By: Laura Ardila Arrieta | LA SILLA VACÍA
Posted: April 23, 2019
Full of planning and construction problems, the hydroelectric dam that will become the largest power generator in the history of Colombia also buried the houses of the last Nutabe Indians, the children of the Cauca River.
Hidroituango, which will become the largest power generator in Colombia’s history, for now only occupies headlines as a result of its planning and construction problems, which have kept an area of influence inhabited by 167,000 people and where the country’s second-largest river is located concerned by a possible human and environmental tragedy.
Its troubles so far have cost the public company building the mega-hydroelectric plant around $66 billion pesos. They have sparked an inquiries by the Inspector General’s Office or Public Ministry, the Comptroller General’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office.
These episodes have all been in the news. As has the importance of opening a project that cost an estimated $14 billion pesos and that will produce 24 percent of Colombia’s current energy demand, a valuable asset in a country that suffered a massive national blackout in 1992 because of the El Niño’s effects.
Some other stories however have not garnered much attention, including the real amounts of money involved in the project or exactly which companies have benefited from it. Or the almost extinct indigenous community that was affected by the dam and which is now finally being able to exercise its right to a prior consultation.
In practice, this collective right of ethnic minorities to a free and informed consultation protected by the Constitution is supposed to happen before, rather than after a project is carried out. In this case, their ancestral territory had already been flooded already under 2,7 billion cubic meters of water.
The two groups involved represent the vast contrast of strength. The ant and the elephant. David and Goliath. On one side the companies at the helm of the major business contracts in Colombia’s industrial heartland of Antioquia and on the other hand, the few remaining Nutabe Indians, the children of the Cauca River.
A river they call “our blond father”.
Who would not want a father like that? A father likes that, to be called the blond father, the blond daddy. A father who gives everything. Blond for his milk chocolate color.
Every morning, the Cauca River travels from its headwaters in the heights of the Sotará páramo (moorland), between the departments of Cauca and Huila, navigating 1,076 kilometers between the Central and Western Andes mountains to the village of Orobajo, in the municipality of Sabanalarga (Antioquia) to provide a livelihood to its children and residents.
Gold and fish. Fish and gold. Fish at 4 in the morning, when men and women in groups of 10 or 15 arrive at the beach of the village with their hooks and nets. After 10 o’clock, when the most energized decide to continue in rafts – two logs tied with a line – heading for the neighboring village of Ituango.
There is always gold, even in the dry season, when the river flow diminishes. In fact, much more gold is found in those conditions because panning the sand to remove the precious metal becomes less complicated.
The blond father was the daily pantry of the Nutabe Indians since there has been a record of their existence: since the Spanish expeditions of the 1540s, which gave rise to the current territory of Antioquia.
The gatherers were always fishers and gold panners, which is what those who extract gold from rivers by hand are called, usually with circular wooden pans. Always next to their milk chocolate father.
With a semi-nomadic vocation, the Nutabes move throughout the area of the Cauca canyon, where the river descends about 800 meters and begins to meander between the mountains in Orobajo, the most isolated area of the area of Sabanalarga.
Before and after a day of going to the river, they drink a cup of coffee with their neighbors and ask: ‘How much gold did you gather today?’ ‘The prospecting was good.’ ‘Tomorrow we will go farther down.’
Depending on the needs, a trip is made by mule from time to time to Sabanalarga or Ituango to sell gold and purchase rice, potatoes, beans, milk, or oil.
Between eight and ten hours are spent on the way there and, depending on how heavy the load is, it may take longer to return to Orobajo.
Orobajo has three streets; houses built with bamboo timber, mud, and zinc roofs; a small rural school, a field on which they used to play five-on-five football; a cemetery; sewage pipe with untreated water running down from the mountain; and a community sugar cane mill to get panela (sugar gum).
Thirty-five families totaling 140 people lived there permanently.
Some families grew yucca or banana while others raised chickens and turkeys. They hunted lowland paca, coatis, and rabbits.
Before and after eating fish every day, they would lie in their hammocks. ‘What is that you’re saying?’ ‘You have returned my mule.’ ‘Let’s play a little game’ (of football, probably against some nearby village).
About once a week, they danced. With beer and chicha (a fermented drink made with corn), listening to vallenato, reggaeton, salsa, and Mexican rancheras.
However, the most important moments of life were, in order, fishing, gold panning, and resting.
All of this work was done in shorts, without shoes, and in the case of men, shirtless. The gust of wind that runs through the Cauca canyon is a permanent caress on the faces of the laborers.
– With this gust of wind…
comes a sigh.
– We did not need a bank account: our cashier was our father, who gave us money as we put our hand sinto the river. The river has always been everything to us.
Abelardo David Chanci, the elder guard of the Nutabe, sighs again and squints his eyes as he tells me this part of their story.
We crossed in a ferry, together with 27 other people over the Hidroituango reservoir, followed by a bus, a taxi, and motorcycles. The reservoir began to fill up on April 28, 2018 before the original date considered, after the first emergency was declared with the dam’s construction.
It was the day that the country’s mega-project, which had been constructed so far without much fanfare, began to have problems.
The leader of the project, public utilities company EPM (longer name Empresas Públicas de Medellín, for the capital of Antioquia and Colombia’s second largest city) refers to Hidroituango’s problems as “the contingency”.
They began like this: one of the auxiliary tunnels used to divert the Cauca River and allowing the dry work on the dam, suffered a blocking due to rock collapsing on several occasions over several days. This threatened an overflow of water and construction material over the reservoir wall, which had not been fully built yet.
That is, the risk was an apocalyptic avalanche.
Imagine people’s fear: 2,7 billion cubic meters of water from the reservoir covering 3,800 hectares and 70 kilometers long, spilling with the violence of its massive weight over an unfinished dam 225 meters high (29 meters more than Bogotá’s Colpatria Tower, for many years the tallest building in Colombia) and 20 million cubic meters in volume, heading towards the communities inhabiting the riverbanks in three different departments.
Imagine the fear for one consecutive month: that was the period of time during the peak of the emergency, in which bad news arrived almost every single day like domino pieces falling:
Two more collapses occurred in the same auxiliary tunnel, which ended up completely blocked.
EPM decided to flood the underground cavern (also called the machine room), which is the heart of the project, because that is where the turbines that generate the energy must operate, to avoid overflowing the reservoir.
After this, a sudden flood occurred downstream after the evacuation of machine room, leaving 600 persons affected.
The Governor of Antioquia declared an emergency.
An obstruction in the machine room temporarily prevented water to be evacuated.
The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management declared an evacuation alert in the departments of Antioquia, Sucre, Córdoba, and Bolívar, all affected by the Cauca river floods.
A new collapse, higher up the mountain, forced the road to close, and set off an alert of movement in the rock, that resulted in the evacuation of workers at the dam.
Nearly 24,000 people were placed in temporary shelters.
A citizen gave EPM a Virgin Mary statue to oversee construction works while the workers rush against the clock to finish against building the dam wall.
News after news, domino piece after dominion piece, April and May 2018 changed the history of the Hidroituango project.
On “Tranquility,” a ferry property of the project, 43-year-old Abelardo David Chanci, honey-hued eyes like the river and bronze skin, falls into a pensive state before he says: “They messed with nature, and today nature is challenging them.”
Now it is February 2019.
In order to avoid the possible collapse of the flooded machine room, EPM decided to close the last floodgate ahead of schedule and allow water to penetrate that cavern, which must now go to the reservoir and go through a spillway next to the dam that is already finished and then resume the journey of the river – as should have happened since the beginning.
The problem is that it is not raining enough yet. It will take three days for the water from the reservoir to reach the landfill. Consequently, the flow will decrease downstream until the Cauca River is temporarily converted into a little stream.
Indeed, in those three days, the Cauca River went from 650 to 40 cubic meters or less of water per second. According to EPM, which reported hiring 1,000 people to rescue fish, 85,248 fish still died after the river shrank in size. Brigitte Baptiste, ecologist and director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Biological Resources Research, wrote that the discussion on the impacts of this catastrophe “will require a serene work of years”.
Abelardo and I moved from a port called Brujas to another known as El Bombillo. 20 minutes of travel. Then we continued moving overland for another hour to Ituango, the municipality from which the power station got its name.
We arrived in Medellín and continued driving for five hours on the road towards the north of Antioquia to Puerto Brujas. In a few minutes we passed through one of the two camps where the construction workers live.
One is called Tacuí and the other Cuní, like the villages where they were built. One is home to 2,500 persons and the other to 4,000. They house employees from parent company EPM; Integral S.A., the company that made the designs; Ingetec, in charge of auditing; and CCC, the consortium that won the contract to do the main works. (The CCC consortium comprises Colombians companies Coninsa Ramón H and Conconcreto and Brazilian giant Camargo Correa, one of the multinationals investigated in the transnational corruption scandal known as Lava Jato, whose former directors admitted to having participated in bribery payments for public works in Brazil, although they have said “there is nothing” about Colombia.)
They all have offices and lodgings inside several blocks of white buildings. A permanent monitoring center, an auditorium, meeting rooms, restaurants, a library, a gym, and a swimming pool.
Abelardo knows the place, as do many of the people in the area who have worked or provided any service to Hidroituango.
Abelardo said that he worked with them many times using his seven-year-old motorboat, once traded with prospectors in exchange for gold he panned. It was called “The Favourite”. He used to transport engineers and other employees. And, when the contingency plan was unleashed, it served to rescue animals from the shores, such as dogs and snakes, at risk from the sudden floods.
In Orobajo, they also used it as an ambulance when someone with a severe illness showed up.
However, Abelardo was not born in Orobajo, as he clarified shortly before coming down from the ferry. He lived and raised a family in Orobajo, but was born on the beach of Iracal, a small beach on the Cauca river with his 11 siblings, and he sold fish since he was 15 years old between Ituango and Sabanalarga.
They called him “The Indian.” That is where the Indians came in with the fish. And also “Canyon-man”, like all those who live in the river canyon.
He no longer lives in the river canyon. After the reservoir submerged Orobajo, he moved with his wife and three children to Bello, a municipality in the metropolitan area of Medellín, five hours from his ‘blond daddy’ and in the middle of the city.
He does not sell fish anymore. He doesn’t fish now either. He now lives from unloading trucks with merchandise in Medellín. Or doing other things. In order to work, you must arrive to a downtown neighborhood, famous for its car parts repair businesses, to line up as transporters arrive and see if they hire you for the day.
The neighborhood is called Jesus’s Heart, but people call it Sad Neighborhood.
From a golden river to a Sad Neighborhood.
From eating fish like the common barbell, the bocachico or the sabaleta, whenever they wanted, to having to buy everything.
Shortly after getting off the ferry, Abelardo points to the shoreline. Its looks rusty, useless. It is parked on a piece of cracked ground that dried up with the reservoir: a road that looks like it is about to crack like a biscuit. It is The Favourite, his motorboat.
It does not have an engine anymore. It does not even serve as a canoe. The hull is broken.
– “Six months ago I had to leave it here. I have no money to get it fixed. I sold the engine.”
The Favourite could be the symbol of the drama of the Nutabe Indians, whose leaders are waiting for us in Ituango, where almost all of this small indigenous people now live, dispersed:
Broken, abandoned. Made for the river, but unable to sail in it.
Someone whose identity Abelardo says he does not know drew a graffiti in blue and black letters on one of the sides of his boat: “Dismantle Hidroituango now.”
The Nutabe did not exist. The canyon Indians, the Orobajo Indians. Here comes the Indian. This is how they were constantly spoken about on roads and streets, sidewalks and neighboring towns. However, they did not exist.
They knew they were Indians. They felt like Indians. They learned it from their elders. They believed in the phases of the moon. Their mothers ground the corn with the same stones and fed them the same herbs. They had a collective life. However, they did not exist.
They did not even exist when they were killed.
It was in 1998, on July 12th. That was the period – between the mid 90’s and 2000’s – when more massacres were committed in Colombia.
The paramilitaries, or head-cutters as they often called themselves because of their terrifying practices, had committed two of the most tragic massacres in the area in the immediately preceding years: those of La Granja (in 1996) and El Aro (in 1997), two townships in the neighboring municipality of Ituango.
In both cases, the so-called Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) accused the peasants of aiding the guerillas. The ACCU killed 22 persons and displaced 700 others.
These two massacres are relevant in the history of Colombia because the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Colombian State responsible for both of them. Because the country’s Supreme Court of Justice declared they were both crimes against humanity. Because through these rulings, Colombian courts have asked to investigate powerful former president Alvaro Uribe, who was at the time governor of Antioquia.
Horror stalked the region and all of Colombia. It arrived in Orobajo, wearing a paramilitary uniform in La Granja and El Aro, on a Sunday morning.
The sign that something would happen was highlighted by cows running away.
The group of uniformed and armed men burst into the village, also in Orobajo and in another neighboring village called La Aurora. They told people they belonged to the FARC, although they had bracelets from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the name used by the paramilitaries. They forced people into the little school. “For a meeting,” they said. As soon as people came in, they started shooting.
They killed five. Bernardito, Floro, Luis Angel. Sandra and Ricardo also died, but from drowning because in anguish they cast themselves into the river, which holds many of the dead of the Colombian war.
They killed Virgil Antonio Sucerquia, or chieftain Virgil, as they called him; the eldest who served as the respected authority of the Nutabe Indians, who did not exist.
They moved, as they had to do during the bipartisan conflict in Colombia in the middle of the 20th century, and dispersed, gradually returning after months but still in fear. All that, but they still did not exist.
On February 14, 2008, the Colombian Government –led b the head of the Indigenous Affairs Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior- certified for the Hidroituango project that there were no ethnic communities in the area of the hydroelectric dam.
The Blond father Cauca’s children were invisible.
The certification was crucial for determining whether or not prior consultation – the collective constitutional right that seeks to protect and ensure the rights of ethnic minorities – should take place before the first stone was to be laid.
Then, a citizen oversight committee of Sabanalarga where everyone had seen the Nutabe selling their fish and gold and walking their streets, wrote to the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs that same year in 2008.
In brief, the observers remembered the community, which also had some members living in the neighboring town of Peque, and requested the process of consultation for them.
Indigenous Affairs replied in 2011, three years later. They stated that the Nutabe Indians were not registered or identified among the country’s 86 indigenous peoples. The oversight committee had not sent “support for the existence of the Nutabe community,” as stated in an official document of the Directorate of Prior Consultation from the same ministry. And that was a necessary step to recognize them
However, by that time, Hidroituango was already on solid ground: the first physical works had begun, it had an environmental license, and EPM had just signed the contract by which it was in charge of building, operating, and maintaining the plant for 50 years, and then transferring it to the company that owned the project.
(The society is called Sociedad Hidroituango and belongs to the regional Institute for the Development of Antioquia and EPM, on almost equal shares. Its minority partners are the department of Antioquia, the state-owned National Energetic Financer, the Colombian state, the Caldas Hydroelectric Plant and other small shareholders).
Hidroituango had already worked on a partial census and characterization required by law of the populations affected by project, which EPM began in 2006.
Although this characterization had been adjusted over the years, depending on the designs and construction of the plant, official information from EPM states that from the beginning the Orobajo rural area was considered subject to compensation because the reservoir was going to flood it.
The Orobajo area, populated by the Indians of the Cauca canyon whom locals knew.
Due to the census, the Nutabe were aware from the outset that the arrival of progress in the form of a hydroelectric plant would somehow affect their ancestral territory.
It was not until 2014, however, that they began a process of organizing and asking how they could demand their rights. For the Nutabe did not even know they had rights.
That year an anthropologist named Jorge Eliécer David Higuita, linked to the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia (OIA) and with relatives in the community, began to help them in their process of self-recognition and registration as an official indigenous group at the Ministry of the Interior: the first step was to legally exist in order to continue living.
Jorge Eliécer unearthed several records at the University of Antioquia. The Ombudsman’s Office accompanied him.
At the suggestion of the anthropologist, the first step was to hold an assembly in the village, formally elect their indigenous authorities and register as an indigenous community (cabildo) in Sabanalarga town hall. They did so on December 7, 2014.
A month later, in January 2015, with this certificate in hand, they went to ask the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs of the Ministry for recognition and inclusion in the register of indigenous peoples of the country.
The procedure, they were told, would not be quick: it would require historical, legal, and anthropological studies that would take time in the case of a community that had hitherto remained in relative isolation and anonymity, and for whom there were no references in the institutional registers.
It would not be short, but they had begun.
EPM not only had the 2008 certification, but records over 14 years stating that there were no ethnic minorities in the area of influence of Hidroituango, issued by agencies such as the Ministry of the Interior, the Secretariat of Indigenous Affairs of Antioquia, and the former Institute of Rural Development (Incoder). They asked the Directorate of Prior Consultation of the Ministry for a new certification.
Is there any presence of ethnic communities near the Ituango Hydroelectric Project, located in the jurisdiction of the municipalities of Sabanalarga, Liborina, Buriticá, Olaya, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Peque, Yarumal, Valdivia, San Andrés de Cuerquia, Toledo, Briceño and Ituango, department of Antioquia?
The company also asked the Directorate of Prior Consultation about “the Nutabe of Orobajo who claim to be an indigenous group,” as stated in the official certification.
On May 14, 2015, the Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior replied and certified: there are none.
The procedure for the registration of Nutabe had not been completed and the Nutabe still did not exist.
However, the official document did detail that the recognition process was taking place in the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs.
That same year, 2015, in light of this new certification of the non-existence of the indigenous communities, EPM began a process of individual consultation with the 35 families, 140 people, of Orobajo, for their relocation outside the village with new homes and new livelihoods.
They left in different moments. The first in 2015. The last in 2017. Four families to urban properties in Sabanalarga and the remaining 31 distributed between eight villages and the town of Ituango.
EPM emphasizes it has all the documents, such as socialization records and assembly minutes, that support these agreements.
On March 17, 2017, the last Nutabe came out of its ancestral territory in Orobajo, as recounted by the community.
On May 19 of the same year, two months and two days later, resolution 0071 finally was issued by the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior, ordering the registration in the official registry of indigenous communities of the country of “the indigenous community of Orobajo of the Nutabe people,” whose families are scattered in the towns of Sabanalarga, Peque, and Ituango.
The decision is based on a 236-page study that Indigenous Affairs claims to have taken in response to the request of the citizen oversight committee of Sabanalarga, which since 2011 raised its hand to ask for recognition of the community.
It title is: “The indigenous community of Orobajo, of the Nutabe People, located in the rural area of the municipalities of Sabanalarga, Peque, and Ituango, department of Antioquia. History of their resistance process, from the conquest to our days”.
In short, it says that the Nutabe have all the characteristics required by law to be considered an indigenous community: an Amerindian ancestry, awareness of their identity, shared customs, and forms of organization of their own.
Beyond this, there is the detailed history of the Nutabe. It is the first written and official testimony of this native indigenous community and extended family united by bonds of compassion and neighborliness at the foot of the Cauca Canyon since pre-Hispanic times.
It tells how, after the arrival of the Spaniards, they formed part of the indigenous reservation of San Pedro de Sabanalarga, in what today is the municipality of the same name, and in the 17th and 18th centuries became one of the most important indigenous towns of Antioquia. Then in the late 19th century, when the Republic was already in place and the idea to dissolve existing indigenous reservations took shape, they disappeared from the map of the department and from the references of the new order that had just been born.
They resisted oblivion and violence by moving through the remotest parts of the canyon, always maintaining their closely knit community ties. Since the beginning of their existence, they have mined for gold in the Cauca, and the center of their territory has been Orobajo.
After the study was approved and the resolution was ratified, 57 families comprising 176 persons were recognized by the State as a Nutabe people.
The Nutabe, the last Nutabe, finally existed.
Elder guard Abelardo David Chanci looks as if he were going to stand up, clears his throat, and points with his right index finger towards the floor saying that:
– It was were that the village was located.
A cascade of murmurs is heard in the boat, which immediately stops and begins to sway in the breeze in the middle of the reservoir.
– No, we were further down; we could not see the ravine where the aqueduct came from.
– I thought it is a bit higher up, remembering that in Orobajo the Cauca River has a bend.
– I said that it was here because there we could see the road that comes from La Aurora and this one in front was the hill to go out to Peque.
His companions of the indigenous group did not agree very much with each other, so the captain of the boat, who is not Nutabe and was hired for this trip, restarted the engine and started to slowly drift away while his passengers decided.
It was a journey of nostalgia. What they were doing, consciously or not, was chasing memories. In this case, they were literally on top of their memories.
We came from Ituango, where Abelardo introduced me to the authorities of the community, including chief governor Eddy León Sucerquia Feria, son of the former chieftain Virgilio Sucerquia that the head-cutting paramilitaries snatched from this town 21 years ago.
“If Chief Virgilio were with us, everything would be different.” “All of this is happening because there is no chieftain Virgilio; he would have defended us.” “Chieftain Virgilio would have kept us together because he was the one who taught us that everything had to be shared.” They all remembered him right then and there.
Ten Nutabe Indians; Carlos, the photographer; Hernando, the cameraman; and I followed the trail of Orobajo drowned by Hidroituango on the medium sized boat. I try to concentrate only on the indigenous yearnings, but I cannot help but remember the millions of cubic meters of water on which we find ourselves. The closing of the machine room floodgate, the risk of collapse if that does not go well, the possible collapse, the potential apocalyptic avalanche.
– Look, look! It was here because this is where the school was. All of this was a dry plain. Oh, we should have come here to fish!
Edelider de Jesús Zapata Valle, the vice mayor of the town council, puts an end to the debate about the destination point and the boat stops again, this time on a small beachhead in the reservoir where you can walk a few meters before the beginning of the climb of the mountain.
We then got off. The Nutabe did not look nostalgic or sad. Or yes, they are sad people. However, they also smile with emotion. ‘My house was there’. ‘In front of that stone was the court’. ‘By this little path I went with my mules loaded with the groceries.’
And with the contrast of scenarios comes grief: they no longer live here, play here, or travel with their mules here. Omar de Jesús Sucerquia González, another elder guard, told me that there are nights when his wife still wakes up crying longing for her old home.
They do not even have the consolation of being united together in the same place, the lack of which is precisely what puts their culture most at risk and causes them to suffer. Due to the new projects they agreed to develop with EPM, most of them now plant coffee in different villages.
Eddy further details the Nutabe lament…
Not even the violence of the armed groups -among which not only have been the paramilitaries but also the former guerrillas of the FARC and other obscure characters linked to illegal mining on a large scale- had managed to take the Nutabe’s territory away, as the vice-governor Edelider says…
This coexistence is precisely one of the centers of their arguments in the previous consultation that, the Ministry of the Interior assures, advances between the Nutabe Indians and EPM, and could finally become official between the end of April and mid 2019.
The proper steps are that the company and the indigenous people sit down at a table with the guarantor from the government, determine the impacts caused on their community, and then agree on measures to correct them.
The Nutabe Indians’ prior consultation is not going to stop Hidroituango. With all its blunders, the power plant is already a reality in the Cauca Canyon and Colombia.
But it is evidence that the stones of David’s sling can reach Goliath, even if they do not always knock him down.
Specifically, their claim is to a collective territory that can become a legally protected reservation with the necessary community infrastructure and public services that they had. That is their main concern.
As long as it is on the banks of the Cauca River, next to the blond dad who gave them everything.
“If they want to take this river away from us, let them give us another one”, as Abelardo reaffirms.
For now, the Nutabe have no place to mourn their dead.
The remains of the cemetery are in the custody of the osteology laboratory of the University of Antioquia, which EPM contracted to carry out the exhumation and identification procedures (along with two other flooded cemeteries, one in Peque and another in Buriticá).
In its reports, EPM points out that it has always proceeded with the consent, knowledge, and participation of the community.
Nutabe elder guard Abelardo David Chanci disagrees. “Ah, that’s how they did everything, it sounds very concerted but here their workers came to tell us that it was our turn, that there was no other option, they told us “this dam will be here whether you sign or you don’t.” We wanted to leave with something, because we were going out as displaced people. We tried to negotiate. Someone told us “these are uppity, cheating persons.” An official in the Governor’s office once asked me why we appeared later. We didn’t ‘just appear’ out of nowhere! We have always been here!” he says.
His eyes sparkle with an ancestral glow. With a glow that has illuminated this canyon since times immemorial.