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The Cost of Latin America's New Dams

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Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

When peasant farmers in Cacahuatepec set out to work in their fields in January 2003 they found heavy equipment bulldozing down the corn, fruit trees, and fences they depend on for survival. The indigenous Nahuatl communities of this region in the mountains above Acapulco demanded an explanation from Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission and for months received no answers.

"They weren't doing studies. They were already digging, they already had helicopter ports, offices, warehouses with dynamite,” affirms Rodolfo Chavez, a member of the Council of Communal Farms and Communities Opposed to the La Parota Dam Project (CECOP). “All this with no permission from the Agrarian Reform office or the communities.” When the government engineers returned from their weekend in Acapulco the morning of July 28, 2003, they met residents from three villages planted firmly in the middle of the road to block entry. The peasant farmers demanded answers to why their homes and lands were being destroyed.

The response was worse than they could ever have imagined. Chavez says the villagers were told that the government was building a dam “in the public interest” that would cover their communities in hundreds of feet of water. Moreover, since it was a federal project, they had no right to interfere. The farmers, who work plots collectively owned as indigenous communal lands under Mexican law, replied something along the lines of “over my dead body.”

Unfortunately for some, that’s the way events have transpired. Since construction on the gigantic La Parota dam began, four people have been killed in the conflict and many more imprisoned, threatened, and beaten. The roadblocks have continued and legal battles have led to temporary suspension of the project. But even as the developed world increasingly looks for energy resources from the developing world, the battle over La Parota is far from over.

Power Surge

The La Parota experience has been repeated with variations on the theme throughout Mexico and Latin America. Members of CECOP met June 20 in the Mexican town of Temacapulin with 300 people affected by dams and other development megaprojects in Latin America. Activists have been able to point to success in La Parota case. Local opposition has held off the flooding of 42,000 acres of fields and forests, home to 21 communities and such abundant animal and plant life that the National Biodiversity Commission lists it as a conservation priority. So far, the 25,000 residents that the dam would displace have been able to continue on their ancestral lands despite the designs of “progress.”

Temacapulin, where the meeting was held, is a small colonial village in the highlands of Jalisco that is slated to be wiped off the map by a $400 million-dollar mega-dam project called El Zapotillo. If local activists lose this battle, water will soon cover the centuries-old church, inundate the natural hot springs, wipe out the cattle grazing in valley pastures, and force out migrants who finally made enough in Los Angeles to come back to the town they love. The stories of displacement and resistance gave the people of the host town a glimpse of their future and the future of Latin America.

A globalized world economy needs global power sources. It requires borderless access to water, electricity, oil, land, and transportation routes. As the developed countries have used up or contaminated these resources, they increasingly look to developing countries to fulfil their seemingly insatiable needs.

Latin America is seeing a surge in infrastructure projects. These projects form the backbone of plans to re-map the region. They are transforming traditional land use, cultures, and local populations into conduits for the production and flow of goods envisioned by corporate globalization. The dams channel water to cities, agro-business export ventures, and monocultures. They are displacing the traditional campesino economy of subsistence farming and strong cultural and religious ties to the land. They also generate electricity for industry. And they present lucrative construction contracts -- on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars –that have transnational corporations eagerly eying a new frontier for profit-making. National governments, dazzled by nine-digit foreign investment figures, are laying the groundwork for this mega-business, and the international finance institutions provide yet more poor-country debt.

Countering the Dams

In response, grassroots organizations of the displaced, environmental groups, and researchers have begun surge-control efforts. Local opposition to dam-building began to grow in the 1980s as residents fought relocation and scientists questioned the value of the dams. In 2000 the World Bank and the World Conservation Union established the World Commission on Dams (WCD) to review the impact of large dams.

The commission released a report in 2000 with conclusions that should have changed the course of global dam development. Not only were large dams throughout the world harming populations and the environment, in nearly all cases studied they did not live up to their own economic claims. The report concluded that while dams have contributed to development, “in too many cases, an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits.” Moreover, the majority failed to provide the irrigation and energy benefits promised in the projects.

It noted that dams have left an estimated 40-80 million displaced persons, most of whom have not been fully compensated and have been relocated to insufficient lands and non-existent livelihoods. Women have suffered more than men since compensation is usually paid to males and women are cut off from non-compensated public lands that form part of their economic activities. The projects have also disproportionately affected indigenous peoples, even though they theoretically have additional rights and considerations under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization and some national indigenous rights laws.

The Commission established basic guidelines for proceeding with dam projects. These include: determine development needs and objectives in an open and participatory process; assess all options for water and energy resource development; give social and environmental aspects the same weight as technical, economic, and financial factors; increase the effectiveness and sustainability of existing water, irrigation, and energy systems first; develop comprehensive national policies; and monitor the impact of existing dams.

The report was a major step forward and a vindication of what many citizen groups and researchers had been saying for years. It should at least have encouraged a pause to reflect on the enormous and irreparable damage these infrastructure projects had caused and adjust policy accordingly.

But that didn’t happen. Although the rate of dam-building in the world has slowed somewhat since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the World Bank adopted their manic leave-no-river-behind programs several decades ago, developing countries have seen a renewed attack on the free flow of water.

In fact, the World Bank began a new wave of funding for huge dam projects in 2003 – just three years after its own report. The 2007 portfolio includes $814 million in loans, guarantees and carbon finance for nine dam projects. These projects should be required to comply with the report’s guidelines. But the International Rivers Network reports that the World Bank never even attempted to implement the guidelines established by the Dams Commission.

As funders and governments forge on with more and larger energy projects, spurred by oil breaking $100 dollars a barrel, studies on infrastructure projects from around the world come to the same conclusion: these projects are good business for private companies and international finance banks, but bad business for people and the environment.

A study of four dams in the Changuinola-Teribe watershed in Panama carried out by the Conservation Strategy Fund asks three questions: is the project economically efficient, is it fair, and what are the uncounted costs and benefits. According to preliminary results, the complex as a whole would generate approximately $92 million in net profits for the operating company. However, it would likely fail the test on questions two and three. Both predicted and uncounted costs fall unfairly on the Naso and Ngobe indigenous peoples and the project negatively affects the the Amistad National Park, an important biological corridor.

Studies have found that the Belo Monte dam project in the Brazilian Amazon would dry out 100 kilometers of the Xingu river bed and displace 16,000 mostly indigenous peoples. The Brazilian government’s long-range energy plan includes the construction of 60-70 new dams in the rainforest over the next two decades. A dam project on the Baker River in the Chilean Patagonia would destroy one of the world’s most pristine river systems and threaten endangered species.

As the above examples suggest, the results of independent research have been like pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz. The poor rarely received the promised benefits of the projects. Instead, the results are displacement and environmental destruction, with little employment generation and long-term negative effects.

The NAFTA-PPP Link

In Latin America, the most recent power surge has been channeled through two grandiose infrastructure programs – Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP) and the Initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America. On June 28, Central American and Mexican heads of state relaunched the PPP under the name “Mesoamerican Project for Development and Economic Integration.” They decided to change the name and other identity traits after grassroots mobilization and international organizing forced the Plan to go underground soon after its birth in 2001.

Dams aren’t included directly in the PPP portfolio, which was slimmed down due to lack of resources and bad publicity. But the hydroelectric plants planned in the region respond to the same logic of linking up markets under the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) and granting access to natural resources for transnational investors and business. The PPP now includes two major systems: a trans-continental highway system and construction of transmission lines to form an interlocking electrical grid across Central America. This sets the scene for major advances in the privatization and import and export of energy.

A 2005 inventory of infrastructure projects in Mesoamerica found 381 hydroelectric projects planned for that region alone. The two dams planned for the Usumacinta Basin that spans Chiapas and Guatemala -- both with over $600 million price tags -- have raised particular alarm since they affect the Mayan jungle and large indigenous populations.

These projects form part of the integration planned under the trade agreements. In the words of a PPP official, “The current challenge in Mesoamerica is a harmonized economic area where economic agents can operate as if the territory were a single country.”

New infrastructure construction and patterns of land use respond to the needs of industry generated under NAFTA. In response to accusations that NAFTA’s lowering of trade and investment barriers would lead to negative environmental impacts – as companies moved to Mexico for more lenient environmental law enforcement –the U.S. Congress created the environmental side agreement and the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC).

Hundreds of U.S. factories have since been established, not only on the border but in inland enclaves like the industrial corridors around Guadalajara, Jalisco. These plants are among the beneficiaries of the energy that would be provided by the Zapotillo and nearby Arcediano dam projects.

A few months ago, residents and environmental groups from Jalisco submitted a citizens’ petition to the CEC claiming that the Mexican government had failed to carry out its responsibilities in distribution of water, carrying out inspections, and revoking concessions. They cite the authorization of the Arcediano Dam; pollution of the Santiago River; corruption in water-use deals; permits for water-intensive golf courses, soccer fields, and tree plantations in the nearly dried-up Lake Chapala basin, and a lack of citizen participation.

The Mexican government claimed that it has complied with the criteria for sustainable water use and aquatic ecosystems.

Tell that to Maricarmen Rocha. Maricarmen attended the meeting in Temacapulin because on January 26 her 8-year-old son Miguel fell into the Santiago River -- and died. He didn’t drown. He was taken to the hospital in a coma and died 19 days later of what was reportedly arsenic poisoning. Neighbors have reported hundreds of cases of illnesses possibly related to pollution of the river. A study of the State Environmental Commission shows discharges from at least 80 plants, including U.S. chemical and electronic firms that operate in upstream industrial parks. The proposed Arcediano dam would pool waters from the Santiago to send to urban areas for drinking water. On May 30, the CEC agreed to conduct a fact-finding study of the Arcediano Dam area.

When Power Lines Cross, Sparks Fly

As societies across the globe struggle with the human impact of high oil prices, economic planners have intensified strategies to assure that the energy system that caused the crisis in the first place can continue to function -- with profits -- well into the future. They have drawn the lines of battle, taken inventory of the tools (and weapons) at their disposal, and made up game plans, embodied in part by PPP and IIRSA.

This is called “progress.” But in Latin America especially, people affected by infrastructure megaprojects are questioning the definition of progress -- and who gets to do the defining. The discussion goes beyond the immediate impact of dams. As the World Dams Commission reports, “the debate about dams is a debate about the very meaning, purpose and pathways for achieving development.”

The meeting in Temacapulin of the Mexican Movement of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers didn’t spend the whole three days on sob stories and war tales. Participants also did serious work on analyzing current patterns of energy use -- including their own personal use -- and possible alternatives. Organizations are taking responsibility for finding new answers not just critiquing the old ones.

In Temacapulin, the townspeople know what’s at stake. They say the children have nightmares of great walls of water sweeping away their lives and everything they’ve ever known. The old people sicken and die off in despair.

Father Gabriel Espinosa, a Temacapulin native, has decided to stand on the side of a different kind of progress. “The government can’t force me to sell my land, abandon my way of life and the house my ancestors built,” he says. “This doesn’t just affect the 700 or so families here. It affects everyone.”

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