Distraction Free Reading

Audio Ethnographies of Water from Latin America: Water, Energy, and Youth in the Orinoco River, Colombia

July is part of the heavy rainfall season of South America’s northernmost savannas, known since colonial times as the Llanos (Plains/Grasslands) and, more recently, from a biogeographical perspective, as the Colombian-Venezuelan Orinoquia. During the “winter”/rainy months, the abundance of water everywhere makes audible the sounds of boots and motorcycles crossing flooded pastures and streets, thunders, downpours on the predominant zinc roof tiles, migratory birds, and outboard motors of the many boats traveling along tributaries that at another time of the year will almost entirely disappear. Audio recordings taken during the long six months of “summer”/drought, between November and April when no drop falls on the plains, would radically differ.

This sound ethnography aims to pay attention to how the everyday sounds of water allow us to get attuned to the ways youth are navigating the rapid shift to a “green” energy model based on biomass while living over the world’s largest proven oil reserves, in the top oil- and gas-producing region Colombia and Venezuela, and amid the unfulfilled promises of fossil fuel progress.

Puerto Carreño is the capital of the Department of Vichada and the only Colombian city on the banks of the Orinoco River. The town was founded on a rock outcrop of the Guyanese Shield just a century ago as a geopolitical enclave against the advance of Venezuelan interests during the rubber boom. Today, the city has less than 20,000 inhabitants, belonging to ten different indigenous peoples, as well as families of campesinos, fishermen, mestizos displaced by violence and poverty in the Andes, and Venezuelan refugees. In turn, Vichada, with an extension larger than South Korea and Portugal but a very low population density, happens to have the highest “multidimensional poverty” in Colombia. Although more than 60% of its inhabitants recognize themselves as indigenous, most communities were categorized in 2009 by the Supreme Court as “in danger of cultural and physical extinction.” There are no paved roads, and health and communications infrastructure are deficient. Furthermore, the entire Department falls within the 66% of the country designated as a “non-interconnected zone” to the national electrical grid. In this context, it is salient that a significant number of its youth have migrated to Puerto Carreño because primary education is already exceptional in most rural areas and indigenous reservations. Some others continue to cross the rivers every day to go to school.

Puerto Carreño has not turned its back on the river. The waters of the Orinoco and its tributaries continue to be the primary means of transportation and communication with the rest of the urban and rural parts of the Department and the overall region. The river port is where, each year, the July 20th Parade that commemorates National Independence ends. Military, police, the Department Government, the Mayor’s Office employees, and all the students from the only three public high schools flooded the street and shore for hours. In one of these schools, the classes of the first and only Technical High School in Renewable Energies in the country, established in 2017, were easily interrupted for several days to rehearse the steps of the martial rhythm. More than 220 students have already graduated from this program, and another 57 students will graduate this year. Following the trend, only one graduate of this class will be indigenous.

Despite the overwhelming excess of water from the torrential rains and the enormous river, the people of Puerto Carreño face difficulties in supplying potable water to their homes. The city has a very precarious public water network. Due to the limited pressure in the pipes, every day, the neighborhoods furthest from the river shore rise before the sun to the sound of taps, tanks, buckets, pots, and cups to store and use the water needed for cooking, bathing, and caring for their households. These problems add up to the failures in the electricity provision. Due to frequent blackouts from the first biomass-based electric generator in the country, inaugurated in 2021, small diesel generators can also be heard while extracting water from underground wells to take it to storage containers at the highest points of the houses. When “Doña Lucila”—as some locals call the electricity—goes away, other textures reverberate in the city: mechanical typewriters for letters that cannot be postponed, insistent whistles from voltage regulators in commercial premises, and some disperse commercial music from small speakers with disposable or rechargeable batteries.

Water and its translation into Sikuani (merra) and Amorúa (mera) emerge as a sound clue of the close and uneasy historical relationship between these indigenous peoples and as part of persistent conversations about a recent dispute in one of their reservations. Some leaders of these two indigenous groups, including our interlocutor in this recording, are the protagonists of a lawsuit against a “reforestation company” that recently invaded one of their reserves to expand the thirsty eucalyptus plantations that feed the biomass generator. Ultimately, the massive expansion of eucalyptus depends on the unfortunate implementation of climate mitigation policies through carbon offset markets and tax incentives linked to the 2016 Peace Agreements with the FARC guerrilla.

None of the Technical High School graduates have found opportunities in the few biomass generator positions; most of its current workers have been brought from Bogotá. Indeed, many graduates from the city have joined the plantation companies, which are becoming the primary job providers in the region. Many other young people migrate to intermediate cities or become involved in informal economies, gasoline smuggling, and even illicit gold mining in National Parks upstream of the Orinoco. Some young indigenous and riverine women who have graduated have joined the army and police as a safer option for social mobility. Nevertheless, some few graduates have joined, for a meager pay, the diminished firefighters to help extinguish the seasonal wildfires now exacerbated by the eucalyptus plantations. Will we also be ready to listen to their struggles during the inevitable long months of drought approaching? For now, with this sonic ethnography, we hope to have begun to hear the echoes of how water attunes us to languages about how such diverse and marginalized youth encounter the Orinoco and make decisions about the future of “green” energy, education, and work in the junction for post-carbon alternatives.

Listen to the audio ethnography:

Audio Description

This post was curated by Multimodal Contributing Editor Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo.

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