Who said large-scale hydropower was out? As an article published by Climate Central recently noted, it has now been omitted from the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) annual reports on renewable energy for eight years running, and “may be seen as a risky bet” for investors.
But Peru, together with one Brazilian company in particular, may have other ideas. As I recently reported in a series of articles for Mongabay, Peru is proposing to build more than 20 dams on the main trunk of the currently free-flowing River Maranon, which births in the Andes and is the River Amazon’s main source. According to Peruvian engineer Jose Serra Vega, just four of these dams could cause the Maranon’s “biological death”, while US environmental anthropologist Paul Little believes it could contribute to the “eco-system collapse” of the Amazon basin as a whole.
The main concerns about these dam plans – pun intended – are the same as the world over: flooding vast areas and displacing 1,000s of people, destroying fish migrations, increasing methane emissions, and stopping the movement of nutrient-rich sediment which fertilises soils downriver and could have catastrophic consequences for those living there.
Two of the most advanced dams for the Maranon are called Veracruz and Chadin 2, both of which have had Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) approved by the Energy Ministry but neither of which are under construction. Veracruz is expected to have a potential generating capacity of 730 mega-watts (MW) and Chadin 2 600 MW.
To date, Chadin 2 has been by far the most controversial of all the planned dams. It would flood 32.5 square kilometres, scores of villages, extensive croplands and valleys high in biodiversity and species endemism, and force more than 1,000 people from their homes.
The vast majority of people who would be directly impacted by Chadin 2 are reported to be against it. Opposition has led to defence fronts being formed, protests and statements, campaigns, a petition, and on the walls of houses that would be flooded or in nearby towns or in the countryside messages like “No to Chadin 2” appearing. According to NGO Earthrights International, more than 60 people who have “questioned the legitimacy” of the project have been “investigated or prosecuted criminally.”
The company overseeing Chadin 2 is AC Energia, a subsidiary of Brazil’s Odebrecht Group. Although the Energy Ministry states that construction will start in 2016, local people told me Odebrecht can’t freely access the area and, according to Serra Vega and others, this may mean the project will be delayed.
Odebrecht’s Pierina Garateguy Gutierrez, speaking to me in the nearby town of Celendin, disagreed they couldn’t access the project area, and said the company is currently finishing engineering studies. “We don’t have a date [to start building],” she said. “Yes, we can enter. We were there a little while ago.”
Such problems haven’t dissuaded another Odebrecht subsidiary, Odebrecht Energia Peru, from advancing with plans to build two more dams immediately upriver from Chadin 2: Rio Grande 1 (600 MW) and Rio Grande 2 (150 MW). Likewise, numerous villages, croplands and valleys high in biodiversity would be flooded – 44 square kilometres in total – and many people displaced from their homes.
Those I spoke to in the Maranon valley about the proposed Rio Grande dams were generally a mixture of scared, intimidated, confused and badly informed. “They say they need to flood the area in order to supply electricity and light to lots of people,” said Angelica Maria Araujo, living in a tiny settlement, Saumate, on the banks of the Maranon, growing papayas and other crops. “No one is in agreement. Where are they going to move us to?”
Some people who told me they had found work with Odebrecht said they were in favour of the dams. Others were too afraid to give their names, or refused to say anything at all.
““We can’t speak openly because they threaten us”,” is what Socorro Quiroz Rocha, from the Association for the Defense of Life and the Environment (ADEVIMA), in Celendin, said local people had told her.
Odebrecht’s EIA for the Rio Grande dams has not yet been approved by the Energy Ministry, and many of the people I spoke to were fiercely critical of the approval process. In addition to accusations that the company has sabotaged community meetings in various ways, they said that it had brought scores of people living elsewhere to such meetings in order to give the impression that local communities support the project. According to Quiroz Rocha and others, sometimes up to 80%, 90% or even 95% of meeting participants have been from regions that have nothing to do with the dams.
Odebrecht rejects such claims. In an emailed statement to the Guardian it said that “it is not true” it has sabotaged meetings, that it is “prioritizing citizen participation”, and that it “has held workshops and meetings connected to the EIA with the help of the authorities and local inhabitants.” It said that it was “outsiders” who had attempted to violently sabotage two meetings and it denied threatening anyone, saying “It is absolutely not true that the company makes threats to individuals or communities.”
But if Chadin 2 is the most controversial, and Veracruz, Rio Grande 1 and 2 some of the others that are most advanced, which would be the biggest of all the dams on the Maranon? Answer: the 7,550 MW proposed mega-dam at the Pongo de Manseriche – an extraordinary gorge in the Amazon way downriver from Veracruzet al – which, if built, would be one of the 10 most powerful dams in the world.
A 2014 estimate by NGO International Rivers, made with admittedly “very low confidence” because of a lack of current data, stated that Manseriche could flood an astonishing 5,470 square kilometres, including one town and even part of neighbouring Ecuador. While it is true that plans to dam Manseriche have been touted since at least the 1970s – and some people think the potential impacts would simply be too momentous for it to ever go ahead – it is clear the energy sector is eyeing it. According to a speech by president Ollanta Humala at a mining conference in southern Peru in 2013, the Manseriche dam, along with Chadin 2 and three others, would supply electricity to gold and copper mining companies.
Those most impacted by a Manseriche dam would be 1,000s of Awajun and Wampis indigenous peoples. Many are deeply concerned about the potential impacts on fish migrations and the loss of their homes, crops and land to which they have strong spiritual and cultural ties – and many told me they would not allow the dam to be built.
“We live along the banks of the river,” Madolfo Perez Chumpi, president of the Organization for the Economic Development of Awajun Communities on the Marañón (ODECAM), told me. “Where are we going to plant our manioc? Our plantains? Our maize? Where will we find the fish that swim upriver? This is scary for us, for our children. For the government and the companies this is development, but it’s not [development] for us.”
Manseriche is one of 20 proposed dams on the Maranon’s main trunk which were declared to be in Peru’s “national interest” by a 2011 law. That 20 doesn’t include either Chadin 2 or Veracruz, although the latter appears to have effectively replaced one of the 20 called Cumba, or Rio Grande 1 and 2, although the latter two appear to have replaced another of the 20, called Balsas.
Nor does the 20 proposed dams listed by the 2011 law include several others confusingly known as Maranon 1, 2, 3 and 4 for which studies have recently been done, although, according to Serra Vega, these have effectively replaced another three of the 20. Nor does the 20 include existing or proposed dams for the Maranon basin as a whole.
Why such interest in building so many dams? The 2011 law states it is to satisfy “national demand”, but Peruvians following the issue suspect really it is to export electricity to neighbouring Brazil, Chile or Ecuador, or that “national demand” acts as a euphemism for the mining industry. The connection between the dams and mining was made explicit by president Humala in 2013, and others point to very specific connections between certain dams and particular mines.
According to Lidman Chavez Pajares, president of the Front for the Environmental Defense of Oxamarca, the dams are intended to supply mines in the Cajamarca, La Libertad, Ancash and Piura departments.
“Mega-hydroelectric projects – mega-dams – are a danger,” he told me. “Our position is the following: no to the dams because they’ll destroy our valleys, threaten our identity and culture, contaminate, and supply mining companies. There are other ways to generate energy: small hydroelectric projects, solar and thermal energy.”
The most advanced of the dams on the Maranon’s main trunk appears to be called, simply, Maranon. Way up in the headwaters in the Huanuco department at 2,934 metres above sea level, it is currently under construction and scheduled to start operating in December 2016, according to the government regulatory body OSINERGMIN .
Peru’s Energy Ministry did not respond to questions.
This article was produced under Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives (SRI) program.