Mega Dam Project on Patuca River Threatens Indigenous Communities

Edgardo Benitez of the Green Alliance and the Platform in Defence of the Patuca River, said everyone is worried and desperate, especially the Tawahkas who are a small group of 500, whose lives depend on this river. This community of Tawahkas is at risk of extinction as the dam project at the Patuca River proceeds. Those who call the Patuca river home are thousands of Indigenous people living in one of the dozens of Indigenous communities on the river. At a workshop, community members ‘repeatedly emphasized the tight linkages between the river and their lives and livelihoods. The Tawaka and Miskito people relied on the river for water, transportation, and fish, while seasonal floods deposited nutrient-rich soil in low-lying farm fields to maintain their long-term productivity’ (Opperman 7/2/11).

Patuca is the longest river of Honduras at 320kms long. When I asked Edgardo how long it might take if I travelled to visit the communities, he said it would take several days as you would go through forests and rivers as there are no roads.

In 2001, Bassi wrote about the grave social and environmental implications building the massive hydroelectric dams on Patuca River would have, and that ‘fortunately, the efforts of local and international groups have put the project on hold. While a positive step, this does not permanently protect the river, as the project could potentially be reinstated at any time.’

While discussions had been ongoing, this ‘any time’ has come; on 17 January 2011, the Honduran National Congress approved a decree for the construction of the dams Patuca II, IIA, and III, and supposeably the Ministry of Natural Resources and World Bank gave the green light saying the dam will not cause environmental damage (Honduras Weekly, 21/1/11). General Manager of state power company Enee said Patuca III’s first stage works will begin in early February 2011 and its commercial operations in 2014 (Hydroworld, 2011).

Political games with an unfeasible project

 The current ‘winner’ of this ‘game’ are the semi-state Chinese company Sinohydro which has concession for the project; with the Chinese Vice-President Son Dong Sheng having said the project will need investment of around $1,000 million in September 2009, to have this answered by the Inter-American Development Bank committing $1,200 millions of finance (El Heraldo, 29/10/10). Countries like Germany is also making some form of contribution to these types of projects while hypocritically supporting projects to protect forests, when dam projects destroy the rivers and the forests the rivers feed.

Even if one could disregard the substantial harms upon the environment and communities, which is precisely what businesses do, previous players of this game dating back more than a decade show that economic gains are just as doubtful as the harms are certain.

In 1997, it was the US Texan company Panda, Olancho campesinos made declarations rejecting Patuca dam proposals and denouncing the lack on consultation in 2002 (Ahuas) and 2008 (Uhri Brus) (Ofraneh, 2010), during Zelaya’s administration, the US Harza Company withdrew (Platform for the Defence of Patuca River), and the Taiwanese semi-state company Taiwan Power declined the contract and withdrew its plans to invest $300 million (El Heraldo, 29/10/10).

The Harza Company withdrew because in 2008 Hurracane Mitch came and ruined the shores of the rivers and the company learned through this that the river was too fragile to sustain such a project (Patuca Platform).

El Heraldo (2010) states Taiwan’s decision to withdraw was based on financial crisis, but Patuca Platform confirms that it was because it undertook evaluation and was conscious of the problems with the shores, and that real production capacity of the river is only half its predicted capacity of 100 megawatts (its proponents, such as Honduras Weekly 21/1/11, continue to use original numbers, of 104 megawatts in 3 years, and 524 megawatts in 9 years), partly because the rivers do not hold water, but flows to the sea instead.

Benitez suspects that the Chinese government is well aware of the fact that the project is not feasible, but chose to bid for the dam in spite of this and in disregard of the political situation of Honduras or the social and environmental impact because of rivalry between China and Taiwan governments. Amongst the risks include the destruction of the Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve and the Miskitia and Garifuna coastal wetlands.

Sinohydro Company built the Three Throats in China – the largest dam in the world.

While the Honduran regime rules as unconstitutional a decree allowing farming communities occupying idle land to make legal claims on the land because this ‘violates private property’, it takes no issue with expropriating land from small farmers and communities against their will for the Patuca projects. According to Honduras Weekly 21/1/11 it will also build a road at Jamastran.

With the military coup of 2009, its planners did not expect that people would go out on the streets in thousands everyday for several months. Benitez believes that the coup plotters now think they need to partner with transnational capital to absolve the resistance, and for the same reason are pushing for the introduction of ‘model cities’, both fitting in with Lobo’s neoliberal Country Plan.

The deposed Zelaya administration did withdraw the project along with the company facing strong community opposition and obvious environmental harms, the coup regimes have no tendencies to do the same, and restored the historical politics of persecution of community leaders and removal of projects for the Indigenous.

The proponents and coup regime also claim this move is to stop Honduras’ dependence on thermal energy, to make ‘clean’ energy cheaper, (Honduras Weekly 21/1/11) Ofraneh (2010) refuted the clean energy claims stating there are studies that show megadams in tropical and subtropical waters contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, as the submerged forests convert into a methane source, which is considered 20 times more contamining than CO2.

It explains that this attack of imposing hydroelectric dams in the Central American region is part of the Mesoamerica Project which conforms to the US energy vision in the name of ‘Alliance of the Americas for Energy and Climate Strategy’ presented by Hillary Clinton on 15/4/10.

Ofraneh reiterated that there are shortages of production of clean efficient energy, but that to provide ‘clean energy’ by destroying rivers is irresponsible, that there are other options that do not require such damaging constructions.

At a government contracted workshop for developing ‘environmental flow requirements’ for the dam construction on the river a local fisheries biologist who gave a presentation and history of governments’ broken promises, closed off saying ‘a ellos van siempre los dolares…a nosotros van siempre los dolores’ ‘to them always the dollars, to us always the pain’.

While the author believed it was possible to get the ‘environmental flows right, he could see that people in such project often have become collateral damage, was concerned about the scale and location of the dam now with 3 dams, and confirms there is a lot of uncertainty for the future. (Opperman, 7/2/11)

Movement to stop the dams on Patuca

As construction is set to begin, the communities this will affect are committed to come together, create strength in unity, and consciously make their last fight to stop this dam. They do so in the context of having to be very careful, of drug traffickers, mafia, courts, government, etc. The ‘government’ can send to kill and blame it on gangs, while there are also evidence of army and police sent from Colombia against social movements. They also do so in the context of limited economic resources; for example the Platform as one of the organisations coordinating the struggle, has a very precarious financial situation; before the coup, Allianza Verde received a small funding from an NGO, but the NGO like many others left Honduras in July 2009 (Patuca Platform).

On 15/2/11, representatives of the Miskitu, Pech, Tawahka and Garifuna communities met and formed the Unity of Indigenous and Black peoples of the Honduran Miskitia, condemned that the regime gave concession for the construction of Patuca I, II & III without prior consultation nor consent of the peoples, and declared that they will permanently rebel, watch and denounce and take collective action to defend Rio Patuca, its fishes, ecosystems, and the Tawahka and Rio Platano biosphere reserves.

On 2/2/11, Olancho communities arrived to the Presidential House in the capital city Tegucigalpa, to protest against the construction of Patuca III Dam, with construction to begin 15/2 according to recent announcements – highlighting there were never any negotiation process involving these or sales agreement.

Not all of the opposition is demanding this project be stopped however – Miguel Navarro of National Popular Resistance Front said their demands are to be paid and to be paid just prices, but that the head of the state energy company ENEE has not wanted to met with them (Red Morazanica).

This protest was repressed – police commissioners Merlo and Aguilar threatened the protesters with beatings, and a grey 4-door Mazda vehicle PCM3633 had people inside who dedicated to taking photos in an intimidating way of the protesters.

- Article Written By: Rosanna Wong

Photos: All Images in this article courtesy of: Edgardo Benitez, from Alianza Verde, Honduras, Patuca River. Closely looming mega dam project will finish off Patuca River and Indigenous communities that depend on the river.

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