The 73 metre high, 1,300 metre wide, Urrá I hydroelectric dam was built by the Swedish multinational Skanska. The project was originally planned in the 1980s, but was held up for lack of finance. Under the impact of 1992 energy crisis the Colombian-Swedish consortium Urrá S.A. found new backers, Canada’s Export Development Corporation, Norway’s Nordisk Investment Bank as well as other international and local commercial banks. The World Bank underwrote the $700 million project. Work started in 1993.
The project was originally for two dams, Urrá I and Urrá II. Urrá I provides 340 megawatts of electricity, but at enormous environmental, social and human rights cost. It has been resisted by the 2,400 Embera Katio people, as well thousands of other families who lived by fishing in the lower waters of the Sinú river, which flows northwards from the Andes into the Caribbean.
In all it is estimated that the Sinú valley provided food for a quarter of a million poor people. The downstream fishing communities warned that building the dam would disrupt the ecology of the swamp wild life, where lack of irrigation is likely to turn the water salty. The bocachico and several other fish species used to follow a migratory life cycle, the females laying their eggs in the upper waters feeding into the Sinú river. This migration is now blocked off with unknown consequences for the species.
Upstream of the dam 7,400 hectares have been flooded, but ecologists believe that a total of 460,000 hectares of primary and secondary rain forests will be seriously affected. The scale of the potential deforestation has enormous significance for climate change. The project not only threatens the Embera habitat, it robs them of their protein food – fish, and breaks their main transport link – the river.
In 1996 the Embera Katio launched their resistance campaign, they occupied the Swedish embassy in Bogotá. The Swedes were anxious to come to an agreement with the Embera, but the Colombian government frustrated its implementation, "The precedent cannot be accepted, because it would affect all future business in the energy sector" it said. What of course the government meant, as Colombian writer José Tibabuyes has pointed out, is that any deal that legitimised social need as a valid factor might damage the whole privatisation programme.
Intellectuals who protested against the project, such as Alberto Alzate author of an independent study warning of the social consequences, were assassinated. Mario Calderon, the former parish priest of the area, became a researcher for CINEP, the respected Catholic human rights NGO. He too was murdered, with his wife and father in law in their family home on 9 May 1997, 33 days after having organised a forum denouncing Urra 1. Efraín Jaramillo the antropologist who worked with the indigenous people of the Sinú river had to go into exile in Germany, and Hector Mondragon adviser to the national indigenous movement, was likewise forced out of Colombia.
The spiritual leader of the Embera, Alonso Domicó Jarupia, was assassinated on 25 August 1998. More leaders were assassinated and the Kiparado, Wido and Pavarando communities were threatened. The Embera Katio had presented a title suit to the courts. They had a very strong case, under Colombia’s 1991 constitution the exploitation of natural resources in indigenous territory cannot go ahead if it prejudices the cultural, social and economic integrity of the indigenous people.
In 1998 the Constitutional Court found in their favour, but it was a weak interpretation that did not stop the dam construction. The court ruled that the actual flooding could not go ahead until the Urrá S.A. consortium reached agreement with the Embera Katio people on how to mitigate the effects of the dam and electricity plant on their lives. On 9th February 1999 the corporation finally called to negotiate what compensation it would give to the Embera of the Sinú and Verde rivers. While waiting to start the talks, the Emberas’ chief negotiator Lucindo Domicó Cabrera received eight shots to the head from two armed assailants. Yet another paramilitary assassination.
Eighty indigenous people from all over the country occupied the offices of the National Planning Department in Bogotá on 29th April 1999 to highlight Lucindo’s murder, and to protest against this form of ‘development’. They were brutally attacked and ejected by a special counter-insurgency police unit called GAULA.
The focus then switched to the unlikely location of Malmô, Sweden where Hector Mondragon led a protest at the annual meeting of Skanska. It was revealed that the multinational had made $100 million from the project in 1998 alone. Youth from Denmark came over for the demonstration and wide sections of Swedish society condemned the company’s avarice, but the project went on.
It was at this point, September 1999, that Urrá S.A. agreed a deal with just 5 of the 20 communities that make up the Embera Katio people. Sibylla Brodzinsky explains that "Urrá offered some 32,000 acres of land nearby to compensate for the flooded Embera territory, a monthly stipend of about $23 a month per person over the next 20 years and payment of $31,000 a year to the community as a whole for development projects over the next 50 years."
This settlement was an attempt to buy the Embera Katios’ future and culture for a fistful of dollars.
The pressure from the unofficial as well as the official wing of the power structure was really mounting. On 1st October the Autodefensas paramilitaries issued a public call to the government to press ahead and flood the reservoir. Their leader Carlos Castaño justified the assassination of any Embera Katio leaders who stood in the way. Before long, on 16th November 1999, Colombia’s Environment Minister Juan Mayr authorised the flood operation, which started two days later.
The majority of Embera were determined to fight on. Kimy led the 700 km march to Bogotá. 170 men, women and children occupied the front garden of the Environment Ministry demanding talks. They were to stay for four months. Despite threats, a group of fishermen and peasants from the lower basin joined them. The camp had a banner: "Indians are not blind and they do not oppose development but they oppose blind development." The government broke off negotiations, under the pretext that the Embera had knocked down a garden wall. Indeed the campers had done this, to stop the rain and hail coming into their tents. The Embera promised to rebuild the wall. They told the government, "We wish that you would take down the wall that has been built in our territory without even notifying us and obtaining our permission, as ordered by your own law and by the treaties signed by the international community."
The government finally agreed on 19th April 2000 to expand the Embera-Katio reservation, fund tribal initiatives for economic development, education and culture, and bar construction of a second hydroelectric project, Urrá II. The pact also included provisions to protect human rights in the area. Meanwhile, the people in the flood zone were beginning to experience serious health problems. By 23rd January 2000 Sixro Manuel Domicó Junes and seven months pregnant Luria Domicó had spent four days waiting in agony in hospital without receiving any medical treatment, in spite of being diagnosed with Dengue fever, a tropical disease which was hitherto unknown to the Embera people.