Embera Katío Leader Before Canadian Parliament

The following is from the submission of Embera Katío leader Kimy Pernia Domico to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade of the Canadian Parliament. He appeared before the Committee on November 16, 1999, in Ottawa. Mr. Pernia Domico travelled to Canada with the support of the Toronto-based Inter-Church Committee for Human Rights in Latin America.


My name is Kimy Pernia Domico and I am a member of the Embera Katío indigenous people. I am here today as a witness and as a victim of a megaproject that is having a disastrous impact on my community. This megaproject has received loans from the Export Development Corporation for (US) $18.2 million for the sale of construction equipment and services by an unnamed Canadian corporation.

My people live on the Upper Sinú river in the northern Colombian province of Córdoba. Until very recently, our river, its tributaries, marshes and wetlands were incredibly rich in biodiversity, with many, many species of fish and animals. We are guardians of the last remaining tropical rainforest of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. And like the land we live on, the Embera culture is also rich and deeply rooted in our respect for mother earth and her veins, the rivers --the source of food and life.

According to our beliefs, water and fish are a common good, to be shared equally among all people. We believe our creator has entrusted us with the responsibility to conserve those resources for present and future generations, for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike.

The survival of my people is dependent on the rivers. But our survival is now in great danger. The diet of the Embera Katío people has always consisted of protein from the many species of fish in the river. This is supplemented by rice, cassava and plantains, which we cultivate on our land. At least, that was until four years ago.

In 1995, a dam built by the Urrá Company 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 Urrá I Dam, which cuts across the Sinú River like a big wall, has blocked the migration of fish up the river to their spawning grounds. Today, fish like the bocachico, yulupa, charua, barbule and other species are practically extinct. The impact on my people is very, very sad. 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 result.

And there is another problem. The dam has created standing water, which has brought mosquitoes, and along with them malaria. Just as I was leaving to come to Canada, my four-month-old granddaughter fell victim to this disease. You can imagine how anxious I am about her.

This dam was built without ever consulting any of the indigenous communities living around it. This failure to consult with those of us who ultimately will be affected violates Colombian law. It also violates rights contained in the Colombian Constitution, as well as international covenants such as International Labour Organization Convention 169.

With help from Colombian and international human rights organizations, we filed for an injunction before the Constitutional Court of Colombia. Last November, the Court ordered a temporary halt to the project until proper consultation takes place and an agreement is reached. This has temporarily prevented the Urrá Company from filling the reservoir and flooding our land. But even with this court order, we have heard that Urrá is going to proceed anyway. When it does, the land on which we cultivate our crops, find our traditional medicines, where our ancestors are buried and where our sacred sites are located will disappear under water.

The situation is heating up, even as we speak. The Urrá Company and the Colombian Government’s office of indigenous affairs are using underhanded tactics, in an attempt to divide our communities. We have been offered a small amount of money in exchange for agreeing to the dam and some Embera have been pressured to accept. But many of us are clear that such a payoff does not compensate for the irreparable damage to our environment and the loss of our food security.

Unless we can obtain other land on which we can grow crops and have access to fish, our survival as a people and as a culture is very much at risk. We cannot eat money, and as our elders warned, money will bring new problems like alcoholism, prostitution, increased crime and deep divisions to our communities.

We will continue to press for a just solution. And we hope you can help us in this process. It’s a process in which the Embera Katío are at a great disadvantage in comparison to the powerful Urrá Company and its foreign investors, Canadians among them, whom the Colombian government wants to keep happy.

I must stress: the Embera Katío are not against development. But we want you to know that the situation we are faced with now should never have happened. We should have been consulted before the dam was built and not be cornered into accepting it after the fact. We do not want other peoples to suffer as we have. That is why we say emphatically: “No” to plans for Urrá II, a second and larger phase of the Urrá Megaproject which will cause even more irreversible damage to mother earth and to those who depend on her.

Let me be clear; saying these things to you today puts my life in danger. Already, four Embera leaders have been killed by paramilitary forces for challenging the negative impacts of the Urrá Megaproject. These gunmen have set fire to our boats to prevent us from going to meetings. They have set up checkpoints on the rivers and detained our people. Anyone who dares to speak out about Urrá is accused of being involved with the guerrillas and with that pretext, they have declared our communities and leaders to be a military target. You can understand that my people live in great fear both of imminent attack and of what the future holds for us without land or fish.

It is for all of these reasons that I come in the name of the Embera Katío of Córdoba to call on you as elected representatives of a sovereign Canada for the support we so badly need.

1. My first recommendation to you concerns your investment policies abroad. If a Canadian company or a Canadian crown corporation like the Export Development Corporation seeks to get involved in a development project in a country like mine, there must be transparent, broad and authentic consultation with all of those who will be affected by that project before any decision is made for it to proceed.

2. After the Urrá dam was built and we were already seeing the fish disappear, we hired a consultant who conducted a study and found there were more than a hundred negative impacts caused by the megaproject. In the future, we would urge that such an independent and credible study of the economic, social, cultural and environmental impacts of a proposed development project involving Canadian investment -- an impact study that takes into account input from affected communities -- must be carried out before the project is approved. It is not right that development projects involving foreign investment serve only to enrich a small minority of investors, at the cost of environmental, social and cultural degradation that impoverishes entire communities.

3. It is also crucial in a country like Colombia, which is in the midst of a 40-year-old armed conflict marked by violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, that an additional prerequisite be prior consultation with respected international and national non-governmental human rights organizations. The objective of such consultation would be to assess whether a proposed development project might exacerbate existing violence and lead to further human rights violations.

4. Since Canada’s Export Development Corporation has contributed to the Urrá Megaproject and thereby, the damage it has caused to the Embera people and other non-indigenous inhabitants of the region, we believe the Canadian government shares a responsibility to ensure that we are adequately compensated for this damage. Compensation must include, among other things, the following key elements:

5. We also believe that the involvement of Canada’s Export Development Corporation in the Urrá Megaproject -- and all that has happened since -- leaves Canada with a responsibility to press the Colombian government to:

6. Finally, my people call on the honourable members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade to urge the Government of Colombia to comply with its own Constitution, as well as its international obligations. Our right to live as an indigenous people cannot be taken away from us.



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