Colombian Farmers Face New Challenges From Flood

The Sinú River in northern Colombia has supported a diverse community of indigenous people for generations. The Zenu and Embera people who live by its banks depend on the river for fish, irrigation and drinking water. But in 2000, the Urrá Dam, built by a consortium of Colombian, Swedish and Russian companies, submerged over 7,400 hectares of land, crops, homes and sacred sites.

The dam displaced 2,800 people and continues to threaten the lives of 70,000 by altering vital food supplies. Areas of severe periodic flooding and drought caused by its flow have stymied traditional farming practices. Compounding this reality is the construction of a new dam—many times the size—by the Colombian government, presenting a constant looming threat over this beleaguered rural community.

In response to the radical changes brought about by the dam, AJWS’s grantee—Association for Community Development of the Cienaga Grande (ASPROCIG)—has been working to restore the ecology and agricultural productivity of the region by helping farmers along the Sinú develop agriculture and aquaculture farms suitable to the changed environment.

If the dam itself weren’t enough of a challenge, ASPROCIG now has another obstacle to tackle: flooding.

As Colombia faces its worst rainy season in three decades, severe flooding and landslides have left at least 136 people dead and disrupted the lives of more than 1.2 million. Government officials report that more than 200,000 homes in all but five of Colombia’s 32 provinces have been destroyed.

The communities most severely affected are those along the Sinú River. In response to the devastation, AJWS is providing ASPROCIG with a $20,000 emergency grant to offer food and health support in order to ensure that health and crop systems do not deteriorate with continued flooding. ASPROCIG is also draining contaminated water, providing seeds and small livestock to flood victims and conserving the increasingly fragile agro-system by pruning trees and building necessary fences to halt the floods.

ASPROCIG’s model for grassroots change uses local traditions and community participation to conserve the area’s natural resources and defend land rights. Using traditional cultivation strategies, its staff has taught farmers and fisherfolk to install drainage and irrigation systems, reintroduce plants and breed fish and market their crops. ASPROCIG has also participated in the creation of a Bureau of Labor and a Standing Committee on Human Rights in the regional government. The success of these projects has enabled the community to survive against tremendous odds. But as the flooding continues, most likely through December, how will ASPROCIG’s approach need to change?