Human rights defender warns of risks related to Colombian hydropower plant

ARTICLE | 19 March 2018

Swedish companies Atlas Copco and Scania are suppliers to the construction of Colombia’s biggest hydroelectric power plant, Hidroituango. Since the project started, the local movement Rios Vivos has reported on severe human rights impacts linked to the construction of the plant.

In early March, Isabel Zuleta, local leader of Ríos Vivos, visited Sweden to inform companies, politicians and NGO’s of new risks related to the project. Ríos Vivos organizes people that are adversely affected the power plant and has, since construction began in 2009, reported on related human rights abuses. These include forced evictions and lack of compensation to artisanal miners, living and working on the shores of the Cauca river where the project is located.

Issues raised were also at the centre of the 2014 Swedwatch report Drowned rights, floating responsibilities which investigated the role and responsibility of Scania and Atlas Copco. Both continue to deliver materials and services to the project through the CCC Ituango consortium. Since 2016, Swedish company ABB is also providing equipment to the project.  CCC Ituango is responsible for the actual construction of the plant which is jointly owned by state-owned company EPM and the local Government of Antioquia. According to Zuleta, neither EPM nor the consortium CCC Ituango have been willing to engage in dialogue with Ríos Vivos around issues raised.

Increased risks following the peace agreement
Since the peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerilla was signed in November 2016, threats and attacks against human rights defenders have increased in the country. In 2017 alone, over 100 human rights defenders were killed. According to Zuleta, the region of Antioquia where the power plant is constructed is no exception to this development; in recent years, the Ríos Vivos movement has experienced an increase in threats by paramilitary groups, which have gained increased control in the area after the withdrawal of the FARC guerilla. For security reasons, Ríos Vivos is since 2015 accompanied by the Swedish peace organization Swefor.

“Our security situation is worse than ever. The protection program that we were promised by the Colombian state has not been implemented”, Isabel Zuleta said in a meeting with Swedwatch.

During her visit, Isabel Zuleta met with Swedish parlamentarians, asking them to sign a letter to the Colombian government demanding protection for the members of Ríos Vivos.

According to Zuleta, paramilitary groups have also stopped construction work at Hidroituango on several occasions by hindering workers from entering the site. This is likely a form of extortion to force CCC Ituango and EPM to pay the illegal groups to get permission to continue, she said.

“The companies need to understand the risks that they are facing when they participate in these projects. In many parts of Colombia, the armed conflict is still a reality. The guerilla is gone but there are more paramilitaries and in many ways the conflict continues.”

Dam flooding an obstacle to justice for victims of the internal conflict
A main part of the Hidroituango project is the building of a dam in the Cauca river, which is to be filled with water in June this year. According to Zuleta the dam will flood an area of 17 km which will induce severe consequences for artisanal miners earning their incomes from gold panning in the river.

The expected flooding is also causing problems related to the past Colombian internal conflict. Antioquia is known to have been one of the most violent areas in the country during the conflict, and a place where several massacres took place. Victims were thrown in the Cauca river, and the search for them is still ongoing*. According to Zuleta, 159 bodies have been found so far, but many more are expected to be in the Hidroituango project area. When the dam is filled, flooding will render searches impossible and redress will be lost. This is in stark contrast to promises made in the peace agreement, where securing justice for victims was a critical component for recovery.

“There cannot be any peace without finding the victims of the conflict that are still missing. We want the bodies to be found before they fill the dam, otherwise the implementation of the peace agreement is at stake”, Isabel Zuleta said.

Colombia is one of the prioritized countries in Sweden’s export strategy. Since 2015, Scania and Atlas Copco together with several other Swedish companies, are committed to working actively on human rights issues, environmental issues and anticorruption in the country, in a joint initiative with the Swedish Embassy. During Isabel Zuleta’s visit in Stockholm Swedwatch organized a meeting with Scania and Atlas Copco in which Zuleta informed the companies of the problematic situation.

Scania and Atlas Copco declined to comment on the issues brought up in this article. According to the Colombian company EPM, the project is conducted with full respect for human rights and in line with national and international standards. It’s responses regarding issues reported by Ríos Vivos can be found here.

Swedwatch will follow up with Scania and Atlas Copco shortly to see how the risks and impacts brought up by Ríos Vivos are being addressed.

*The Swedish government is part in financing the work to find and identify the 45 000 people that are still missing.