In August, I had the privilege of visiting several villages situated on either side of the Marañon River that would be affected by the construction of a proposed hydroelectric dam known as Chadin 2. We have been studying this project now for a number of months in our Amazon office for its potential impact on the river (which is a major tributary of the Amazon), on local communities, and on a number of pending mining projects eager for a local and cheap source of electricity. The trip was co-organized by the NGO Forum Solidaridad and the Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina as part of a campaign to protect the Marañon and the traditional way of life of rural communities throughout the region. The trip was an opportunity to collect information about the environment, the communities, and the potential impacts of the dam, as well as to inform the communities about the project and the legal rights that the project threatens. As the only lawyer travelling with the team, the “know-your-rights” portion was my responsibility.
The full team – with representatives additionally from International Rivers, the Asociación Nacional de Centros, and the Rondas Campesians – assembled in the town of Celendin on August 10 at four o’clock in the morning. We loaded our gear into a truck and set off as far as the highway would take us, unloading in the small village of Bella Aurora – still well above the river. From there, to get down to the river and to move between the villages, we would have to continue by foot, with the assistance of whatever horses and mules that the communities could spare for our journey. The distances were long, and the trails difficult, and on multiple days we were forced to walk long into the night, following the trail with our flashlights until we reached the village where we would sleep.
But despite the difficult journey, it didn’t take long before I started to comprehend the communities’ resistance to the dam project. Beyond the breathtaking scenery, the villages and their farms are strategically located to take advantage of incredibly fertile oases along the banks of the river to meet their food and economic needs. No one goes hungry, and we were generously invited to eat with the families wherever we stayed. If the dam were to be constructed, all of this land would be flooded and these communities would need to be relocated. One resident of the community of Tupén explained to me that the community has grown accustomed to the particular climate and soil which support the growth of water- and nutrient-rich crops such as oranges, limes, avocados, mangos, plum-mangos, and cacao. Any relocation would almost certainly force them to learn an entirely new way of life, and put at risk their food-security and health.
Such fears are legitimate. At a public forum in Celendin to discuss the Chadin 2 project on August 17, residents from the community of Huabal in the Lambayeue region described the changes in their lives brought by the relocation they were forced to undergo through the construction of the Limón dam. In clear and vivid terms, they described the social and economic hardships they faced after resettlement, and urged the communities to closely consider the consequences. Members from Forum Solidaridad and International Rivers provided similar examples from other contexts, and highlighted the additional concerns for prostitution, human trafficking, and dissemination of disease, that often go hand-in-hand with dam construction.
But unfortunately, as I heard over and over when speaking with members of these communities, the communities’ concerns have been systematically excluded from the debate surrounding the project. Members of these communities explained how the Peruvian State and the company building the dam have failed to adequately inform them of the project and to include them in the decision-making process. As a community member from the village of Mendán explained to me, the public hearings for the project were held in towns many hours from the communities, and many of those who nonetheless made an effort to attend were shut out of the meeting.
The trip left me amazed by the natural beauty of the region and grateful for the kind reception that we received in each community, but also particularly concerned for the future of these communities. Both the procedure for the approval of the project and its eventual construction present serious risks for the legal rights of those living or farming in the flood zone. And it has also become clear that many of the potential environmental costs have yet to be adequately studied. We at ERI will be continuing our engagement to support the communities in their efforts to demand that their rights are respected and the environment protected. The Chadin 2 dam is just one of over 20 dams planned for the Marañon River – if this dam is any model for what we can expect for the others to come, the Peruvian government is not off to a good start.