Contamination and Thirst in the Magdalena because of the Multinationals and the Thaw in the Sierra Nevada


Friday, July 24, 2015


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN volunteer translator)

In the Magdalena the principal environmental damages are caused by the multinational, Drummond.  In January 2014, Drummond was found guilty of spilling coal in the bay of Santa Marta.  The court-ordered fine generated income for the country, but the environmental damage involved and the effects on the health of the people were irreparable.  The Sierra Nevada has lost 90 percent of its snow cover between 1850 and 2010.  The people of Tayrona are saying, “The water problem is that right now none of us have water.”

The multinational has already been punished for having dumped more than 500 tons of thermal coal to avoid the sinking of the barge that was transporting it.  The investigations found damage to native species, a situation that harms the communities that live by fishing.  Besides, it affects the health of anyone that consumes it.

Eviction and contamination in the Ciénaga Grande (The Big Pond)

In the same way, in the Ciénaga Grande Lagoon Complex in Santa Marta, which The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) has declared to be a biosphere reserve and is part of the Ramsar Convention (Convention on Wetlands), is facing serious environmental damage.  The Agropecuaria (Agricultural) RHC Company has cut down the trees and burned 60 hectares of forest and they have constructed 27 kilometers of dikes and earthwork, illegally.

According to the Land Restitution Unit of Atlántico Province, the campesinos who worked these lands where today we see environmental damage were evicted by paramilitaries fifteen years ago.  The lands were sold to the Agropecuaria RHC company.  The wetlands in the area have been destroyed by the raising of buffalos and by oil palm plantations for the production of fuel.  The environmental damage affects the Condazo water outlet pipe and the pond complex.  The work done impedes the natural overflowing of the water and the aquatic connection to the wetland and it puts the region’s biodiversity at risk.

The death of the Sierra Nevada, lack of water for the communities

In the last two years Santa Marta, its municipalities and the Caribbean area have suffered shortages of water.  In April of last year Santa Marta was declared “a public calamity” because of the water shortages.  Then-candidate for president Juan Manuel Santos visited the city and said that there would have to be a study to solve the problem.  Santos said that we have to resolve the underlying structural problem and he repeated his commitment to “finding a definite solution”.

In spite of that, one of the solutions adopted by the Santa Marta city hall was the construction of new wells. But the problem of water shortages in Santa Marta and in the country goes further than that.  During recent months the residents of the area have warned that the level of the rivers has gone down.  That situation is consistent with the recent report of the Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM is the Spanish acronym.)

The dilemma of the low water level in the rivers is not just a natural phenomenon.  It is an alarm that is set off in times of drought or summer.  In spite of it, the rain comes and it seems as if nothing has happened.  According to data from IDEAM, the Sierra Nevada has lost 90 percent of its snow surface, just between 1850 and the year 2010.

The thawing of the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta is a fact.  What is worrisome is that the water supply for the communities of the Caribbean coast depends on this ecosystem, because it is the hydrological source for the majority of the rivers.  Global warming is being echoed in the Sierra Nevada.  But the phenomenon is accompanied by the change in the economic activities in the area, the indiscriminate cutting and burning of forests as well as the poor use of the land and of the watersheds, as well as the displacement of the indigenous communities and the danger of loss of biological diversity.

It is in the Cuchilla de San Lorenzo, located inside the zone of the Sierra Nevada, where the Córdoba, Mendihuual, Manzanares, Piedras, Gaira and Toribio rivers are born.  The last four supply the aqueducts for the District of Santa Marta and the Municipalities of Ciénaga and Pueblo Viejo.  The tributaries of the Aracataca rivers that furnish water to their population are also in the Sierra. The Ranchería River is the source of water for La Guajira.

“The water problem is that right now none of us have water”

Martiniano Sánchez is a vendor of crafts in the indigenous town of Tayrona in the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta.  He says that he took up the creation and sale of crafts because of his love for the indigenous culture and as a way of recognizing the five ethnicities that remain in the Sierra.  “I don’t earn much money with that but I get to explain to the tourists about our culture and how it is nearly forgotten and often abused.”

Martiniano warns that the indigenous communities in that area live in awful conditions and they are being displaced from their lands.  “Our indigenous communities have been the ones that have cared for the earth for many years, and for the forests and the water sources.  The land is sacred for them, but the plantation owners have been taking their land away and evicting them, pushing them higher in the mountains.  They are the ones that are destroying our nature and our water.  They cut down the trees, and there is not much water left in the rivers.  The water problem is that right now none of us have water.”

The study proposed by President Santos to solve the problem of water shortages in Santa Marta refers to an “underlying problem”.  It would be worthwhile to rethink the National Development Plan (PND) and check progress on the commitment it contains to protect the country’s ecosystems.  Besides admitting that the mining/energy “locomotive” that the multinationals are supporting is leaving environmental, economic, and social disasters for which neither the government nor the multinationals are taking responsibility.  The communities are left with the responsibility.

Correspondent and editing group for Colombia Reporting in North Santander

See other publications at Colombia Informa Cúcuta/ Norte de Santander

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