Contested environmental politics at the El Quimbo hydroelectric dam in Colombia

The El Quimbo dam is a hydroelectric plant in Colombia. Its construction was completed amid a backdrop of conflict over the privatisation of natural resources, the resulting flooding of fertile land and tropical forests, and the forced displacement of local populations.

Cornelia Helmcke investigated the environmental struggles caused by this large-scale dam project, and the politics that allowed the controversial hydroelectric power plant to start operating in 2015.

Conventional environmental and economic assessments fail

The futile struggles against the construction of the dam demonstrate how a conventional economic and ecological assessment of a large dam development does not sufficiently take into account the complex human-nature interactions in place, and therefore underestimates the wide-ranging and long-lasting environmental and social impacts of such investments, including their potential to cause conflict.

Local knowledge a far cry from global perceptions

Helmcke found that ways of assessing the impacts of constructing a dam such as El Quimbo that look beyond the global narratives of green development and take in local knowledge and perceptions, uncovered profound discrepancies between technical, apolitical assessments and the reality for the local environment and populations.

“Overall, my aim has been to present the full picture, including all the different perspectives I encountered throughout my research” says Helmcke, who based her findings on local observations and interviews, along with newspaper articles and reports about the case.

‘Green’ economic growth in Colombia may facilitate conflict, not peace

Helmcke’s research shows that investments in energy infrastructure do not automatically reduce energy poverty, and that simple approaches of ‘green’ economic growth in rural Colombia do not facilitate peace, but conflict. In this case, the Emgesa energy company has been able to use legal mechanisms as a tool to legitimise a highly contested hydroelectrical project.

“By making use of scientific knowledge and inscribing this knowledge onto the affected area, the energy company Emgesa engineered a reality that was favourable to the energy project and led to the damming of the Magdalena River” explains Helmcke.

With this long-term, multi-scale and multi-actor analysis of a territorial conflict, Helmcke’s research contributes to the political ecology literature on hydroelectricity, extractivism, and the defence of territory.  

“I ultimately reflect on how environmental struggles have contested environmentally harmful practices and opened up the implementation of alternative development pathways”, says Helmcke.

Cornelia Helmcke will defend her thesis The Defence of Territory: Contested Environmental Politics at the El Quimbo Hydroelectric Dam in Huila, Colombia on 15 June 2021. See the event webpage for details and how to attend.

Cornelia Helmcke joined a local fisherman to check fishing nets (atarrayas) in the El Quimbo reservoir to learn about the dam’s impact on the fishing sector.

Cornelia Helmcke joined a local fisherman to check fishing nets (atarrayas) in the El Quimbo reservoir to learn about the dam’s impact on the fishing sector.

Sergio Patilla (2017)

Published 19. mai 2021 - 9:43 - Updated 14. juni 2021 - 9:59