I wrote this report in January 2017 as part of the CODA (coordinator for the defence of the amazon) which is a civil group created to protect the Bolivian amazon against the different projects the government is pushing that are destroying the rainforest; and as director of Dam Peoples Amazon Bolivia, a NGO created to alleviate people affected by mega dam projects. The intention then was to provide a thorough report in English about the happenings on this completely destructive and unnecessary project told by the people affected, myself included.
Now I would like to share it with the Senda Verde audience, specially because the first part of the report tells a story about the San Buenaventura sugar factory, an active project that has already devastated 1,200 hectares of primary rainforest and from which Cat Stevens at LSV is a victim. Feel free to just read the first part,or the whole report.
THE BALA-CHEPETE DAMS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE RAMPANT DESTRUCTION OF THE NORTHERN BOLIVIAN AMAZON
an insight on and by the people affected
Julián Katari Peñaranda Banderas
A month ago I was told a story by a young man from the town of San Buenaventura. It’s the kind of amazon native man whose storytelling portrays the fantastic and magical, contains high doses of comedy and always remains flatteringly true. Most amazon stories feature animals and their encounters with humans and can involve the most unimaginable occurrences. Other stories dwell on magical beings and creatures, and as hard as it may be for a modernized man to believe so, they are fact, not fiction. The story I am about to tell I heard from a native man called Rilver. It contains animals and is very magical. But this story is different; it involves a magical foreign being, a terrible unimaginable monster with a psychotic drive for drugs (in this case sugar) and money that can swallow forests as a whole. Through an apparent veil of innocence and unimportance, we can envision the event in time this story foretells, as it describes a decisive final twist in the fate of the remaining amazon rainforests in Bolivia.
Rilver is 22, third in a family of native Uchupiamona that today make a living in the town of San Buenaventura, guiding tourists into their forests and teaching them about their culture. Rilver has a special interest in machines and gadgets, and was using google maps on his new cell phone to show his tourist friends the different incredible places in the surrounding forest they can go visit. Meanwhile it occurred to him to show the tourists the images of the 1 year-old giant print of deforestation the new sugar factory EASBA, -Ingenio Azucarero San Buenaventura- has brought upon Rilver’s childhood forests. In an overly-charismatic voice and body language, as is the nature of the amazon native people when telling stories, he enchanted us with his experience.
—”I went the other day into the road that goes to the sugar factory. I saw it with my own eyes. It’s enormous, it’s gigantic!”
—”Those sugar fields extend as far as the eye can see, you can see them while driving for a long time, it must be thousands of hectares.”
Zooming in and out Rilver’s quick flicking fingers switched between 2013 and 2015 satellite images of the forests around EASBA: a 3 and 1 year old existence of giant 500 hectare foot-stomps of primary rainforests that have suddenly disappeared without many noticing.
—”I was driving for a while, it’s really far away.” We listened carefully while Rilver shared his experience with me, some tourist visitors and the rest of his family, composed of his mother, father and sisters.
—”The cane seedlings are now almost fully grown, I saw a lot of animals in those sugar fields, they are just walking around. Hey, mom, there was a waso (deer), a taitetú (peccary), some tejones (coati) and even an Ocelot!”
Rilver smiled as he told the story, making us feel like everything was alright, as if seeing animals in a sugar cane field was normal. As I planted a diplomatic smile I realized what the story I just heard really meant. It’s not normal to see animals in sugar cane fields, at least not large mammals and felines. If those animals where there, it’s because that place was a forest a few months ago, a forest that suddenly disappeared in front of the animals eyes, leaving them to wonder in sterile fields under the sun, in the search of what was once their home.
That image haunts me ’till this day. In a normal northern Bolivia amazon reality, where soy fields and the agroindustry don’t yet exist, clear-cutting to create plantations and cow fields happens at a small scale and at a pace that allows some of the animals to run to the adjacent forests and others to serve as sustenance meat for the new settlers. But this clearing happened so fast, and is so big, that the animals that dwelled there did not have the chance to run or to die in the hands of humble settlers. These wondering animals had a worse fate, their whole forest disappeared.
A dying planet is a terrible enough reality. I know about it, as an environmentalist I realize the severity of our civilizational crisis. I’ve studied it, I know the facts, I know how bad it is. It’s a nightmare we can’t escape from. Not terrifying enough, this nightmare becomes worse when it reaches you in a place you know is the last undisturbed corner in the world. When you realize that next to your kid’s back yard, where there was once a healthy forest full of animals and undiscovered species, now booms a refinery that will soon dry the streams where you go swim in the weekends and will dim the skies with a reddish loom of yearly field burning. And it gets worse, this is barely the beginning, bigger problems are on their way.
MADIDI AND THE NORTHERN BOLIVIAN REGION BEFORE EVO MORALES
Bolivia distinguishes as a country with a low population and an indigenous majority. This has allowed a special type of natural, unforced conservation of its wild lands and forests, as extensive regions face low population pressures and many people still make a living without producing great harm to the environment. Conservation then, in Bolivia, happens naturally; 48% of its territory is still covered by forests, some 53 million hectares.
It has been believed for many years that lack of infrastructure is what has led to the impoverishment of its people, but today Bolivian thinkers know differently. We know that poverty is highly conceptual, and is provoked by imposing a civilizational model –advanced forms of modern colonization- upon a people whose worldview is completely different and where they will always be the exploited ones. In a capitalist civilization, the rich are rich because of the poor, so there will always be poor; as long as this ideology and its consequent social, economic and industrial structures are followed (or imposed), poverty will remain. This situation seemed hopeless until in 2003 a unique social conjuncture allowed a transition from a typical American-placed capitalist government to a process of liberation of the indigenous people and the non-native communities as well. Through protests, blockades and after 90 deaths, the Bolivian people were able to kick out Miami-raised president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and soon after trusted in the representation and leadership of now president Evo Morales.
Things were good for many years, natural resources were nationalized and most profits from the sales where left in the local government, creating for the first time ever a stable and growing economy. The constitution was re-written and even the name of the country changed. Indigenous people’s rights where recognized and we began to see them take place in the government. The rights of our mother earth were also recognized and Bolivia took an important role in telling the world the importance of protecting the environment and turning to different civilizational practices. Sadly and after many years, this remained as a meaningless discourse, as power, money and colonial epistemic mind structures gradually corrupted this leader and the people around him. As never before in Bolivian history the environment is being raped and small indigenous groups are being ravaged.
If this group of people and their presidential leader are allowed to go on with the projects they plan to carry out, he will be remembered as the worst “pachamama” protector ever. These statements are not biased; today’s Chepete-Bala hydroelectric dams project proves to be economically unfeasible; there is no money to be made for the country, the electricity it will produce is too expensive to produce for it to be of any convenience for Bolivia or even for foreign interests, and the environmental impact it will produce will be by far too high. The only benefit from this project is the money to be made from the construction itself, a 6 billion dollar cake (that can rise exponentially) they simply cannot resist eating.
Before Morales and in the first years of his office, the northern amazon region of Bolivia was dreaming of becoming one of the biggest, most biodiverse sustainable development jurisdictions in the world. The conditions allowed (or allow) the creation of breaking-edge social and environmental projects. We have now for example the first organic chocolate factory owned 100% by the native people that harvest the cocoa, the El Ceibo cooperative. We also have one of the top 10 Eco-lodges in tropical forests, the Chalalan Ecolodge, located inside the world’s most biodiverse national park.
Low population and large areas of undisturbed forest are two factors that led to the creation this two million hectares protected area. I consider it the heart of the earth, since it’s a biological corridor that connects all the ecosystems that are formed in the encounter of the Andes with the Amazon; meaning a puma can walk freely from glaciated peaks, across 15 other ecosystems, to the lowland amazon savannahs, without ever crossing a road. Created in 1995, this reserve is really only half of what could be protected without affecting the development necessities of the country, meaning there are a lot more forests that are unprotected and in good state of conservation.
People in this region and in all of Bolivia dreamed about being free from foreign imposition and about finding a way to improve their lives following their own ways. But Morales and his staff have not been able to develop mechanisms that ward off Bolivian economy from foreign dependence. They were only capable of changing the dominant empire, it was the United States before Morales, today it’s China. What on an international scope seems like a great achievement: economic stability in a world economic crisis, is quite suspicious to local Bolivians. Something is making money flow into the country and is not just the gas and the petroleum. An unseen cocaine production is growing everywhere, and poses mayor environmental threats.
A huge sector of Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Ter-ritory is today a new, huge coca leaf plantation that has already converted many thousands of hec-tares of primary (supposedly pro-tected) rainforest into coca leaf fields which’s yield goes completely to the drug labs. Local coca leaf farmers have invaded this huge park and obviously support the construction of a road that would (illegally) cross this indigenous territory, one of the most contro-versial projects Evo has pushed in the last years.
In Madidi, the most biodiverse section of the park is off-access to tourists because of the dangers armed people pose to them. Drug factory workers are willing to kill anyone that may put their labs in risk (this information I take from testimonies I recollected in the town of Ixiamas where I lived for five months in 2016. People speak about “armed people” that are based in the Alto Madidi region, the most biodiverse section of the park. Drug labs have always existed deep inside the Bolivian wilderness, and is the most prob-able explanation. Other explanations the locals give is a Peruvian Guerrilla Group hiding on this side of the border, since it is barely 14 km away).
These labs and the illegal logging and mining have always existed as “expected” problems in the northern Madidi region, and it was something that this area, as many other amazon rainforest areas, was able to withstand, or had to do so. But this new drive of megaprojects, concretely the Chepete-Bala Dams, the Cachuela Esperanza dam, the road Ixiamas-Cobija, the road Apolo-Ixiamas, the San Buenaventura sugar factory, the oil explorations in uncontacted tribe’s territory, the el Alto nuclear research facility and the new presidential decree that liberates all restrictions on mining, are impacts that the local environment and people will not be able to withstand. If we allow this to go on, the most biodiverse hotspot in the world will die in a few years, the heart of our earth will be killed.
THE CHEPETE-BALA DAMS PROJECT, SOMETHING THAT CANNOT POSSIBLY HAPPEN
Large dams have long been promoted as providing “cheap” hydropower and water supply. Today, we know better. The costs and poor performance of large dams were in the past largely concealed by the public agencies that built and operated the projects. Dams consistently cost more and take longer to build than projected. In general, the larger a hydro project is, the larger its construction cost overrun in percentage terms. The true risks and costs of dams are being forced into the open due to increasing pub-lic scrutiny and attempts to attract private investors to existing and new projects.
The World Commission on Dams found that on average, large dams have been at best only marginally economically viable. The average cost overrun of dams is 56%. This means that when a dam is predicted to cost $1 billion, it ends up costing $1.56 billion. In too many cases, the burden of uneconomic dams is shouldered by a nation’s citizens, while the project builders walk away with a tidy profit and another project to add to their portfolio. Given that most of the world’s large dams are now being built in the world’s poorest nations, this is a burden they can ill afford.
Another issue is that large dams are often the largest energy development in many poor countries, which can lead to an unbalanced (and climate-risky) energy supply. While countries generally get richer as they increase their use of modern energy, the trend goes the other way for dependency on hydroelectricity. Of the world’s 40 richest countries, only one is more than 90% hydro-dependent; of the world’s 40 poorest, 15 are more than 90% hydro-dependent. Numerous hydro-dependent countries have suffered drought-induced blackouts and energy rationing in recent years. Energy security means these countries should diversify power generation away from large hydropower, rather than deepening their dependency. Changes in rainfall patterns due to climate change make this especially critical.
taken from https://www.internationalrivers.org/economic-impacts-of-dams
Chepete-Bala Dam Stats
The project consists of two actual dams. The Chepete dam, an Impoundment hydroelectric facility with a dam 180 meters high built in the Chepete strait; and the Bala dam, a diversion dam to be built on the Bala Strait. The project would begin with the first Dam and would continue with the construction of the second one twelve years later. The following are statistics for the first one.
• Total surface of max inundated area: 679.98 Km2
• Volume of water (at max level): 37.78 Km3. 5th in the world in amount of retained water
• Structure height: 183m 6th place in the world
• Amount of electricity produced: 15.471 gw/year
• Installed capacity: 3.300 MW 4th in the world
• Total size of the affected region (total extension of the Beni River watershed): 133,010km2 (roughly the size of England)
• Amount of people displaced by the dam’s reservoir: 2,314
• Amount of people in the near vicinity of the reservoir: 1,660
• Total amount of people extremely affected: 3,974
• Estimate of total amount of people directly affected (changes in economic activity and others): 40,000
Indigenous People affected
• Indigenous nations being affected: Mosetene, Tsimane, Leco, Tacana, Uchupiamona, Esse Ejja, Aymara-Quechua colonists
• Amount of people displaced by the dam’s reservoir: 2.314
• Amount of people in the near vicinity of the reservoir: 1,660
• Total amount of people extremely affected: 3,974
• An exemplary thriving small city that lives off sustainable ecotourism, Rurrenabaque, would see its main source of income –tourism- disappear or be seriously damaged by a nearby dam inside Madidi National Park –it’s main attraction-. 25,000 people would be affected by lacerating shifts in local economy.
• Almost half of the Tacana indigenous nation of the TCO Tacana I Territory, people that live mostly from fishing on the Beni river and use the same river as the only mean of transportation, would be severely affected from changes in fish population and changes in the river course. This is around 1,500 people that would be affected and would not be reimbursed in any way since their communities would not be flooded.
• The Esse-ejja of Eyiyoquibo, a small community of Natives that live solely on the fish, would be affected by the Dam.
• The whole of the flat or semi-flat TIOC Mosetenes territory would be flooded, forcing to displace the whole of its indigenous inhabitants.
• Bolivia’s flagstaff National Park, Madidi, would be affected by the construction of the Dam, not only 94,47 square kilometers of the park would be flooded, but the whole river system would die.
PROJECT UNFEASIBILITY DENOTES CORRUPTION
The Economic Scenario
Due to the recent growth in Brazilian economy and its consequent energy demand, the south American giant has recently put into operation two hydroelectric dams in the Maderia River, very close to the Bolivian Border, the Jirau and San Antonio Dams, each with a productive output capacity of 3,750MV and with a production cost in the Brazilian market of 40 dollars per Megawatt/hour. On the other hand, Bolivian energy demands are satisfied, and the government’s main argument for the Chepete-Bala dams construction is the supposed export of energy to the Brazilian market. Unfortunately for the government’s plans (and discourse) the energy production cost in this Dam is around 81 dollars per megawatt/hour . Will the Brazilian market buy this energy at this cost, almost double of what they pay in their own dams? There is no previous contract for the sale of the surplus energy and Bolivia has no other potential buyers, plus the shortest transmission lines to export this energy is 500 km long and the costs for their construction have not been accounted for. If they build the dam, the energy will be there and no one will use it or buy it. Does it make sense?
This informality in the development of the Dam project denotes lack of seriousness, not a single formal procedure has been followed so far, and more than 15 million dollars have already been spent in this project. What is the real purpose of it, generating economy and well-being for the country, or generating well-being for a few?
The Public Health Scenario
It is no mystery that dams increase the conditions for epidemic diseases such as malaria , leishmanhiasis and many others . Public health specialist Pablo Villegas has pointed out in recent conferences in Rurrenabaque the giant threat the Chepete Dam would pose for public health in Bolivia. He mentioned the poor response capacity the Bolivian public health system has to tropical disease outbreaks and that there is no mention at all about the disease risk the dam would pose for public health in the project’s environmental profile. This means that the government doesn’t care about the possible outbreaks of diseases the dam may cause. Accounting for the existent health infrastructure available in Bolivia and the Dam projections, it is a recipe for disaster.
- Jorge Molina Carpio, Daniel Espinoza Romero El Proyecto El Bala: Hidrología, Hidráulica e Impactos Asocia-dos. A study by the Bolivian Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology
AFFECTION TO PROTECTED AREAS
Bolivia’s flagstaff protected area, Madidi National Park, the most biodiverse national park in the world , would suffer a flooding of 94 square kilometers by the planned dams inside its territory. To make Dam construction possible inside protected areas, the Bolivian gov-ernment had to declare, in May 2015, the supreme decree no. 2366 that changes the legislation around protected areas and allows exploration and extraction inside them. The measure also allows protected areas to be dissected by transmission lines. This presidential measure is accompanied by a significant reduction in the budget of the SERNAP, the national institution that takes cares of the country’s 22 reserves .
The government says that affection to Madidi National Park would be of less than 2%. According to investigators like Pablo Villegas of CEDIB, calculation of environmental impact by the amount of surface inundated area is a joke; he says “it’s like saying that the affection of a needle injection is to the surface of the skin that is perforated. There is a lot more to it, there are liquids, injections have other side effects.” With Large Dams, the affection to an ecosystem is far beyond than the amount of surface flooded by the reservoir, other things have to be accounted for in a serious environmental impact analysis, like methane gas emissions, the killing of a whole river shed, the climate change effects by deforestation, the affection of the access roads, and others.
The Chepete-Bala dams are not the only threats to Madidi National Park, the same supreme decree opened this national park to oil exploration, which at this moment is being carried out inside its borders. The San Buenaventura Sugar Cane factory is also hurting the Madidi ecosystem. All of these recent threats add to the already long existing ones of drug labs, illegal logging and mining, and wildlife trafficking.
The other protected area that would be affected by the Chepete Bala Dams is the Pilon Lajas Biosphere reserve and Indigenous territory. We will speak about the affection to this protected area further below.
- From parkswatch.org “The park’s high latitudinal range and rugged topography ensures a large variety of habitats, with 1,875 plant described to date out of an estimated total of 5,000. This is matched by an excep-tional animal diversity composed of at least 1,370 vertebrate species, including 156 mammal, 867 bird, be-tween 192 and 296 fish, between 79 and 109 reptile, and between 84 and 88 amphibian species (more than 30 of which are endemic to the protected area). In fact, Madidi NP-IMNA could be the most biodiverse protected area in the world.” http://www.parkswatch.org/parkprofile.php?l=eng&country=bol&park=mdnp&page=sum
- CEDIB, Bolivian center of Documentation and Information. Pablo Villegas gave a conference in Rurrenabaque in November 2016 where he pointed out the many negative aspects and impacts of the pro-posed Chepte-Bala dams.
THE AFFECTED PEOPLE, NATIVE NATIONS AND COMMUNITIES
The rights of the indigenous people living in the area affected by the dam project have already been violated by the signing of a contract for final studies for the Chepete-Bala Dam project with the Italian company GEODATA without them being consulted previously. Soil sampling is taking place right now inside their territories in an illegal manner . As a response, in mid-November 2016, the Mancomunidad de comunidades del Rio Beni y Quiquibey; translated as “association of communities of the Beni and Quiquibey rivers” set up a river blockade and permanent watch to avoid any more illegal trespassing.
It cost them two weeks of permanent watch where ten different communities shared the responsibility of guarding the blockade; they came with their whole families including small children to be able to have someone present at all times, and many of them fell sick due to the difficult conditions being in the watch poses. As a result from this vigil, the subsidiary of the GEODATA company SEVICONS, has interrupted the perforations and has peacefully left the area as they say “we are not willing to work against the people, in an area of conflict. We believe the government should be here speaking with you”.
 Chapter 4 of the Bolivian Constitution “The rights of the native Indigenous nations and peoples” Article no.30, second subsection “In the frame of unity of the state and according to this constitution the nations and indigenous people are granted the following rights:” We want to point out the most violated constitutional rights: 1. To exist freely. 4. To self-determination and territoriality. 7. To the protection of their sacred places. 10. To live in a healthy environment with adequate use of the ecosystems. 15. To be consulted previously through appropriate procedures, every time that administrative or legislative measures may affect them. In this frame, the right to previous consultation will be respected and guaranteed in an obligatory manner, carried out by the state, in good faith and concerted, in regards of the exploitation of the non-renewable natural resources in the territories they inhabit. 17. To the autonomous indigenous territorial management and to the use and exclusive exploitation of the renewable resources found within their territories without harming the rights of thirds.
Probably the most affected Indigenous Nation of Bolivia by the construction of the Dam. The Mosetene live in two different indigenous territories, one they share with the Tsimane, the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, and the TIOC Mosetene, a very small piece of titled communitarian land in the alto Beni River. The small size of this territory is due to the early existence of quechua-aymara colonists from the Andes in the area, whom have wisely chosen these fertile valleys for the production of most of northern Bolivia’s fresh produce. This has left the Mosetene, whom once lived freely in a territory ten times bigger, with one of the smallest indigenous territories in the whole amazon of Bolivia. This burden not being enough, a rough estimate of 80% of the flat or semi-flat land that’s available for them to make their homes and grow their food, would be flooded by the dam’s reservoir. Of all the indigenous nations affected, this one is the one affected the most, meaning the whole 1,920 inhabitants of the TIOC Mosetene would be forced to displace.
The Mosetene from the TIOC territory upstream are known to be one of the most culturally strong indigenous nations of the northern Bolivian amazon, they still speak their language and maintain many elements of their spiritual worldview and native lifestyles. This is fa-vorable to the fight against the dam, since they will be hardly persuaded by money to abandon their life and their land. I have received a report that these people now know about the dam and are currently crafting arrows and plan to pose a resistance, and are prepared to kill if necessary.
- This testimony is recorded in the following video
- Atlas of Indigenous and Native Territories of Bolivia. Vice ministry of Lands. 2011
- Chepete Dam environmental profile, Ministry of Environment and Water, 2016
TIOC Mosetén (Titled Indigenous Territory )
• 320 families, 1,923 Inhabitants
• 8 Communities: Covendo, Santa Ana, Muchane, Simay, San Pedro de Cogotay, San Jose, Inicua, Villa Concepción.
• 133,029 hectares
The Tsimane share a common language family tree with the Mosetene. Though quite similar, the Tsimane are a more populated nation and make their living in three different titled territories: 1) The Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, which the share with the Mosetene. 2) The Territory of the great Tsimane Council TICH, in the Beni Department 3) The Isiboro Sécure National Park, which they share with Yuracarés and Moxeño-Trinitarios. This last is another immense park threatened by a highway that the government insists on building. In this sense, two of the three Tsimane territories are now threatened, one by a road and one by a dam. In the case of the Chepete-Bala dams, it would be the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve the territory affected by the project.
The Pilón Lajas Indigenous Territory and Biosphere Reserve
This territory is basically what lies on the other side of the mountain range that makes the strait where the Chepete dam would be built. Inhabitants in this reserve would be outside the floodwaters of the reservoir but would suffer the following effects of the project: 1) the river system dies, and all the biodiversity they depend on, mostly fish, would disappear. 2) The access road to the Bala dam crosses the indigenous reserve, which is considered to have a negative environmental impact as high as the dam itself. 3) Since these communities would not be displaced, they would probably be the first to suffer from tropical disease outbreaks from the dam.
The El Ceibo Cooperative
One of the most exemplary and successful projects of sustainable forest management is the El Ciebo cooperative and chocolate factory. It’s a group of 1200 families settled in the Alto Beni valley that grow organic cocoa beans that are sent to a factory in the city of El Alto where the most exquisite chocolates are produced and sold worldwide. According to the information on their webpage , they are the first certified organic cocoa cooperative in the world, achieving that status in 1988.
“El Ceibo enriches and protects the environment by creating microclimates through suc-cessional agroforestry system accompanied by the planting of banana, papaya, tangerine, orange, lemon, grapefruit, timber species like mahogany, cedar, oak, quinaquina, almendrillo, huasicuchu, ajoajo, and shade trees”.
I personally find astonishing the fact that there has been no mention from this cooperative about the planned Chepete Dam. The construction of it would mean flooding 100% of the agroforestry systems and lands they use to produce their organic cocoa. These plantations take several decades to reach the productive levels they have today.
The Esse Ejja of Eyiyoquibo
The Esse Ejja are mostly itinerant groups of riverine people scattered in the northern forests of Bolivia and southeastern Peru who like to remain without contact with the modern world. One of the exceptions are the Esse Ejja of the Community of Eyiyoquibo, who were captured by the military some twenty years ago and forced to settle in the vicinity of the town of San Buenaventura. The community is composed of some 70 members who mostly speak their language and are still very foreign to the modern world’s way of thinking and living. Nonetheless, they participated in the “Novena Marcha por el Territorio y Dignidad” The “Ninth March for Territory and Dignity” where different native groups from the amazon lowlands marched to the city of La Paz in demand of their rights to self-determination and a clean environment. This ninth version of the march was sparked by the controversial proposed road through the TIPNIS national park and indigenous territory; though not directly affected by this project, the Esse Ejja of Eyiyoquibo were invited and participated.
This means they are conscious of their need to participate in resistance activities to projects that affect indigenous territories. Eyiyoquibo natives assisted to the first meetings in opposition to the Chepete-Dam Dam project and know that if it goes through it will end of their fishing lifestyle on the Beni River; though they did not participate in the later resistance activities like the Bala strait vigil and the protests in Rurrenabaque, they oppose the project.
This indigenous nation is based in only one community, San Jose de Uchupiamonas, and has a titled territory of 210,055 hectares inside the ANMI Madidi, (Natural area or Integrated management). They are a peculiar indigenous group that mixes Tacana and Quechua language and cultural traits. The Uchupiamona are the spearhead in the development of cultural eco-tourism inside Madidi National Park. This begun in 1992 with the Chalalan Ecolodge project, developed first by the community and financed later by an international fund channeled by Conservation International. Decades later, this Ecolodge was mentioned
as one of the top 10 ecolodges in tropical rainforests in the world by national geographic traveler magazine. Today there are two other important ecolodges inside Madidi National Park ran by native Uchupiamona, Madidi Jungle Ecolodge and Sariri Ecolodge. Millions of dollars of investment in sustainable development and the lifestyles of the 705 inhabitants of this native group are in danger if the Dam is built.
The Uchupiamona have been greatly involved in the opposition to the Dam, especially through one of their main leaders, Alex Villca Limaco, who is the main representative of the indigenous opposition to the Dam in the national and international media . In an interview with him on behalf of Dam Peoples Amazon, he told us about the strategies they are following to halt the dam project: “We are beginning to follow the formal legal procedure to declare this project as unconstitutional. If our demands are not met locally, we will continue to the international courts” The Battles that Alex is facing are both on the legal side and on the field. On one side he represents the Uchupiamona as secretary of the environment and is the main voice of the affected indigenous people on the media; on the other side he supports and is part of the civil group CODA, which we will describe further ahead.
The Tacana are a large indigenous nation with two different large titled territories, which are the following: 1) The TCO Tacana 1, with a demand of 958,454 hectares of land in the flatlands adjacent to the first Andean foothills of which only 389,303 have been titled. It is inside this Tacana demand that the current deforestation for the plantation of sugar cane is happening, meaning the government has denied this indigenous nation a great portion of their ancestral land and is now in the process of destroying it. 2) The TCO Tacana 2 with a titling of 342,930 hectares in the border of the La Paz and Pando departments. It is adjacent to this recently titled territory where oil explorations are being carried out by Chinese BGP Company; and it is this Tacana group that on the 16th of September 2016, presented a demand to the ministry of the environment regarding the dangerous contact these companies had with nearby isolated tribes .
Tacanas are one of the native nations most affected by the industrial development model imposed by morale’s office. Loosing thousands of hectares to a sugar cane factory they did not approve, their worst fears are not yet met. The proposed Chepete-Bala dams would mean a complete change in the lifestyle of all the Tacana communities living on the Beni Riverside. Though they are all located outside the proposed dam’s reservoir, they know that “blocking” the river is not something that will bring them well-being.
I personally was able to inform the Tacana communities Carmen del Emero and Villa Fátima, two of the furthermost communities downriver (two and a half days of river travel on a slow boat) about the impacts of the planned Dams. Their reactions were positive, I suggested they take a vote and decide as a community to reject the project, which they agreed to do. I was also able to witness and hear from them several complaints about the government abandoning them and making their life harder, for example demanding them that in order to buy gasoline, which they need in great amounts to travel the long distances on the river to town where they get supplies, they must have a registered company that pays taxes, which is very difficult to have in a place with almost no economic movement.
The Tacana community of San Miguel del Bala, next to the Bala strait, has been greatly involved in the activities rejecting the project, probably because of the vicinity to the strait and because their community project “San Miguel del Bala Ecolodge” would be severely hampered (they are downriver from the Dam, they wouldn’t be flooded by the reservoir) by the proposed Dam. According to an interview of one of their leaders, Juan de la Cruz Supa, they feel they’ve succeeded by kicking out SEVICONS from the strait and because they have reached a deal with the Bolivian government, being falsely promised that the Dam would not be built. Lack of coordination within communities is allowing this specific community to believe this false promise and remain silent and inactive in the resistance activities to the dam.
The Coordination for the Defense of the Amazon (CODA)
In numbers, the most affected population by the construction of the Chepete-Bala Dams is the town of Rurrenabaque, locally known as the “Touristic Pearl of Beni”. It is a town of some 20,000 inhabitants which’s economy depends primarily on ecotourism, being the main port of entry to world renowned Madidi National Park. More than a dozen tourism operators, dozens of restaurants, hotels and bars generate an economy of more than ten million dollars a year that benefits the whole town and region . It is the third biggest tourism center in Bolivia and the most important tourism center in the Bolivian amazon. The Dam project would mean killing this economy or at least severely lacerating it. Current government policies that favor mostly extractive and industrial activities in detriment of tourism have already provoked a chute in tourism attendance to Rurrenabaque of more than 40% in the last three years.
Knowing the effects the Dam would have in the region’s main economic investment and the environment, civil group CODA was created to defend and act against the dam project and other activities that jeopardize the local environment. Born in Rurrenabaque, this civil group rapidly grew and absorbed many other small groups that were in the process of creating social resistance against the dams in La Paz. CODA in Rurrenabaque is responsible for supporting with food and supplies the indigenous vigil in the Bala strait in November 2016, besides other manifestations and activities in resistance to the project.
In La Paz and other main cities in Bolivia a heavy opposition to the Dams has dramatically grown and made present. The real affection by the Dam is to the whole country and the whole planet. This project, the most costly project in the history of Bolivia, concerns the whole nation and its ten million inhabitants because of two main factors of which many people are highly aware of: 1) It means putting the nation in debt for a project that is demonstrated is economically unproductive 2) Climate change is more evident in Bolivia than ever. The country’s second largest lake, Poopo, dried up in November 2016; also, a big portion of the city of La Paz suffered from water rationing for the first time in history because of a drought. People are suffering from climate change and know that deforestation and megaprojects are not going to help. This situation is making Bolivians from all over the country become involved in the different civil groups that seek to defend the environment, and possibly the largest of them is CODA.
- Tourism statistics of the Rurrenabaque Municipality, 2008-2010
The Quechua-Aymara colonists of the Alto Beni region
‘Till this moment, we know nothing about the opinion that farmers from the Alto Beni valley may have about the Chepete Dam that would flood their lands. There is a big possibility that they don’t know about it and with a big reason. Many of these agricultural cooperatives belong to the jurisdiction of Caranavi, a town and province that already has hard feelings with the current government due to a conflict they had around a construction of a citric processing plant in 2010 . It would be convenient for the government to keep these affected populations uninformed about the dam to avoid possible opposition measures from them, since measures from these social sectors can be more influential. They are more willing to blockade roads and confront the government physically, unlike the amazon natives whom are less habituated to defying the government. Them being informed or not is speculative, there are no news about it and we would have to travel to that region to know firsthand. Anyhow I find this population niche especially attractive to further investigation and to raise awareness and opposition to the Dam project.
The mining cooperatives in the lower Kahka valley
I also haven’t been able to find any information on behalf of the mining cooperatives that are settled in the lower valleys of the kahka river, an area that would also be inundated by the Chepete Dam. This megaproject would mean they would simply lose their mining con-cessions and the investments they have in their mines. This I find another place and people worth doing an onsite investigation and socialization in regards to the Dam.
SILENCE AND MISINFORMATION. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
The 11th of November of 2016 the Association of native communities of the Beni river set up a permanent watch that was successful in forcing the company SERVICONS to stop the studies that were being carried out inside their indigenous territories and protected areas. The government pronounced that their withdrawal did not respond to the indigenous peo-ple’s pressures, rather, that the studies were simply finished.
Meanwhile the government has tried to utilize the most ridiculous arguments to defend their dam project. In December 2016 the city of La Paz suffered from a severe drought that left large parts of the city without a steady supply of water. The government took advantage of this situation to argue that the Chepete-Bala dams would be useful to provide water to the city. Not only is this technically impossible, due to the distance and altitudinal differences between the dam and the city (the reservoir elevation would be 400 meters above sea level, the city of La Paz is at 3,600), but simply ridiculous, defying common sense.
The 11th of December 2016, in a formal inauguration of a school in the Achacachi com-munity, Vicepresident Alvaro Garcia Linera utilized this same argument to urge the Aymara of this town, the “ponchos rojos” (a native community historically known for their strong conviction in social revolts and aggressive measures) to defend the Chepete-Bala dams project, looking to create conflict amongst indigenous groups. He argued that “It will bring water for the people” and that “Pachamama must be changed” .
Lack of technical and legal seriousness in the Chapete-Bala dams project development leaves many open spaces for effective resistance. There is absolutely no valid technical or economic argument that backs the project. The power of the Bolivian people to change political structures is historically known and the government knows this, it’s how they got there. Heavy militarization and violent oppression are measures the Bolivian government doesn’t yet utilize to impose and protect extractive interests, as it happens today in Ecuador, for they know that would spark a social movement that would leave them out of office. To go forward with its agenda, the government yet relies in the support of a strong part of the population that is bought with the money flowing in with this new administration. This means that with an effective resistance movement supported by locals and foreigners, this project can be stopped. I believe this is a unique and unrepeatable opportunity for success in saving one of the most, if not the most, precious corners in the world.