Murder & Migration: A U.S. Trade Deal with Colombia May Just Have Been Signed, but Foreign Investment Projects Have Already Cost Afro-Colombians Their Land and Their Lives

Article excerpt

DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS ANYWHERE IN THE world often have a high human cost. In Colombia, the price is olden measured in human lives and blood.

Esperanza (she would risk her life, she says, if her real name appeared in print) saw her neighbors pay that price in 2001. Her house sits on the bank of the Rio Salvajina, in the Afro-Colombian municipality of Buenos Aires in Cauca province. "I saw armed men arrive in cars," she remembers, "with two, three, four, even five people tied up. They dragged them onto the bridge, shot them two or three times and threw their bodies into the river." When the paramilitaries came to her own home, she was so frightened she lost the baby she'd been carrying for five months.

Today Esperanza is a community activist organizing against the hydropower project for which her neighbors were killed. If ratified by Congress, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe signed in mid-November, could lead to more such projects, she fears, and more such violence. "It will permit many more development projects by multinational companies. Many more people will be displaced. And if they won't leave voluntarily, there will be more assassinations. We know this because we live with it already."

Esperanza's experience is a microcosm of the large-scale impact of corporate development in Colombia's countryside. One quarter of Colombia's nearly 43 million people are Afro-Colombian, and most live in rural areas, where resources like hydropower and gold and mineral deposits are concentrated. Far from enhancing the villagers' lives, however, these projects more commonly despoil their lands and force them to flee.

Esperanza's family was first displaced by construction of the dam on the Rio Salvajina in 1984. Along with 3,600 others, her parents and brothers were compelled to leave the valley. Behind the dam, water flooded schools, homes, churches, even cemeteries. And when the turbines started to roll, the Spanish energy conglomerate, Union Fenosa, had plenty of electricity to sell on Latin America's power market (the dam's purpose was to generate power that Union Fenosa could market to other countries).

A number of community leaders who resisted removal were killed or disappeared. "The company didn't kill people directly," Esperanza cautions. "It asked the state, through the army, to force people to leave so they could run their business."

Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities insisted that the country's Constitution, rewritten in 1991, recognize their right to their historical territories. Law 70, passed in 1993, said these communities had to be consulted and give their approval prior to any new projects planned on their land.

Having a law is one thing, however. Enforcing it is another.

By 2001, silt had begun to build up behind the Rio Salvajina dam. Power generation, and Union Fenosa's income, dropped. The company then proposed a new megaproject, to divert the Rio Ovejas from its course in the next valley into the Rio Salvajina reservoir. Knowing families couldn't survive the loss of their river, local communities refused to consent. Union Fenosa asked the government to put the project on hold. …