Displacement in Colombia no longer just a result of the conflict
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Displacement in Colombia no longer just a result of the conflict

Conversations about displacement in Colombia tend to center around violent upheaval, but as the country continues to work toward putting an official end to more than 50 years of internal armed conflict, a new threat to communities has emerged: development projects.

On October 27, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. will hear cases on “Forced Displacement and Development Projects” from Colombians representing affected communities. These communities are grappling with a loss of livelihood and home from mining, dam and energy projects.

One representative will be University of Southern Colombia Professor Miller Armín Dussán Calderón, who leads ASOQUIMBO (Association of Communities Affected by the El Quimbo Hydroelectric Project), a group that opposes the controversial El Quimbo hydroelectric dam project in the province of Huila, in southwestern Colombia.

“We have people in Asoquimbo who will have been displaced twice in their lifetime, first by war and now by development,” Dussán said.

The El Quimbo dam project has been marred by environmental and social shortcomings since its inception, but the planners’ greatest blunder was overlooking just how many people would be affected by it — a mistake that continues to have serious consequences for both the companies behind the project and surrounding communities.

In 2009, the company constructing the dam, a Colombian subsidiary of Spanish electricity company Endesa, conducted a census of affected people. The census found that 1,537 people would be directly affected and dislocated by the dam and therefore deserved compensation.

However, the census did not measure those indirectly affected, like fisherman who don’t own land or farmers who rent their property from big landowners. Facing the prospect of displacement without compensation, a group of seven fisherman and farmers from the area brought a case before Colombia’s Constitutional Court challenging the census findings.

The court ultimately ruled in favor of the community members. In its decision, the court ordered Endesa to conduct a new census within six months of the hearing and, in September 2014, the company announced a new list of 28,744 people to be considered for compensation.

“This phenomenon is ignored and denied in Colombia,” said Dussán, “under the pretext that the only form of displacement is that linked with the actions of the armed conflict.”

With an estimated 5.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), Colombia has the world’s second-highest number of IDPs, second only to civil war-torn Syria. Many of the displaced are victims of the country’s five-decade armed conflict who fled violence in their home regions.

However, as the organizations presenting at the IACHR meeting aim to demonstrate, the conflict is no longer the only reason behind displacement in Colombia, with many people now being displaced by development or extractive industry projects instead.

Other groups attending meeting include the regional Movement for Defense of the Territory (Movimiento por la Defensa del Territorio), Living Rivers (¡Ríos Vivos!) and the ‘Land with Dignity’ Center for Social Justice Studies (El Centro de Estudios para la Justicia Social ‘Tierra Digna’).

Dussán hopes the findings from this hearing will implore the Colombian government to suspend the El Quimbo dam project and to investigate issues in the dam’s licensing process and construction. Furthermore, these groups hope that by speaking out in Washington D.C., they will be included in the conversation about future development projects in Colombia — a conversation that would be a vital part of the reconstruction process if the government and the FARC guerrillas do ultimately sign peace accords.