Climate displacement and planned relocation in Colombia: The case of Gramalote

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I. Executive Summary

From end of February to early March 2015, a fact-finding mission from Displacement Solutions visited Colombia to investigate the situation of the town of Gramalote, which was completely destroyed by the extreme weather events of La Nina 2010-2011, and to review the status of the planned relocation of the population to another site. The mission used the 2013 Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement within States as a guiding framework for assessing the situation.

Communities affected by climate displacement

Gramalote is located in the eastern mountain range of Colombia near the border with Venezuela. It is the first municipality in Colombia in the process of relocating in its entirety as a result of weather-related events directly linked to changes in the climate system.

In December 2010, the extreme rain during “La Niña” triggered a set of events which resulted in the destruction of the entire town. At the time of the disaster Gramalote had a population of some 6,800 people (3,400 living in the urban area and the remaining half in the rural area). The population was evacuated and moved to nearby municipalities. The Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, promised to rebuild Gramalote on a new site, and to make it “better than before”.

Almost five years have passed since the destruction of Gramalote, yet the promised reconstruction and relocation of the town have yet to take place, and the population of the municipality is still displaced.

The impact and responses to La Niña 2010-2011

Gramalote was just one of the many towns affected by the events of La Niña 2010-2011.
Colombia was hit by what is known as “a multi-hazard event” and between September 2010 and May 2011 the weather resulted in 2,219 emergencies. At least 3.2 million people, around 7% of the population of Colombia, were affected. The disaster caused some 1,374 deaths, 56,393 injuries, and 1,016 disappearances. Approximately half a million houses were affected and classified as either damaged or destroyed. The events impacted around 1,000 municipalities out of the 1,100 municipalities of Colombia. The total cost of damages was estimated at US$6 billion.

**The magnitude of La Niña 2010-2011 completely overwhelmed the national system for the Prevention and Attention of Disasters, resulting in its collapse. As a result, the Colombian government decided to create a very ambitious legal and institutional framework to manage the emergency and the recovery, based on two main pillars. The first was known as Colombia Humanitaria, which took care of emergency needs such as food, shelter, sanitation, health, and the most urgent repairs of the victims. The second was the creation of Fondo Adaptación for the reconstruction of the main areas that were damaged. This fund was based on the premise that the extensive damage produced by La Niña 2010-2011 was a direct result of changes in the climate system. As a result, a reconstruction program should consider appropriate adaptation measures, and Gramalote was one of the initial reconstruction projects undertaken.

The reconstruction and planned relocation of Gramalote

Despite the impressive efforts of the Colombian government to respond to the emergency caused by La Nina 2010-2011, the relocation of Gramalote has been characterized by problems, frustration and delays, resulting in ongoing suffering for the victims of the disaster. As there are very few studies on planned relocations because of looming climate displacement threats, this report analyzes in detail the management process of the Gramalote relocation in an effort to see what lessons might be learned for this and future relocation projects.

In almost five years since the disaster, there have been five different entities overseeing and managing the reconstruction and relocation project, with the relocation yet to proceed. It took two years and one change of management and relocation site before a second and final site was identified at a place called Miraflores. Since then, progress has been held up by further changes in management, negotiations over the purchase of property at the Miraflores site, as well as delays in the administrative process in granting the environmental license to build the new town. These changes and delays have caused considerable mistrust and polarization within the Gramalote community, which continues to this day. At the time of the mission, despite all the progress in the attention devoted to Gramalote, and despite concrete progress in the planning and design of the reconstruction project, the victims remained very sceptical about the entire relocation process. The fact that the selected relocation site at Miraflores remained idle until very recently was a major source of concern and suspicion.