Flood of Protests Blocks Colombia Dam Project

Indians score a victory to save tribal lands

In a showdown that pitted eco-power against electric power, a tribe of Indians has won a partial victory against the construction of river dams designed to help meet Colombia's energy needs in the 21st century.

The protest against the so-called Urra dams began two years ago when about 500 members of the Embera tribe made a 350-mile voyage down the Sinu River to the Caribbean coast.

"Generations of my family have made this journey to trade rain-forest products ... in Cartagena. I feel shame and sadness that I will not be able to continue our tradition," said Luis Pernia Domico, who traveled with his 17 children.

The trip, symbolizing "last respects" for rain forests that would be lost, helped pressure the newly empowered environment ministry to cancel the core part of the project in May.

"This is the first time in Colombia, and possibly the developing world, that authorities have favored local diversity and tradition over international industrial development," says Paul Sanchez of the pressure group Bacata.

The project was launched in 1992, when the company Multiproposito Urra SA was formed to coordinate the construction of two dams at the head of the Sinu River. The $650-million project, licensed by the Colombian Institute of Natural Resources under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, is managed by Swedish multinational Skanska. Funding was provided by international development loans from Canada and Europe.

The dams would have flooded about 175,000 acres of rain forest, displaced 6,000 Indians, and radically disrupted the ecosystem of vast areas of tropical swamplands along 300 miles of the Sinu's course.

"There was little or no study of environmental impact," says Francisco Birry of the Organization of Indigenous Cultures.

While the construction of Phase 1 continues as scheduled, the Embera's farewell flotilla proved a resounding publicity coup. Considerable pressure was brought to defend the Indians, and the kidnapping of two Swedish engineers in December 1994 by FARC guerrillas brought the project to world attention.

In May, then-Environment Minister Jose Vincente Mogollon Velez announced that Phase 2 was to be abandoned. The ministry also proposed new environmental restrictions on Phase 1, due for completion in 1999.

"Urra 2 will never be built," says Luis Macias of the ministry. "Urra 1 will be allowed to reach completion, but only if the consortium complies with our conservation demands."

The full extent of these demands is still under negotiation, but measures are said to include a scaling down of the project to lessen the impact on sensitive ecosystems below the dam and on Indian villages above it. In addition, Multiproposito must fund social programs in Monteria and Tierralta, where tight-knit communities have been shattered by a huge influx of workers seeking their fortunes.

One plan already in place is for the ongoing management of fish stocks. All new measures will have to receive a final seal of approval at public meetings - a move designed to make Multiproposito accountable to the people whose lives it is affecting.

Hard-line opponents insist that nothing short of suspending the whole project will save the area's unique biodiversity.

The Embera, meanwhile, are cautiously optimistic. "It is clear that we will have to adapt," Mr. Domico says. "But if the authorities and the consortium keep to their word, at least we will be able to continue living more or less as our ancestors have done for centuries. It is only right that we should have that choice."

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