Case study: The Tumarin hydroelectricity project, Nicaragua

The Copalar hydroelectric project that would have tapped the energy of the Río Grande of Matagalpa was first put forward during the days of the Somoza dictatorship. In 2006, the Nicaraguan government was close to giving approval, but its bill finally failed in the National Assembly for several reasons including opposition to the project within the local area and unwillingness on the part of legislators to impose such a huge commitment on future governments. No sooner had the Copalar project died with the end of the government of President Enrique Bolaños than the Tumarín project surfaced (in almost the same area) with the new government of President Daniel Ortega. Cynics suggested that Ortega had cancelled the Copalar project partly on environmental grounds, and then re-instated it with a new name, new funding and new specifications.[i]

Ortega’s July 2010 visit to Brazil elicited from Brazilian President Lula an offer of economic and commercial support aimed at reducing Nicaragua’s dependence on fossil fuels for energy generation. As Figure 4.1 shows, in 2009 70 per cent of Nicaragua’s electricity was generated by fossil fuels. As a result of the offer, Brazilian companies – the state utility Eletrobras and the Brazilian company CHC – are investing around US$800 million in the Tumarín project as well as supporting Nicaragua in developing two other hydroelectric plants.[ii]

In rapid time, the Tumarín project had gained approval from the National Assembly and by 2011 work on the access road to the dam had begun with a projected time of 2014 for the start of electricity production. The project is not without opposition, but the general public approval of the then new government’s attempts to take control of the energy crisis (referred to at the start of this chapter), the widespread disapproval of the role of Unión Fenosa (although hardly relevant to this case), the keen involvement of the Brazilian government and the perceived need for alternatives to fossil fuels served undermine the opposition.

One of the ways in which the Ortega government managed to reduce the effectiveness of the opposition was to offer the building of a new town, New Apawas, to house the 300 families who will be displaced by the dam and reservoir. Estimates of the number of people affected, however, generally vary upwards from this number, some including, appropriately, those who live downstream from the dam and whose livelihoods will be affected by the change in flow. Celia Contreras, an organiser with a local group, Casa de la Mujer (House of the Woman), says that “Ortega co-opted the coalition saying that Copalar wouldn’t go forward because of its environmental impact, but what he did was change it for Tumarín, saying the impact would be less. That’s a lie.”[iii] Perhaps another reason that the opposition has had little success is that the government’s Rural Electrification Programme has included the extension of existing distribution lines and the construction of small-scale hydroelectric projects, micro-generators and the installation of solar panels in isolated parts of the country.[iv]

[i] Benjamin Witte-Lebhar (undated) ‘Nicaragua: Energy-hungry country opts for large-scale hydro dam’,,%20ENERGY-HUNGRY%20COUNTRY%20OPTS%20FOR%20LARGE-SCALE%20HYDRO%20DAM.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed 09.08.11).
[ii] Gill Holmes (May – July 2010) Nicaragua Current Affairs Report to CODA International.
[iii] Op.cit. (Witte-Lebhar).
[iv] Radio La Primerisima (26 January 2010) cited in Nicanet Hotline, ‘Electricity extended to 11,311 rural homes in 2009; a total of 31,836 in three years’, Managua.