The Urrá hydroelectric project: Embera-Katío leader assassinated, mass asylum sought in Spain, protests in Sweden

The costs of the Urrá dam project in northern Colombia, in human lives and ecological damage, have continued to mount. On April 24, Lucindo Domicó, Secretary of the Embera Katío indigenous government for the Resguardo del Alto Sinú, in Tierralta, Córdoba, was assassinated. At the time, he was in a rented room, where he was staying while negotiating compensation for the indigenous communities with the government and the company building the dam.

Construction on the dam, begun in 1993, has been completed, but last year the indigenous communities along with 10,000 non-indigenous fishermen, won a special constitutional action against the company, in which the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Interior were to consult with the communities prior to filling the reservoir.

The construction has already devastated the river's fish population--one of the Indians' main sources of food--and if the reservoir is filled much of their land would be flooded and their livelihood destroyed. The company behind the project is the state-owned Urrá S.A., who contracted the Swedish company Skanska and the Russian firm Energomachiexport to build the dam. Although Urrá S.A. had agreed on compensation with the Embera, the company subsequently reneged on the arrangement. The Embera therefore went to court to try to halt the project, and succeeded in getting an injunction, preventing the filling of the dam. Alarmed, local landowners (who stand to gain financially from the dam) brought in a paramilitary group with the tacit support of the provincial authorities and the army. Three Embera have since been murdered, and others have been kidnapped and had their houses and canoes burned.

On April 29, facing the continued violence against their leaders, 2,500 members of the community requested political asylum in Spain. The asylum request, thought to be the first of its kind, was explained by Embera-Katío spokesman Gilberto Achito: "There are no guarantees for the people to continue living in their territory, because their lives are in danger there." Noting that threats had come from both guerrillas and paramilitary forces, Achito explained: "They want to humiliate and dislodge the indigenous people; our leaders are being killed because they're fighting for life." "It's a community-style request," he added, "because we can only go collectively, not as individuals. That's our people's custom."

Days later, on May 3, protesters at the annual shareholders' meeting of Skanska, the Swedish firm that built the dam, in Malmo, Sweden, called for compensation. Sten Lundstrom, of the Party of the Left, said that Skanska has to compensate the persons affected by the dam construction and follow through on its obligations. The protestors noted that the company obtained 743 million crowns, equivalent to US$ 100 million, in 1998, a 10% increase over 1997.


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