Milena Florez

Environmental rights.
Movimiento Rios Vivos

She lives in the north of Antioquia, in the municipality of Toledo, where she works as a farmer and as a barequera * in the area of the Cauca Canyon. She had a quiet life until the construction of the hydroelectric power plant Hidroituango began. Their community began to be forcibly displaced, they were left without houses or crops and the megaproject began to cause floods, serious damage to the territory and its inhabitants. It was then that Flores began to organize with her community and become a defender of the land and the river.

Since 2013 Flores has been part of the Rios Vivos Movement, a social and environmental movement that fights for the defense of 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 Victims and People Affected by Megaprojects Orejón, Chirí and Buenavista (ASVAM ORCHIBU).

In 2019, Flores had to leave the country to denounce the environmental crime of the Hidroituango hydroelectric power plant and the human and environmental rights violations that this project has brought to the region. “The project has gone over the rights of the communities and people victims of an armed conflict who have been revictimized and discriminated against by Hidroituango”.

Interview with Milena Florez

How did the movement begin?

It was in 2008. It was formed basically by the people affected, many of us with no political experience. We needed, as our motto says, that hope would flow. And so the Rios Vivos Movement was born. Now we are an articulation of movements of which fifteen organizations of women, young people, farmers, fishermen, farmers, women who work in the fields, cooks, shopkeepers and all those affected by the Hidroituango megaproject are part of.

We have been fighting since then against the injustices and to explain our version of the story, which has nothing to do with that of the company, which is deceitful and false and destroys the Cauca River Canyon. We were told that it was a project to generate energy for people, but it is not like that, the energy is exported for the use of mega-mining companies like Continental Gold and to plunder our resources. Furthermore, we have not had access to adequate information or a participatory process, as the authorities did not ask for your consent before building the dam.

What are the consequences of the existence of Hirdotuango?

First of all, the forced displacement of the population, which began gradually. 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 livelihood, our meeting place, it was life itself. Now we find ourselves without work and as a consequence many people have migrated to other municipalities to look for work. As a result, many of these families live separately.

And the army arrived.

In 2015 the state forces arrived. More than 2,000 police officers appeared and together with the army, 83 people were removed. Next to the police and the army was the public prosecutor and the people’s representative, a municipal institution dedicated to the defense of citizens’ rights. One more evidence that all the spaces are colluded. I recognize that at the beginning we thought it was a joke to face a monster like this, that they would kill us, that they would make us disappear. And that has happened, but we cannot stop denouncing.

And previously, the massacres

Before the implementation of the megaproject there were 137 massacres committed by paramilitary groups since 1997. It is clear that their objective was to consolidate the territory in order to bring Hidroituango to the area in the future. In fact, violence crosses generations: my mother, who was an indigenous Nutabe, has already been displaced by the armed conflict, and my father, who is from the Embera community, has been missing since the paramilitaries took him over.

And then, the floods.

Between April and May 2018, the floods collapsed one of the water diversion tunnels of the river. The company had neither permission nor environmental license to build the tunnel and, when they obtained it, they built it quickly to be able to generate energy immediately. The tunnel was blocked with the wood from the 4,500 hectares of forest that they also destroyed. The day the tunnel was uncovered, the dam destroyed everything in front of it, 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 paper stating that we were returning to the region voluntarily, threatening to withdraw our subsidy for territorial damage if we did not do so. The area is still not safe, 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 people who have disappeared.

The bodies of the people killed during the conflict were thrown into the river waters. Many fishermen and fishermen collected them and buried them with dignity so that someday their relatives could find them. 157 bodies have been recovered, but the activity of the hydroelectric company and the floods prevent them from recovering more.

You are leaving the country because of threats.

Already 6 Rios Vivos colleagues have been assassinated. I didn’t want to be one more. I came to Catalonia in a program of protection of defenders to continue denouncing and I found out that in Colombia I was dodging threats every day. I have had 5 forced displacements, many threats both individually and for being part of the Movement. We are very stigmatized.

I came back here just before the beginning of the pandemic and I realized how the Colombian State has taken advantage of the forties to grant more concessions to multinationals while we are still tied hands without being able to meet, to call mobilizations or without internet.

*People who practice manual and artisanal mining in the river in search of gold. It is considered an ancestral practice.

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