Bolivia plans Amazon ‘mega-dams’ amid opposition

Indigenous communities in the Bolivian Amazon are joining with ecologists to oppose a "mega-dam" complex the government has announced for the Río Beni. Reviving a long-dormant scheme to turn the Bolvian Amazon into a regional energy hub, the plan calls for construction of two large hydroelectric dams and infrastructure to export the power to neighboring countries. President Evo Morales estimates the project would cost around $6 billion and, once operational, would bring in more than $1 billion a year. According to a leaked environmental impact assessment, the two dams will flood an area larger the city of La Paz, affecting around 4,000 people in 17 communities within and near the flood zone. Indigenous T'simanes, Tacanas, Mosetenes and Uchupiamonas communities reject the project, saying it never went through the consultation process required by Bolivia's constitution.

“At this moment, we—as indigenous peoples—are in resistance mode and demanding that the Bolivian government bring the policies it has adopted in line with our current laws,” says Alex Villca of the Amazon Defense Coordinating Committee. “We have a constitution with multiple articles that back up and support the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Others have raised questions about the financial viability of the project. Marco Gandarillas, director of the Bolivian Center for Information and Investigation (CEDIB), says the project is unlikely to be profitable due to high costs and energy market volatility. "The Bolivian government believes the era of gas has passed and that few reserves are likely to be discovered," said Gandarillas. "They have little hope of finding huge reserves and are thus concentrating on a very aggressive plan to build at least 17 hydroelectric projects, many of them with the intent of expanding upon energy exports."

Last November, residents of indigenous communities near the planned sites along the Río Beni issued alerts about the arrival of heavy equipment from the company hired by the government to make the final studies for the dam project. They immediately began round-the-clock vigils in the area, and the company withdrew its equipment weeks later.  The government has yet to comment on the episode, but maintains it will move ahead with the project this year. (FSRN, Jan. 9)