Dam Project Threatens a Way of Life in Peru

Aaron Nelsen
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Originally published in The New York Times

BOCA SANIBENI, Peru — Along the murky waters of the Ene River, in a remote jungle valley on the verdant eastern slopes of the Andes, the rhythmic humming of an outboard motor draws the stares of curious Ashaninka children.

With encroachment from settlers and speculators, and after a devastating war against Shining Path rebels a decade ago, the indigenous Ashaninkas’ hold is precarious. And they are now facing a new peril, the proposed 2,200-megawatt Pakitzapango hydroelectric dam, which would flood much of the Ene River valley.

The project is part of a proposal for as many as five dams that under a 2010 energy agreement would generate more than 6,500 megawatts, primarily for export to neighboring Brazil. The dams would displace thousands of people in the process.

Antonio Metzoquiari, 59, a thin man wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, considered the implications for his community. “This is a grave matter,” Mr. Metzoquiari said. “It’s a return to violence, another war. I don’t know where or how, but we would have to find a new place to live.”

At a time when hydroelectric dams have fallen out of favor in some parts of the world, the projects might seem an anachronism. But dams remain attractive in much of Latin America, where a number of nations have plenty of water but lack other conventional and affordable energy sources.

For now, the project is stalled in the Peruvian Congress, where it awaits debate by the Foreign Relations Commission. President Ollanta Humala has yet to take a position on the dams, but how he manages this and numerous other initiatives across the country that pit development against local and predominantly indigenous communities could very well define his presidency, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research organization based in Washington.

“The biggest test for Humala is how he strikes the middle ground,” Mr. Shifter said. “I think he understands that if he moves too hard and too fast on this development path, that it can really come back to bite him.”

Already Mr. Humala is being tested in northern Peru, where thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent months to oppose the $4.8 billion Conga gold mine that the protesters say would pollute water supplies.

Mr. Humala capitalized on social movements like these, especially among Peru’s large and historically marginalized indigenous population, to win the presidency, much to the chagrin of the middle and upper classes in Lima, the capital, who were the primary beneficiaries of a decade-long economic boom based substantially on mining.

Mr. Humala opposed the Conga mine during the campaign, but he has since given the project his support while pledging to ensure quality of life improvements for surrounding communities. This conciliatory approach might be a first glimpse at how the president plans to achieve his social agenda while assuaging wary investors, said Fernando Romero, a sociologist and an expert on social conflict in Peru.

“I think what we are seeing is that the government will look to mining and investment from Brazil as the principal source of funding for its plan for social inclusion,” he said.

So far, Mr. Humala has not staked out a clear position on the proposed dams, though that is likely to change when President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil visits Peru, a visit expected soon.

Officials with the Energy and Mining Ministry say the dams make economic sense only if much of the energy they produce is exported. The ministry added that while it considered environmental and social issues important, it also wanted to make sure that affected local populations benefit from the projects through electrification.

Despite claims that the welfare of affected communities is a top priority, several of the projects passed feasibility studies before local residents were even informed that the government had awarded concessions on the land. In response to that disclosure, the Central Asháninka del Rio Ene, which represents Ashaninka populations in the Ene River Valley, went to court to compel the Energy and Mining Ministry to disclose all feasibility studies on the dam proposals.

After the project was announced, the organization brought together 17 Ashaninka communities to explain that a dam would inundate some communities and dry out others that depend on the river for sustenance and transportation. Many people would be forced from their homes, critics argue, evoking memories of Peru’s war against the Moaist-inspired Shining Path rebels, which officially ended in 2000 but scarred the Ashaninka.

Of the 70,000 people who were killed over two decades, 6,000 were Ashaninka, experts said. Thousands more were displaced and only over the past few years have they begun to resettle their communities along the Ene.

“This is why the Ashaninka brothers say because we have sacrificed while our families disappeared, I’m not going to give away our land so easily to the state,” said CARE’s president, Ruth Buendia.

She said the Ashaninka do not understand how a project of this magnitude was approved without their knowledge.

“They think we’re going to break windows and protest like in Conga, but we aren’t,” Ms. Buendia said, thumping the table. “Just as they do to us with legal documents we are going to do to them.”

When the scope of the dam project was made clear to the Ashaninka, many expressed disbelief while others worried that an exodus would lead to infighting over diminished resources. The final speaker, Dimer Dominguito, 25, who was accompanied by his wife and five children, captured the Ashaninka’s desperation and outrage.

“In the city they make money and buy whatever they need, but here we live by our customs, our market, eating what we plant and we are happy,” he said. “We want to defend our right to what is natural, to defend our market, and we support the government, but who supports us?”

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