“We know that our life is here in the earth, in the water,” declared a speaker at a recent national conference for the defense of rivers in Paso de la Reina, Oaxaca. “Here, we take care of our river,” asserted another orator. These simple words are a powerful call to action against a proposed massive hydroelectric project on the Rio Verde that would provoke major environmental damages and the displacement of thousands.
The town of Paso de la Reina sits on the western shore of Rio Verde, its fields of corn, lime groves, and pastureland crowding the narrow and verdant river valley. Members of the roughly 1,000-person town use the river for swimming and bathing, fishing, and irrigation. Its waters are available year round, and are a source of gravel and sand for the construction of local buildings. Known as the “mother of our waters”, the river has important spiritual and cultural value for the Chatino Indigenous people living nearby.
Slated for a site upriver from the town center, this hydroelectric dam would create a wall over 500 feet tall and a 7 ½ square-mile artificial lake, flooding nearly 5,000 acres of prime forest and agricultural land. The billion-dollar project would expropriate land from 9 local communities and drastically affect access to fresh water for over 114,000 people in the area . People from Paso de la Reina stand to lose all they have.
The construction of a dam on Rio Verde would permanently alter this landscape and displace thousands of local residents from their traditional homes. Photo by Tony Macias
Oaxacan officials state that the purpose of the dam is to generate electricity and to serve as a source of irrigation for the Oaxacan coast. Municipal authorities predict that the construction of the dam would generate at least 10,000 jobs and would boost the tourism corridor along the coast thus benefiting the economic development of the region.
While these same officials reiterate time and time again that the project would not displace or take land from the people, Paso de La Reina residents aren’t buying it. They fear that after a few years without abundant water, the local agricultural economy will collapse, driving them to abandon their once fertile fields and migrate to nearby cities or even the U.S. in search of work. They don’t believe the government’s promises of cheaper electricity or jobs.
They also know the bitter experience of other displaced communities who were compensated with less desirable land far away without even basic services such as electricity and sewage systems. The now-completed El Cajón Dam in the Mexican State of Nayarit forced hundreds of local residents to move to sub-standard housing that is already decaying just 3 years after its construction. Oaxacan communities displaced by the Cerro de Oro dam are still waiting for over 10 billion pesos that the Mexican government owes them in resettlement costs.
Megaprojects in focus
This proposed dam is part of a larger scheme, the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project (MIDP- formerly Plan Puebla-Panama), designed to strengthen regional integration and to unite the region through infrastructure and energy. The MIDP proposes nearly 100 large-scale projects from southern Mexico to Colombia.
Part of the free market, free trade economic model promoted by the U.S., MIDP projects are designed to lure foreign investment. According to Gustavo Castro of Otros Mundos, a Chiapas, Mexico- based nonprofit, free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA facilitated foreign investment as a part of wider privatization efforts in these developing countries, but “these investments are not viable without the infrastructure that MIDP provides.”
As of May 2007 over $8 billion have already been invested in these megaprojects. Developing countries finance about one-third of these costs, with another one-third coming from international financial institutions like the World Bank, and the rest from private donors and undisclosed sources. Megaprojects direct huge sums of international loan money away from social programs and small-scale production and directly into infrastructure that most benefits foreign investment. They are usually implemented without consulting local communities and often ignore legal claims made by communal land holders.
More chilling, project defenders have resorted to criminal and violent tactics such as bribes, threats, home destruction and forced removal in efforts to keep projects going. In Guererro and Chiapas, community activists working against megaprojects have been murdered. An engineer with the Federal Electricity Commission put a price on the head of one local activist during the construction of El Cajon dam in Nayarit . Families have been forcibly removed from their homes in Guerrero, Jalisco, and Veracruz. In other states Mexican military have participated in forced removals of communities for these projects.
With the War on Drugs and Terror as a pretext, the Mexican government has used military and federal police as well as paramilitary forces to criminalize social protest. In a telling statement, Mexican president Felipe Calderon likened “out of control” unions to the country’s out-of-control drug cartels, saying both are "roadblocks to institutional order and market-based growth". As more and more communities organize in response to megaprojects , fears grow that violence and repression will be used to ensure that these projects move forward.
Resistance in Paso de la Reina
However, these chilling precedents have not deterred Paso de la Reina residents from protesting the destruction of their community. In 2007, local communities and organizations founded COPUDEVER to resist the dam project. Three communities, including Paso de la Reina, have voted a resounding “no” to the dam project. As of February 2010, local leaders set up road-blocks to deny state government representatives and Federal Electricity Commission members access to the area.
But Paso de la Reina residents aren’t up against only the Mexican government in their struggle to stop the dam project. They will have to confront International Financial Institutions that play an important role in financing these megaprojects. As one of the major lenders to these institutions, the United States government has tremendous influence over what these institutions fund; the U.S. has used this power to promote the free-trade model in international development loans these institutions provide.
The World Bank and other institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank continue to make loans to Mexico and other Latin American countries to support large infrastructure projects without much oversight. Massive social protest globally has increased public awareness about the problems associated with these projects, so these institutions increasingly work in secret, refusing to divulge details about the projects they fund.
Sign up for Witness for Peace e-mail action alerts to receive updates on this dam and other projects financed by international financial institutions in Latin America.