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).

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).

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.

Guatemalan opposition to Unión Fenosa dealt with by hitmen

fenosa-no-al-regreso-imagesCAWH8WC3-2On 11 January 2010 a delegation of members of FRENA (Resistance Front in Defence of Natural Resources and the Rights of People and Communities) held meetings in Guatemala City with various civil society organisations and government authorities, including the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of the Interior and the Secretary General of the Presidency. The meetings were organised to present extensive documentation of complaints against DEOCSA, one of the two electricity distribution companies set up by Unión Fenosa.

Shortly after the meetings, the delegation returned to San Marcos. Evelinda Ramírez Reyes and three male FRENA members noticed that their car was followed by a four-door, white car with two passengers, both men of about 22-24 years of age.

At 8:30 pm, near Km. 208, the same car overtook them and blocked the road. The FRENA members´ car was shot at, possibly from another direction, and both Evelinda Ramírez and the driver were hit. The driver and two other passengers were able to escape from the car and hide from their attackers. Once the assailants had left the scene, the driver and the two other passengers returned to the car, where Evelinda had died from her wounds. Nothing was stolen during the attack.

Evelinda Ramírez was 26 and a single mother with a 5 year old son. She was a member of FRENA and president of the board of the community of Chiquirines, Ocós in the department of San Marcos. She was also a member of the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC).

By the end of 2009, no less than sixteen of the organisation’s members had been assassinated. Unión Fenosa denied any responsibility for the assassinations.

In February 2010, fifty organisations, trade unions and Spanish parties sent a letter to President Colom and to the directors of Unión Fenosa declaring that these assassinations had resulted from the social activism and opposition to the high costs charged by DEOCSA. The letter also pointed out the responsibility of the Spanish government in ensuring the continuing impunity enjoyed by the assassins.

2010 witnessed more assassinations of FRENA members.

Martín Cúneo, (15 April 2010) ‘Ocho activistas opuestos a Unión Fenosa asesinados en seis meses en Guatemala’, Revista Amauta, (accessed 12 July 2010).
NISGUA-United States (together with a collection of similar solidarity organisations) (2010) Urgent Action bulletin.
Wikipedia ‘Unión Fenosa’, (accessed 12 July 2010)

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

Case study: energy privatisation in Costa Rica

Even in Costa Rica where at least 90 per cent production of electricity from renewable sources, the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) has been blamed for failing to invest in new sources of renewable energy, this leading “to the increase in reliance on fossil fuels to generate energy.”[i] In 2000, however, attempts to privatise the ICE sparked public protests and strikes on a huge scale, grand enough to force withdrawal of the proposed legislation. “Few argue that the services don’t need improvement, but opponents say the bill is too deeply tied to the personal financial interests of several political families.”[ii] Efforts to privatise the electricity generation sector disappeared from view for a few years, and from 2005 to 2007, the amount of power produced by thermal (fossil fuels-based) energy crept up from 3.5 to 8.2 per cent.[iii]

In February 2008, then President Oscar Arias announced his goal that Costa Rica would become carbon neutral by 2021. Since then, efforts to privatise have begun to re-surface, linked to attempts to increase the proportion of energy produced by renewable sources. Interestingly, the privatisation moves are also linked to attempts to promote small-scale energy generation. In March 2011, Arias’s successor, President Laura Chinchilla, issued a decree ordering ICE officials to promote small-scale power generation on the grounds that opening the electricity market to private companies would boost “the growth of small-scale power-producing businesses across the country.”[iv] Carlos Wahrman, an energy consultant, explains the thinking behind this move:

The Costa Rica Electricity Institute (ICE) has been designed to take on enormous endeavours, such as blasting mountains, building dams, flooding acres of land and changing landscapes. But ICE is totally unable to build small power generation plants because of its size. That’s where private initiative steps in.[v]

fenosa-3-guat-clip_image00224_thumb2-2Rather than an explanation, this sounds like questionable reasoning for privatisation, and it highlights the problems caused by large-scale electricity generation with its talk of blasting mountains and flooding acres of land. It also raises the question of why large companies or institutions are unable to work at the small-scale. Logically, it is easy to see why small companies may not be able to work at the large-scale; but there is no reason why large companies cannot work at the small-scale. With such feeble justifications it is not surprising that opposition to the privatisation promotion strategy is likely to rise again. As José María Villalta, a congressman for the Broad Front Party has said:

We have an electricity generation strategy that has worked almost flawlessly. The country has decided to take the path of renewable, cheap, environmentally friendly energies, and ICE has performed amazingly. The only people that would like to see energy competition under free-market rules are the ones who would [financially] benefit from it.[vi]

Indeed, in 2011 there was certainly some salivating within the business community that the privatisation of the ICE was likely in the near future, as a Business News Americas headline testified: “ICE seen likely to consider privatisation within next 5 years.”[vii] As a clear supporter of privatisation, President Laura Chinchilla and the business community are waiting only for the right moment when they consider they can gain approval for the ICE privatisation, but it is unlikely to occur without a fierce battle with a Costa Rican public that has managed to defeat the move once already and has been emboldened by victory in other battles such as a ban on oil exploration.

[i] Mike McDonald (4 September 2009) ‘Rising Energy Needs Prompt New Bill’, Tico Times, San José, Costa Rica.
[ii] Megan Stacy (19 April 2000) ‘Costa Rica: Strikes, marches force delay of privatisation’, Green Left Weekly, Australia, (accessed 24.07.11).
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Rommel Téllez (15 April 2011) ‘Chinchilla Administration Furthers Push For Renewable Energy Sources’, The Tico Times, San José.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Business News Americas (28 April 2011) ‘ICE seen likely to consider privatisation within next 5 years’, Business News Americas, (accessed 26.07.11).

Nicaragua hopes to run on 100% clean energy in six years

Nicaragua News Bulletin 11 May 2010 – May 2010

In an effort to reduce dependency on petroleum, Nicaragua’s Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) has set the goal of running entirely on renewable energy by 2016. Today, approximately 30% of Nicaragua’s energy comes from renewable sources (including geothermal, wind, hydroelectric, and biomass) while the other 70% comes from oil.

A number of projects (both public and private) are helping to change these percentages and make the Ministry’s goal a reality. Iceland’s International Development Agency will support growth within the geothermal sector with over US$4 million. Director Gil Paison said that the objective was to strengthen the capacity of Nicaragua’s central government and the ministries and agencies involved in the geo-thermal energy field.

Energy Minister Emilio Rappaccioli recently visited the geothermal project ran by Polaris Energy and Queiroz Galvao, a Brazilian company, at San Jacinto-Tizate. The companies are currently expanding the capacity of the plant and installing new technology. They hope that by next April it will be producing 36 megawatts (up from 10 megawatts), enough energy to supply the departments of Chinandega and Leon. Tom Ogryzlo, head of Polaris Energy Nicaragua, said, “I have worked in many countries around the world and in only a few places have I seen the support from a government similar to that which has been offered by this government.” A total of US$151 million has been invested in this phase of the operation.

Rappaccioli said that by 2012, the geothermal plants at San Jacinto-Tizata and Momotombo will be producing between them 72 megawatts of electricity. Polaris Energy already has a contract to sell energy to Union Fenosa (the Spanish-owned electricity company which runs Nicaragua’s energy distribution network) at US$92 per megawatt hour. (La Prensa, May 6; Radio La Primerísima, May 7, 8)