PROGELSA denounced for paying inhabitants to create a confrontation on the Petacón River.


January 16, 2019

Initially translated by ENCA member Rick Blower and adapted by Martin Mowforth.

Numerous entries in ‘The Violence of Development’ book and website have been critical of transnational corporations (TNCs) for their tactics of violence deployed against local people and communities who protest against the corporation’s ‘development’ being imposed upon them. These tactics can take the form of threats of violence, intimidation, criminalisation, defamation and even assassination. At times when we try to point out the use of such tactics by western corporations, we are accused of being extreme by people who cannot believe that western companies would be so blatantly immoral, illegal and criminal.

This particular article illustrates another tactic used by TNCs to create conflict and discord among local populations. It is essentially a case of ‘divide and rule’.

Key words: hydro-electric power plant; yellow jackets; local protest; poverty.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

In 2015 the Honduran National Congress approved more than a dozen energy projects, including the Petacón River Hydro-electric Project. The approval took no account of the ability of the state to purchase the energy from the producing companies. In the case of the Petacón project, the company involved is PROGELSA (Promotora de Energia Limpia) which was awarded a 50 year lease on the project. At present the project is semi-paralysed due to protests by the local Lenca residents of the community of Reitoca.

The contract with the company stipulates that the project has to respect and maintain a regular flow of water in the original course of the river, but local people say that the river has already been deviated from its course when the company started to build. They claim that this has already affected their environment and their health.

On Wednesday 16th January 2019 a group of inhabitants from the community of Muluaca in the municipality of Lepaterique (in the Honduran department of Francisco Morazán) arrived in Reitoca (also in the department of Francisco Morazán) where the local Lenca people control the territory and have halted the construction of the hydroelectric project on the River Petacón.

The aim of the inhabitants of Lepaterique was to displace the inhabitants of Reitoca who are resisting the hydroelectric company in its attempts to build their project on the River Petacón.

It was evident that the inhabitants of Lepaterique were being backed by the company PROGELSA, since they were in possession of many supplies and all of them were dressed wearing ‘yellow jackets’ with ‘messages of peace’, the organisation of Madre Tierra [see notes below] pointed out in a communiqué.

Madre Tierra declared that it sees the tactics used by PROGELSA with sadness and as a display of cowardice. These tactics use conditions of poverty in which the community of Lepaterique live, to confront them against the peoples of Reitoca, brother against brother; whilst those who benefit from the conflict will always be the companies.

This attempt to divide and rule has failed, for now; but there are reports [from El Portal, 29 April 2019] of the Honduran National Police firing on some of the 300 protestors from Reitoca, injuring one, in a more recent incident. Both the police and military forces have been trying to dislodge the protestors.

  • A related note: The Movimiento Madre Tierra (MMT) in Honduras is directed by Dr Juan Almendares, a well-known environmentalist and human rights advocate. The MMT is the official Honduran branch of Friends of the Earth International and supports the people of Reitoca as an heroic people’s stand against the privatisation of water.
  • For more on MMT, see  A 2010 interview with Dr Almendares was conducted by Martin Mowforth and appears in this website at:

Case study: HEP projects in Panama’s Changuinola-Teribe hydrographic basin

Extracted from original text of Chapter 4.

The problems mentioned there by Alida Spadafora [interview] are suitably illustrated in here giving an introduction to a series of HEP schemes currently under construction in the Bocas del Toro province in north-west Panamá. A 2006 report[i] presented a cost-benefit analysis of the four hydroelectric projects. The four dams (Chan 75, Chan 140, Chan 220 and Bonyic) are located in the Changuinola-Teribe hydrographic basin, three projects on the Changuinola River, and one on the Bonyic River. The rivers start in the Amistad National Park and the dams themselves are situated within the Palo Seco Protected Forest.

The required investment for the dams would exceed $538 million, and would result in a combined installed capacity of 446 megawatts. The analysis estimated that the company executing the projects would earn approximately $87 million in yearly profits, which translated into an economic ‘net present value’ of $92 million, representing overall net benefits for Panama. The report concludes that “the projects would most likely be both economically and financially feasible. Nonetheless, they would cause environmental damage in an area of global conservation interest and impose serious hardship on indigenous communities living along these rivers.”[ii] Crucially, they note that these monetary values obscure the environmental and social impacts and costs that the projects would have.

The specific case of one of these four dams, the Chan-75 HEP project, is worthy of further attention as it highlights the collusion of government and private companies and the gangster-like attitude adopted towards affected communities. Perhaps the body count resulting from this case of gangsterism is rather less than in many other case studies given in this book, but the arrogance and the willingness to ride roughshod over local people is as strong as ever. Here we present a few of the benefits and advantages of the scheme as predicted largely by the website of AES Changuinola, the company managing the project. Here we present a few of the social and environmental problems already caused and predicted to occur as a result of the scheme. The latter also lists several articles to which readers are referred for a more in-depth treatment that this case deserves. Several of these articles document the human rights abuses that have been committed against the Ngöbe and the Naso peoples in considerable detail, and in this regard the reader is referred specifically to Cultural Survival’s ‘Dam Nation’ article. These abuses are also considered again in Chapter 8 of this book and reference forward specifically to this website’s items entitled ‘The Ngöbe-Bugle and dam projects on the Río Changuinola‘ and ‘Testimony from the Naso‘ provides further evidence of the gangster attitudes of the Panamanian government and of the companies involved in the development towards the people affected.

Application to the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations has been made for subsidies to support the Chan-75 project on account of the savings in greenhouse gases estimated for the project. The application made by AES Changuinola failed to mention the social and environmental impacts or the social opposition to the scheme. In fact it cited “ample support” from local populations, but when the UN Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights visited the project area he found “significant discontent”.[iii] Osvaldo Jordan goes further in his critique of the development: “The Chan 75 hydroelectric project … revealed the monstrosity of the neo-liberal multicultural citizenship regime that had been adopted by the Panamanian state in the 1990s.”[iv] In similar vein, Finley-Brook and Thomas assert that the case demonstrates “hybrid neo-liberalisation as private and state institutions sell formerly collective resources to feed urban electrification and foreign carbon markets.”[v]

Oscar Reyes from Carbon Trade Watch considers the Chan-75 project to be another example that proves the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism is being treated as “a subsidy stream for environmentally destructive projects.” He states that “it risks a lose-lose scenario, where the people and environment of Panama are threatened by a project that would allow industries elsewhere to continue polluting.”[vi]

The issue of the Clean Development Mechanism and the issuing of carbon credits to dam projects is taken up again in greater detail in Chapter 10

[i]   Cordero, S., Montenegro, R., Mafla, M., Burgués, I., and Reid, J. (2006) ‘Análisis de costo beneficio de cuatro proyectos hidroeléctricos en la cuenca Changuinola-Teribe’, INCAE Business School, Alianza para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo, Asociación ANAI, and the Conservation Strategy Fund (July).
[ii]   Ibid., p.10
[iii]   James Anaya (7 September 2009) Informe del Relator Especial sobre la situación de los derechos humanos y las libertades fundamentales de los indígenas: Observaciones sobre la situación de la comunidad Charco la Pava y otras comunidades afectadas por el proyecto hidroeléctrico Chan 75 (Panamá), Report presented to the Human Rights Council at the UN General Assembly.
[iv]   Osvaldo Jordán (2008) ‘“I entered during the day, and came out during the night”: power, environment and indigenous peoples in a globalising Panama’, Tennessee Journal of Law and Policy 4 (2) 467-505. [Quote from P.500]
[v]  Op.cit. (Finley-Brook and Thomas, p. 269.
[vi]  Osvaldo Jordan and Oscar Reyes (2008) UN ‘clean development’ money sought for dam that threatens World Heritage Site in Panama, La Alianza para La Conservacion y El Desarrollo and Carbon Trade Watch /Transnational Institute, (Accessed 23/09/2010)

Green dam linked to killings of six indigenous people in Guatemala

By Arthur Neslen in Brussels, Thursday 26th March 2015.

The following is a link to a March 2015 article in The Guardian (London) regarding plans for the San Rita dam in Guatemala, carbon credits for which will be tradable under the EU’s emissions trading scheme.
(c) Guardian News & Media Ltd.

Berta Cáceres Receives The Goldman Environmental Prize, 2015

The Goldman Environmental Prize honours grassroots environmental heroes from the world’s six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands & Island Nations, North America, and South & Central America. The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. The Goldman Prize views ‘grassroots’ leaders as those involved in local efforts, where positive change is created through community or citizen participation in the issues that affect them. Through recognizing these individual leaders, the Prize seeks to inspire other ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the natural world.

Further video clips are available on the Goldman Environmental Prize website at:

Readers of ‘The Violence of Development’ website are urged to follow this link to listen to the Goldman profile story of Berta’s leadership of the struggle waged by COPINH against hydro-electric power schemes in one region of Honduras and in particular to hear her inspirational acceptance speech.

Land Defence Lawyer Carlos Hernández Murdered in Arizona, Honduras

April 27, 2018

Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC):

I am grateful to the GHRC for permission to reproduce this report.

Keywords: hydroelectric power in Honduras; Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ); assassinations; Carlos Hernández; Victor Fernández; INGELSA Corporation; Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH); Berta Cáceres; municipal referendum; criminalisation.

Carlos Hernández

The Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ) of Honduras denounced the April 10, 2018 murder of lawyer Carlos Hernández. Hernández was the defence lawyer for Arnoldo Chacón, the mayor of the Honduran town of Arizona who is currently facing charges from a hydroelectric company.

Chacón is committed to defending the results of a 2015 municipal referendum banning hydroelectric development in Arizona.  In September 2017, Chacón told police that men had threatened the lives of those close  to him if he continued to obstruct INGELSA corporation plans to build a dam on the Jilamito river.

On March 12, 2018 four members of the MADJ and the Arizona Community Development Committee, Elena Gaitán, Tulio Laínez Gonzales, Julio Leíva Guzmán, and Claudio Ramírez Espinoza, sat in court in Tela, Atlántida, alongside the newly elected mayor of Arizona, Carlos Arnoldo Chacón, as a judge formalized criminal charges against them.  They explained that they were defending their communities’ river against blatant corruption that affected Arizona’s water; as much as half of the population of Arizona face daily hardships stemming from a scarcity of water.

Honduras’ most famous human rights advocate and environmentalist, Berta Cáceres, faced similar charges and narrowly escaped wrongful imprisonment in 2013, only to be murdered on March 2, 2016 after years of denouncing death threats by employees of the DESA hydroelectric company.  Intense international pressure forced prosecutors to investigate her murder.  Two years after gunmen stormed Berta Cáceres’ home near midnight and shot her beside her bed, the president of DESA was finally arrested.  The five men and women charged May 12 are confronting a similar hydroelectric company operating in Arizona, this one called INGELSA.

Yet another point Chacón and the other MADJ members have in common with Berta Cáceres is their lawyer, Victor Fernández.  Fernández is a former public prosecutor and while president of the National Association of Prosecutors in 2008, he led a hunger strike denouncing corruption in the judicial system. This protest led to the creation of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice -MADJ, dedicated to defending rights of communities and fighting corruption in the judicial system.  Fernández defended Berta Cáceres in 2013 and is currently prosecuting her killers on behalf of her family and her organisation the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH).

Fernández is defending the five accused, but Chacón brought in another lawyer, Carlos Hernández, to support the case.  A former prosecutor, the young Hernández was shot dead in his office on April 10, 2018, less than a month after joining the defence team. Area residents fear his murder may have been an attempt by INGELSA to stop Arnoldo Chacón from saving the river for residents of Arizona.  Just a few months before, on September 13, 2017, while Chacon was a candidate for mayor and a member of the municipal corporate council, he told police that he had received threats from men who identified themselves as speaking on behalf of the INGELSA company.  According to Chacón, unknown individuals approached him. They wanted him to stop blocking the then mayor from illegally annulling the results of a 2015 municipal referendum which had rejected the construction of dams in Arizona. The hitmen explained that Chacón was INGELSA’s principal problem, and that if he didn’t allow the dams, they would have to kill him or people close to him. With INGELSA’s political influence they let him know they could also undertake an audit of the family business or other pressure tactics.  Just a few weeks before, men dressed as soldiers had illegally entered Chacón’s brother’s home, which houses the family business, and searched it.  Then on March 1, 2018 in an interview with Honduran press, Chacón reported that a local whistle-blower had told him a hitman who had been following him for weeks had been paid $6,500 to kill him.

In 2015 after months of pressure, the then mayor of the township of Arizona, Adolfo Paguada, had agreed to convoke a municipal referendum about the possible construction of a 14.8 MW hydroelectric dam on the Jilamito River.  It was convoked for 2pm on November 20, but neighbours denounced early that morning that Paguada brought 34 buses of people from neighbouring municipalities and held an illegal referendum in the morning.  Despite the problems, municipal council members oversaw the 2pm referendum, in which townspeople overwhelmingly voted against dams in Arizona, which according to Honduran law made the results binding.  The next day three legal complaints were filed against Paguada, but no investigation has occurred. The referendum made it impossible for the mayor to grant a construction license for the dam.  Additionally, Honduran law requires the municipal council to review and approve mandatory environmental impact assessments before granting construction licenses.  The municipal council never presented an environmental impact assessment. For both of these reasons, it was impossible for a construction license to be legally granted. Nonetheless, in January of 2017 INGELSA began construction of the dam.

Desperate to preserve the water source for 16 communities and over 24,000 people, in May of 2017 the communities installed a permanent encampment along the road leading to the construction site.  When INGELSA brought equipment to the area on May 29, neighbours did not let it pass.  Arnoldo Chacón and the Arizona community development committee attempted to dialogue with the company, which could not present the construction license.

Many formal complaints against INGELSA and former mayor Paguada were filed and never prosecuted, however malicious prosecution of community leaders and the mayoral candidate advanced quickly. Today, those community members have been charged with criminal usurpation of the State of Honduras’ road, while the 24,000 people who stand to lose potable water have yet to see a license for the construction and environmental defenders fear for their lives and for the life of their remaining lawyer, Victor Fernández.

The Jilamito Hydroelectric Project in Honduras

Key words: School Of The Americas Watch (SOAW); Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ, Honduras); Jilamito Hydroelectric Project; community opposition; US Development Finance Corporation; IDB Invest; privatisation of natural resources.

The SOAW is the School Of The Americas Watch, a US  advocacy organisation founded in 1990 to protest the training of mainly Latin American military officers by the United States Department of Defence at the School of the Americas (SOA). Since 2000 the SOA has been called the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Prior to that time the School Of The Americas had become popularly renamed the School Of Assassins. Most of the Latin American military human rights abusers spent some of their training time in the SOA. In April 2021, along with the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice in Honduras (MADJ) and 60 other US and Honduran organisations, the SOAW sent a letter to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urging the US to oppose financing for the Jilamito Hydroelectric Project in Honduras.

For years, members of local communities, organised in MADJ, have maintained an encampment defending the Jilamito River from this project. They have faced death threats, violence, and criminalisation. The local mayor and other local leaders face criminal charges for defending the river. One month after they were indicted, Carlos Hernandez, the mayor’s defence lawyer, was murdered.

The US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) has publicly stated it will finance the project as part of investing $1 billion in the private sector in Honduras. MADJ has repeatedly denounced threats, human rights violations, and allegations of corruption related to the project. Despite this, IDB Invest, the private sector arm of the Inter-American Development Bank, has approved a $20.25 million loan for the project. The US is by far the largest shareholder of the IDB.

The letter to the US Treasury Secretary noted that there are numerous parallels between the Jilamito Hydroelectric Project and the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project, for opposing which Berta Cáceres was murdered. In addition to the violence, criminalisation, and threats faced by project opponents, both projects were approved in the period after the 2009 military coup in Honduras when natural resources were rapidly handed over to Honduras’ elite. MADJ has denounced corruption and irregularities related to the concession process, as well as environmental damages, but unsurprisingly the Honduran judicial system has yet to resolve their complaints.

The US justifies support for projects such as the Jilamito Hydroelectric Project – via so-called ‘development’ banks – by claiming such ‘development’ will prevent migration. On the contrary, the violent, militarised imposition of the US neoliberal economic model – which includes the privatisation of natural resources – is itself a root cause of migration from Central America. This is not ‘development’ – it serves to privatise and concentrate natural resources in the hands of the elite – and is frequently imposed through US-backed militarisation and repression of the communities and organisations who defend their water, land, and rights.


Hydroelectric projects in Bocas del Toro, Panama

A 2006 study by Cordero et al[1] outlines the environmental and social concerns associated with the four dam projects in the Changuinola-Teribe hydrographic basin. These include effects on La Amistad International Park, which is a prime area of biodiversity, and which forms part of a biological corridor between North and South America, meaning that ecological damage could be far-reaching. Access roads would expose La Amistad International Park to deforestation. Aquatic biodiversity would be affected over 704 kilometers of rivers, and aquatic species could be lost within a total area of 1,493 sq km.

The study estimated the gross value of greenhouse gas emissions (caused by deforestation) at $24.9 million, and the costs of attempts at transporting fish around the dams at $1.3 million. Environmental costs unaccounted for in the economic analysis include loss of biodiversity, thermal stratification of the reservoir water (unnatural temperatures, decreased oxygenation) and the loss of integrity of La Amistad National Park and the Palo Seco Protected Forest.

In terms of socio-cultural impacts, the people living in the region to be affected by the projects are primarily indigenous (Naso and Ngöbe peoples – refer to Ch.8). They live relatively autonomously and with subsistence economies, which would be undermined by the hydroelectric projects. Losses of $56.2 million were predicted for these groups, in association with compromised access to resources and the costs of changes in lifestyles.

A key finding of the analysis was the profound inequity in the distribution of costs and benefits.

This is a clear case of an investment that may well be economically efficient, but will be inequitable. This analysis shows that an energy company, lenders and the government will reap the benefits of the project, while the costs will fall disproportionately on particular indigenous communities and on the natural ecosystems surrounding them.[2]

Compensation is one way of mitigating such disparities, and the authors suggest that the profits generated by the projects would be sufficient to alleviate and compensate for some of the economic and environmental costs to the indigenous communities. However, they also note the lack of any satisfactory plan to do so.

[1]   Cordero, S., Montenegro, R., Mafla, M., Burgués, I., and Reid, J. (July 2006) ‘Análisis de costo beneficio de cuatro proyectos hidroeléctricos en la cuenca Changuinola-Teribe’, INCAE Business School, Alianza para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo, Asociación ANAI, and the Conservation Strategy Fund.
[2]  Ibid., p.11

San Marco – Indigenous Land Rights v Hydroelectric Projects

The following is a blog entry from ENCA member James Watson during the months of June and July 2015 when he accompanied the Honduran organisation COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras).

Tuesday 30th June 2015

The COPINH group – Maryeli, María, Agostín and Selvín.

The COPINH group – Maryeli, María, Agostín and Selvín.

A couple of days after arriving in La Esperanza, COPINH invited me on a trip away from their base in the town, to visit one of the communities that serve as their main focus fighting for indigenous rights in Honduras. San Marco de la Sierra is a mountainous area just south of La Esperanza. Its inhabitants are campesino farmers whose livelihood is primarily subsistence agriculture, working family plots of land on precipitous mountainsides. Although close on the map, the journey from La Esperanza takes 5 hours, half of it driving on crumbling highways and winding mountain roads, and half walking on treacherous slopes in the thick Honduran heat. When heavy rains wash out the road the community can be completely isolated for weeks. COPINH has been active in various struggles for San Marco’s indigenous and human rights over the years. On this trip, COPINH was returning because of a new threat to their land, water and environmental and spiritual heritage.

The Muddy Waters of Hydroelectric Dams and ‘Trickle Down’ Economic Development

Hydroelectric dams are a difficult issue for environmentalists. At first sight, they represent a good clean source of renewable energy – much needed to avert climate change. However, they have are not without a significant negative impact. Physically, they involve some loss of land to the artificial lakes they create, and can involve homes being dispossessed – although this depends on the size of the dam and the nature of its surroundings. They interrupt and control the flow of water downstream, which can interfere with water supplies to communities and the environment – but on the other hand they can be tools to manage extremes of flooding or drought.

In reality, hydroelectric projects need to be seen in their specific socioeconomic context. The proposed San Marco project will put five dams along the stretch of the San Juan River which runs through the region. The companies and Honduran officials involved say the individual dams will be quite small, with minimal physical impact.

But the overall context of regional money and power paints a very different picture. The dams are among hundreds that have been planned throughout Honduras since the current corrupt government passed a law allowing the privatisation of water resources. Water is precious in Central America. It is essential for communities to live on, but it has increasingly become a commodity to be owned and extracted for Western companies. Hydroelectricity, mining (which uses vast amounts of water for mineral extraction and contaminates it in the process) and soft drinks production have made it more valuable in the hands of companies than communities. In fact, hydroelectricity is fundamentally connected to mining in Honduras. A significant part of the country’s hydroelectricity generation is channelled straight into new mining projects – which the current government has extended to include over 30% of the nation’s land-area! Water is now just one of the many valuable resources abundant in Central America being sold at rock bottom prices to foreign “investors”.

Honduras leads the way internationally for opening itself to this sort of ‘investment’. But the Honduran oligarchy that negotiates this business has more interest in its own wealth and in importing the trappings of European and United States society, than it does in helping its own country to develop. As such the wealth that should roll into the country in return for its resources is a mere trickle, and goes straight into private bank accounts which are used to buy foreign products. This simple reality is key to understanding why in many ‘developing’ countries around the world, top-down, investment-led, ‘trickle down’ economics has completely failed to improve the lives of anyone but the richest elites.

When it comes to the remote indigenous in Honduras however, the most important perspective is that of local power, land and culture. Although the San Marco project officials say the dam will be small, it will carve out sections of the land and river and surround them in fences, blocking access for the campesinos. It will impose a new power structure of owner vs owned on their land. The indigenous Lenca live off the land and value and protect it. Traditionally they own it as communities, not collectives. The rivers have a deep spiritual significance to them and are part of their identity.

The communities in San Marco have not been consulted in any way about what the project will entail – in a casual dismissal of international law. Put simply, the dam organisers do not value the campesinos’ opinions, their way of life, or even their existence. COPINH has fought countless battles against other dam projects. Countless times they have faced violence, intimidation and murder, with officials set to profit from projects paying off community members, private security guards and the military to do their dirty work. Hydroelectric dam projects in Honduras are as dirty and destructive as any other grand extractive undertaking in this most exploited of countries.

Information, Misinformation and Violence – The Local Realities of Hydroelectric Projects

I went to San Marco with 4 COPINH members – Selvín, Maryeli, María and Agostín – who were expected at a community meeting to discuss the damming project. We spent 2 nights in the community, in a beautiful and remote mountain setting as green as any movie rainforest setting. The day in the community was busy from dawn until dusk, my companions giving a string of presentations to inform the community of their experiences of dam projects elsewhere.

j2San Marco’s isolation puts information at a premium. TV is not available, but radio is, and among other stations COPINH’s community radio can be received in the mountains. COPINH has an important role in providing information that strengthens the community. They are especially vulnerable to promises and misinformation from the companies involved in the dam building, and several community members have already been contacted with promises of money. It is a common tactic across Latin America for companies concerned about potential resistance to their plans to buy out individuals in order to divide and weaken the autonomy of communities. The COPINH meeting was mainly aimed at bringing their experience of the reality of Honduran dam projects to prepare San Marco for such interference.

The meeting was well attended, with over a hundred people some of whom had walked for 4 hours to be there. Here the group are participating in a discussion of the ILO’s Convention 169 on Indigenous Rights, and what it means to them.Selvín and Maryeli talked about other dam projects in general, and then María spoke. She is from Rio Blanco where COPINH’s indigenous organising has recently stopped the Agua Zarca project – a success which gained COPINH’s general coordinator Berta Cáceres the Goldman International Environmental Prize. But Rio Blanco still faces violence from Agua Zarca’s vested interests. María has been attacked twice and threatened with death. She told me that she has machete scars on the top of her head from an attempt to kill her. Her right hand is bandaged with half a finger missing – brutally cut off in an assault just a few weeks ago which has forced her to go into hiding in La Esperanza.

I was also honoured to be asked by COPINH to speak to the meeting. In my clumsy Spanish I talked a little about the international context – about the ‘trickle down’ model of development and how it is used in my country to justify exploitative extractive projects in ‘developing’ countries, without actually producing any development. Thankfully though, I didn’t have to speak for long, and as everyone was dropping off we took that opportunity to walk the 30 minutes down to the river itself to swim and enjoy what San Marco was fighting for.

Rio San Juan is a beautiful and majestic site with great importance both physically and spiritually for the Lenca who live around it

Rio San Juan is a beautiful and majestic site with great importance both physically and spiritually for the Lenca who live around it

The day after the meeting, we travelled back to La Esperanza. That was a week ago, but this week COPINH received the appalling news of the murder of 2 people from the San Marco community that we stayed in, and the disappearance of another. As yet I haven’t heard anyone confirm what happened or why. But it seems unlikely to be a coincidence in such a small community that it happened at this time of conflict. The suspicion is that the dam companies and the municipal government that is in business with them have already found community members to coerce with money and promises, enough to use murder to break any opposition.

This is the model used throughout Honduras, including in Rio Blanco, and it seems this violence is never far away. It was a shock to hear that such a beautiful and seemingly peaceful place had been hit so brutally by violence. That is simply the shameful reality underneath the clean and prosperous promises of hydroelectric dam projects in Honduras.

James Watson 30th June 2015 Blog, Indigenous Struggles and Human Rights in Honduras

The Chan 75 dam – points for

The Chan-75 Hydroelectric Project (HEP) has been constructed by Alliance Energy Systems (AES) Changuinola whose parent company is based in the USA. A total of $563 million has been invested into development of the project.[1] Construction work began in 2007 and the project entered into the commercial phase in 2011. The area covered by the whole project is 6,215 hectares and it makes use of water from both the Changuinola and Calubre Rivers.[2] The HEP is projected to generate a nominal power of 223 MW, which is “equivalent to the consumption of 1.5 million barrels of fuel per year.”[3] Advocates of the project believe that it will help decrease Panama’s dependence on fossil fuels.

The construction of the dam has provided several opportunities for development, such as the construction of infrastructure. There have also been significant economic benefits of the project which are summarised in the company’s propaganda[4]:

  • Job opportunities: Over 800 Panamanians have been employed by the project.
  • Creation of new services: services such as supermarkets, restaurants, launderettes and medical services have been provided for the communities of Bocas del Toro.
  • Support for local supply businesses: AES has spent over $2 million on construction supplies and materials, buying 99 per cent of these products from suppliers in the Bocas del Toro province.
  • Income for local institutions: in 2008, AES paid over $4,000 in taxes to the Municipality of Changuinola and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

AES Changuinola believes that “all parties are winners”[5].

[1] Sherly Diaz (2009) Hydroelectric Project: model of sustainable development, The Panama Post, 31 Aug – 06 Sept 2009, P.13.
[2] Transnational Institute (2008) The Chan-75 Hydroelectric Project: a factsheet, TNI (Accessed 22/09/2010)
[3] Op Cit. (Sherly Diaz)
[4] AES Changuinola (2008) An economically beneficial project, AES, (Accessed 22/09/2010)
[5] Ibid. (AES Changuinola)

Chan 75 dam under construction 2010

Chan 75 dam under construction 2010

The Chan 75 dam – points against

The location of the dam is the Palo Seco Protected Forest within the La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, in the province of Bocas del Toro, Panamá. The La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is shared with Costa Rica. In 2008, the discoveries of three new species of salamanders were reported, found on the Costa Rican side of the Reserve very close to the Panamanian border.[1] Many environmentalists fear that the impacts of the Chan-75 project will be “manifold and immeasurable for the biologically rich ecosystems”[2] found in the Reserve, as the project will include a 1,400 hectare reservoir in “what is known to be Central America’s largest remaining expanse of untouched rainforest.”[3] Large-scale deforestation has already occurred.

Furthermore, the Changuinola River drains into an internationally recognised wetland, called the San San – Pond Sak Wetlands.[4] The construction of the dam means that many streams will be depleted, and there are concerns that the natural migratory patterns of fish will be altered due to changes in the level and quality of the water. According to Bill McLarney, “the effects upstream and downstream from the dams would be drastic, possibly involving the extirpation of eight to ten species of migratory fish and several species of shrimps.”[5] This will cause serious problems for the indigenous Ngöbe people whose main source of protein comes from the fish in this river system.

The construction of the Chan-75 dam will result in the relocation of 178 households from four communities: Charco La Pava, Valle del Rey, Guayabal and Changuinola Arriba. It is estimated that over 2,500 people live in the impact zone and will be affected in one way or another.[6] Although AES Changuinola promotes a process of “Participative Resettlement”[7] and has documented hundreds of meetings and support sessions with the indigenous population, the fact remains that free, prior and informed consent was not sought before the beginning of the project. This is classed as a violation of human rights by international standards, especially as the Ngöbe communities are regarded as vulnerable due to their lack of land tenure and reliance on natural resources.[8] Since construction work started on the dam the Ngöbe have experienced excessive noise well into the night, the generation of dust from heavy machinery and a decreased quality of water in the river that they depend on. They also live in an environment of fear and insecurity. There have been reports that Ngöbe people have been pressured to sign away their land on documents written in Spanish, a language that many Ngöbe are unable to read or speak.[9],[10] Peaceful protests have been violently repressed, and petitions against the construction of the dam have been ignored. In March 2008, two NGOs presented a petition to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in an attempt to halt the construction of the dam while an investigation into the human rights breaches against the Ngöbe is carried out. As a result, in 2009, the IACHR called for the suspension of all activities related to the Chan-75 dam, although this ruling has been in vain as the Panamanian government continues to permit the construction of the dam.[11]

[1] BBC News (2008) Bio-rich Costa Rica’s new marvels, BBC (Accessed 22/09/2010).
[2] Monti Aguirre (2007) Dams Threaten Biodiversity and Indigenous People in Panama, World Rivers Review, Vol. 22, No. 4, P.6.
[3] Mireille Gold (2007) Hydroelectric Dams vs. Nature & Tradition, Mesoamerica, Nov 2007, P.11.
[4] Osvaldo Jordan and Peter Galvin (2008) ACD Comments on Changuinola 1 (Chan-75) Large Hydro Project (Panama), Alliance for Conservation and Development (ACD) and the Centre for Biological Diversity (Accessed 22/09/2010).
[5] Bill McLarney (2007) Director of the Stream Biomonitoring Programme at the Asociación ANAI in Costa Rica, Cited in Monti Aguirre – see Note 2.
[6] H. González (2009) General Manager of AES Changuinola, Cited in Mary Finley-Brook and Curtis Thomas (2010) Treatment of Displaced Indigenous Populations in Two Large Hydro Projects in Panama, Water Alternatives, Vol. 3, No. 2, P.269 – 290.
[7] AES Changuinola (2008) Participative Resettlement, AES (Accessed 22/09/2010).
[8] James Anaya (2009) Informe del Relator Especial sobre la situación de los derechos humanos y las libertades fundamentales de los indígenas: Observaciones sobre la situación de la comunidad Charco la Pava y otras comunidades afectadas por el proyecto hidroeléctrico Chan 75 (Panamá), Report presented to the Human Rights Council at the UN General Assembly, 7 Sept 2009.
[9] Cultural Survival (2010) Panamanian Government Steps Up Dam Construction on Ngöbe Lands, Cultural Survival (Accessed 23/09/2010).
[10] Cultural Survival (September 2010) ‘Dam Nation’, (Accessed 22 September 2010).
[11] Op.cit. (Cultural Survival, 2010).

The Patuca River and the proposed Patuca dams

The project was first proposed in 1997 and design and planning work was initiated, but the project went through a stop-start process for a number of reasons and years, including in 2009 the collapse of funding. In January 2011, however, the post-coup Honduran National Congress approved the construction of the Patuca II, IIA and III dams. The contract was awarded to Sinohydro, a Chinese company.

In terms of electricity production, scheduled to begin in January 2014, the project is ambitious, although estimates of the power to be generated vary according to the company and institutions involved. For the government, the project is stated to be firmly tied in with the goal of changing the country’s balance of energy generation from mainly thermal sources to mainly renewable sources.[i]

At 320 km long, the Patuca River is the longest in Honduras and is the central artery of the Moskitia region, a large expanse of tropical wilderness in the north-east of Honduras. For 3,000 years it has been home to the Tawahka indigenous people and to several communities of Miskito, Garífuna and Pech peoples. Virtually all the indigenous people who live in the region are dependent on the Patuca or its tributaries for all aspects of their lives. On its rich floodplain they grow crops for subsistence and sale, and its fish provide their main source of protein. Dugouts on the Patuca serve as the main form of transport.

Lorenzo Tinglas, president of the Tawahka people’s governing council, describes its importance: “The river is our life. Any threat to the Patuca is a threat to four indigenous peoples … and we will fight to the death to protect it.”[ii] Edgardo Benitez of the Green Alliance and the Platform in Defence of the Patuca River said that everyone is worried, particularly the Tawahka who are a small group of 500 at risk of extinction if the dam project proceeds.[iii]

In February 2011 the four groups formed a united front to protect the river against the dam project. Fears include:

  • Interruption of fish migration and spawning, leading to their disappearance from the river.
  • Alteration of flood cycles that regularly wash nutrients over the flood plain.
  • Road construction opening the region to an invasion of loggers, settlers, poachers, cattle ranchers and drug traffickers.
  • Restrictions on the movement of local people – the government is building a military base to protect the dam construction site.[iv]

The Tawahka and other indigenous peoples affected by the dams were used in 2006 as part of a fact-finding mission to discover information about the flows and flood regime of the river.[v] This did not constitute consultation about the dams, which under the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169 – see Chapter 8 – indigenous peoples affected by development projects should be given. Throughout the long process of negotiations regarding the dams, the local indigenous groups have been excluded and ignored. Indeed, whilst the “Honduran regime rules as unconstitutional a decree allowing farming communities occupying idle land to make legal claims on the land because this ‘violates private property’, it takes no issue with expropriating land from small farmers and communities against their will for the Patuca projects.”[vi]

Given that the project began in 2011 with the building of a camp, access roads, a quarry and a tunnel to divert river water, it seems highly likely that the government and Sinohydro have no intention of consulting the local inhabitants. Opposition to the dams will certainly be difficult. As Wong writes, “the ‘government’ can send to kill and blame it on gangs.”[vii]

At a workshop to discuss means of protecting the Patuca River below the dams, Jeff Opperman, Senior Advisor for Sustainable Hydropower to The Nature Conservancy, repeated a local man’s statement: “A ellos van siempre los dólares … a nosotros van siempre los dolores” – “to them always the dollars … to us always the pain.”[viii]

[i] Reynaldo Yanes (15 May 2011) ‘Patuca III, primer paso a la reconversión energética’, La Prensa Business section, (accessed 30.07.11).
[ii] Danielle DeLuca (2011) ‘Tawahka and Garífuna people to Honduran regime – Don’t Dam the Patuca River!’, Cultural Survival, Action Alert.
[iii] Rosanna Wong (2011) ‘Mega Dam Project on Patuca River Threatens Indigenous Communities’,, (accessed 06.07.11).
[iv] Intercontinental Cry (2011) ‘Don’t Dam the Patuca River!’, (accessed 06.07.11).
[v] Jeff Opperman (undated) ‘In Honduras, Scientists Try to Learn the Secrets of the Patuca River Before It’s Dammed’, The Nature Conservancy, (accessed 06.07.11).
[vi] Op.cit. (Wong).
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Jeff Opperman (February 2011) ‘Dólares y Dolores Along the Rio Patuca’, The Nature Conservancy, Cool Green Science, (accessed 30.07.11).