Listening to Communities on Dam Building in Peru

Monti Aguirre

Ashaninka people discuss proposals for dams on the Tambo River.
Ashaninka people discuss proposals for dams on the Tambo River.
Jose Serra

In the heavy weeping fog Limeños call winter, I took a taxi along the Pacific Coast. “That is the Christ that the Brazilians gave our former president,” said the driver, pointing to a distant white statue. It is a duplicate of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. This one was given by Brazilian construction company Odebrecht to then-Peruvian President Alan Garcia. 

Odebrecht is one of a number of Brazilian companies interested in tapping into a dam boom in Peru. Close to 50 dams are proposed for Peru’s rivers, mostly on the eastern drainage, which could have significant consequences for the health of the Amazon River. Many of these dams would be for exporting power to Brazil.

Odebrecht was referred to many times at the meeting of dam-affected peoples that I came here to attend. People had come from all across Peru to a quiet convent in bustling Lima, all fired up to protect their rivers and rights. Forthright Olga Cutipia from the Front to Defend the Inambari River spoke about the resolve of communities that would be affected by the Inambari Dam to stop the project completely. In a recent victory for these people, the Brazilian consortium Egasur's rights to develop the project were recently revoked by the Ministry of Mines under pressure from communities, who blocked access roads to the region and held mass protests.

Concerned Ashaninka representatives from two indigenous peoples’ groups – the Central Ashaninka of the Tambo River (CART), and the Central Ashaninka of the Rio Ene (CARE) – were not far behind in their firm resolution to defend the Ene-Tambo River Basin.  The Pakitzapango Dam planned on the Ene River remains stalled by a legal action presented by CARE last year. “We will defend ourselves, and also the rights of isolated peoples who live in Otishi National Park, and the Ashaninka Reserve,” said CARE leader Ruth Buendia Mestoquiari.

A woman affected by construction on the recently finished Olmos Dam project in Peru conveyed her sad experience. “We were forced to relocate to a creek, which does not have water in the dry season, but floods in the rainy season. We demand relocation.” Men complained because there is no work in their new locality of Nuevo Huabal. The loss of their old places and ways of life is so strong among these people that they are concerned that if they stay there, soon they will simply disappear.

Political pressure

Official pressure to build dams has been mounting since the previous administration signed an energy agreement with Brazil in 2010 which opens the door for Brazilian companies to build a series of large dams in the Peruvian Amazon. The Peruvian Congress still needs to ratify the agreement. In all, there is potential for construction of at least five dams, and exploitation of 7,200 megawatts, for export to Brazil.

Recently elected President Ollanta Humala, a former army officer who ran for nationalistic Peru Wins party, made clear in his inaugural speech his resolve to build many dams. If the dam boom proceeds, Mr. Humala’s greatest challenge will be to fulfill his promise to defend natural resources and address socioeconomic disparities, because many proposed hydropower plants will do great harm to Peruvian rivers, forests, and the lives of its people. Big dams are also a poor way to reduce economic inequities.

Civil society groups have expressed serious concerns with the way dams are coming on board. “The first problem is that there isn’t a process for energy planning, and the premise is that with more exploitation comes more wealth, which is not necessarily true,” said Cesar Gamboa from Rights, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR).

The New Sustainable Energy Matrix (NUMES) and a new national energy policy are still being prepared. The Inter-American Development Bank is financing the nearly complete initial studies, now being prepared by Peruvian and Argentine consulting agencies. 

Activists fear the presidential push for hydro will skew the results.  “The Ministry of Energy and Mines should evaluate all energy options, and grant priority to energy efficiency and clean renewable projects before signing on to the energy agreement with Brazil,” said Aldo Soto of WWF-Peru. There is also concern that such an important policy is being prepared without consulting civil society. Most energy projects are proposed in areas far from where decisions are being made.

In a bit of good news, President Humala has adopted a progressive policy that obliges the government to consult with indigenous peoples on development projects in order to reach consensus. “The approval of the law of prior consultation of indigenous peoples is a breakthrough and demonstrates the good will of the government to effect the great changes that the country needs,” said Alberto Pizango from the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Aidesep).

“Investors should understand that prior consultation should give them legal certainty needed for a socially sustainable project,” said Javier Jahncke of legal NGO Fedepaz.  “If they have the agreement or consent of local indigenous peoples, it will give them peace of mind, and they won’t have to agonize over strikes or road closures from protesters, which can result in significant losses  for project developers.” Meanwhile, indigenous peoples will be able to count on a fundamental tool that allows them to have legal certainty of land ownership and their rights over it.

NGOs and regional governments are also calling for for the cancellation of some hastily adopted laws intended to promote investment in energy projects by the private sector. The most recent of these, dubbed the “energy generation highway,” was issued in April.  It calls for prioritizing the construction of 20 dams on the Marañón River to produce 12,400 megawatts. Most of these projects are proposed in areas of dry forests. The health and livelihoods of communities are dependent on the river’s floods and nutrients.

The regional government of San Martin province is demanding to cancel the law that calls for diversion of the Marañón and damming of the Huallaga rivers. Riverine and indigenous communities that depend of these ecosystems would be highly affected, and endemic species would be in danger of extinction. Communities’ agricultural production, forest use, transportation and ecotourism activities would also be impacted.

“The Marañón and the Huallaga rivers supply great quantities of water to the Amazon River,” reads a communiqué from the regional government of San Martin. Other options exist, such as “adopting updated irrigation technologies, water treatment plants and re-use of water.”

President Humala has many complicated issues on his plate when it comes to energy planning and dam building, but he is also blessed with a nation of engaged communities and a rich commons.If he chooses to engage the people in presenting solutions and protecting these common resources, the future will be bright indeed. We’ll be watching and participating, and working with local people to protect Peru’s rich riverine heritage.