ICE Case Studies
Number 155, August, 2005

Urrá and the Embera-Katío, Colombia

Regina M. Kreger

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

The Urrá I dam was built on the Sinú River in Colombia's northeastern department of Córdoba, between 1992 and 1998. This is the region where the country's paramilitary forces began and are strongest. The dam has caused severe environmental destruction within the territory belonging to the Embera-Katío indigenous people. The Embera-Katío led the unsuccessful opposition to the project, which is supported by wealthy landowners allied with the paramilitaries. Their determination has been strong in the face of violent intimidation, including assassinations and disappearances.

2. Description

The Urrá dam has always been a project advocated by the wealthy landowners of Córdoba, at least some of whom are allied with the counter-insurgency paramilitary forces. Brutal pressure by the paramilitaries stifled dissent from most of the settlements that would be negatively affected by the construction of the dam. The notable exception was the indigenous Embera-Katío people, who carried out a well-publicized "celebration" of the ceremonial murder of the river.

Embera-Katío activists & leaders have been murdered and kidnapped for their opposition to the dam and their insistence on their legal right to a seat at the negotiating table. Despite the existence of Colombian and international laws unambiguously requiring prior informed consent by indigenous peoples of development projects affecting their lands, requirements that were upheld by Colombia's Constitutional Court in this case, it was only after 150 Embera-Katío people camped out on the grounds of the Environment Ministry that they were able even to bring the government and the company into negotiations. Some agreements were finally reached, but they have not been carried out, and the Embera-Katío continue to suffer both from the unmitigated environmental devastation wrought by the dam and from the violent conflict surrounding and often directed toward them.

Negative environmental effects of the dam are many. The principal effect, which was foreseen but glossed over in impact studies, is the decimation of the migratory fish population, especially the bocachico, which had been the primary protein source in the local diet. The near-total loss of the fish population has ripple effects throughout the food chain and the ecosystem in general. Other effects include degradation of water quality both in the river proper and in the seasonal marshes, disruption of natural flooding cycles that used to renew water and soil, stagnation of marshes that have become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes, increased salinity of the water, and others.

3. Duration

50+ years: Urrá was first proposed in 1951.

4. Location


Continent: South America

Region: Western South America

Country: Colombia, Department of Córdoba

(map by


5. Actors

II. Environment Aspects

The Urrá project has been environmentally devastating. The most significant impact is the near-complete disappearance of the bocachico, the fish that previously provided the main source of protein in the diets of the Embera-Katío people as well as neighboring fishing and peasant populations1. The main problem for the bocachico is the same one facing salmon in dammed North American rivers: it is impeded from swimming upstream to spawn. The Urrá company offered tank-farmed fish as a mitigating measure, but it has not been successful.

Some 8,500 people were displaced by the construction of the Urrá I dam and the filling of its reservoir2. The flooding occurred despite an order by the Constitutional Court forbidding the company to proceed with filling the reservoir because of its failure to reach an agreement with the Embera-Katío people. Embera leader and anti-Urrá activist Kimy Pernía Domicó alleged, in a speech at a 1999 forum at the National University in Bogotá, that the license to fill the reservoir was granted by the Environment Ministry in response to a letter circulated by the paramilitary suggesting that those who opposed the dam did so under pressure from the guerrillas and demanding that it be filled immediately3. The flooding was also carried out in a reckless manner, without notification4 and without measures to safely evacuate those residents who had refused to voluntarily cede to the disastrous project5.

In the same 1999 speech, Pernía Domicó claimed that “the purpose of the dam was to drain the marshes and bogs, so that INCORA [the Institute for Agrarian Reform] could deed them to the landowners of Córdoba, and we all know who those are and how they act. The Constitutional Court ordered INCORA to put a halt to those illegal land grants, and ordered the municipal governors to see to the return of those lands to the nation”6. Tragically, Kimy Pernía Domicó was abducted by armed men in June of 2001, and has not been seen since. He is only one of dozens of anti-Urrá activists and Embera leaders who have been killed, disappeared, threatened, or forced to flee the country by the paramilitary forces backing the dam project.

The environmental destruction caused by Urrá includes many other serious impacts. In addition to homes, some of the Embera-Katío nation's most fertile lands, as well as sacred sites and burial grounds, now lie at the bottom of the reservoir. Salt water now penetrates deeper inland, further degrading once-fertile soils, which moreover no longer benefit from the nutrients that were once deposited by seasonal flooding. Brackishness and sedimentation of the river have deprived communities of drinking water. In an area with no roads, blocking the river and draining wetlands has cut off the primary mode of transportation. The newly-stagnant bogs, that used to be refreshed with the periodic rise and fall of water levels, have become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.

1Correa, Iván. “Urrá Dam, Colombia”, panel discussion at a conference of the World Commission on Dams, August 13, 1999.

2Castro, Margarita de. “Lessons from resettlements of Urrá Hydropower Project”, discussant at the above-mentioned panel.

3Pernía Domicó's speech is reproduced (in Spanish) at

4“Urrá inicia la Inundación!”. Statement issued by the Embera-Katío nation, November 18, 1999.

5“Inundación Irresponsable”. Statement issued by the Embera-Katío nation, December 4, 1999.

6Pernía Domicó speech, op cit.

6. Type of Environmental Problem

Habitat Loss

7. Type of Habitat


8. Act and Harm Sites:

Colombia, Department of Córdoba, Upper Sinú River basin (both act and harm)

III. Conflict Aspects

The conflict is a civil war with three major parties: the revolutionary guerrillas, the Colombian military, and the counter-insurgency paramilitaries. There are several revolutionary armies, all nominally – and perhaps in their genesis idealistically – Marxist. By far the most significant group is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). On the right, the paramilitaries are more or less united under the umbrella of the so-called Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), although their unity has been strained by internal divisions as well as external pressure against their drug-trafficking that financially sustains them. The AUC was organized in 1997 by brothers Carlos and Fidel Castaño, leaders of a particularly feared paramilitary organization in the province of Córdoba (ACCU, Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá). This is where the Urrá dam was built on the Sinú River, in the territory of the Embera-Katío indigenous people.

The paramilitaries are said to be engaged in a sort of agrarian counter-reform. They practice a war of displacement, terrorizing and even massacring villagers in order to clear territory, which is then available for a variety of income-producing activities, from licit agriculture to coca cultivation, mineral extraction or, in the present case, a major hydroelectric project. Although Colombia leads the region in legal recognition of indigenous rights, including broad territorial rights, in practice those rights are not vigorously defended by the state. On the contrary, the links between the official military and the paramilitaries are well documented. The guerrilla forces are also implicated in many abuses; however, the area where this case takes place is much more dominated by the AUC.

The Embera-Katío, like many of the indigenous peoples in Colombia, have asserted their non-alignment and non-involvement in the civil war, and have declared their territory off-limits to both combat and coca cultivation. Nonetheless, community leaders have been the victims of assassination, kidnappings, and intense intimidation for their opposition to the Urrá I and II dams. Moreover, their territory has been invaded by people displaced from the surrounding area by paramilitary pressure. Finally, they have failed to prevent the construction of the Urrá hydroelectric project, whose environmental impacts have devastated their habitat and way of life.

9. Type of Conflict


10. Level of Conflict

Intrastate, High

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

3,000 per year (throughout Colombia, resulting from the civil war)

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

The Embera-Katío nation has overwhelmingly opposed the Urrá project, for its fatal impact on their ability to continue to exist as a people. The Embera culture is intimately related to the riverine habitat, which has always provided the basis of their economy, and the stewardship of which gives structure to their value system. Indigenous peoples the world over have, by definition, a special relationship to their homelands, which states are obligated to respect under international law1. Colombia also has its own national constitutional and legal standards requiring respect for indigenous peoples' rights to self-governance, territorial integrity, social and cultural uniqueness, and informed participation in decisions impacting them and their lands. Specifically, the lack of early, transparent consultation on the Urrá project violated national and international law.

In response to their determined opposition to the project and insistence on respect for their rights, tribal leaders and activists were terrorized by the ACCU, the brutal local paramilitary organization. Numerous assassinations, kidnappings, threats, and burning of homes and boats failed to convince the indigenous communities to give up their campaign. Like other indigenous nations in Colombia, the Embera-Katío has distanced itself from all of the parties to the civil conflict and has declared its territory off-limits to all armed combatants. Nonetheless, because its property – its territory – is considered of value to the landowners who are aligned with the paramilitary organization, the Embera-Katío nation has been victimized by the violence just the same. Even in lands not directly degraded by the dam project, the tribe has had to deal with the invasion of their territory by other non-combatants who were violently displaced from their own lands.

At its heart, this is a case of conflict over incompatible environmental and economic value systems. Up until the time that Urrá I was built, the Embera-Katío people enjoyed a prosperous subsistence economy built on the values of indefinite sustainability and environmental stewardship. The ethos that supports megadams such as Urrá, especially in the atmosphere of conflict characterizing Colombia in general and Córdoba in particular, is one of immediate gratification, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, continual increase and accumulation of personal wealth, even at others' expense.

1Most significantly for its groundbreaking nature, Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization.

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

DIRECT. The conflict is over the Embera-Katío's lands. The dam not only degrades the worth of the land to the tribe, but by draining wetlands it makes land available to the paramilitary's allies.

13. Level of Strategic Interest

Primarily SUB-STATE; but, also State in that the conflict in Córdoba is related to the civil war taking place throughout Colombia; and also Multinational, insofar as the dam builder, Swedish firm Skanska, and financier, Canada's Export Development Corp, faced pressure from domestic and international environmental and human rights NGOs.

14. Outcome of Dispute:

COMPROMISE, in that a negotiated agreement was finally reached between the Embera-Katío, the state, and the Urrá corporation. However, in that the government and the company have failed to meet their commitments, it might be considered a stalemate.

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE Cases

CHILEDAM: The Bío-Bío River Case, Chile

GUYANA: Gold and Native Rights in the Guayana Region of Venezuela

ELSALV: El Salvador Civil War

MARSH: Marsh Arabs, Water Diversion, and Cultural Survival

MEKONG: Mekong River Dam

ACEH: The Acehnese Resistance Movement and Exxon-Mobil

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Embera-Katío website about the case

Agreement signed between the Embera-Katío, the Government, and the Urrá company (in Spanish)

Negative and Positive views of the Urrá project, submitted to the World Commission on Dams.

The Center for International Policy's Colombia Program

Information on the paramilitary at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

Colombian National Indigenous Organization - ONIC

Consulting Group on Human Rights and Displacement in Colombia - CODHES

August 5, 2005