CENTRAL AMERICA / MEXICO
People power against the Plan Puebla Panama
Communities vote down environmentally unfriendly water projects.
For indigenous people, water is life. Guatemalan Mayan leader Daniel Matul explains the importance of water for the indigenous people of Mesoamerica: “Water is the basis of our material and spiritual existence. According to Mayan philosophy, men and women come from water, so it is a source of life.”
But water has become an issue of global concern and is inextricably bound to social control and power relations.
The Mesoamerican region, which encompasses south-central Mexico and extends southeastwards to include the Yucatán peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and the Pacific coast of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica down to the Gulf of Nicoya, is exceptionally rich in biodiversity and natural resources, including rivers, streams and other water sources.
Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), an ambitious plan to integrate the region’s infrastructure, includes the promotion of hydroelectric dams, purportedly to reduce the region’s dependence on fossil fuel.
However, local civil society organizations have strongly condemned the PPP as a mechanism for powerful economic interests (tied to Central American business-led governments) to exploit the region’s highly lucrative resources with scant regard for the basic needs of local communities.
According to researcher Giancarlo Delgado Ramos, of the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Azcapotzalco, Mexico, hydroelectric projects are a key component of the PPP and have been misleadingly marketed as clean and environmentally friendly in order to attract investment from international organizations.
Delgado Ramos explains that far from being environmentally friendly, hydroelectric dams contribute significantly to global warming as they flood vast areas of woodland in which decomposing vegetation and other organic matter produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane.
The researcher argues that “these movements of water could produce a regional climate change which would alter hydrologic ecosystems, with a huge impact on the distribution of water basins, displacing aquifers and turning some areas into deserts while flooding others.”
Local communities throughout the region have already felt the impact of hydroelectric dams. In the state of Guerrero, in southern Mexico, campesino organizations have fought tooth and nail against the construction of La Parota hydroelectric dam on the Papagayo River.
In mid-2003, the state-owned Federal Electrical Commission authorized the construction of hydroelectric dam without the mandatory environmental impact studies and without consulting the local campesino population.
Had La Parota gone ahead, the dam would have flooded over 17,000 hectares of land, leading to the displacement of over 25,000 campesinos in the municipalities of Acapulco, San Marcos, Juan R. Escudero, Tecoanapa and Chilpancingo, whose lands would be forcefully expropriated by the state.
In 2003, the campesino communities of Guerrero formed the Council of Ejidos —communal or cooperative farming — and Communities Opposed to La Parota, known by its Spanish initials CECOP.
On March 14, 2006, CECOP issued a press release stating that the CFE had acted illegally by calling campesino assemblies to vote on whether the dam project should go ahead, when according to Mexican agrarian law, such community consultations can only be called by campesino leaders, not state actors.
According to CECOP, those who opposed the construction of the dam, were forcefully barred from attending the event by army soldiers stationed in the area. On March 16, some 300 campesinos held a peaceful demonstration outside the CFE headquarters in Mexico City, calling for La Parota to be scrapped.
Four days later, the case was heard by the Latin American Water Tribunal, which ruled in favor of the campesino communities and stated that the construction of the dam should be halted immediately as the project “would not bring any demonstrable benefits for the local population, or contribute to regional development or to the protection of the environment and natural resources.” The project was shelved due to the popular discontent.
This victory has inspired other civil society organizations in the region that have also resisted the imposition of hydroelectric projects that pose a grave threat to the environment.
In Guatemala, the Mayan Mam communities of Tajumulco, in the Northern department of San Marcos, near the Mexican border, have opposed the Tres Ríos hydroelectric project which envisages the construction of three electric generators on the Canuja, Negro de San Pablo and Cutzulchima rivers.
Indigenous communities and environmental organizations oppose the project on the grounds that only one environmental impact study has been carried out (when in fact three studies are required, one for every river) and that the local population has not been consulted.
On Nov. 27, 2006, the Community Development Councils of Tajumulco organized a community consultation (a traditional community plebiscite in which people vote through a show of hands) — 192,000 Mayan campesinos unanimously rejected the project.
In a similar vote in April 2006 in the municipality of Ixcan, in the highland department of Quiche, where 18,000 Mayan Keqchi’ campesinos unanimously rejected the Xalala hydroelectric project, fearing that the dam will cause an ecological disaster and will flood their smallholdings.
According to the Guatemalan Municipal Code and International Labor Organization Convention 169, indigenous people have the right to a say on any issues affecting their welfare and that traditional forms of organization and decision-making must be respected.
However, in May this year, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court ruled that community consultations were “non-binding,” which has been used by the government as an excuse to ignore communities that oppose mining or hydroelectric projects.
On Oct. 11, the Constitutional Court authorized the construction of the hotly contested Hondo River dam in the Zacapa department. In 2005, residents voted against the project in a popular consultation. The dam is expected to be operational in 2010.
Other areas respond
Similar projects have been rejected throughout the Mesoamerican region.
In April 2005, the communities surrounding the Pacuare River in Southeastern Costa Rica, rejected the construction of a hydroelectric dam which was deemed to be environmentally unsafe and in Panama, civil society organizations have voiced concern over government plans to build nine hydroelectric dams in an attempt to reduce the country’s energy bill.
Communities across the region are increasingly calling for new, more environmentally friendly development in tune with local needs.
In the village of Uspantan, in the highland department of Quiche, in Guatemala, the 31 de Mayo cooperative was set up after the 1996 Peace Accords, with support from the Spanish government and the Solar Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, to provide electric energy for 500 families.
Small-scale community hydroelectric projects are still rare in the Mesoamerican region but have already met with great success in other countries such as Cuba, which has 175 small dams which benefit an average of 400 families each.
As CECOP leader Rodolfo Chávez Galindo, said after La Parota was deemed unsafe by the Latin American Water Tribunal: “There can be no development if it only benefits transnational corporations.
There can be no true development if there are no benefits for the people.”