8 March 2019

We commemorate the power of women on this International Women’s Day with the interview of Isabel Cristina Zuleta, a Colombian social leader who, through her femininity, has found a way to survive and fight for one of the most important rivers in Colombia.

Isabel is sitting on the rocks of a river where water seems scarce, and she says she witnesses the greatest environmental crime in the history of Colombia. She is part of the Association of Women Defenders of Water and Life. After her, there is a group of fishermen who open their nets to show that they are empty. She speaks for them and says the river was murdered.

If Isabel had to explain to a foreigner what this whole ordeal is about, she would describe it as a 225m high wall in the middle of the second largest river of Colombia, which was made in between two mountain ranges to create a dam that generates energy. Ten million people depend on this 1350 km long river. The creation of this dam flooded much, if not all, of the tropical dry forest in this area, one of the most threatened forests in the world. “There are cougars, big cats, lowland poisonous snakes, three-toed sloth bears, diurnal and nocturnal monkeys, green macaws and poisonous frogs”, she enumerates what was flooded, “the rest was knocked down,” she adds.

She is from Ituango, one of the municipalities most affected by the hydroelectric station named Hidroituango. The Colombian government never asked the locals if they wanted the project, but one day, the communities that had built their culture on the riverbank were forbidden to go near their river. They opposed and began to protest, they resisted.

Then came the murders of fishermen and barequeros (artisanal miners), the threats against their lives, confusing them with guerrillas. There were cases of torture by the Colombian government, and even the mayor of another affected municipality was shot at the house of a member of Ríos Vivos, another organization defending the water.

Isabel claims all of the technical and social warnings against the project for more than seven years were not heard. The second most important river in Colombia, the Cauca River, was murdered.

Due to design deficiencies, and in the name of progress, 4000 people who live along the river were put at risk and an ecological system was totally destroyed. The river became a thread of a national scandal and it amplified the complaints of the affected communities.

Amnesty International has also published alerts since the first member of Ríos Vivos was killed.

What does it mean to be a woman human rights defender in a country like Colombia, where, according to official figures, more than half of murders of social leaders in Latin America are concentrated in Colombia, along with Mexico?

I remember when I was elected spokesperson of the movement in 2012. There was a sector that believed this problem needed a man to solve it. The same was said by the military and the company in charge of the hydroelectric plant: “If the movement were led by a man, the problem would have been solved”. It is much more difficult because those who are on the other side are men. It is a continuous learning to be a woman. They would not mistreat us so much if we were not women. They threaten us with characteristic issues of being a woman, they do not threaten a man with rape. They have captured us in the middle of the protests and they have taken pictures of our breasts and buttocks.

What has the aid that Amnesty International has given to your territory meant?

It is amazing to see that in other countries we are worth something. The last time they threatened me, last year, the Colombian government did nothing, but when the alert was sent by Amnesty International, together with other organizations, they began to ask what had happened. A letter that asks for respect for human rights, a call from another country, saves lives. They have saved our lives. Without those calls we would have been killed in bigger numbers. This has to be done in order to diminish the repression of the public force that believes you are a guerrillera for protesting in favor of the environment.

You do a similar job to the one done by Berta Cáceres in Honduras, right before she was murdered for opposing a hydroelectric project which has investment from the FMO (Dutch Development Bank). What foreign interference has this project had?

They have sold us the idea that this is a Colombian public project, but in reality who finances it is not Colombia. There is a great deal of interference, involving the Quebec Pension Fund, the Export Promotion Fund of Canada and Continental Gold, a Canadian mining company. Brazil with the Pension Bank and with Camargo Correa. There is the IDB and the IDB Invest that involved money from Chinese and German banks through the KFW IPEX-Bank. The Spanish banking, among others. It is a very European and North American panorama.

In the fight for women’s rights, what has been your greatest achievement against the Colombian  government?

When we made the complaint that men had harmed us during the protests, they sent us women from the anti-riot squadron. They were as equally perverse as men with their tear gas and robotic suits. It is the greatest and saddest achievement: to be a woman killed by women.

What message would you give to women who feel struggle for women’s rights on their own?

That feeling of loneliness that can be experienced in defending our rights is an imposition. They have always wanted to make us feel lonely, that we need a man. But we must find women, with whom we build new families.

Written by: Daniela Mejía Castaño.

Edited by: Michelle Do Campo.

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