The Beni River flows through the Bolivian Amazon, a bloodline for indigenous communities, rare species, and old-growth forests. Madid National Park, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, is sustained by the Beni. In this unique ecological zone of savannahs and cloud forests that make up the convergence of the Amazon basin and the Andes live indigenous groups in voluntary isolation, over 1,000 species of birds and butterflies and around 300 endangered jaguars. More than a dozen indigenous communities rely on the Beni for their livelihoods, but the river, and many others in Bolivia, are now at risk as the country is planning 35 hydroelectric plants by 2025. The largest proposed megaproject is the construction of two dams on the Beni River, the Bala and Chepete, which together would inundate an area of 680 square kilometers. Much of the projected floodplain are Native Community Lands, Tierras Comunitarias de Origen (TCO), which is land owned by indigenous people and protected by the Constitution. The Tacana people depend on the Beni River for fishing and their only mode of transportation, therefore at least 1,500 people would face serious challenges to survival with the construction of the Bala-Chepete hydroelectric plant. The entire Mosetenes indigenous community would be displaced as TCO land in Madid National Park is flooded. Despite the devastating effect these dams would have on the indigenous nations, the government and Italian engineering company, GEODATA, failed to seek the Free, Prior, and Informed consent (FPIC) of the affected communities before conducting a land study, breaking the laws of the Bolivian Constitution and international conventions.
The changing tides of politics in South America’s southern cone have resulted in economic challenges for Bolivia. Their primary export is natural gas and significant sales to Argentina and Brazil have bolstered the economy and raised the standard of living in Bolivia. However, over the course of the last few years, Brazilian President Michel Temer has loosened regulations on oil and gas production, extended a tax incentive program, and increased privatization of natural gas distribution. Massive international oil corporations have swept in and purchased offshore oil blocks and pre-salt fields, opening up these previously unattainable fuel sources to exploitation. Production is expected to rise significantly in Brazil, which was previously responsible for purchasing 90 percent of Bolivia’s natural gas exports. In Argentina, President Macri has transformed economic policy to allow and entice foreign investment in order to fund development of natural gas production after the recent discovery of the Vaca Muerta shale formation. It is now expected that Argentina will become an exporter of natural gas and no longer rely on Bolivia.
Despite the clear indication that Argentina and Brazil are moving towards self-sufficiency in their energy sectors, Bolivia remains desperate to maintain an export-oriented economy. President Evo Morales has built out a plan for hydroelectric power in a country which is already producing enough energy for domestic use. These megaprojects would serve to diversify the economy, previously reliant on now dwindling natural gas resources. While Morales pushed the Bala-Chepete Dam project to a national priority and dogmatically structured the country’s economic plan off his prognostication of massive energy production, the reality of the investment remained questionable.
The Italian company, GEODATA, contracted with building the Bala and Chepete dams conducted a study in 2015-16 to evaluate their investment potential. Their revenue models for the Bala dam didn’t project a viable outcome, as the cost of electricity generation was estimated much higher than the average price at which Brazil has been buying for the last decade. The predicted cost of the two-part hydroelectric project is $7 billion and while over 4,000 people are displaced and rare ecosystems are decimated, only the government and multinational corporations will reap the benefits, if it even generates any.
In addition to not producing revenue, the environmental impact of the hydroelectric dams would cause devastation felt around the world. Flooding 170,000 acres of Amazon rainforest would result in massive decay of plant material at the bottom of the reservoir which produces methane and CO2, the most potent global warming gases. Over the course of years, dams emit levels of methane twice as high as those generated by coal power plants. The sudden inundation leads to extreme alteration to the ecosystem, significant population decrease of the native species and imbalances in the food chain which fuel insect-borne diseases. Epidemic malaria would become a serious threat to public health across Bolivia, where there is a low response capacity and poor health infrastructure, and pose the risk to spread internationally.
In recognition of the week of International Day of Action for Rivers, it is important to remember that there are undeniable economic benefits to diversifying energy sources but that hydroelectric megaprojects have hefty consequences. The displacement of thousands of people, destruction of fisheries, depletion of irrigation sources, disruption of tourism markets and diffusion of greenhouse gases must not be considered viable sacrifices for an unsound investment in hydropower. These factors counteract any economic gain and the permanent damages caused to native species and indigenous populations is incalculable. Bolivia is not without other options and can still grow their energy sector without moving forward with hydroelectric dams. In March 2017, Bolivia signed a loan agreement with the Japan International Cooperation Agency for $552 million for the construction of the Colorada Geothermal Power Plant. This project, expected to begin producing power in 2019, is the first in the country and a step in the right direction to mitigate climate change. In comparison to coal-generated electricity and natural gas generated electricity, Geothermal energy emits significantly lower levels of greenhouse gases CO2 and methane as well as SO2, which causes acid rain. These projects are far less polluting and, in the case of Bolivia, would not cause the same irrevocable destruction to habitats, communities, and ecosystems.