Aguas de Cartagena

The District of Cartagena is a city located on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia. When in 1990 Colombia opened its borders for foreign investors, Spanish/French company Aguas de Barcelona/Suez Group saw a commercial chance to improve and exploit the city’s sewerage system. Financially backed by the World Bank, the company started its activities in 1995 under the name of Aguas de Cartagena S.A. E.S.P. Its shareholders are the District of Cartagena (50%), Suez-Agbar Group (45.9%), and multiple minority shareholders.

In 1999, a submarine outfall system was constructed, without the free, prior and informed consent of the local Afro Colombian communities in the areas surrounding Cartagena. Thus, potentially constituting a violation by the Colombian government of the Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization. This Convention, ratified by the Colombian state in 1991 guarantees the right to prior consent of the indigenous peoples in case of project development directly affecting indigenous grounds. The relevant grounds in this case are the territories of the Afro Colombian communities of Pontezuela, Punta Canoa, Tierra Baja Rocha, Puerto Badel, Limas de Matunilla, Pasacaballos, Tierra Baja, and Puerto Rey in the District of Cartagena, and San José de Rocha, Badel, and Matunilla from the municipality of Arjona Bolívar.

Today, the sewage system in the city of Cartagena seems to be properly working, but communities surrounding the city - mostly of Afro-descendant or indigenous origin – witnessed the destruction of their living environment. Firstly, the water bodies of the Ciénaga de la Virgen and the Ciénaga de Juan Gómez (lakes that were once rich sources of submarine life) became contaminated by discharges of urban wastewater without prior treatment, and without adhering to the environmental management plan. Secondly, due to the disposal of contaminated water in the Juan Gómez - Bohórquez - Dolores lagoon system, thousands of tons of sediment were transferred into the lagoon system, leading to sedimentation, eutrophication and clogging, reducing the total area of the lagoon system, leading to depth loss, modifying its ecosystems, and causing the extinction of more than 95% of the species of aquatic fauna. As a consequence, ethnic and ancestral rights were violated, given that a large number of communities were stripped from their ecological environment, making fishing impossible, and resulting in the forced displacement of these people to poor urban areas.

Global Justice Association represents members of the community of San José de Rocha, and is seeking to legally identify the perpetrators with the aim to restore the affected area to its original conditions, and for compensation for damages caused.

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Adil Melendez is the leading attorney on the Aguas de Barcelona case for Global Justice Association. We are working together with Taula Catalana per la Pau i els Drets Humans a Colombia and Ingenieras sin fronteras.

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On the right, Adil Melendez speaking over the impact of the AGBAR business in Cartagena