Guardians of South American Rainforest Charge Canada with Destroying It

February 1, 2000

In the last remaining tropical rainforest of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the Embera Katio indigenous people are fighting for their survival and for compensation for the destruction of their rainforest. The Urrá dam, built in part with financing from Canada’s Export Development Corporation, is the cause of their woes.

Embera Katio leader Kimy Pernia Domico in Toronto, November 1999.

So desperate are they, that Kimy Pernia Domico, one of the Embera Katio leaders, trav-elled to Canada last November to plead for help from the Parlia-mentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

“Our river, its tributaries, marshes and wetlands were incredibly rich in biodiversity, with many, many species of fish and animals. . . . The sur-vival of my people is depen-dent on the rivers. But our survival is now in great danger.

“In 1995,” he continued, the Urrá dam “blocked and diverted the course of the Sinú River. Nothing has been the same since then. The dam has brought death to our people: death to the fish, death to members of our community who have seen their source of protein vanish, and death to our leaders who have protested or challenged the dam.”

“The impact on my people is very, very sad,” Mr. Domico told the Parliamentary Committee. “It is common in my community these days to see people fainting because with the fish gone, they are weakened by malnutrition. That leaves people vulnerable to diseases that never used to affect us. The worst is that many children have died as a re-sult. And there is another problem. The dam has created standing water, which has brought mosquitoes, and along with them malaria.”

Mr. Domico’s presentation was all the more extraordinary because he risked death by giving it. “Let me be clear,” he said to the Canadian Parliamentarians, “saying these things to you today puts my life in danger.”

According to Survival International, four Embera leaders have been killed by paramilitary forces who were brought in by local landowners – with the tacit support of provincial authorities and the army – who stand to gain financially from the dam. Gunmen have set fire to Embera boats to prevent them from going to meetings. Checkpoints have been set up along the rivers and indigenous people detained in their own lands. Anyone who dares to speak against Urrá is accused of being involved with the guerillas and becomes a military target. “You can understand,” Mr. Domico implored our members of Parliament, “that my people live in great fear both of imminent attack, as well as what the future holds for us without land or fish.”

The Embera Katio have used all the legal and peaceful tools avail-able to them to defend themselves. They won an injunction before the Constitutional Court of Colombia for a temporary halt to the project until proper consultation had taken place and an agreement for compensation reached. This prevented the state-owned hydro company from filling the reservoir. But the latest information from the area indicates that the Ministry of the Environment and the hydro company ignored this injunction and began filling the reservoir before Christmas. According to the last report, 120 Embera Katio people had occupied a portion of their lands that will be inundated and are planning to remain there to face the rising waters until their demands are met.

Representatives at an Embera Katio community assembly wait for a communal meal.

“We are not going to leave our land. . . . Urrá [dam] officials do not have the authority to use our lands or flood them. These are lands you cannot sell or lease. Our bones are buried there,” said an Embera Katio written statement.

To help finance this US$780-million project, EDC provided a US$18.2-million loan to support the sale of construction equip- ment and materials and of personnel and procurement services by a Canadian company – The Foundation Company Inc., which is a subsidiary of the Ontario-based Banister Foundation Inc.

What You Can Do . . .

Please support the Embera Katio by writing to the prime minister of Canada and to your member of Parliament c/o House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A6. Tell them that the EDC bears responsibility for this travesty and that the Canadian government should:

1) ensure that the Embera Katio are adequately compensated for the damage caused to their lands and fishing grounds, including the provision of new arable land and aquaculture facilities to guarantee food security;

2) guarantee the safety of the Embera communities by investigating and bringing to justice those responsible for killing Embera leaders, and disarming paramilitary groups that are terrorizing the region; and

3) state publicly that no Canadian tax dollars will support the next, and also devastating, Urrá II dam project or any other project in Colombia that violates the rights of its indigenous peoples.

Remember, when you address a letter to a member of Parliament you don’t need to put a stamp on your envelope!

News Briefs

Burma – Burma’s military junta has forced hundreds of thousands of people off their land to make way for the first in a series of massive hydrodams planned for the Salween river near the Thai-Burma border. Hydro developers in Thailand, Germany, and Japan are designing the 3300-MW dam with the hope of financing from the Asian Development Bank. Tasang, as the dam is known, would export electricity to Thailand. If built, the US$3-billion dam would flood more than 640-square kilometres of central Shan state, where the Burmese army has already forcibly moved at least 300,000 Shan villagers, many of whom now languish in makeshift camps along the Thai border. Citizens groups have urged the Asian Development Bank not to consider financing any Salween dams, at least until democracy is restored in Burma and all people’s rights are respected.

Chile – Endesa, Chile’s largest private electric utility, is moving ahead with the largest in a series of six dams planned for the upper Biobío river, despite legal challenges from both the government and citizens groups. If completed, the 155-metre high Ralco dam would displace almost 700 people, including 400 Pehuenche Indians, and would flood 3,400 hectares of ancestral land, drown native cypress and pine forests, and threaten the survival of the Andean fox, puma, southern sea otter, and the Andean condor. Of the total 91 families whose lands are needed for the project, eight families have refused to sign away their lands, saying that most families were pressured and tricked into signing Endesa’s resettlement deal, and that lands offered as compensation are less valuable than their traditional land. Meanwhile, the courts are still deliberating whether construction of the Ralco dam is legal: Under Chile’s 1993 indigenous law, the Pehuenche have autonomy over their lands, and are not legally obliged to leave or accept relocation packages offered by Endesa. Conversely, Chile’s electricity law, passed during Augusto Pinochet’s rule, gives electricity developers the power to expropriate land if the state deems the project in the national interest. Endesa borrowed $150 million from the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation, to build the first Biobío dam, known as Pangue. The public outcry over Endesa’s violation of indigenous people’s rights at Pangue prompted World Bank President James Wolfensohn to insist that the IFC not get involved in Ralco.

Brazil – At a packed hearing in Sao Paulo last August, before the World Commission on Dams, Brazil’s national movement of dam-affected people (MAB), whose slogan is Terra Sim, Barragens Nao! (Land Yes, Dams No!), called for a moratorium on new hydro dams until the grievances of 30,000 families, who have lost their livelihoods to dams, some more than a decade ago, are settled. “The errors of the past must be acknowledged,” the MAB stated. “It is ethically unacceptable, socially unjust, and economically irrational to begin new large dam projects before the social and environmental problems of earlier dams are thoroughly evaluated and resolved.” MAB is calling for reparations from national governments and international dam financiers, such as the World Bank.

Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption, and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy
by Patricia Adams

In this compelling account of the Third World’s debt catastrophe, Patricia Adams offers a way of both resolving the debt crisis justly and furthering democracy and accountability in the Third World. Invoking the doctrine of odious debts, which stipulates that debts contracted by a despotic regime are not an obligation for the nation but fall with the fall of that regime, Adams analyzes the parts played by the different participants. Among the lenders are the World Bank, the IMF, export credit agencies, and the commercial banks, and among the borrowers are not only governments and state enterprises, but also the military and above all greedy and despotic leaders. The story is one of recklessness and corruption.

Published in 1991
Softcover $15.95 (plus 7%GST and $3.00 postage and handling)
Hardcover $24.95 (plus 7%GST and $3.00 postage and handling)

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