This article originally appeared in Nación in Spanish. This is an unofficial translation.
The Constitutional Court in Colombia has struck down the decree that lifted the suspension of the El Quimbo hydroelectric dam’s operations.
The dire situation that the municipalities faced, in the border shared by Colombia and Venezuela, led the government to resort to extreme measures, which sought to mitigate the impact of these recent events. One of them was to order energy generation from a hydropower plant that, such as El Quimbo, had been mandated to stop working by a court decision.
However, the Constitutional Court declared the decree unconstitutional. According to the court, the work of the executive in cases of social emergency cannot be used to disregard court decisions. “The decree invades judicial powers,” the high court unanimously concluded.
In 1999, the company Emgesa obtained an environmental license to develop hydroelectric projects in several towns in Huila. The aim was to use the waters of the Magdalena River to generate 4% of the country’s electricity.
After years of preliminary studies and administrative procedures, construction of the ambitious plan began five years ago. According to Emgesa, the investment was around $1.2 billion dollars, because it involved the development of various infrastructure projects in the area. For them, the development of this initiative would improve the income of 18 municipalities and would enhance the financial capacity of the Autonomous Corporation of Magdalena (Cormagdalena).
However, some of the citizens were concerned with the development of this plan and felt Emgesa did not respect some of the commitments to take care of the environment in the area impacted by the dam.
So they filed a class action before the Administrative Tribunal of Huila. When the court concluded that the company had not complied with its obligation to remove all the biomass from the reservoir area, the only alternative was to suspend all activity at El Quimbo.
While this was happening, the president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, decided to close the border and ordered the deportation of thousands of undocumented Colombians living in Venezuela. The residents of the area adjacent to the dam area began to suffer due to the social crisis caused by the impact on their sources of income.
President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a social and economic emergency in these territories. In this way, he prompted a number of measures seeking to mitigate the impact caused by this situation. There he found what appeared to be the perfect situation to resume work at El Quimbo.
As a result, he issued Decree 1979 of 2015, which allowed the operations on the ground, despite the suspension ordered by the Administrative Tribunal of Huila.
The court declared that measure unconstitutional. The court warned that the government could not use the exceptional legislative powers acquired through emergency situations to override judicial decisions.
Ultimately, this means that the power plant operators have no choice but to stop production of energy, while the court makes a decision on the merits regarding the popular action, through which citizens seek to force Emgesa to honor commitments to take care of the natural resources in the area.