In November 2015, I traveled to Colombia for the International Forum on Territories, Resistance and Environmental Justice. The forum took place in Neiva, Huila Department, where nearly 300 people gathered to discuss the socio-environmental conflicts generated by mining practices and dams in Colombia. I was there to speak on their first international panel, which featured activists who shared their experiences with river protection.
The meeting took place in a conference hall, but the Magdalena River permeated the event, inside and out. The river itself was just blocks away, and fishing folks were selling bocachicos. Each morning, my senses awoke to the smell of “patacón pisao,” fried, flattened green plantains. The sculpture of the fierce Cacica Gaitana, an indigenous woman leader who led the resistance against the Spanish colonization in 1539 in the Upper Magdalena River Valley (and won), is still revered by people in the region, who proudly show it to newcomers.
Representatives of fishing communities shared their experiences on how the construction of El Quimbo Dam has affected them and the fish from the Magdalena River. Participants spoke about plans for nine more dams on the Magdalena and how to protect the Magdalena River from more development such as dams and channelization. An international panel shared experiences on river protection from dam building.
I’m not new to the region; I was born by the Magdalena River and have my own stories to tell. But I wanted to hear the stories of the people engaged in this fight to protect the river. In between sessions, I pulled some participants aside and asked them one question: “What does the Magdalena mean to you?” Here are their answers.