The corruption-ridden construction of Colombia’s largest hydroelectric dam is not just threatening to bankrupt Medellin; it has destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of locals.
Yeison Ladeu is from Puerto Valdivia, one of the towns affected by the disastrous construction of the Ituango hidroelectric dam.
With tears in his eyes, the 33-year-old looks weary and nostalgic at the Cauca river that for generations provided for his family. He was staring at his childhood home across the river.
Just a few weeks prior he had learned that his family was going to have to vacate their home permanently after a catastrophic flood caused by the mismanagement of the project destroyed much of his community.
Floods were nothing new in Puerto Valdivia, a small riverside town five hours north of Medellin, the capital of the Antioquia province.
Beside the second largest river in Colombia and what is widely considered its strongest, it was not uncommon for people who lived adjacent to the river to have water seep into their homes during rainy season. And it was along the riverbanks were locals had learned to tame the river and extract wealth from it in the form of gold, fish, and even plaster.
But the water that burst into Puerto Valdivia on the evening of March 12th, 2018 was untamable. It came from 38 kilometers upstream after a technical failure caused water to burst through the construction site of what is scheduled to be Colombia’s largest hydroelectric dam—the Hidroituango Dam.
“Many members of this community are used to displacement as victims of the armed conflict,” Yeison said as he stared at what remained of Puerto Valdivia. “But nothing has caused as big, and as permanent of a displacement as Hidroituango.”
Nestled 110 km north of Medellin, in the middle of the Andes Mountains, the 5 billion dollar Hidroituango Dam set to supply 17% of Colombia’s total energy supply was built with great expectations and even greater ambitions.
Conceptualized in 1969, the dam was promoted as both an engineering and political feat for Antioquia, one of Colombia’s wealthiest, but also most war-torn regions.
With the government of Antioquia and Medellin public utilities company EPM as its primary shareholders, Hidroituango was more than an energy project, it was a source of pride and achievement for the regional elite.
The region surrounding the Hidroituango dam has been traditionally violent as different sets of left wing guerrilla and right wing paramilitary groups, and their offspring have fought to control towns and the lucrative cocaine trade that sustained them.
The dam’s reservoir itself is thought to cover dozens of mass graves. More than 60 massacres that left more than 370 victims have been registered in the 11 municipalities directly affected by Hidroituango’s construction.
Experts estimate that there were 3,500 murders, 600 forced disappearances, and 110,000 displacements in the region between 1990 and 2016. But Hidroituango was marketed as a step forward from that violence—a development project that was supposed to bring peace and prosperity to a region that has never known it.
But since construction began in 2010 with the blessing of former President Alvaro Uribe, the project built by EPM has been dogged by technical failures and delays that have caused immeasurable environment damage, forced displacements, and endangerment of the region’s finances that have only added strength to the calls to halt and even dismantle the project by prominent activist groups like Rios Vivos.
The evacuation of 2500 families from Puerto Valdivia and the destruction of 59 homes, two schools, a health care center, and the town’s landmark—the Simon Bolivar Bridge—the first bridge to connect Medellin with the Atlantic Coast, by floodwaters in Puerto Valdivia were simply a taste of what could happen if the entire project were to collapse putting the lives of over 120,000 in the Cauca River Basin at risk.
But in Puerto Valdivia the damage was done.
Four hundred families, like Yeison’s, are never going to be able to return to their homes. Because they live in the flood zone, EPM placed stickers with the words “No Return” on the front doors of their homes—if they still existed.
Some 1,700 of the 2500 families evacuated from the port town in May were able to return in November, only to find they lost half their town.
The town’s main square, where the church still stands, can no longer be used. The homes that surround the house of prayer are scheduled for demolition. The church will be left standing—but only as a monument. A major point of reunion and community—gone—washed away by the flood six months earlier.
Around the church and in Remolino, a neighborhood that used to be connected to the town square via the Simon Bolivar Bridge, there were no people in site, only their wet and scattered belongings still on the street six months after the disaster. The town was largely vacant, but occasionally community members emptying their homes would express their dismay and anger at what had happened to them.
“Look at what happened to this community!” a woman yelled in frustration as she was carrying boxes out of her house after a No Retorno sticker was placed on the front door. “We used to live here happily! We were so happy! Now look at how sad this town is! Look at what EPM did!”
Businesses are selling a fraction of what they used to, cantinas for coca farmers visiting the town on weekends have closed, and entire blocks are empty. The taxi drivers and store owners who were able to survive in Puerto Valdivia, are making a fraction of what they once made. There is no one to drive or to sell to. Puerto Valdivia is by all definitions a ghost town.
Since the flood, Puerto Valdivia looks more like a collection of abandoned buildings amidst abundant green vegetation and colorful fruit trees than a collection of lives lived. The dam had shoved the sounds of boom boxes blasting tropicales and vallenatos and the sound of mototaxis honking at familiar faces to history. What is left is desertion.
Despite EPM giving the majority of the community authorization to return, few wanted to. The fear of another flood was too great. But Yeison returned, and he returned willingly, out of loyalty and devotion to a community he had spent years fighting for as a member of its Community Action Board and as the administrator of the Community Aqueduct.
Loss of tradition
“I was raised next to this river. I was practically born in it. I was happy living here. I was comfortable living here,” Yeison explained as he pointed at the homes and buildings the flash flood destroyed six months earlier from a beach adjacent to the river where his family has gathered plaster created by the Cauca River for commercial sale for over a generation.
Yeison’s father, Gilberto Ladeu, 58, was a proud native of Puerto Valdivia who had been able to build a future not just for himself, but also for his community. Ladeu was known throughout Puerto Valdivia for his famous barbecues and for hosting its annual water and fish festivals on his property.
But in 2018 there were no water or fish festivals. Ladeu is unsure if they will ever happen again, and worse if he will ever be able to live beside his beloved river. “That dam ruined my life. I am very hurt by this. Never in my life did I ever imagine something like this,” Ladeu said, as his eyes welled up with tears.
Ladeu reminisced of different times. Of when he used to go out fishing with his son, and catch over 2,000 fish in a day, and in doing so provide a stable life for his family and save enough to start his plaster business. He recalled with pride the time “when you could grab fish with your hands from the river” and when there was enough fish to ship to Medellin, Cali, and the neighboring Uraba region. But those days, and the stability the river once gave are over.
The river is now the object of Puerto Valdivia’s instability.
Because of the dam’s construction there is less oxygen in the water and the fish are dying. According to Yeison those that have survived are smaller and thinner. Making a living from fishing is more precarious than ever, and as a result Puerto Valdivia has lost a critical part of its heritage. With no fish to fish and people to live in the community, Puerto Valdivia risks disappearance–and with it centuries of tradition.
The threat continues
“People used to marvel at the color and joy that thrived in this community. But now what we see is psychological damage,” Yeison lamented. “Those who have returned to Puerto Valdivia live with a daily fear. A huge segment of the population is missing or diminished because of fears of new flooding due to an avalanche or technical failure at the dam.”
And that’s because Puerto Valdivia and its surrounding communities remain on red-alert.
EPM has not been able to guarantee that another flash flood will never happen again. Such fears became yet another tangible reality in February when the Cauca River dried up and killed some 65,000 endemic fish, because EPM made an emergency decision to close the engine room tunnel before the filling of the dam’s reservoir to prevent the collapse of the entire dam.
“But rather than protect the residents of Puerto Valdivia, EPM chose to cut costs,” Leo Rodriguez, 38, who spent several months living in an EPM-funded shelter and who has worked at the dam site, said.
Housing community members was expensive. It cost a minimum of 900,000 pesos per person a month. Rather than pay the living costs of those evacuated from Puerto Valdivia, EPM decided to send people home and give family units directly affected by the emergency a monthly allowance of $350 (1,100,000 pesos) a month. This decision cut expenses and helped struggling business owners gain some of their clientele back, but at great risk.
Neither EPM nor the municipality has provided community members with the capital necessary to start a life elsewhere, and without the certainty of being able to find a home and a job someplace else, residents like Leo whose homes are not in the flood zone but are in emergency zone have returned to Puerto Valdivia, hoping and praying that the dam upstream does not collapse.
“If I had studies and a guaranteed job, trust me that I would not be living here,” Leo stressed his voice quivering with fear.
I would be somewhere else earning money, calmly. But I have nowhere else to go. I came to Puerto Valdivia from the mountains in search of a better life for me and for my family. But now we find ourselves living beneath a ticking time bomb. I’m not telling you that dam is going to collapse tomorrow or within weeks, but once it happens this town and the entire Cauca River Basin disappears.
Local resident Leo Rodriguez
There are some, like Yeison, who see a future in Puerto Valdivia and who continue to fight for the community’s survival, but with little trust and few options.
“What happens to the dreams of all of the people who dream of seeing this community grow and prosper?” he said. How am I supposed to motivate the people who trusted in me as a leader? I don’t want to leave this community. I don’t want to stop working for this community, but what future is there here?”
Today Yeision leads a board of business owners in the commercial, carwash, construction, and transport sectors from Puerto Valdivia in advocating for “full and comprehensive reparations” for the entire community and not just for those who lost their homes on May 12th. He has yet to be granted a meeting with EPM officials. Still he refuses to quit.
“Before this disaster we were used to living dignified lives,” Yeison exclaimed. “We never asked for anything from anyone. We have always been autonomous. If you come to Puerto Valdivia you won’t see beggars. What you will find are people ready and willing to work. We want our dignity back.”
Despite his enthusiasm and pride for his community, Yeison wonders if he will be able to stay in Puerto Valdivia.
Since the construction of the dam began, Yeison has seen his family’s business of extracting plaster from the river severely weakened.
“The water that flows from the river is too clean these days,” he explained. “The cleanliness of the water doesn’t allow for sand to deposit on the banks so we can gather it and use it for plaster. Instead, that material stays up at the dam site, and there is hardly any left for us to extract. We used to have 30 people who worked for us, now we have fewer than 10.”
But the lack of employment opportunities does not solely apply to those who gather plaster, but to all of those who made a living on the banks of the Cauca River. No one understands the loss of employment as a result of the construct of the Hidroituango Dam better than Leo Rodriguez who had to give up self-employment on the river for employment at the dam site—the very thing that destroyed his livelihood.
“Before the dam I was an artisanal gold miner and fisherman,” he recounted. “Now I don’t mine and I don’t fish. EPM has prohibited it. Imagine if I was fishing or mining in an area where there is no cell service and the dam were to collapse—I would die. And EPM has not been able to guarantee our safety. What guarantee can there be? The only guarantee that we have is that we will be evacuated again. But I will say this, we were pulled from that river like dogs.”
But the growing lack of opportunities and the exodus of people from Puerto Valdivia has not only increased economic concerns it has also caused greater security concerns.
However, what made Puerto Valdivia famous has also been its curse. Although settled in the 1700s by fisherman and artisanal miners, Puerto Valdivia gained prominence in the 1930s when the Simon Bolivar Bridge—the first bridge to connect Medellin with the Atlantic Coast—was built. And it’s that strategic location on the Cauca River and close to some of the most important coca fields in Colombia that has long made Puerto Valdivia into coveted territory for drug trafficking groups.
Controlling Puerto Valdivia meant controlling not just an important supply of cocaine, but it also meant controlling one of the principal routes to the Atlantic Coast from where cocaine is shipped to Mexico and to its ultimate destination—the United States.
The Simon Bolivar Bridge, the town’s historic landmark was a casualty of the floods on May 12, as the overflowing river caused the bridge to collapse into the river. By the time of its collapse, the bridge was more of a relic of the past used to carry goods on a mule from one side of town to the other as it was replaced by the larger, taller Jose Maria Cordova Bridge. But the Simon Bolivar Bridge did serve one major purpose—it was a boundary.
For over two decades, armed groups have fought and continue to fight for control of the town with each group controlling distinct neighborhoods demarked by the bridge. ELN controls one side of the bridge, former members of the 36th Front of FARC another, and so do the paramilitaries. But living in such close quarters means that skirmishes are all too common. That is how it has always been and how it is.
In Puerto Valdivia police are just men in uniforms with no real authority. The real authorities are the armed groups, especially the right wing paramilitaries who control the town’s commercial center. They do more than traffic drugs, they act as a state. They charge taxes and provide security and perhaps, most importantly they issue punishments.
“Police officers are forced to restrain themselves as they have an upper body that governs them—the law,” Yeison explained. “Policeman can lose their positions if they were to make a mistake in pursuing another person. Armed groups don’t face the same risks. You can’t punish them. They call themselves bandits, and bandits don’t care if you have a family or if they made a mistake.”
Punishments in Puerto Valdivia are issued to people they deem public nuisances like thieves, rapists, and drug addicts or to farmers who dare sell cocaine to rival armed groups, but also to human rights activists and community leaders. And in Puerto Valdivia, like in many forgotten communities in Colombia, the punishment of choice is murder.
It was for that reason that when I asked Yeison if he was a community leader, he denied it. He said, “Many of my family and friends have told me to be careful with this community leader thing. I am not a leader. I don’t characterize myself as one. But I will say that a lot of community leaders in Colombia have been killed in Colombia.”
Yeison is a leader, but his reluctance to call himself one stems from the fact that since the government signed its peace accords with FARC, at least 340 social leaders have been assassinated by what experts report to be largely right-wing paramilitary groups and hired gunmen. A record.
The peace accords although a feat of negotiation and the subject of much press coverage, have barely been felt in cocaine dependent communities like Puerto Valdivia and above and beneath Hidroituango. The adverse economic conditions and weak property rights that force farmers to turn to illicit crops combined with the absence of the rule of law that allows armed groups to proliferate and profit endure and they successfully keep Puerto Valdivia as a center of conflict.
Death in Puerto Valdivia is as much a part of daily life as the Cauca River itself–with the river often acting as a graveyard for those caught in the middle of the territorial and often personal conflicts waged by local armed groups. In Puerto Valdivia, as in many of the communities affected by Hidroituango, the precariousness of life is the only law.
At 38 years old, Leo Rodriguez has seen his fair share of violence. A survivor of a massacre in the neighboring community of El Aro in 1997—that left 15 tenant farmers dead and over a thousand people displaced—as well as a victim of torture at the hands of a paramilitary group as a result of a mistaken identity, Leo has lived an existence among loss.
“I am alive today because I know how to live,” he told me. “I see, but I do not speak”