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A project to build 60 hydro electric dams across the Amazon sounds green but could have disastrous consequences, Graeme Green reports

                                   

“We will use guns, knives or whatever to defend Pakitzapango,” says Nancy Carbolico, chief of the Ashaninka village Pamakiari, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. “We are completely against the dam. Even the grandfathers and grandmothers… everyone will go and fight so they don’t build the dam in Pakitzapango.”

It’s taken eight hours by small motorboat to travel up the Ene River to Pamakiari. On the way, Paula Acevedo of the organisation Central Ashaninka del Rio Ene (CARE) pointed out the spot in the river where energy companies propose the construction of a 165 metre high hydroelectric dam. “They (Ashaninkas) won’t have a place to live,” says Paula. “There’s enormous concern about the consequences of building the dam.”

The Pakitzapango Dam is one of five proposed dams in the Ene River area, part of a larger plan to build more than 60 dams in the Brazilian, Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon over the next two decades. Pakitzapango alone could produce up to 2000 megawatts of energy a year, with most of the energy exported to Brazil. According to it’s opponents, 734 square km of forest and arable land would be flooded, with ten Ashaninka communities (over 10,000 people) displaced, their food supplies and livelihoods (fish, crops…) destroyed. “The children are going to suffer because of the dam,” says Nancy. “We live from fishing. We’re not going to have fish to eat. Maybe if we go to another place, we’ll die. We’re going to defend ourselves, our village.”

The Brazilian energy company Eletrobras is behind the dam projects in Brazil and Peru, with construction company Odebrecht said to be lined up to conduct pre-feasibility studies in Pakitzapango. Eletrobras declined to answer any questions. A spokesperson for Odebrecht issued a statement claiming it’s impossible to know what the effect of the dam would be without conducting studies (see Box). But the Ashaninkas believe if companies are allowed to conduct studies, construction of the dam would quickly follow, regardless of the findings. They’re against any attempts by the companies to come onto their land.

The Ashaninkas are even more upset about the dam having already suffered during Peru’s civil war of the 1980s and 1990s between government forces and Maoist guerrilla group the Shining Path. 6000 Ashaninkas were killed, 12,000 disappeared and 15,000 displaced. Mario Chirisenti, another community leader at Pamakiari, lost his parents when he was 15. He draws a direct parallel between the conflict and the dam: both involve the Ashaninkas being forced off their land. “My parents were killed in the civil war. People were forced to move,” he says. “Now we have things here - our lives, schools, medical centre -, it’s unfair if we have to move again. The activities we do here – hunting, fishing… -, if the dam is built, none of this will be possible.”

                                           

I travel further upriver to Boca Anapate. Village chief, Gamaniel Lopez, is equally determined to stay. “I’m worried about my grandchildren,” he says. “I remember in the 1980s, the violence and terrorism… and now this. The people who are going to build the dam don’t care, but it’s us who will suffer. If they build the dam, we have nowhere else to go.”

Gamaniel objects to the idea that Odebrecht or other companies would help the communities. Even if the Ashaninkas were offered money to move, he says they would refuse. “We don’t want to move to another place. We want to stay here. There are no people who’ve come here offering economic support. But we don’t want it, even if they do offer. We know that money ends but this land does not.”

Back in the town of Satipo, I meet Ruth Buendia, President of CARE. “What’s being done is illegal,” she says. “We have documents that say the Ashaninkas own the land. We own the titles to the land.”

The Ashaninkas have the legal right to say ‘no’ to the dam, Ruth argues. But despite claims from Oddbrecht that local communities would be involved in any process and Peru ratifying laws requiring the consultation of indigenous peoples on issues that affect them, Ruth says the Ashaninkas have never been consulted.

Rainforest Foundation UK have launched a campaign to stop the dam. Ruth also hopes Peru’s new President Ollanta Humala will keep his election promises to protect indigenous rights. But if legal strategies fail, the Ashaninkas are prepared to risk their lives to defend the river. “If we have to, we will use force,” Ruth says passionately. “We don’t want fighting. But if this will be the last chance to stop the dam, then we will fight.”

For more information or to support Rainforest Foundation UK’s campaign, go to www.rainforestfoundationuk.org

Simon Counsell, Executive Director of Rainforest Foundation UK says: “As well as the direct ecological impact of flooding forest, blocking of the river passage for fish and other wildlife, and changing the local weather patterns, the indirect impacts of the dam are likely to be enormous. Hydro dams are huge projects requiring thousands of workers who often stay to clear forest land for farming. Dams require permanent access roads and clearing of forest for electricity transmission lines, all of which encourages even more settlers to move into the forest. Pakitzapango will be like a cancer of deforestation spreading through the adjacent region. It doesn’t have to be like this. Hydro power can potentially be a very green source of energy when dams are built in the right place and under the right conditions. Putting a major dam on a key tributary of the Amazon in the middle of a remote rainforest which is legally protected for the native inhabitants is not the right condition. As well as many other locations for hydro power, Peru also has massive potential for clean energy such as wind and solar. The main beneficiaries from the dam seem to be the Brazilian government and investors. A more sustainable approach would be for international financial organisations to support the expansion of renewable energy production in Peru, which could be enormously beneficial for the Peruvian economy and would create much-needed jobs.”

A spokesperson for Odebrecht, one of the company’s behind the dam, says: “If the government of Peru, in consultation with the communities in the area of influence of the Pakitzapango project, wanted to implement a plan of sustainable development by exploiting the renewable resources of the Ene river, the study group formed by Andrade Gutierrez, Eletrobrás, Engevix and Odebrecht is willing to develop feasibility studies. If the Peru government decided to proceed with feasibility studies, the legal requirements applicable, including the international agreements ratified by the Government of the Peru, will be faithfully observed. Without having completed studies it’s not possible to determine the potential impacts, size or degree of effect. If the government of Peru and the communities decided to proceed with feasibility studies, socio-environmental impacts of the project (positive and negative) would be identified and carefully evaluated, and a proposal to include a set of mitigating and compensatory measures deemed necessary. All this is part of the assessment process of the social and environmental viability of the project, which includes a broad process of participation and consultation with local communities. Additionally, according to the corporate policy of the member companies of our group, all projects converge in contributing to the improvement of living conditions of people living in local communities. To achieve this objective, investments are made in social programs, health, education, basic services and enhancement of cultural heritage, among others.”