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The Troubled Waters of the Magdalena

By María Isabel García*

For the first time ever, there will be oil drilling along Colombia's nationally symbolic river, which is already suffering the effects of deforestation and contamination.

BOGOTA - The bed of the Magdalena River, the main waterway and national symbol of Colombia, will see oil drilling beginning in October, a new threat to an area already assailed by human activity.

"Now there are more cows than fish, and who knows what will happen with the oil that the press said was found here," said Rosendo Galvis, with a note of nostalgia. She supplies fish to restaurants in central Bogotá.

But it is not just fish in the river that are on decline. Deforestation, erosion, contamination and the disappearing wetlands around it affect a quarter of the population in this country of 40 million people.

Along the 1,540-km course of the Magdalena there are 73 municipalities, and more than 700 populations in the jurisdiction of 18 departments.

In its journey from the Andes Mountains to the Caribbean Sea, the river receives some 200 tons of domestic waste each day, according to the potable water and sanitation department of the Colombian Ministry of Environment.

Experts report that rainfall patterns have been altered as a result of the deforestation and the lack of territorial planning.

"Nearly all of the towns are located in flood plains," Eduardo Samudio, of the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies, told Tierramérica.

The river dwellers are used to flooding, which normally occurs in November and December, and from May to July. But it brings environmental problems and health problems, such as the proliferation of disease-spreading vectors, said Samudio.

The watershed of the Magdalena and its main tributary, the Cauca, covers 257,400 square km, 26 percent of which is in Colombian territory. Another 30 significant rivers, with numerous tributaries, flow into the Magdalena.

In two decades, human settlement of the area led to the destruction of 3.5 million hectares of forest. Inventories indicate that a similar total area of forest remains intact.

Subsistence cattle-raising is blamed for the conversion of thousands of hectares into pasture, affecting the stability of the soil and altering the dynamic of the river.

With an erosion rate of 330 tons of soil per hectare per year, according to the National Planning Department, and a high sediment load, the navigability of the river is also suffering.

The larger particles carried by the waters from the Andean glacier run-off are a significant component of the sedimentation process, say studies by the regional Magdalena environmental authority.

This is why there is concern about the oil exploitation that is slated to begin in October in the Middle Magdalena, in the departments of Boyacá and Antioquia.

The oil field known by its English name Under River will be run by Omimex of Colombia, an affiliate of the Omimex Resources, based in the U.S. state of Texas, and by the governmental Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos.

With proven reserves of 22 million barrels and an estimated potential of 45 million, investment in the operation is estimated at 25 to 28 million dollars.

More than the environmental dangers involved in oil extraction, the main threat to the river is reduced flow and the effects of global warming, environmental activist Gonzalo Palomino, of the University of Tolima, told Tierramérica.

"One can survive without a car, but not without a river," said Palomino.

The resources earmarked for oil drilling are the equivalent of the annual budget of state investment in the Yuma Project, the effort to recover the Magdalena's navigability for passenger and cargo traffic. Yuma is the indigenous name for the Magdalena.

The goal of the Yuma Project is to increase passenger traffic from 600,000 to 900,000 a year, and cargo shipments from two million tons to four or five million tons annually by 2006.

Since the Spanish Conquest, the river and its geographical axis marked the route of penetration by the Spaniards from the ports of Santa Marta and Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, to the interior of what is Colombian territory today.

In colonial times, the Magdalena was the natural connection between the metropoli and the distant territories and with Santa Fe de Bogotá, capital of the vice-royalty of New Granada.

Some historians and sociologists believe that the Magdalena River is what led to the atypical development of Colombia.

Despite its coasts on the Atlantic and the Pacific, political and administrative power was concentrated in Bogotá, 2,600 meters above sea level, reached by land from the Magdalena river ports of Honda and Girardot.

* María Isabel García is an IPS contributor.

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