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).

Case study: The Chixoy Dam, Guatemala

The Guatemalan National Institute for Electrification (INDE) began construction of a hydro-electric dam on the Chixoy River in Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, in 1978. Built with funds from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, it was fully operational by 1983. It has been blamed for forcibly displacing 3,500 Maya-Achí and negatively affecting a further 6,000 households.[1]

Between 1980 and 1982 – during a particularly brutal spell of the country’s civil war – some 376 Mayans were massacred when they resisted eviction from the village of Rio Negro to make way for the Chixoy Reservoir. According to Witness For Peace[2], the massacres were carried out by the Civil Defence Patrols, one of the notorious paramilitary units used by the Guatemalan state as death squads.[3]

The Guatemalan Truth Commission found that state-sponsored violence constituted genocide and that the massacres illustrate how “many resistant attitudes to administrative decisions, even though they were peaceful, as occurred in relation to the construction of the hydroelectric dam, were a priori conceived to be instigated by the guerrilla and were resolved through violent repression”.[4]

Community members fought for reparations and, along with human rights groups, pressured the World Bank to carry out an internal investigation into the repression in 1996. The (REPORT NAME) concluded that massacres had taken place but the Bank refused to take responsibility for them.[5]

Then in 2004, around 3,000 held a peaceful protest at the dam. This forced the Guatemalan government to convene a commission to verify the damages suffered by the local population.[6] The Commission is comprised of representatives of the Guatemalan government, the World Bank and the Inter–American Development Bank. It is facilitated by a representative of the Organization of American States.[7]

International Rivers is working with the Environmental Defender Law Center to engage the US law firm Holland and Knight to represent the communities at the negotiations table.

[1]  International Rivers Network, (accessed 06/08/09).
[2] Witness For Peace describes itself as “a politically independent, nationwide grassroots organisation of people committed to non-violence and led by faith and conscience. WFP’s mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing US policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.” (accessed 15.08.09).
[3]  International Rivers Network, ‘Report Reveals 376 Murdered After Resisting Eviction’, (accessed 06/08/09).
[4]  Barbara Rose Johnston (18 May 2005) ‘Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study’, The Centre for Political Ecology, Santa Cruz, (accessed 06/08/09).
[5]  Op.cit. (International Rivers Network).
[6]  Intercontinental Cry, ‘Chixoy Dam Reparations Campaign Announced’, (accessed 06/08/09).
[7]  Op.cit. (International Rivers Network).

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).

State terror in support of a Guatemalan hydroelectric project

Between 1980 and 1982 – during a particularly brutal spell of Guatemala’s civil war – some 376 Mayans were massacred when they resisted eviction from the village of Río Negro to make way for the Chixoy Reservoir. According to Witness For Peace[1], the massacres were carried out by the Civil Defence Patrols (PAC), one of the notorious paramilitary units used by the Guatemalan state as death squads.[2]

In March 1980, military police based at the site of the dam shot seven people in Río Negro. The villagers chased the police away and one, according to the people of Río Negro, drowned in the Chixoy River. The Guatemalan power utility company (INDE) and the army, however, accused the villagers of murdering the policeman and of being supporters of the guerrilla movement. In July 1980, two representatives from Río Negro agreed to a request from INDE to go to the dam site to present their resettlement documents. The mutilated bodies of the two men were found a week later.

In February 1982, 73 men and women from Río Negro were ordered by the local military commander to report to Xococ, a village upstream from the reservoir zone which had a history of hostility with Río Negro. Only one woman out of the 73 villagers returned to Río Negro. The rest were raped, tortured and then murdered by Xococ’s PAC.

On 13 March 1982, ten soldiers and 25 PAC members arrived in Río Negro, rounded up the remaining women and children and took them to a hill above the village. Witness for Peace’s account of what happened on the hill was pieced together from interviews with survivors.

They were strangling many of the women by putting ropes around their necks and twisting the ropes with sticks. They were also beating other women with clubs and rifles, and kicking and punching them. ‘I remember one woman,’ [Jaime, a 10 year old survivor at the time] relates, ‘a soldier jumped up and kicked her in the back. He must have broken her spine, because she tried to get up but her legs wouldn’t move. Then he smashed her skull with his rifle.’ The patrollers killed the children by tying ropes around their ankles and swinging them, smashing their heads and bodies into rocks and trees.[3] Seventy women and 107 children were killed. Only two women managed to escape. Eighteen children were taken back to Xococ as slaves for the PAC.

Two months later, 82 more people from Río Negro were massacred. In September 1982, 35 orphaned children from Río Negro were among 92 people machine gunned and burned to death in another village near the dam. Reservoir filling began soon after this final massacre.

[1]   Witness For Peace (WFP) describes itself as “a politically independent, nationwide grassroots organisation of people committed to non-violence and led by faith and conscience. WFP’s mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing US policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.” (accessed 15.08.09).
[2]  International Rivers Network (IRN), ‘Report Reveals 376 Murdered After Resisting Eviction’, (accessed 06/08/09).
[3]  IRN/WFP (9 May 1996) ‘NGOs Demand World Bank Investigation Into 1980s Massacres as Guatemalan Dam Report Reveals 276 Murdered After Resisting Eviction’, IRN/WFP Press Release.

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.

Construction of Tumarín 160 MW hydro project to start this summer

Nicaragua and the Brazilian companies Eletrobras and Queiroz Galvao through its representative company in Nicaragua Empresa Centrales Hidroeléctricas de Centroamérica have signed a concession agreement in which the Brazilian companies have agreed to start construction of the largest hydroelectric project in Nicaragua, the Tumarín hydro station, in mid-2014.

This is a positive development following years of uncertainty over the project due to the lack of agreement on the tariffs that would be set by the Brazilian company for electricity sales. Both sides have now reached an agreement on these rates but the details have not been disclosed.

Concession of the hydroelectric station Tumarín was granted in mid-2008 to the Brazilian companies. At that time the start date for its operation was projected for the end of 2012 and the planned investment was $500m for the generation of 160MW.

Taken from the newsletter of the Nicaraguan Embassy in Britain – 4th April 2014