What Future for Peru’s Marañón River?

Monti Aguirre
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Warm zephyrs sweeping in between the tall flowering cacti that line the canyon of the Marañón River helped make my long journey down to the river bearable.  By 8 AM I was already sweating while riding “la Hermosa,” a sturdy mule charged with taking me down the treacherous, narrow path zigzagging along the walls of the Marañón Canyon. I was here to meet with communities who live along the majestic Marañón, to discuss the Peruvian government’s plans to build 22 dams on the river. 

The Marañón begins with a trickle from the Nevado de Yapura glacier high up in the Andes Mountains. It  runs northwest through Peru along the eastern base of the Andes before it turning eastward to meet the Ucayali River. Together, they form the Amazon River in Peru.

The proposed Chadin II Dam, which would flood 32 square kilometers and 20 towns, is the most advanced of the dams proposed for the Marañón. The project is being advanced by the Brazilian company Odebrecht Energia.

These children live in Medan Village, which would be flooded by the dam.
These children live in Medan Village, which would be flooded by the dam.
Photo: Monti Aguirre

The reservoir would displace close to 1,000 people. These communities grow papayas, bananas, oranges, lemons, mangoes and coca leaf, which they transport on mules to sell in bigger towns in the Province of Cajamarca. “For us, the Marañón River is a source of employment, livelihood, a way of life,” a resident of Yagen told me at a town meeting. “For generations it has not only helped to feed our people, but also it has provided sustenance for the regions of Cajamarca and Amazonas. We have been offered a number of projects such as roads, which we know the company needs to move its machinery and turbines to build the dam. They say the roads will help get our products out of the Marañón, but this is useless if the productive valleys is flooded.” Communities also complain that the wave of strangers who have arrived promoting the project have generated division and unrest in their communities, “disturbing the peace and tranquility in which we live.”

Peruvian law requires organizing participatory workshops and public hearings to establish a dialogue between the State, the project developer and the affected population.  The goal is to provide information on the possible impacts and mitigation measures, and to register the observations and suggestions of communities in the EIA.

But in this case, the law was not upheld. At a recent public hearing about the project, police used tear gas and other aggressive tactics to restrict project-affected people from entering the building where the meeting was being held. Other acts of aggression have come from the company itself. In December 2013, residents of two communities along the Marañón River, were surprised when officials of Brazilian Odebrecht company showed up unannounced, accompanied by a large contingent of heavily armed police. Local civil society groups denounced what was widely seen as an act of intimidation.  Under these charged circumstances, Odebrecht received government approval for its environmental impact study in February, and said it plans to begin construction before the end of the year.

The electricity the project will produce is intended to supply mining projects, such as Yanacocha Conga – a large-scale gold and copper mining project that would destroy several Andean lakes and threaten access to water for peoples of the area. There are 14 huge mining projects planned for the area, which would also need a steady supply of electricity.

According to Peruvian engineer Jose Serra, the benefits of the Chadin II project should be weighed against the environmental and social costs, such as human displacement and loss of arable lands; deforestation of 12,000 hectares, greenhouse emissions from the reservoir, biodiversity loss, and the severe alteration of the aquatic system.

Overall, the Peruvian government is planning to build more than 70 large dams in the Peruvian Amazon in coming decades. If these projects are built, the cumulative impacts will be devastating for riverine ecosystems, biodiversity, and the livelihoods of indigenous people and riverine communities in the Andean Amazon. These projects would also have far-reaching consequences for the Amazon Basin by impairing the health of key river systems. 

But Peru has many other energy options, which could play a stronger role in their energy matrix. For example, if Peru reduces its electricity consumption by 30% through the implementation of energy efficiency measures, the nation would need only half of the new power plants it intends to build (at a cost of $5 billion), according to Guido Di Toto, country president of Schneider Electric Peru & Bolivia.

Clearly, Peru is at a critical decision-making point in determining its energy future. Will the nation’s leaders focus on dinosaur dams that are expensive, risky and of high social and environmental impacts, or will they seek to prioritize more advanced technologies for electricity generation and energy conservation?