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, www.laprensa.hn/Sintesis/Lo-ultimo/Ediciones/2011/05/16/Noticias/Patuca-III-primer-paso-a-la-reconversion-energetica (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’, iNewp.com, http://inewp.com/?p=7178 (accessed 06.07.11).
[iv] Intercontinental Cry (2011) ‘Don’t Dam the Patuca River!’, http://intercontinentalcry.org/dont-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, http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/lessons-from-the-field-patuca-river-honduras/ (accessed 06.07.11).
[vi] Op.cit. (Wong).
[viii] Jeff Opperman (February 2011) ‘Dólares y Dolores Along the Rio Patuca’, The Nature Conservancy, Cool Green Science, http://blog.nature.org/2011/02/dolares-y-dolores-along-the-rio-patuca/ (accessed 30.07.11).