Las Tinajas, there is also a group of nine lagoons (including Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, El Espejo, Laguna Negra and Guayabal) from which the Frayle and Santa Barbara rivers originate, supplying both rural and urban communities in Florida and other surrounding areas.
A CVC report advises to turn Las Tinajas into a conservation area given the degree of threat to plant and animal species, such as the glass frog, the shrew, the Andean bear, the puma, the coatis, the pudus, the yellow-billed teal, and the black-chested buzzard-eagle, among others. “Based on the biodiversity values and ecosystem services generated in the Las Tinajas moorland, its fragility and degree of conservation (…) it is possible to infer that its balance could be hugely affected in the case of promoting activities not in accordance with its vocation, such as infrastructure works, mining and extensive cattle ranching,” the document concludes.
Las Hermosas, the moor complex of which Tinajas is a part, supplies water to some 900,000 people -almost 2 percent of Colombia’s population- including the municipalities of Palmira, Tulua, Buga and Chaparral. Eighty percent of its territory is located in the department of Tolima and the remaining 20 percent in Valle del Cauca. It was the seat of the FARC and, for decades, its absolute dominion. The Las Hermosas canyon, on the Tolima side, became the refuge of the slain ‘Alfonso Cano,’ who was the maximum leader of this extinct guerrilla group between 2008 and 2011. A little more than half of its extension is a national park created in 1977, called Las Hermosas precisely, which means that it is constitutionally protected from interventions such as a road.
Las Tinajas, on the other hand, does not have this level of protection.
“Therefore, the conservation of the moorland is deemed key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere”Geographer Carlos Sarmiento
Geographer Carlos Sarmiento, one of the country’s leading specialists on moorlands, is well aware of the importance of these ecosystems. “One of the key factors is water. It is not that the moorland has more than other ecosystems, but the water we get from them reaches the cities by gravity, saving millions in transportation. In addition, it is water that does not receive contaminants, neither from humans nor from nature itself, so treatment is minimal,” he says.
Colombia has approximately 50% of the world’s moorlands, but Sarmiento clarifies that it is a “very rare ecosystem” that only occurs in countries with high mountains in the tropics. And there are not many: Venezuela, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and some African countries with similar systems.
The advantage for the country is that it has the most diversified moorlands. It could be said that they have their own identity, Sarmiento explains. Although it should also be added that they are fragile and late to recover. “The low temperatures and low oxygen levels make the metabolic processes of vegetation and fauna be very slowly. That is why any activity that removes vegetation from the soil is so dangerous,” he explains.
That ‘dangerousness’ also has to do with the fact that moorlands are great carbon containers. “Thanks to the fact that their soil stores a large amount of organic matter without decomposing or under a process of slow decomposition, they are what we call a very important reservoir of carbon, even more than the Amazon forests, some scientists believe. Therefore, the conservation of the moorland is deemed key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere,” says Sarmiento.
On the day of the arrival in Granates, the major governor of the Kwesx Yu Kiwe reservation, Jose Arbey Ipia Medina, attended a meeting that will not be very long because he has received threats. The FARC’s Sixth Front forced him to displace in 2008. Now, it is the Dagoberto Ramos column that prevents him from returning to Altamira, where he used to live. If he is here today, it is because he trusts in his security system and because he is reluctant to let the violent people prevent him from setting foot on his land. But his visits are lightning.
-“We ask them to listen to us, not with weapons or with selfishness or with discrimination. We tell the government that we have the right to prior consultation. As long as we do not validate it, we will not allow the megaproject to pass through here, we will defend this land until death,” warns Governor Ipia.
The unease in these communities is very deep. They fear that the machines will cut down mountains, contaminate rivers and, in short, alter the landscape and the balance of the ecosystem and, in the long run, that this will force them to leave in the gloomy and not too distant future.
“We see the Pacific-Orinoquia road as a threat of extermination. The mega-tunnel would make the communities of Granates and La Rivera disappear and would also affect other populations. We have reported this and the response is that the project is going to be built just because,” says Ipia. His fears and those of his people contrast with the conviction of two consecutive administrations (Santos and Duque) that this is a priority project for the country.
“we are sure that environmental care will be exemplary and respectful of the territories and traditions of the ethnic communities without losing our competitiveness”Guillermo Toro Acuña, technical director of Invias
“It is evident that, if we are committing to cross the central mountain range at an elevation that is 1.5 kilometers away from the superficial moorland zone, and with the magnitude of the investment budget we have, it is because we are sure that environmental care will be exemplary and respectful of the territories and traditions of the ethnic communities without losing our competitiveness,” says Guillermo Toro Acuña, technical director of Invias.
However, preliminary studies show a less optimistic reality.
In February 2018, the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA) published Order 00587 by which it chose one of the four routes proposed by Invias for the section between Florida and the municipality of Colombia, which includes the mega-tunnel. It was the response to the environmental diagnosis of alternatives -a study with information to evaluate and compare the different options before obtaining an environmental license- that Invias had presented since 2014 and had been modified.
The route chosen by the ANLA covers 7 municipalities and 42 smaller territorial units, including veredas and hamlets. According to the environmental authority, this option is “the most convenient”, because it “minimizes risk factors and ostensibly reduces the social and environmental impacts and effects with respect to the other proposals.” None of the other three options presented by Invias avoided the tunnel. They even proposed to project it on a higher elevation and closer to the moorland.
The ANLA order acknowledges that the project will cross moor areas (Las Hermosas, El Meridiano and Las Tinajas), that wastewater will be discharged into streams such as Los Negros, El Tablon, Agua Fria and the Hereje River, that explosives will be used for the works and that there will be changes in the richness and diversity of plant and animal species.
In this decision, the ANLA warns that the chosen alternative “does not determine the environmental viability of the project,” as it is still subject to the presentation of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) on that specific section and the granting of an environmental license, without which the go-ahead could not be given.
This environmental impact assessment must include a document from the Ministry of the Interior –already requested by Invias– certifying the presence of ethnic communities in the areas of influence of the project, the results of a prior consultation to which the ethnic peoples living in the area of influence are entitled, and an environmental management plan explaining how its effects will be mitigated. The problem here is that the Ministry of the Interior has not submitted the certificate recognizing the reservations. Therefore, Kwesx Yu Kiwe does not even exist for Invias.
“The paradox is that for a reservation to be constituted, as in our case, the Ministry of the Interior has to give a prior opinion. Without that it would not have been possible. In addition, there is the sentence that recognizes us as victims of the conflict and orders the restitution of lands. And now it turns out that the ministry does not recognize us,” says Milton Conda. This media sought the Ministry’s version, but there was no answer.
Since they learned of the existence of the Pacific-Orinoquia Connection project, the four reservations and two cabildos of Florida have join forces in their battle against this road. The rejection is unanimous. Since 2013, they have expressed so at the technical tables of Invias, before the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, through the ONIC (National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) and in the few media that have echoed their complaint.
If they were able to dodge the bullets of war and if they continue to stand up to the violent, this new chapter –they say– will not daunt them.
For now, their strategy is to prevent Invias and ANLA technicians from entering their territory. That would be to authorize the works to start, they say. Talks are then at an impasse, at a kind of legal impasse that is difficult to overcome, as the Nasa remain steadfast in their rejection of the project.
“The persecutions that have occurred in the municipality of Florida in the last two years and that we have had to assist have a lot to do with the Pacific-Orinoquia Connection”Nasa Caucana leader Aida Quilcue
“They are designing routes from an office, bypassing us, without showing us the environmental impact assessment, hiding information from us,” reports Milton Conda.
“The government wants to move this project forward in violation of the right to prior consultation. The persecutions that have occurred in the municipality of Florida in the last two years and that we have had to assist have a lot to do with the Pacific-Orinoquia Connection. We even had to seek political asylum for a governor,” says Nasa Caucana leader Aida Quilcue, former ONIC human rights advisor and one of the most respected authorities in the indigenous movement.
Without yet having the certificate from the Ministry of the Interior on the presence of ethnic communities in the sector where the tunnel is planned, and without having carried out the prior consultation with the indigenous and Afro-American peoples of the area, Invias conducted an environmental impact assessment commissioned to EDL S.A.S. consulting engineers.
According to this document, the positive effects of the megaproject at the social level include “the improvement of living conditions, the increase in jobs and the increase in the capacity for self-management and participation.”
However, the environmental chapter leaves many doubts. Although management measures aimed to correct, mitigate, prevent and make up for impacts are mentioned, and these are not classified as critical, the same study points out a large number of consequences: Decrease in vegetation cover, decrease in wildlife habitats -which will be greatly altered-, loss of genera and species, effects on water resources due to materials from the construction site and from wastewater and fuel spills, and impacts on the air due to the concrete plants coming into operation and changes in land use.
“The unfortunate thing is that environmental impact assessments in Colombia do not have an external review, what we call a ‘peer-to-peer review’, where an external agent can evaluate or contradict the assessment or provide other information. I believe that in the country there is no precedent of a tunnel with the extension and depth of the proposed one. And we have very little knowledge of the geological structure to know exactly what the effects of crossing this mountain range would be,” said Carlos Sarmiento, a specialist in moorlands.
The environmental impact assessment also speaks of communities “subject to resettlement”, although Invias has always promised in the technical discussions held with the indigenous people that it does not consider this possibility.
The communities’ capacities for expressing their opinions on what is to come – or “capacity for self-management and participation,” as called by the environmental impact assessment – will depend on the Ministry of the Interior’s certification of the ethnic communities in the area of influence.
But for the time being, there does not seem to be willingness to move this process forward and it will not be so easy either. The community council of black communities in the San Antonio de los Caballeros rural district, for example, is recognized by the mayor’s office of Florida, but not by the Ministry of the Interior, because it is still in the process of collective title registration of their lands before the National Land Agency.
“Some people came here about two years ago to tell us about the road and a tunnel in the upper part of the mountain, but we haven’t heard anything more. We have very little information,” says Leidy Bonilla, their legal representative.
“When we come to prior consultations there is always strong opposition from the communities, but we also find that they are very uninformed”Guillermo Toro, from Invias
Meanwhile, the tunnel of the Florida-Colombia section of the Pacific-Orinoquia connection remains at a standstill until the legal issues and the conflict with the communities are solved.
There are no deadlines, say Invias. “Setting a deadline would sound almost like an imposition from the national government. And we don’t want that. When we come to prior consultations there is always strong opposition from the communities, but we also find that they are very uninformed. We are sure that this will change if they let us show them that we are trying to defend their environment and their traditions,” says Guillermo Toro, from Invias.
But these words in no way convince the Nasa.
“the Las Tinajas and Las Hermosas moorlands are in danger and we demand that the world be aware of”Milton Conda
“This is a complex situation and we are very worried, very concerned. Here, defending the land and the environment is a condemnation, but the Las Tinajas and Las Hermosas moorlands are in danger and we demand that the world be aware of,” concludes Milton Conda. The Nasa are not willing to give up their struggle.