Conservation news

Brazilian firm’s mega-dam plans in Peru spark major social conflict

A mural in the town of Celendin opposing the proposed Conga mine. Many people believe dams like Chadin 2 and Rio Grande 1 and 2 are intended to supply electricity to mines such as Conga. Credit: David HillA mural in the town of Celendín opposing the proposed Conga mine. Many people believe dams like Chadín 2 and Rio Grande 1 and 2 are intended to supply electricity to mines such as Conga. Photo credit: David Hill


Peru’s mega-dam projects threaten Amazon River source and ecosystem collapse

“I don’t want to sell my land because I’ve lived here since I was 17,” declared 82 year old María Araujo Silva. “This was where my children were born. I want to die here. That’s why I’m not in agreement. I’m not in agreement with the dam.”

Araujo Silva is outraged at plans by Peru’s government and Brazilian company Odebrecht to build a hydroelectric dam just downriver from her village, Huarac, on the Marañón River. She says it would flood her home, her neighbors and the land where she grows coconuts, oranges, avocados, mangoes, limes, manioc and maize.

“No one around here agrees with it. No one,” she told “An [Odebrecht] engineer says the reservoir isn’t going to flood us, that we don’t need to be worried, but I don’t believe him.”

Araujo Silva shares her mud-brick home with José Chacon Carrascal. He too is against the dam. “They say it’ll bring us work, but I already have work in my chacra [small farm]. I don’t agree. What would we do?”

An anti-Chadín 2 mural in the nearby town of Celendín. Photo credit: David Hill

Rio Grande 1 and 2: “no agreement”

Huarac is in the middle Marañón valley – the central section of a 1,700-kilometer (1,056-mile) long, free-flowing river that begins in Peru’s Andes and is the main source of the Amazon River.

Declared the country’s “Energy Artery” by law in 2011, the government is proposing to build over 20 dams on the Marañón’s main trunk, and possibly double that number in the Marañón basin. One dam just downriver from Huarac, Rio Grande 2, and another just upriver, Rio Grande 1, would be two of the first to go ahead. Together they could generate 750 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Many of Araujo Silva’s neighbors feel similarly about the dams. Head downstream, along a windy unpaved road, and you come to the tiny settlement of Saumate where Angelica María Araujo lives alone, cultivating papayas and other crops to support herself and her daughter studying in the nearby town of Celendín. “No one is in agreement,” she said. “Where are they going to move us to?”

Araujo Silva’s niece, Aurora Araujo Dávila, lives in Celendín but owns several hectares in Huarac where she grows avocados, mangoes, papayas and oranges. “All this would be flooded by Rio Grande,” she said. “These were my father’s lands. I want to leave them to my children. Local people say they’re not going to let the company in.”

Of course, not everyone objects. Manuel Briones Perez, who says he has worked for Odebrecht, is in favor of the dams, like “many people”, like the “majority” of landowners. The project will bring benefits, he claims, including 8,000 jobs, education, reforestation and better roads. “Why wouldn’t we be in favor? Here we’re forgotten. The state doesn’t reach here,” he said.

Map showing the proposed locations of the Rio Grande 1 and 2 dams and the area that would be flooded. Credit: Odebrecht/Amec (Peru) S.A.

Odebrecht: Short on information, long on rumor

Confusion about Rio Grande 1 and 2 is rife. Some people interviewed by claimed to know details, like where the dams would be built and how high they would be, although those details varied from person to person. Others appeared to know little or nothing, or are confused by contradictory or changing facts.

“There’s no clear information,” said Victor Vargas Machuko, from Palenque, located at Kilometer 17 on the road running upstream from a village called Balsas. “They’re misleading us. The engineer Cesar [Gonzales, from Odebrecht] said it would be flooded between Kilometer 5 and Kilometer 16 — then Kilometer 18. Then the company said the dam would be 50 meters high, then 60, and the second dam would be 120 meters high, then a maximum of 130, but then it changed to 165.”

According to María Chavez Mendina, another Palenque resident, 50 percent of local people are in favor of the dams, 50 percent against.

“But there’s no type of information,” she said, “People just say we’ll be relocated. What we want is information from the company. Clear information. That’s what we’re asking for.”

In search of the truth

A “temporary concession” for Rio Grande 1 and 2 was granted by Peru’s government to Odebrecht Energy Peru, a subsidiary of the giant Brazilian Odebrecht Group, in November 2014. That gave the company the green light to do feasibility studies for both proposed dams.

What was initially an anti-Chadín 2 message in the surrounding countryside. The ‘No’ has since been rubbed out and replaced with ‘Yes.’ Photo credit: David Hill

The concession area runs for approximately 60 kilometers (37 miles) north to south, across the Amazonas, Cajamarca and La Libertad regions. It includes portions of Celendín, San Marcos and Cajabamba provinces, and numerous districts such as Utco, Jorge Chavez and Oxamarca.

Amec (Peru) S.A., a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-registered Amec Foster Wheeler, has been contracted by Odebrecht to write an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the dams. The EIA must be approved by Peru’s Energy Ministry (MEM) before construction begins.

Odebrecht has held two rounds of community meetings as part of the EIA process, but people interviewed by were fiercely critical. They said the company has sabotaged meetings in various ways — by choosing days when many people couldn’t attend, by unmooring boats so others couldn’t travel, and by repeatedly failing to turn up at scheduled times and places.

Interviewees also said that some meeting participants voicing concerns about the dams have been insulted, intimidated and silenced. According to several sources, there was violent conflict at a meeting in one settlement, Jecumbuy, in March.

“There are people who are in favor who insult us. Those in favor insult those who aren’t [in favor],” said Vargas Machuka.

A mural in the town of Celendín opposing the proposed Conga mine. Many people believe dams like Chadín 2 and Rio Grande 1 and 2 are intended to supply electricity to mines such as Conga. Photo credit: David Hill

Community meetings: “80 percent are from elsewhere”

Arguably the most serious allegation against Odebrecht is that it loaded the community meetings with people who live elsewhere. Some interviewees said that this was to give the impression that many people support the dams.

“They bring [them] from other places, but [those people] have nothing to do with it,” said a woman from Huanabamba, a village adjacent to Huarac, who didn’t want to give her name. “They’re not us. They don’t own land here. They’re the ones in agreement, but they don’t have anything to do with here.”

Some people claim that these outsiders are paid to attend the meetings, or that they work for Odebrecht or mining companies who stand to benefit from the electricity generated by the dams.

Eduar Rodas Rojas, president of the Federation of United Rondas Campesinas in Celendín, which would be impacted by both Rio Grande 1 and 2, called the outsiders “bought people.”

“They photograph them,” said Rodas Rojas. “They’re from elsewhere. With these photos, they trick the government into thinking local communities agree.”

The middle Marañón valley. Photo credit: David Hill

Lidman Chavez Pajares, president of the Front for the Environmental Defense of Oxamarca in Celendín, said that Odebrecht has also tried to trick the government by collecting “fraudulent” signatures at the meetings “to make it look like lots of people attend.” He claims that some of the people signing at the meetings work for Gold Fields, a South African company running the Cerro Corona mine in Cajamarca, and Yanacocha, which runs the much-condemned Yanacocha mine and is made up of the U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation, Peru’s Minas Buenaventura and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation

“But 80 percent are from elsewhere,” Chavez Pajares asserted.

Socorro Quiroz Rocha, from the Association for the Defense of Life and the Environment (ADEVIMA), agreed with that assessment. She said that approximately 80 percent of the people who attended meetings in Limon, Utco, Jorge Chavez, Oxamarca, Huanabamba, Jecumbuy and Balsas were outsiders, with some coming from as far as 200 kilometers (124 miles) away.

Others put that percentage even higher. One man from Huanabamba who didn’t want to give his name told that at one meeting 90 percent were outsiders. “They don’t let the people from here speak,” he said. They only let the people from outside speak.”

According to one attendee at the March meeting in Balsas, just downriver from the Rio Grande 2 site, it was “almost entirely people from outside.”

Asked for its response to these accusations, Odebrecht emailed that there “would be no reason to bring participants from other regions” and it is not a “practice of our organization.”

Dam opposition is also being muted in other ways. Some people are afraid to “speak openly” because they say they’ve been threatened, and at least two men, Absalon Martes Velasquez and Nazario Chavez Tirado, face criminal charges.

Dams like Chadín 2 and Rio Grande 1 and 2 would flood extensive agricultural areas where fruits such as papayas are cultivated. Photo credit: David Hill

“This is about criminalizing protest when they are simply exercising their rights,” said Quiroz Rocha.

“The aim is to intimidate people, to scare them,” Chavez Pajares said, “so they don’t continue with the struggle.”

Rio Grande = major negative impacts

At a meeting in Huanabamba in November, Odebrecht’s Cesar Gonzales said that the Rio Grande 1 dam would be 150 meters (492 feet) high and flood 38 square kilometers (14 square miles), while Rio Grande 2 would be 50 meters (164 feet) high and flood 6 square kilometers (2 square miles), according to ADEVIMA’s Quiroz Rocha. Asked by to confirm which areas would be flooded, the company sent a map showing that the entire river and valley from the site of Rio Grande 2 upriver — almost the length of the whole concession — would be underwater.

That, said Chavez Pajares, would flood “large extensions” of forests and valleys producing avocados, bananas, oranges and coconuts, among many other crops. “We don’t know exactly how much [land would be flooded] because no studies have been done,” he said, “but it would be more than 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) of dry forest.”

Cesar Chavez from Tupen village, which would be flooded by Chadín 2. Photo credit: Rocky Contos

Chavez Pajares said the impact on the Marañón River itself would be disastrous, “killing” fish stocks and stopping nutrient-rich sediment moving downriver. In addition, flooding would drive many unique, endemic species extinct and the stagnant waters of the reservoir would also generate methane gas “20 times more contaminating than carbon dioxide,” contributing to climate change.

“Our position is the following: no to the dams because they’ll destroy our valleys, threaten our identity and culture, contaminate, and supply mining companies,” Chavez Pajares said. “There are other ways to generate energy: small hydroelectric projects, solar and thermal energy.”

Chadín 2

Rio Grande 1 and 2 are far from the most contentious of the proposed dams for the Marañón, nor the most advanced.

Just downriver from Rio Grande 2, beyond Balsas, is the site for a proposed dam called Chadín 2 and, just downriver again, is the proposed site for Veracruz. Both have “definite concessions” required for the development of hydroelectric projects generating more than 500 MW, and their EIAs have been approved by MEM.

Local resident Angelica María Araujo in Saumate: ‘No one is in agreement. Where are they going to move us to?’ Photo credit: David Hill

Chadín 2 is expected to generate 600 MW and has met with fierce opposition from local communities and elsewhere in Peru, as MEM itself has acknowledged, as well as internationally.

Like Rio Grande 1 and 2, the operating company, AC Energía, is an Odebrecht subsidiary, and Amec (Peru) S.A. wrote the EIA. The concession area includes parts of the Amazonas and Cajamarca regions, and the Celendín, Chachapoyas and Luya provinces. According to the EIA, the dam would be 175 meters (574 feet) high and flood 32.5 square kilometers (12.5 square miles).

“Stagnant lakes” from the Andes to the Amazon

The potential impacts of Chadín 2 are similar to Rio Grande 1 and 2, but arguably more numerous and more serious. Extensive croplands and over 20 villages would be flooded, and more than one thousand people forced to abandon their homes, land and sources of livelihood. Many more villages and people would be impacted indirectly.

In addition, as Peruvian engineer José Serra Vega noted in a cost-benefit analysis written for the Lima-based civil society organization Forum Solidaridad Peru, Chadín 2 would mean deforesting 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres), emitting greenhouse gases, and causing “biodiversity loss and the severe alteration of the aquatic systems, with the interruption of the flow of river sediments and the death of fauna and flora.”

The dam would also flood pre-Hispanic archaeological ruins and destroy an embryonic tourist industry based on paddling and kayaking, which has led to a 550 kilometer (342 mile) stretch of the Marañón being dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Amazon.”

Benjamin Webb, founder of Paddling with Purpose, an international organization coordinating with local NGOs, said Chadín 2 will impact the section of the Marañón “most similar to the Grand Canyon of Colorado.”

“Once you cut the flow, you cut the opportunity to have a long, uninterrupted river journey which is what makes this place so special,” Webb said. “If the other dams are built, there will essentially be no river left to paddle, only a series of stagnant lakes from the Andes to the Amazon.”

“Totally rejected”

Opposition to Chadín 2 has been growing since 2012. Local defense fronts and alliances have been formed, public statements made, meetings and protests held, a petition and campaigns launched, media alerted, and reports published, with organizations such as Forum Solidaridad Peru, Cooperación and the Cajamarca-based Grufides involved.

On the walls of houses that would be flooded, and in nearby Celendín, Cajamarca and the surrounding countryside, painted murals and messages have appeared declaring “No to Chadín 2” and “Marañón River without Dams.”

Local resident María Araujo Silva in Huarac: ‘This was where my children were born. I want to die here.’ Photo credit: David Hill

In late March, the Front for the Defense of the River Marañón (FDRM) issued a statement that Chadín 2 “is totally rejected by landowners in the Marañón valley”, calling it a “criminal project” that would put lives at risk. “We’re not going to sell our lands for neither gold nor silver,” it stated.

Rodas Rojas, from the Rondas Campesinas, told that “every base and community” rejects Chadín 2. He said this is because the Marañón valley’s crops and fish stocks would be flooded, because the intention is to generate energy to supply the controversial Conga mining project run by Yanacocha, because it would change “our cultures and ways of life,” and because “it will not bring us development.”

“For us the only development is looking after the land and the water,” said Rodas Rojas.

According to the Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina (PIC), a coalition of 40 grassroots organizations, between 90 and 95 percent of the region is opposed to Chadín 2. That could be even higher in some areas, said Benjamin Webb, after visiting Balsas and other potentially impacted villages such as Tupén and Mendán this March.

“We interviewed many local people to find out what their thoughts are,” Webb said. “We went in hoping to get a balanced set of interviews, representing both sides, for and against the projects. This proved to be impossible. Almost everyone in these communities is opposed.”

The middle Marañón valley. Photo credit: David Hill

In Tupén, Dionisia Huamán told Webb that “they came here and said they wanted to flood our valleys and build a dam on the Marañón. We were really concerned about that. We really love our river.”

In Balsas, Jeyson Tirado complained that “people here don’t want to know anything about Chadín. It will affect their zone, their lands and animals.”

In Mendán, Juan Peña responded with outrage: “they treat us as ignorant just because we’re against Chadín 2. We’re not against them. They just have to respect our properties, our rights.”

Criticisms of Chadín 2’s EIA process are similar to those emerging for Rio Grande 1 and 2. These again include Odebrecht bringing outsiders to meetings, and the criminalization of protest. More than 60 people are being “investigated or prosecuted criminally for questioning the legitimacy” of the project, according to a report by U.S.-based NGO Earthrights International.

“We’re being denounced and persecuted for defending the water, our lands, our cultures, and our rights,” Rodas Rojas told

Other criticisms include people being threatened, Odebrecht spreading misinformation about the project, and police attending meetings and barring access to some people.

Will Chadín 2 go forward?

In an email to, Odebrecht wrote that it is currently “finishing technical and socio-environmental studies” at Chadín 2, and, according to MEM, construction will start next year.

However, many local people say Odebrecht can’t currently enter the region. When a team from Peruvian TV program Cuarto Poder visited last year and “found no one in favor of Chadín 2”, they caught three Odebrecht representatives on camera who had just been detained by local people.

“The project can’t go ahead as long as we decide not to sell our lands,” reads the FDRM’s March statement. “We don’t accept entry by the company or its operators.”

Local resident Victor Vargas Machuko in Palenque: ‘There’s no clear information [about the proposed dams].’ Photo credit: David Hill

Peruvian engineer Serra Vega now questions whether the proposed Marañón dams will proceed as scheduled, given current economic conditions in Peru, the huge amount of private investment required, and a possible reduction in medium-term domestic electricity demand. That is to say nothing of, in Chadín 2’s case, the “very strong problems” Odebrecht has with local people.

In addition, Serra Vega notes the “mysterious” absence of both Chadín 2 and Veracruz from an electricity sector presentation in March showing long-term expansion of hydropower in Peru. Both dams featured in a similar presentation the year before.

“What it could mean is that these projects are going to be delayed,” he told

That possibility could bring some hope to Marañón valley residents whose homes are threatened by the Rio Grande dams or Chadín 2.

“Whether we’re flooded or not, my idea is that they’ll force us to leave here,” says Edith Ortiz, a schoolteacher in Huanabamba. “What will we do?”