- In 2010, the presidents of Peru and Brazil made a deal to build 22 major Andes Amazon dams on the Marañón River – the Amazon River’s mainstem. The energy generated by those dams would go to vastly expand Peru’s Conga gold and copper mine, making it one of the biggest in the world.
- The Conga mine expansion would have dumped 85,000 tons of toxic, heavy metal-laden tailings into the Ucayali River watershed daily. The Marañón dams would have blocked vital nutrient and sediment flow, likely doing irreparable harm to Amazon River and Amazon basin ecology.
- Odebrecht, a Brazilian mega-construction firm, was picked to spearhead building. The projects were strongly opposed by the rural people they’d impact, and by an international alliance of environmental NGOs and river adventure tourists who see the Marañón as Latin America’s Grand Canyon.
- Nine years later, the Peruvian and Brazilian presidents and Odebrecht executives involved in the deal are in jail or charged with corruption. All but two of the dam projects have been abandoned. The result came about largely due to the astonishingly successful resistance of local rural people.
Long before he became a wanted man, hiding in the home of the Uruguayan ambassador in Lima and begging asylum, Peruvian President Alan García signed one last big deal.
As Peru’s chief executive from 2006 to 2011, García had pushed for the construction of a staggering number of mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon Andes – whether locals wanted them or not. His government’s official line: Peru’s natural resources belonged to all the people and their exploitation benefited all Peruvians, so the selfish interest of locals bearing the brunt of development impacts didn’t entitle them to a veto.
García pressed forward, ignoring intensifying local opposition. In the final months of his administration, he committed Peru to projects of staggering scale, import and impact, with unexpected repercussions echoing down to the present and likely beyond.
First among these Peruvian projects was Conga, a planned radical expansion of Yanacocha, an already enormous gold and copper mine in the Andean highlands which would make it one of the world’s largest mining operations. As proposed, Conga would disgorge an estimated 85,000 tons of toxic, heavy metal-laden tailings daily into the Ucayali River watershed.
But how to power Conga’s rock crushers, slurry pumps and cyanide leachers, – providing the gigawatts of power required to extract gold and copper from stony ore?
The answer: García met with then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva in June 2010 and signed a high level agreement for a series of hydropower projects that would dam the Marañón River 22 times along its length, to be built mostly by Brazil’s mega-construction companies.
A death sentence for the Amazon River
The Ucayali and Marañón are two of the greatest Andes waterways giving rise to the Amazon River. Snowmelt and rainfall drive their surging seasonal ebbs and flows, sending massive sums of floodwater and tons of nutrient-rich sediment down into the Amazon basin to the east, where a still vast rainforest helps regulate climate across the continent and provides an enormous carbon sink critical to curbing global warming.
On hearing of García’s plan, scientists balked. They warned that the dams would be an environmental disaster of epic, continental and even global proportions, threatening the livelihoods, food security, and maybe even the regional climate, of millions.
Still, García’s and Lula’s governments judged the mega-projects worthwhile; they pushed on in the name of national economic progress, and in the case of Peru, criminalized those who opposed them, according to critics.
In a famous 2007 editorial, García compared environmental campaigners and indigenous activists opposed to the dams and mine expansion to the Brothers Grimm fable of the Dog in the Manger: a greedy canine that keeps sheep and cattle from eating hay that he cannot enjoy eating himself.
In 2011, the president, nearing the end of his tenure, told Peruvian TV that if Peru was to advance as a country, the people had “to defeat the absurd pantheist ideologies that believe that the walls are gods and the air is a god… if we reach that point, we wouldn’t do anything, much less mining.”
The mega-dam swindle
In recent years, prosecutors in Peru, Brazil and the United States have pointed to darker motivations for the mega-infrastructure scheme.
The main beneficiary of the García-Lula deal turned out not to be Peru, but Odebrecht, a giant and corrupt Brazilian construction company, found since 2014 to be at the center of what the U.S. Department of Justice has called “the largest foreign bribery case in history.” Some of Odebrecht’s biggest projects were hydroelectric mega-dams.
Before the case was over, Odebrecht’s CEO, would be sentenced to 19 years in prison for helping hatch a scheme by which Brazil’s largest construction firms would make giant campaign donations to President Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) and other political parties, in exchange for lucrative government funded infrastructure contracts.
The exposure of Odebrecht’s crimes, and the crimes of other companies exposed in Brazil’s Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, sent an economic and political tsunami sweeping across Latin America, toppling governments from Brazil to Panama.
The aftershocks left federal chief executives, like Lula, incarcerated; others like, García, face prison. Lava Jato also paved the way for the soft coup against Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent rise of ultra-rightist Jair Bolsonaro who took office in Brazil in January.
And in Peru, law enforcement inquiries revealed how subsequent Peruvian administrations planned to sacrifice the Andes Amazon headwaters, and by extension, the entire Amazon basin in a monstrously corrupt public works giveaway.
Where rivers rise, so do the people
The Peru-Brazil-Odebrecht scheme is a case study in another phenomenon: the forging of a highly effective David versus Goliath grassroots movement – a response by local communities and international NGOs who joined together in solidarity and resistance against an onslaught of political bullying and corruption.
In the end, despite bribery and conspiracy between national governments and Odebrecht, despite lawsuits and police bullets, the Conga mine expansion and the dam projects failed.
Of the 22 proposed dams – all once seen as a done deal – only two hold out even a remote prospect of ever being built; by February, even these are likely to be defunct.
While economic chaos – partly due to fallout from Odebrecht’s momentous fall – helped kill Conga and the dams, a crucial element in the survival of the Ucayali and Marañón ecosystems was the capacity of civil society groups and peasant militias to form a strong unbreakable alliance.
If, as is likely, those last dams lose their concessions this year, it will be largely thanks to the power of the people and their unyielding resistance to intimidation and exploitation.
The Trojan construction company
In 2012, farmers in the very remote Peruvian village of Tupén Grande, on the banks of the Marañón River in the Andes Mountains, were surprised to see sleek rubber rafts, loaded with scientific equipment, landing on the beach below their cliffside village.
The biologists who spilled out offered the local people cash to help gather plant and animal specimens as part of an ecological study. It was easy money, so the locals joined in. It was only later, when the Tupeneros brought their coca-leaf to market in the provincial capital at Celendin (a punishing twelve-hour hike out of their home canyon), that the riverine inhabitants learned they’d been tricked.
The scientists had not come there for a basic biological study, but to perform a government required Environmental Impact Assessment in preparation for a mega-infrastructure project that would dam their river and drown all of their homes, farms and pastures.
This is how the river people found out: the highlands around Celendin are inhabited by Quechua-speaking villagers, related by marriage and with an affinity to the Tuperneros. These upland villagers – turned environmental activists by necessity – had watched for years in horror and fury as the Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation destroyed their highland lakes with tailings from the gigantic Yanacocha gold and copper mine.
Now, the highlanders told their riverine cousins, with Yanacocha’s output dwindling, the García government had approved Newmont’s proposal to extend Yanacocha into the Conga mega-mine expansion, growth to be powered by the 22 hydroelectric dams. The company that the Peruvian government had chosen for the new projects, and to whom it had granted a $500 million construction contract, was the same firm that had originally sent in biologists in preparation for the destruction of the highlanders’ lakes and towns: Odebrecht.
The Odebrecht biologists, the Celendin activists told the Tupeneros, hadn’t been surveying the wildlife and plants because they wanted to protect them: they were taking a preliminary accounting of the dead.
If the dams went forward, the Environmental Impact Assessment, accomplished by guile, was the first legal step in turning Tupen and its narrow canyon into a 32 square kilometer (12 square mile) lake, destroying 12,000 hectares (46 square miles) of dryland forest. That may not seem like a lot, until one considers that the biodiversity destroyed comes from the narrow fertile sides of a steep canyon.
Dozens of fish species the villagers depended on would face extinction – as would their village. According to a Wildlife Conservation Society report published on the Public Library of Science, 156 types of fish live in the channels where the Chadin II mega-dam was to be built; experience from other dams suggests that a dam transecting this habitat could drive 90 percent of these species into oblivion.
Worldwide national and corporate bribery
Tupen and Celendin were but two global sacrifice zones – local communities and entire ecosystems – to be given up to feed Odebrecht’s profits and satisfy the infrastructure demands of Latin American and African governments.
The Brazilian construction company – founded as a small family firm in the 1940s by German immigrants in Brazil’s Northeast – had, by 2010, grown into an empire of bulldozers, cranes, concrete, and steel that stretched around the world, employing 181,000 people in 21 countries.
Odebrecht built metro lines in Venezuela (many steeped in corruption and still incomplete); ports in Cuba; and four of the much-criticized, graft-enmeshed stadiums built for the 2016 Brazilian World Cup – now white elephants. Across the planet, in Honduras, Angola, Brazil and Peru, Odebrecht flooded valleys to make electricity, tore up mountains and forests for mines, and paid hefty bribes to governments for the privilege.
In 2014, a scandal concerning overpayment for a refinery in Houston led Brazilian and FBI investigators to expose Odebrecht’s corporate network of corruption. They uncovered the company’s sophisticated illegal operation run by what a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor called an internal “Department of Bribery,” – incredibly adept at cutting backroom deals, but walled off from the firm’s main computer accounting systems via a secret internal network.
The source of Odebrecht’s empire, as prosecutors across the Western Hemisphere learned, was as old as modern civilization: public works graft, in the form of hidden kickbacks, often disguised as political campaign donations, that inspired administrators to hire and overpay Odebrecht with public funds for overpriced, environmentally and socially destructive infrastructure projects.
Take the World Cup stadium in the Amazonian city of Manaus for example, which has served minimal purposes since the event, causing one local judge to suggest turning it into a jail – it overran construction cost estimates by $25 million.
The Chadin II dam on the Marañón River was bid at $1.65 billion by Odebrecht; a University of Oxford report on mega-dams suggests this would have probably been less than half the actual final cost.
The rot in Peru
Thanks in large part to the confessions of Marcelo Odebrecht – the company’s former CEO, who turned state’s evidence in 2016 in return for a reduced sentence of 19 years incarcerated – three successive Peruvian presidents, plus prominent opposition leader Keiko Fujimori today face prison for receiving tens of millions in bribes.
Lava Jato revelations cast new light on the mega-projects these politicians oversaw, which now look not like attempts to benefit the Peruvian people, but rather like schemes to liquidate communities, national resources and ecosystems for personal gain:
- Alejandro Toledo, president of Peru from 2001 to 2006, received $20 million in graft. He approved the Odebrecht-built Peru-Brazil Interoceanic Highway billed as vital to regional trade, linking Brazil to China-facing ports in Peru. Since its completion in 2011 it has done little for legitimate commerce, but it has fostered a spreading cancer of crime and deforestation across the southern Amazon.
- Alan García, president from 2006 to 2011, received an alleged $8 million in bribes; he gave Odebrecht huge contracts, including the Conga expansion, the Marañón mega-dam deal with Brazil’s Lula, and Lima’s subway. (Since Peru could not afford to buy the dams itself, the Brazilian Development Bank, known as BNDES, extended the Peruvians a generous line of credit.)
- Ollanta Humala, Peru’s president from 2011 to 2016, received an alleged $3 million in graft. As García’s successor, he continued pushing both Conga and the Marañón mega-dam projects forward, going so far as to declare a state of national emergency as a means of fighting growing local resistance.
These Peruvian governments would later claim, often and vociferously, that the dams and highway projects were intended for the public good: for rural electrification and the calming of a river that locals agree is both violent and dangerous.
But a United Nations Special Rapporteur found in 2013 that Peru ran a substantial energy surplus, and that the power of Chadin II was never intended for Peruvians but for the benefit of Conga and Newmont, the U.S. mining company.
Violation of human rights
Bribes tell just part of the corruption story. The Peruvian government is a signatory to several international agreements that guarantee civil rights in the face of mega-infrastructure projects. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, for example, assures “free, prior, and informed consent,” by local impacted populaces. So does the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169. The Peruvian government claims it followed international law to the letter. “There were public meetings, and we had a firm proposal [from locals] that it [the Chadin II dam] should go forward,” said Edwin Quintanilla, Peru’s Vice Minister for Energy, in 2016. “Our [government] obligations have been exceeded.”
This claim, according to local reports, was false, or at least exaggerated. For example, Odebrecht did hold community meetings for the Chadin project, but it did so in the town of Celendin, a ten to twelve hour hike and a pickup-trip ride away from Tupen and the people most impacted. Also, according to local people, the company barred community leaders from entry. Some groups, an Odebrecht spokesman told Mongabay, were indeed barred because they were perceived as being there to stir up trouble.
To make things worse, said Bruno Monteferri, an environmental lawyer with the Society of Peruvian Environmental Law, though there were 22 proposed dams, the government “analyzed all the Environmental Impact Statements in isolation, as though every project was the only one in the basin, the only one on the river.”
Socio-environmental experts agree that a multiple mega-dam project with so much complexity and so many parts, needs to be evaluated as a whole, and not piecemeal in order to identify synergistic effects.
Local and international resistance kill the Andes dams
Faced with a government intent of pushing the dams to completion, the people of the Marañón and the highlanders around Conga turned to each other.
Beginning in late 2011, civil society groups, environmental law firms, and the Ronda Campesina, or “peasant circles” – informal guard units formed originally to deter cattle thieves, and then as a counter-revolutionary response to the violence of the communist Shining Path – began organizing against the mines and dams.
In the highlands, peasants gathered in thousands-strong demonstrations around lakes doomed by the Conga expansion. One family, the Chaupes, whose land had been given to Newmont Mining Corporation by the government, categorically refused to move, weathering beatings, intimidation and lawsuits.
As resistance against both Conga, Chadin II and other proposed dams intensified under President Ollanta Humala, the government moved to quash it.
In 2012 and 2013, mass demonstrations against Conga were met by security forces firing live ammunition, leaving protesters blinded, paralyzed or killed; in 2013, police charged into a crowd opposed to Chadin II, injuring nine. This only galvanized the protests. It also brought international attention from the United Nations, whose rapporteur found that “Minas Conga and Chadin 2 constitute projects that inevitably threaten the ecosystem and the right to water and are costing human lives, many injuries, legal charges, imprisonments and the criminalization of peaceful protesting.”
In 2016, Maxima Acuña Chaupe, matriarch of the family blocking Newmont, won the Goldman Prize for her pugnacious resistance. Beset by internal resistance and external pressure, the projects stalled.
Down in the Marañón canyon, the Conga protesters, urged on by their highland neighbors, turned their own ronda into a nexus of resistance. They briefly imprisoned Odebrecht engineers sent to do surveys, forcing them to do humiliating physical exercises – including hundreds of pushups – before sending them back to their bosses. And they beat locals who took Odebrecht money and presents seen as bribes.
When adventure tourists from abroad began showing up on their river beach (rafting the Marañón is considered on par with the U.S. Grand Canyon), the Tupeneros sensed an opportunity, and potential allies: they solicited “donations” from the gringos, and used the money to buy ronda uniforms and truncheons.
From 2013 to 2016, the mining and dam projects withered as the Humala government, beset by foreign pressure and the growing Odebrecht scandal, lost the political capital to crush the swelling protests.
Meanwhile, the anti-dam alliance strengthened.
A young Australian kayaker who led one of the first major Marañón expeditions, Benjamin Webb, wove together a coalition called Remando Juntos, Paddling Together, which united coastal Peruvian urbanites, raft-guides, international donors and adventure tourists to push the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism to protect the river as an alternate, sustainable model of local development. They also moved to bring the Marañón under the protection of the international Waterkeeper Alliance.
The winds had changed in Peru. Odebrecht’s corruption and fall had soured the national appetite for mega-projects; the Conga conflict had also elevated Marco Aranas, an ex-priest and environmental campaigner brutally beaten by police, to the Peruvian Senate. “The dams were left without friends in Congress,” said environmental lawyer Monteferri.
In 2016, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the head of the Waterkeeper Alliance, spent four months in Peru campaigning against the dams, and meeting with the Peruvian Minister of Energy and Mining under Humala’s successor, President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
“My interest here is to try to generate a rational reaction to the government in terms of rethinking the various dam projects that are to be installed on the river,” Kennedy told the Peruvian newspaper Somos.
Just a few days later, the Kuczynski government declared publicly it would not pursue large dams in Amazonia.
Dead, but maybe not completely dead
While many environmentalists are declaring victory, Kuczynski’s announcement did not necessarily spell the end for the dams.
According to Monteferri, under Peruvian law, a project granted an EIA has three years in which to begin construction – then it loses both the EIA and the concession. Of the 22 dams originally proposed by García and Lula, all are now dead, except one – Chadin II – whose mega-dam concession, according to an SPDA analysis, runs out this February.
So there’s still a small chance this project could go forward. That possibility may also have been enhanced because Kuczynski himself has been pushed from power over accusations of taking bribes from Odebrecht in the mid-2000s. The Andes dams, Monteferri notes, given their association with the disgraced García, have few friends, but the new government under President Martin Vizcarra has still not yet formally stripped the construction companies of their concessions.
“We want to make sure they do that, formally,” said Monteferri, “So that if anyone wants to come back and try to do another dam on the Marañón, they have to start from scratch.”
Though the current political and economic climate is bad for big dams in Peru, he fears that mood could easily change over time. The massive Camisea natural gas field, in the southern part of the country, for example, currently has a surfeit of reserves. But that supply is only expected to last, at most, two decades, and Monteferri fears that if Peru does not begin quickly investing in renewables – wind, solar and small-scale hydropower – future administrations may turn again to mega-dams, possibly in conjunction with a resumption of huge mining projects.
He and other campaigners also look with concern at Brazil, which on January 1, 2019 inaugurated President Jair Bolsonaro. Though he has not spoken out on Peru’s dams, he has announced sweeping plans to develop the Amazon – which in Brazil, has traditionally always included hydropower. Brazil, said Luz Maria Mantilla of the Amazonian Institute for Science Investigation, “has always liked to make dams.”
Meanwhile, García languishes in Lima, forbidden by the courts to leave the country; he awaits a decision by Peruvian prosecutors as to whether or not he will stand trial. On December 3, the Uruguayan government formally denied his request for asylum pointing out that “the three branches of the state function freely” in Peru. It remains to be seen whether that is true. In a recent interview with CNN, Marco Aranas, the Conga campaigner turned senator, reminded viewers of what President García had done. “He removed all kinds of technical and financial controls from those mega-projects,” he said. “Now the question is: how independent, and how trustworthy, is Peruvian justice?”
For now, at the very least, the Marañón River flows free.
Banner image of Marañón River via Flickr by Rocky Contos for International Rivers.
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