The Death-Defying Activist Standing in the Way of a $4.5 Billion Dam

Why you should care

Environmental activist Isabel Zuleta is fighting Colombia’s biggest-ever dam project to protect her people.

Ten days after one of Colombia’s most important rivers nearly dried out, hundreds of people gathered in front of the headquarters of the public utility Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), blocked the road and threw dead fish on the steps, chanting, “EPM murdered the Rio Cauca.”

The company behind Colombia’s largest-ever hydroelectric dam project, long mired in corruption and mismanagement, had been forced to stop the flow of the river and flood the machine room to ensure that the dam would not collapse, sending a tidal wave from the center of Colombia to the Caribbean coast that would displace thousands and kill hundreds. The likely culprit was a design change executed without regulators’ approval.

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Isabel Zuleta speaks at a protest in front of EPM in February.

Source JOAQUIN SARMIENTO/AFP/Getty

Isabel Zuleta, a founder and the face of advocacy group Rios Vivos Antioquia, harnessed the anger over the $4.5 billion (at least) Ituango Dam project as she climbed the steps with a megaphone and drove the crowd to a fervor. “They don’t know what a river is. They say you only need to return the water and nothing has happened — lies,” Zuleta said indignantly to the roaring crowd in February. “The water is dead.”

Downstream, the people are displaced by death. 

Isabel Zuleta

Her own life too is on the line.

For taking on powerful interests in government and industry, Zuleta, 37, has seen colleagues murdered, faced death threats herself and was nearly kidnapped in 2015 (thankfully her bus arrived late and after the would-be abductors showed up). She now has bodyguards who follow her when she leaves the house. They’re provided by the government, which funds protection for some social leaders who receive death threats. At her home in a tree-shrouded bohemian neighborhood in Medellín, she jokes that her security system is her two large dogs.

Zuleta says she never imagined the danger her activism would put her and her colleagues in when she started Rios Vivos Antioquia in 2008 while studying sociology at the University of Antioquia. “I thought the worst thing that could happen is that nobody would listen to us.”

 

Zuleta is from the town of Puerto Valdivia, which remains on red alert for heavy flooding with a cautionary evacuation of more than 1,000 families, and is seeing paramilitary groups take advantage of the ghost town atmosphere. She grew up with a deep and complicated relationship with the 800-mile Cauca River, which “has always signified a lot of pain, but also happiness.” Armed groups dumped bodies in the river during Colombia’s decadeslong civil war. Paramilitaries used it as a blockade point to prevent food from entering the area to starve out guerrillas, who had firm control of the area.

At the same time, many river communities are made up of displaced persons from other regions who came for the abundance of food and land that was difficult but secure. For the single women whose husbands had been killed, it was a place of spiritual refuge.

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The dam of the Hidroituango hydroelectric project on Colombia’s Cauca River.

“The first thing we did every day was greet the river and the macaws,” says Maria Cecilia Muriel. “We had riches, an ancestral way of living. Now we are in ruin.” Cecilia, a member of Rios Vivos Antioquia who works closely with Zuleta, was forced to leave Puerto Valdivia and continues to face challenges in returning. Cecilia calls Zuleta a “grand human being and a great leader” who “could guide us, especially on the legal part,” as she taught the group how to make public reports of wrongdoing, participate in forums and bring attention to the cause.

More than 85,000 fish were killed in the days that the river’s flow was blocked, according to EPM statistics, sapping a crucial source of sustenance and livelihood from downstream communities. And activists say the damage to the overall ecosystem, microorganisms in the water and surrounding foliage cannot be calculated merely by counting fish. A mass migration could be on the way.

“Downstream, the people are displaced by death,” Zuleta says. “Life has been suspended. Like the river, it has lost its velocity. … Who is going to attend to the thousands of fishermen who have had to see the death of their culture, their sustenance, their children without food?”

 

Zuleta’s inflammatory and eloquent style has made her a media darling and a hero to young environmentalists across the region who followed her around asking for selfies at the protest. “I share her beliefs, but I haven’t been able to dedicate my life to the defense of the environment,” says Ricardo Franco, a biology student at the University of Antioquia. “Her time, her life, she is taking a big risk for this.”

Indeed, four members of Rios Vivos Antioquia and six of their family members have been killed. No one has been charged in their deaths.

A Global Witness investigation found that Colombia is consistently in the top three murder rates of environmental defenders globally and that they are killed largely with impunity: 92 percent of murders of land defenders and environmentalists between 2010 and 2016 went unsolved.

The dam, which has been discussed since the 1980s and broke ground in 2011, is supposed to add 17 percent more capacity to Colombia’s power grid, via 2,400 megawatts of climate-friendly electricity. Proponents of the project have long argued that such a boost to the grid justified some costs to river communities and the environment, though the price has become much higher than initially estimated. (Puerto Valdivia was not even included as an impacted community in the initial studies.) Now it’s unclear whether the dam will ever power a single light bulb.

EPM representatives have stated they are still optimistic about the future of the project and believe that the ecological impact is reversible. “The country cannot think that projects can be undertaken without there being some risks that at times materialize. Unfortunately, here this risk materialized,” EPM manager Jorge Londoño de la Cuesta told El Nuevo Siglo newspaper at the end of February. EPM has not spoken directly with Rios Vivos Antioquia. “It has been part of their strategy to nullify the existence of an opposition movement,” Zuleta says.

The Colombian prosecutor general released a scathing report in April, finding that mismanagement of the project is threatening life in the area and ordering EPM to take action on escalating emergencies. For example, the river’s slower speed above the dam has allowed the invasive hyacinth plant to spread, choking out other river life. As the river flows northward, the water is filtered by the dam, damaging biodiversity. “The situation affects the population of fish, in quality, length, meat and in reproduction,” the report states, damaging “the food security and principal economic activity” of 60,000 locals.

Zuleta, for her part, wants EPM to offer individualized reparations to each affected villager. Rios Vivos Antioquia is fighting multiple legal battles, but Zuleta sees her group’s greatest triumph as how well it has organized the community to create solidarity along the river. 

Zuleta works full time on fighting the dam, which often results in frantic multitasking. Even during our interview, she seamlessly juggled handing in legal documents around the city, taking phone calls to plan an event and telling me about the time she was almost kidnapped. Apart from continuing the movement, she dreams of living in a sustainable agro-ecological community.

For now, she is demanding that EPM make all information relating to the project public immediately, and for an independent group to go and physically verify the data.

“The uncertainty and angst must end,” she says. “We need to know if this is going to kill us.” 

Read more: Colombia’s hip-hop gardener fuels a green resistance.

Clarification: There are two organizations called Rios Vivos in Colombia. An earlier version of the story did not specify that Isabel Zuleta founded Rios Vivos Antioquia.

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