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Hydropower threatens Bolivian indigenous groups and national park

  • Seventeen communities could be affected by the construction of dams in the El Bala and El Beu canyons on the Beni River.
  • Madidi National Park would also be affected. The park is home to 3 percent of the world’s higher plant species, 3.75 percent of its vertebrates, and 11 percent of its birds.
  • “Flooding it will kill plants, animals, and everything that has life in this region; communities will disappear,” said Domingo Ocampo, leader of one of the indigenous communities that would be affected.

Waldo Valer Salas, our expedition guide, launched two firecrackers in the air, producing a loud echo that reverberated in the rainforest. That was the only way to announce the arrival of the Mongabay Latam reporting team.

After a few minutes a motorized canoe, or peque, approached us at full speed on the Beni River. The crew was looking for us. Meanwhile, a group of macaws flew overhead, and a dozen squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sciureus) watched us intently from the trees. We boarded the canoe and five minutes later a large group of men, women, and children appeared; they were indigenous Tsimané and Mosetén people from the Torewa community. They had come to welcome us.

“Hello gringos. The gringos have arrived!” a boy about five years old shouted to his friends, who came running barefoot over wet grass, dressed in soccer jerseys that reached down to their knees.

“Hello, what are your names?” I asked them.

“I am Van Damme!” “My name is Rambo,” they answered me with laughter, before running off.

Demetrio Arce carrying bananas. Photo by Eduardo Franco

Torewa in the Tsimané (also called Chimane) language means “place of enchantment.” This is a community of 46 indigenous families, located in an area of 300 hectares within the forests of the Integrated Management Natural Area and Madidi National Park. Combined, the natural area and the park cover nearly 1.9 million hectares. Torewa is one of 17 communities that could potentially be affected by the construction of two dams planned in the El Bala and El Beu canyons on the Beni River.

The community survives on bushmeat obtained from subsistence hunting, which is permitted to Bolivian indigenous communities. Their diet includes the meat of the howler monkey (Aloutta sara), white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), collared peccary (Pecari tajacu), and tapir (Tapirus terrestris). They also consume river fish, such as catfish and pintado fish (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans). Torewa families also cultivate banana, cassava, and fruit. They transport the banana in canoes to the municipality of Rurrenabaque, where they sell each cluster for 25 or 35 Bolivianos ($4 or $5), depending on its size. With this money they buy additional food for the community.

Domingo Ocampo is a 60-year-old man with white hair, a piercing gaze, and a gentle voice. He wore a white shirt and tire-soled sandals. “Thank you for your visit, we are happy because someone remembers our community,” he said after greeting us.

Ocampo is of Mosetén origin and is one of the leaders of Torewa. He told us with a broken voice that members of the community have been fearful after learning that the Bolivian government intends to build two hydroelectric plants.

“We are not attacking the government’s good intentions, but keep in mind that they are putting our lives in danger, we live here (…) and not just Torewa, there are nearly 20 communities that would be affected by the dams,” Ocampo told Mongabay Latam with concern in his voice.

Tsimané woman and her children on the Beni River at the banks of the community of Torewa. Photo by Eduardo Franco

The most biodiverse park in the world?

Celso Apo, a thin man, is the father of seven children and one of the most skilled hunters in Torewa. “This is our territory; this is where we were born, lived, and where our ancestors died. We haven’t bought this land from anybody; on the contrary, we have inherited it from our grandparents,” he said as he walked into the rainforest in search of a bird called the speckled chachalaca (Ortalis guttata).

Two hours after starting the walk we heard fluttering in the bushes. Apo told us to lie down on the forest floor and remain silent. We followed his instructions, enduring dozens of mosquito and ant bites. Ahead of us, a speckled chachalaca gladly ate the rotting remains of a cluster of bananas — a reminder that in the jungle nothing goes to waste. Apo whispered to us the importance that this bird has in the food and culture of the Tsimané and Mosetén people. One of their dances is even dedicated to the bird.

Since 2015 a project called Identidad Madidi run by the New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has sought to increase general awareness of biodiversity and to demonstrate that Madidi National Park is the most biodiverse in the world. The project is close to doing so. Even though this area represents only 0.0037 percent of the total surface of the planet, it holds 3 percent of Earth’s higher plants, 3.75 percent of its vertebrates (1,466 species), and 11 percent of its birds.

Speckled chachalaca (Ortalis guttata) eating bananas in the rainforest. Photo by Eduardo Franco

Recently, WCS scientists recorded the presence of more than 1,000 bird species in the park, equivalent to 70 percent of the species living in Bolivia. They also identified 1,000 species of butterflies and an estimated population of 300 jaguars. For WCS, these figures place Madidi National Park as one of the great bastions of wildlife in Latin America and the entire world.

The area contains pristine savannahs and has the largest and best-preserved montane forests in Bolivia. Its variety of ecological zones, which range from snow-capped peaks 6,000 meters high and glaciers to the lowlands of the Amazon basin, makes it an area of confluence between the Andes and the Amazon as well as a cultural mixing zone. Even inside the strictly protected area of the national park, the presence of indigenous groups in voluntary isolation, like the Toromona, is likely. For those reasons, in the year 2000, the National Geographic Society described the Madidi National Park as one of the 20 places in the world with major touristic interest.

Madidi National Park has a population of 300 jaguars. Photo by Eduardo Franco

“If they build the dam, everybody will sink”

Demetrio Arce is a robust man who goes by the nickname “Pet.” He told us passionately about the origin legend of the El Bala canyon.

The legend tells the story of a howler monkey that howled with all his strength when Dojity, the creator of the Tsimané world, suddenly saw him. The monkey jumped and screamed as he alerted other animals who inhabited the canyon, but before he had the chance to continue, Dojity converted him into a gigantic stone and as a sacred symbol of the creator passing through this area, he carved a profile of the howler monkey’s face into the canyon. As a result, the El Bala canyon is well respected in the culture of the Tsimané and Mosetén people.

Demetrio Arce observes the construction of a canoe, the main transportation of the Tsimané people of the Torewa community. Photo by Eduardo Franco

Arce could not hide his concern about the dams. “We are living under great threat; we have been told they plan to build two dams. If that happens, we’re all going to sink and lose everything: our plants, animals, and our home.”

Following the provisions of the Bolivian Patriotic Agenda 2025, the government of President Evo Morales seeks to turn the country into South America’s powerhouse. This goal has led him to sign energy deals with several countries to export electricity. For instance, the government has approved the sale of liquefied petroleum gas as well as 8,000 megawatts of power to the neighboring country of Brazil.

On July 13 the Bolivian government issued Supreme Decree No. 2837 approving the study of the final design of two hydroelectric power stations, one in the El Bala canyon, the other in the El Beu canyon, through an agreement between the government and the Italian geoengineering company Geodata. Together they are expected to generate more than 3,650 megawatts of hydroelectric power for export. At $6 billion, the two dams are together considered one of the largest investment projects in Bolivian history, and the fourth largest hydroelectric project in South America.

Geodata’s technical documents, recently published by the Solon Foundation, state that the project will have two components. A first dam capable of generating 3,300 megawatts would be built in the El Beu or Chepete canyon, with a reservoir located at a maximum of 400 meters above sea level that would flood an area of 680 square kilometers. Subsequently, between 10 to 15 years later, a second dam capable of generating 352 megawatts would be built in the El Bala canyon located at 220 meters above sea level.

Data from Fides News Agency (ANF) indicates that according to the government, both dams would generate $1.25 billion in annual income if their energy were exported.

Green-winged macaws (Ara chloroptera) in Madidi National Park. Photo by Eduardo Franco

Social and environmental impacts of dams

Luis Alberto Sanchez, Bolivia’s Hydrocarbons and Energy Minister, said the project would only affect 2 percent of Madidi National Park.

Meanwhile, on August 1, 2016, President Morales said during a ceremony at the Palace of Government in La Paz: “We need to protect the environment, it is our obligation; but we also have the obligation to do research and planning; planning to invest in other areas that will give us money.”

According to Damián Rumiz, Scientific Advisor at the Noel Kempff Mercado Museum of Natural History, when dams are filled, all terrestrial wildlife suddenly loses its natural habitat and many wild animals die. This can happen violently and quickly via drowning, or at a slower pace via insect-borne diseases or the alteration of food chains.

Rumiz also pointed out that when hydroelectric projects flood vast tracts of Amazon forest, the submerged forest decays over a period of many years and emits methane — a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. For instance, a study conducted by the NGO International Rivers determined that megadams in the Amazon generate on average twice the amount of emissions that conventional coal plants generate due to the release of methane gas.

 

El Beu canyon, Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Eduardo Franco

The technical documents also indicate that there are 2,314 people in the area at risk and 1,660 people adjacent to the study area, making a total of nearly four thousand people potentially affected by the project.

The face of the howler monkey of Tsimané culture on the El Bala canyon. Photo by Eduardo Franco

Communities claim authorities have not consulted them about the construction of the dams. They demand to be informed of the details of the project and consulted prior to its construction — as required by the State’s Political Constitution and the Convention No. 169 of the The International Labour Organization. Also, due to the high investment cost of the construction work, President Evo Morales will leave the decision of whether or not to undertake this project in the hands of the population of the Department of La Paz, who will be consulted by a referendum.

The canoe was ready to return us to the beach where we’d left our boat. Winter had brought down the river’s water level. One of the Tsimané people was removing some rocks to avoid damaging the engine propeller.

Demetrio Arce’s canoe passed right beside us, loaded with several clusters of bananas to sell in Rurrenabaque’s markets. Suddenly, his canoe got stuck on a slope and began to flood. Everybody desperately jumped into the river in an attempt to avoid losing the bananas. Arce smiled naturally; it seemed a regular event for him. He entered the Beni River channel and then we watched his canoe disappear over the horizon as it passed through the El Bala canyon.

The government has yet to set a date for the referendum that will take place in La Paz and will decide the fate of the two proposed hydroelectric power stations.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on September 6, 2016.

 

Citations

International Rivers (2008). Represas Sucias: Las represas y las emisiones de gases de invernadero. Retrieved from International Rivers website: https://www.internationalrivers.org/sites/default/files/attached-files/represassuciasrevisada_2.pdf