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Dam opponents claim criminalization by Ecuadorian government

  • Hidrotambo dam opponent Manuel Trujillo was recently exonerated from terrorism charges for allegedly destroying dam company property, but still faces more than two-dozen other legal cases related to his opposition to the dam.
  • Human-rights groups claim the Ecuadorean government has criminalized Trujillo and other local leaders for organizing against the dam as part of a larger pattern in which the administration of Rafael Correa has gone after over 100 community leaders and activists for protesting development projects across the country.
  • Activists have taken their case against the Hidrotambo dam to international courts.

Terrorism and sabotage are just two of the criminal charges brought against more than 20 residents of the Dulcepampa watershed in Ecuador’s central Bolivar province for their opposition to a hydroelectric dam. A vast water authorization for the dam has curtailed locals’ access to water for irrigation and daily consumption, sparking widespread resistance.

The eight-megawatt Hidrotambo run-of-the-river dam affects communities along its seven-kilometer path and reduces water access for 72 communities upstream.

“The dam company has taken away the peace and quiet we once had,” Manuel Trujillo, president of the town of San Pablo de Amalí, where the dam is located, told Mongabay. Trujillo, whom friends and colleagues respectfully call “Don Manuel,” has helped lead the movement against Hidrotambo for over 10 years.

Manuel Truijillo, president of the town of San Pablo de Amalí and a vocal opponent of the Hidrotambo dam. Photo courtesy of INREDH

In 2012, he and another local activist named Manuela Pacheco were charged with terrorism for allegedly destroying dam company property during a demonstration against the project. They were they exonerated in January, but Trujillo still faces more than two dozen other legal cases related to his opposition to Hidrotambo. The pair and human rights groups supporting them claim that the Ecuadorean government under Rafael Correa has criminalized them and other local leaders for organizing against the dam.

They say the situation fits a larger pattern in which the Correa administration has criminalized over 100 community leaders and activists for protesting the environmental and social impacts of development projects across the country. Most have not been able to fight off the charges, and have received jail sentences of up to 10 years.

Community complaints

The Hidrotambo dam is the product of a partnership called Hidrotambo S.A. between a small Ecuadorian firm named the Corporation for Energy Research (CIE) and Canadian, Ecuadorian, and Spanish investors. While investment initially came from these actors, they also successfully registered the dam under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), making it eligible to sell carbon-offset credits as an ostensibly “green” development project. However, the CDM website does not document the sale of any credits to support the project, and the crediting period closed in 2015.

Since its formation, Hidrotambo’s ownership has changed. Shareholders now include CIE, the Ecuadorian footwear company Plasticaucho, the Ecuadorian real estate firm Bienes Raíces de la Sierra, and a Swiss company called Magistra Schenk.

The Dulcepampa watershed, located in the foothills of the Andes, is home to approximately 15,000 people who mostly make a living from small-scale agriculture, livestock, and fishing. In 2003, Hidrotambo was granted authorization to use what amounts to almost the entire watershed’s drainage in the dry season from June 15 to December 15 — 1.96 cubic meters of water per second — as well as to 6.50 cubic meters of water per second in the rainy season from December 15 to June 15. For this volume of water to reach Hidrotambo’s turbines, upstream farmers would have to be denied their water-use rights and thus forego diverting water to their crops, livestock, and homes during the dry season, when they most need it.

Trujillo and other project opponents say the government granted the authorization even though the company never conducted any consultation process with the affected communities, a right enshrined in Ecuadorian law. “The company never told us what was planned. We were never consulted,” he said.

Dam construction began in February 2006 and residents immediately challenged the presence of the construction company, Coandes. In 2006 and 2007, a series of confrontations took place between army troops stationed in San Pablo de Amalí to protect the construction site and hundreds of watershed residents opposed to the project. During these years, the government detained 14 leaders and opened 22 legal cases against them.

Multiple legal challenges in Ecuadorian courts had failed. The communities also brought complaints to government agencies such as the Ministry of Defense, the Public Defender, and the Ecuadorian Institute for Children and Families.

The confrontations impeded construction, and the Dulcepampa communities thought Hidrotambo S.A. would drop the project, especially as the Ecuadorian economy weathered a recession.

President Correa convened a Constituent Assembly composed of 130 elected delegates to develop a new constitution, and in 2008 the assembly granted amnesty in the 22 legal cases from 2006 and 2007. The contract for the dam was finally annulled in 2011 and the company retreated from the watershed.

However, in 2012 the federal electricity commission granted the dam a new contract. Hidrotambo S.A. returned and restarted construction, completing the dam in 2013. Police and military forces that had been protecting the construction site during the company’s absence suddenly disappeared.

By mid-2013 the dam was generating eight megawatts of electricity for the federal electricity commission.

“We denounced at all levels of government, but no one paid attention,” Trujillo said.

The Electricity and Renewable Energy Ministry, the Water Ministry, and Hidrotambo S.A. did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

Aerial photo shows the town of San Pablo de Amalí, the Dulcepamba River, and the Hidrotambo dam facility. Photo by Santiago Pastór

Less water, fewer fish, more flooding

Hidrotambo, a run-of-the-river dam, diverts water from the Dulcepampa River, runs it through turbines to generate electricity, and then returns it to the river seven kilometers downstream. The communities in the seven-kilometer stretch of the dam are directly deprived of some water, and people in the 72 upstream communities have had to decrease their water use for consumption and irrigation to satisfy the Hidrotambo authorization.

The communities consider that their rights to water under Ecuador’s 2014 Water Law are being violated, as well as their rights under the Constitution, which prioritizes water access for campesino farmers above all industrial water uses.

The remnant stretch of natural river between the dam diversion and the water’s reentry point contains a mere trickle of water during the summer months, which has decimated the fish populations that many locals depend on for sustenance.

“We have 14 different types of fish in the river,” said Trujillo, who cultivates oranges and has struggled to support himself during the conflict over the dam. “Before, you would get a few fish from the river and that would be your breakfast. But now there aren’t any.”

In addition to the loss of water and food, the dam has also brought destruction. The community of San Pablo de Amalí warned that the dam was located dangerously close to homes and that its design would increase the risk of floods. Trujillo even presented a legal case against Hidrotambo S.A. for dangerously diverting the river toward the town, but his case was dismissed and the design went unaltered.

Events on March 19 and 20, 2015, bore out those concerns. Wintertime river flows and sediment loads shot down the narrow, newly directed dam channel directly into San Pablo de Amalí, causing major flooding and erosion. The flood destroyed 12 houses, along with the cultivation areas of 33 families. Three people died trying to escape their homes, including a child.

Trujillo lost his house in the flood. He and his wife and children relocated to a small home lent by a neighbor for six months until they were able to rebuild.

“The flood carried away a whole part of town. I was left with nothing,” he said.

In March 2015, the Dulcepampa River over-ran its banks in the town of San Pablo de Amalí, causing major flooding that killed three people and destroyed homes and farmland. Activists blame the destruction on the placement and design of the Hidrotambo dam. Photo by Rachel Conrad

Criminalization and threats

Meanwhile, Trujillo and Pacheco were fighting the federal government’s 2012 terrorism charges for allegedly destroying dam company property. The Quito-based human rights NGO Regional Foundation for Human Rights Advising (INREDH) represented them, and as the group began to increase media and political pressure against the dam, Trujillo began receiving threats.

In fall 2015, someone began calling his home daily, telling him how many days he had left to live. When it came to the final day, he left home and took refuge with a neighbor. He said the threats will not intimidate him, and though they have stopped for now, he worries for the safety of his family.

Daniel Vejar, a human rights lawyer at INREDH who represented Trujillo and Pacheco, told Mongabay that these sorts of threats against local opponents of development projects are becoming increasingly common in Ecuador. Despite their frequency, they are difficult to trace or prosecute.

As Trujillo and Pacheco’s January 2016 trial approached, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international NGOs voiced support for them. They were acquitted, with the judge ruling that there was insufficient evidence to prove that they were in San Pablo de Amalí during the 2012 incident.

“Don Manuel and Doña Manuela are one of very, very few cases that have been exonerated,” Vejar said.

Manuel Trujillo and Manuela Pacheco embrace in January after being acquitted of terrorism charges related to their opposition to the Hidrotambo dam. Photo courtesy of INREDH

Vejar views the prosecution of cases against activists to be highly arbitrary. Legally, the 2012 charges should have been brought to trial within 15 months. However, they were not brought to trial for over 36 months, which Vejar said was a government tactic to discourage a new wave of protests taking place in the community.

Despite this victory, Trujillo still has some 30 criminal processes lodged against him, all in their initial stages and all from Hidrotambo S.A. or the National Police. He and Vejar said they regard these as retaliation for his non-violent resistance to the dam. Twenty-three other activists have been called for questioning about a supposed act of sabotage against the dam that took place in 2012.

Vejar maintains that the Hidrotambo case is just one of many in Ecuador, and that local leaders are routinely criminalized for protesting the Correa administration’s development projects.

Leftist government cracks down on activists

Rafael Correa came to San Pablo de Amalí in 2006 as a presidential candidate. During a campaign event he told residents, “It is you who have the right to approve a hydroelectric plant, on your land, affecting your environment. If you say no to this project, the project will not be built.”

Since becoming president in 2007, Correa has not intervened in San Pablo de Amalí. This past February Correa traveled to one of the watershed’s county seats, Chillanes, to give his weekly report to the nation. During the trip, Correa had invited Trujillo to a breakfast with other community leaders. However, the morning of the breakfast, Trujillo was told he could not attend. He waited until the end of the event to speak to Correa and presented the president with a 40-page report by INREDH and Fulbright Scholar and activist Rachel Conrad. However, in his address Correa only acknowledged the dam in passing, saying, “We are in Chillanes, aren’t we? Hidrotambo is here, right?”

Area residents feel strongly disillusioned with Correa, according to Trujillo, and that feeling is reflected across social and environmental groups in Ecuador. Correa made history in 2008 when Ecuador became the first country to enshrine “rights of nature” in its constitution. However, the president has made natural resource extraction, known as “extractivism” in Latin America, a cornerstone of his economic development strategy for the country.

The Energy Secretariat’s website touts eight dam projects among nine “emblematic” renewable energy projects nationwide that “are a clear example of a new Ecuador that is advancing and achieving historic levels of economic, energy and social development.” Mining has also soared in the country.

The Energy Secretariat, which manages hydroelectric projects nationwide, did not respond to an interview request for this article.

To finance its development projects, Ecuador has depended on loans from China since 2008, when it defaulted on $3.2 billion in foreign debt from other nations. Analysts estimate that the country has more than $15 billion in Chinese debt, but there is little transparency in the loans.

The companies funding extractivism in Ecuador have been linked to controversial projects elsewhere in Latin America. For example, one of the “emblematic” projects showcased by the Energy Secretariat is the 1,500-megawatt Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project. It is financed by a $1.7 billion loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, and the Chinese company Sinohydro. Sinohydro in involved in other controversial dam projects in Latin America. For instance, they funded the DESA dam project in Honduras, which indigenous leader Berta Cáceres had opposed before her murder in March, but pulled out at the end of 2013 due to local protests.

Correa received acclaim during his first administration when he adopted the Yasuní Initiative, originally proposed by NGOs and social groups, as an alternative to drilling for oil in Yasuní National Park. The initiative sought $3.6 billion in international funding to defray the income Ecuador would lose by not drilling in the park. When the sum was not raised, Correa went ahead with plans for drilling. He also went further, in December 2013 shutting down the offices of Fundación Pachamama, a Quito-based NGO that had supported the Yasuní Initiative and campaigned for a popular vote to decide the issue.

INREDH lawyer Vejar told Mongabay that the pretext for closing Pachamama was the June 2013 Presidential Decree 19, which changed the laws governing NGO activities “in very arbitrary ways” and ultimately paved the way for the Ecuadorean government to “start acting like a regime” in squelching opposition.

Vejar said the government has since increased scrutiny of INREDH’s activities, apparently seeking grounds to shut the group down.

Another civil society organization targeted by the government is the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), an umbrella group for indigenous peoples and organizations. The government attempted to shut down its offices in 2014 and many member organizations have faced criminalization in their communities.

Earlier this year, CONAIE launched a campaign called “To Resist is my Right” that documented 123 cases of Ecuadorean activists criminalized by the government for their work opposing development projects during 2015, a year that saw an upswing in protests nationwide. The charges include sabotage, disrupting public services, and “attacks or resistance,” crimes that can carry prison sentences of one to 10 years in Ecuador.

Vejar explained that a 2013 penal code reform tightened the definitions of “terrorism” and “sabotage,” and the government now applies those charges less frequently to social movement leaders. In their place, the charges of “attacks and resistance” and “paralyzing public services,” which carry prison sentences of up to three years, have become more common.

A fence in San Pablo de Amalí reads, in part “A united community will never be divided” and “No to Hidrotambo” in protest of the dam. Photo by Rachel Conrad

Dulcepampa’s uncertain future

Trujillo and Pacheco continue to mount their legal campaign against Hidrotambo S.A. Their and their collaborators’ appeals to local courts have been unsuccessful, and the company has never compensated affected communities for the environmental and social impacts of the dam.

In Dulcepampa, after mediation with Hidrotambo S.A. between June and October of 2015 ended with the company failing to meet any of the communities’ demands, a consortium of communities have continued to present complaints to all of the relevant ministries. They have also begun to apply for water rights en masse as a means to challenge what they view as negligent licensing requirements for energy projects.

With researcher-activist Conrad and a team from several Ecuadorian and U.S. universities, the communities have also been meticulously measuring water consumption in local agriculture to mount a legal case that Hidrotambo violates their rights to the river and its tributaries.

Concerned that corrupt Ecuadorian courts will protect Hidrotambo S.A.’s interests, watershed residents are now aiming at international courts. They have presented a case intended to address the danger posed by flooding from the dam before two different branches of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The case is still pending.

Trujillo said that the Hidrotambo project has not just local but national implications.

Campesinos like us feed the whole country,” he said, reiterating his commitment to defeating the dam despite having resisted already for more than a decade and faced dozens of criminal charges.

“I haven’t given up, I am still fighting,” he said.

Manuel Trujillo sets up a transect to measure discharge on the Salunguirí River, a tributary of the Dulcepamba River. Photo by Rachel Conrad