Milena Florez

Colombia

Defence of the environment
Movimiento Rios Vivos



www.movimientodevictimas.org

She lives in the North of Antioch in the municipality of Toledo, where she works on the land and as a traditional gold panner, or barequera* in the Cauca Canyon area. She had a calm life until the construction of the Hydroituango hydroelectric power station began. Her community was forcibly evicted from their lands and they were left without houses or crops, while the megaproject began to cause floods and serious damage to the area and its inhabitants. It was then that Florez began to organize with her community and become a defender of both the area and the river.

Florez has been part of the Rios Vios – or Living Rivers Movement since 2013, the organisation is a social and environmental movement that fights to defend water, life and land. She also belongs to the Organization of Women Defenders of Water and Life (AMARU) and is the president of the Association of the Victims of Megaprojects Orejón, Chirí and Buenavista (ASVAM ORCHIBU).

In 2019, Florez had to leave the country as she had reported the criminal activities that the Hidroituango hydroelectric plant represents and the violations of human and environmental rights that this project has brought to the region. “The project has trampled on the rights of communities and people who are the victims of an armed conflict and who have been re-victimized and discriminated against by Hidroituango.”

» Interview

> How did the movement begin?

It began in 2008. It was basically created by the people affected, many of whom had no political experience. We needed, as our motto says, the hope to flow. And so the Rios Vivos Movement emerged. We are now voice for other movements that includes fifteen organizations of women, young people, barequeros, fishermen, farmers, women who do household chores, cooks, traders and all those affected by the Hidroituango megaproject.

We have since fought against injustices and to tell our version of the story, which has nothing to do with that of the company that misleads and lies and is destroying the Cauca River Canyon. We were told it was a power generation project for the people, but it’s not. The energy is exported for mega-mining companies such as Continental Gold and to loot our resources. What’s more, neither do we have access to adequate information or a participatory process, as the authorities did not request their consent before the dam was constructed.

> What are the consequences of Hidroituango?

First, the forced eviction of the population, which began as a gradual process. Then the deforestation of more than 4,500 hectares of tropical dry forest and the destruction of a river full of life. The project has already displaced more communities than during the armed conflict. The river was our way of subsisting, our meeting place, it was life itself. We are now out of work, and as a result many people have migrated to other municipalities to look for jobs. As a result, many of these families have been separated.

> And the army arrived…

In 2015, state forces arrived. More than 2,000 police officers turned up, and together with the army they evicted 83 people. Standing by the police and the army were the prosecutor’s office and the people’s representative, which is a municipal institution dedicated to defending the rights of citizens. This is yet more evidence that all these areas are colluding with each other. I admit that at first we thought it was crazy to face up to a monster like this, we thought that that they would kill us, that they would imprison us, and that they would make us disappear. And that has happened, but it will not stop us protesting against it.

> And before that, the massacres

Before the megaproject was launched, 137 massacres had been committed by paramilitary groups, dating back to 1997. It is clear that their goal was to clear the region in order to bring Hidroituango to the area later in the future. In fact, the violence has been going on for generations: my mother, who was from the Mutabe indigenous community had already been evicted by the armed conflict and my father, who is from the Ember community, has been missing since paramilitary forces took him away.

> And then the floods

Between April and May 2018, heavy rains caused one of the river diversion tunnels to collapse. The company did not have an environmental permit or a license to build the tunnel, and when they obtained it, they built it quickly so that they could generate energy right away. The tunnel was blocked with wood from the 4,500 acres of forest that they had also destroyed. The day the tunnel was unblocked, the trapped water swept away everything in its path, crops were lost and more than 5,000 people had to be evacuated.

And not only that, after the disaster we were forced to sign a statement stating that we were returning to the region voluntarily. Threats were made to take away the subsidy for areas affected by disasters. The area is still unsafe, as the project is built on three geological faults and if it collapses, more than 500,000 people could die.

> You are also recovering the bodies of missing persons

The bodies of people killed during the conflict were thrown into the river waters. Many fishermen and barequeros took them and buried them with dignity, so that one day their relatives could find them. 157 bodies have been recovered, but the activities at the hydroelectric plant and the floods prevent them from recovering more.

> You left the country because of the threats

Six colleagues from Ríos Vivos have already been murdered. I didn’t want to be one more. I came to Catalonia as part of a programme to protect defenders and to continue protesting and I realized that in Colombia I was receiving threats every day. I have been evicted five times, I have received many threats, which were made either to me as an individual or for being part of the movement. They have stigmatized us a great deal.

I returned here just before the start of the pandemic and I realized how the Colombian state has taken advantage of the lockdown in order to grant more concessions to multinationals, while we remain tied down without being able to meet, call for protests and without Internet.

* traditional gold panners – people who manually seek gold by finding it in rivers. The activity is considered to be an ancestral practice.