The Cauca River still has many stories to tell

One sunny afternoon I met up with three friends, Erik, Wayra and Camilo, who are actively involved in a collective called Cuerpos Gramaticales, and they told me about an experience they had on 19 September in the Cauca River Canyon, in Antioquia, where they did a performance act with people who live in the territory, alongside the Rios Vivos Movement.

The people who live in this territory have lived the war from the depth of their souls. This land was historically occupied by the FARC’s Front 18, and at the end of the 1990s it was at the heart of the battle with the Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group. It is said that the AUC carried out 54 massacres here, like those of El Aro and La Granja, for which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Colombian State.1

Then the energy company, Empresa Publica de Medellin (EPM) arrived, and with it the Hidroituango dam project.

The sunrise over the fishermen´s bridge, that connects the municipality of Toledo to Ituango (Antioquia) and provides this view over the Canyon of the Cauca River. Photo: Camilo Alejandro Fonseca, Cuerpos Gramaticales

The performance was the “first planting” in a rural territory2 that is under threat from large scale economic projects. It is also Cuerpos Gramaticales’ first action centred on the defence of territory in relation to a specific project. The main premise of the action that day was to say No to the Hidroituango project, which the many of the local people have been struggling against for years.

The symbolic act of “planting oneself” to commemorate and speak out is a methodology born in Medellin’s District 13, created and promoted by the AgroArte collective for the Operation Orion commemoration.


A living act of memory

A symbolic act to reclaim space

That day, on the Pescadero Bridge which connects Ituango and Toledo municipalities, around 30 people planted themselves for six hours, their purpose was collective catharsis to honour the victims who disappeared here and to pay tribute to the territory that will soon be flooded as a result of the Hidroituango dam’s construction. Around 200 people took part from all around the area, to show solidarity with the communities from the territory, and because they felt a connection with what is happening. They also took part in other activities including cartography workshops and painting with the children. Other people who accompanied the event, like Erika, Wayra and Camilo, were there to look after the people who had planted themselves and look after the space. As Erika explained to me “as part of their methodology and performance, Cuerpos Gramaticales do direct action to reclaim space and demonstrate on public land. In this case they symbolically blocked EPM’s transit area and workspace. The symbolism was important: for six hours they stopped the Hidroituango project”. But it wasn’t easy, because the bridge is a thoroughfare, and the company’s workers had to cross it to reach their workplace, and thereby interrupt the act.

Photo Carlos Arango
Photo Carlos Arango
Photo: Wilmar Botina, Cuerpos Gramaticales
Photo: Carlos Arango

Camilo had already taken part in four symbolic performances with Cuerpos Gramaticales, and he commented that this one had the biggest impact, because it was “mourning for the territory”. “The people were strongly affected, because they are losing a part of their lives, of their being, of their territory, their place of work, their means of communication, everything that it means to be a farmer is being taken from them by this project.”

Previous ethical performance actions by Cuerpos Gramaticales were centred around the victims of the armed conflict, especially enforced disappearance, and while this action had an element whereby the victims of the armed conflict were staking their claim, another of its components was the victims of this oppressive system, facing off the economic interests.

A territory of remembrance

In several areas vacated by the FARC, it has become apparent that other armed groups are filling the vacuum and there has been an explosion in new social conflicts, more often because of these territories’ wealth in natural resources. Camilo tells me how “from the 1990s to 2000s, there was a prevailing theory that the armed groups were present in areas where extractive projects were being planned”. But now, in spite of the Peace Agreement, “people knew that the war would continue” to control these territories and their natural resources. In Colombia, because of the history of violence and armed conflict, there is speculation that “for as long as these strategies for dispossessing people of their land exist, there will be new armed actors”.

Photo: Cuerpos Gramaticales

This is what happened in Ituango. Soon after the FARC’s Front 18 gathered in the Santa Lucia demobilisation zone (ZVTN), people began reporting an increase in violent attacks: selective killings, forced displacement, etc… being carried out by the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia neo-paramilitary group.3

In the meantime, there is EPM’s Hidroituango project. Its aim is to build the largest hydroelectric project in Colombia, and flood the Cauca River Canyon: “the dam will be 225m high, hold 20 million cubic metres of water and will be 550m wide. It is located approximately 8km down river from Pescadero Bridge, on the Cauca River, on the way to Ituango, where the Ituango River meets the Cauca.” 4

There is an environmental and human cost:5 since the project began, 500 families were forcibly displaced and it is estimated that up to 2000 families will be displaced in total.6 The farmers who planted themselves that day told us that the environmental costs are already being felt through changes in the ecosystem: animals are migrating away, native plants are disappearing, and the several species of bird that are found in the area are becoming rarer, according to Erika, Wayra and Camilo.

A very important element at the heart of the families’ claims, however, relates to their rights as victims: this territory is a territory of remembrance. During the hardest years of the violence many people were disappeared and their bodies thrown into the river from the bridge. The Cauca River Canyon still has many stories to tell, and there are many bodies yet to be found.

For the victims it means losing this territory and its relationship with the memories of their disappeared relatives, or where they saw them for the last time when they had to come and collect their remains. This bridge has an important meaning for historical memory and that is why the people are against the dam project, symbolically and physically. And now the State has a responsibility to look for the truth about what happened there, and if the dam in built, the search for this truth will definitely disappear as well”, says Erika.

The people’s hope is that they can stop the project, that there will be recognition that in this place there are mass graves, disappeared persons, people were assassinated and thrown into the river, and until the search for the people who were disappeared has taken place, the territory cannot be flooded.

Photo: Camilo Alejandro Fonseca, Cuerpos Gramaticales

At this beautiful moment when people were sharing their emotions during the performance, Wayra told me how painful it was for her to hear the inhabitants say “this is our farewell, our moment to say goodbye to the Cauca River and everything around us, to our roots”. She saw all the people channeling their struggle in to the event and at the same time saying goodbye to it “because fighting against a company is very difficult and more so when the State is on the company’s side and not the community’s.” Solidarity is at the core of the people who join Cuerpos Gramaticales, for Wayra it is her duty as a citizen to “come to a territory I didn’t know before, which is supremely beautiful and to say, we are here, this is my country, I didn’t live here, I have no family here but this is something we are going to lose as citizens, as Colombians”. I would add, as the citizens of the world.

Listening to these stories, reading articles, watching videos, there is a powerful feeling, a mixture of despair, melancholy, but also inspiration from the way these people have organised themselves, and keep up their struggle, and keep speaking out. I saw an old article that we published which had the perfect title to describe my conclusion: “Are economic interests worth more than people’s lives?” 7, this was a question asked by Berta Zuñiga, daughter of the environmental defender Berta Caceres. It is a question I also ask.

Watch a video of the event

Nathalie Bienfait

**Featured photo: Camilo Alejandro Fonseca (Cuerpos Gramaticales)


1Contagio Radio, Solicitan anular la licencia ambiental del megaproyecto Hidroituango, 29 March 2017 ; Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Caso de las masacres de Ituango vs. Colombia, sentence of 1 July 2006

2 Cuerpos Gramaticales’ first actions were staged in Medellin and then in Bogota in homage to the victims of forced displacement and the most recent was on 27 July 2017, in homage to the victims of extrajudicial executions to ask that these cases be excluded from the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP).

5See Prensa Rural, Hidroituango: El monstruo de las EPM, 15 March 2014 ; Video Cañoneros de Rio Cauca

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