Minister Champagne: Defend the threatened defenders of Rios Vivos in Colombia

Honourable François-Philippe Champagne
Minister of Foreign Affairs 125 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0G2

August 4, 2020

Dear Minister Champagne,

We write on behalf of Amnesty International Canada and Above Ground to request your immediate assistance with regard to urgent concerns for the safety of human rights defenders who belong to the Rios Vivos movement in Colombia.

Canada is directly and very seriously implicated in the situation of risk faced by members of Rios Vivos, given that it arises from devastating impacts of the Export Development Canada-financed Hidroituango Dam project on the Cauca River in Colombia.

The dam has had disastrous consequences for the environment and for communities that depend on it for their livelihoods and food security. There were abundant, credible warnings about these and other negative consequences before EDC approved its financing. The dam has also exacerbated armed conflict and repression against community leaders who have spoken out in defense of their rights. Six leaders have been killed and scores of others have been tortured, forcibly displaced, attacked or threatened with death.

Today the situation has become more dangerous than ever. Rios Vivos tells us that paramilitaries move freely and control the area with fear, and the acquiescence of the military. Amidst a COVID quarantine, Amnesty has documented a chilling number of killings of human rights defenders and social leaders who are unable to move around to seek safety in hiding.

Members of Rios Vivos were awarded collective protection measures in 2019 because they were assessed to be at “extraordinary risk”. Yet these protection measures have not been implemented, leaving many defenseless. Individual protection measures for Rios Vivos spokesperson Isabel Zuleta, who met with Global Affairs Canada officials during a visit here late last year and who has suffered threats and attempts on her life, reports that her individual protection scheme was recently ‘reassessed’. Despite ongoing threats, she faces reduced protection.

Beyond the ever-present threat of further violence against them, members of Rios Vivos are also facing elevated risk amidst the pandemic. We have received reports from Rios Vivos that Empresas Públicas de Medellin, the company building the EDC-financed Hidroituango project, has as many as 4,000 workers working from camps and that 900 have been infected with COVID-19. The threat of contagion into vulnerable, marginalized communities whose food security, health and safety has already been compromised by the dam, is huge and extremely worrying.

Rios Vivos asked for the camps to be shut down because of the danger they pose due to COVID-19 infection. The company allegedly told them this was not possible because the workers are there to ensure the dam does not collapse. Rios Vivos subsequently requested to no avail that the company reduce the number of workers to the absolute minimum needed to operate alert mechanisms, which they have been told is about 100 workers.

Given the situation of extreme risk for the human rights defenders of Rios Vivos, and in keeping with the mandate provided by the government of Canada’s Voices At Risk guidelines, we ask you to take the following action that has been requested by Rios Vivos:

  1. Press Colombian authorities to implement without delay the collective protections that were awarded to Rios Vivos
  2. Press Colombian authorities to maintain and strengthen the protection measures that Rios Vivos spokesperson Isabel Zuleta has been awarded and certainly not to reduce them in any way
  3. PressColombian authorities to close Hidroituango’s work camps in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19 or at the very least, reduce the number of workers to an absolute minimum
  4. Urgently provide humanitarian assistance in the form of food and medical supplies to Rios Vivos communities whose ability to provide for themselves has been impacted by the dam, and who now face additional risks due to COVID-19 and the quarantine

We look forward to hearing back from you as soon as possible with regard to these recommendations.


Alex Neve                                                                      Karen Hamilton
Secretary General                                                          Program Officer
Amnesty International Canada                                      Above Ground


P.S. On July 22, we had the opportunity to also share these recommendations with policy advisors in the office of Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade Mary Ng, during a meeting to discuss the action requested by thousands of our supporters who sent emails to Minister Ng and EDC President Mairead Lavery to express concern about the impact of the EDC-financed Hidroituango Dam on Rios Vivos. Minister Ng’s office suggested to us that your office has the relationships, role and capacity to respond to these concerns and move our recommendations forward and urged us to pursue this with you.


cc.         Minister of Small Business, Export Promotion and International Trade Mary Ng
             His Excellency Marcel Lebleu, Canadian Ambassador to Colombia