- A 290-megawatt hydroelectric dam is under construction in Bolivia’s highly biodiverse Carrasco National Park.
- The project is one of several intended to create energy for export, likely to Brazil and Argentina.
- Experts have questioned whether approval should have been given to build a dam in a protected area, especially given the fact that 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of land are due to be cleared.
- The area is home to as many as 700 bird and 3,000 plant species.
The peacefulness of Monte Punku is disrupted every day at lunchtime, when many vehicles and hundreds of workers burst into this town located 188 kilometers (117 miles) from the city of Cochabamba. An hour later, they abandon ship and head back into Carrasco National Park, where construction is taking place on the Ivirizu hydroelectric dam.
Such activity is new for those who live in this town in the municipality of Pocona. It all started when the Chinese company Sinohydro built a camp in the area, widened the road and cleared part of the forest where the dam will be built. The company got the $172 million contract in September 2017, and will clear 500 hectares (1,235 acres) of forest within the protected area, Pocona Mayor Juan Carlos Rodríguez confirmed during a visit by Mongabay Latam in 2018.
Many have wondered how such a large project within a protected area was approved, but in 2016, the Bolivian government was able to declare the project as being in the national interest, by invoking Law 819. That same year, the Environment Ministry approved the environmental license.
The Bolivian government hopes that the 290 megawatts that the project will generate will help it achieve its plan to export energy to neighboring countries, such as Brazil and Argentina. However, according to experts that Mongabay Latam consulted, producing this energy will come at a high cost for the area’s biodiversity, due to its fragility and the impact on the highly diverse flora and fauna.
For locals, though, the main concerns center on jobs and the location of energy transmission towers. Meanwhile, the National Electricity Company (ENDE) insists that mitigation plans will minimize the impact on biodiversity.
Fallen trees on the road
During Mongabay’s visit, the road that joins Monte Punku to the southern end of Carrasco National Park, open since before the park was declared a protected area in 1991, was closed. The park is now accessible by a road that runs parallel, which is narrower and more accident-prone, and that leads to the Sinohydro workers’ barracks.
When entering the forest within the protected area, the first thing one notices is the constant bustle of trucks coming and going, transporting materials, kicking up dust, and making a lot of noise. In narrow spaces, the trucks pull over by the side to let other vehicles pass through. In some areas, tree trunks and branches have been piled up on either side. According to the contract with Sinohydro, when the job is done the road will be improved and widened, since it will provide access to the hydroelectric project.
Past the first bridge, the green mountains introduce visitors to the impressive vegetation that is central to the park. According to the National Service for Protected Areas’ (Sernap) Atlas of Protected Areas, Carrasco National Park is home to 247 species of birds, although experts estimate that the real number could in fact be around 700.
Changes to this natural area keep appearing further along the road, which is set to be widened to 6 meters (20 feet) for the first 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) and to 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) along the final 30 kilometers (18.6 miles). Behind a sign that reads “Storage Area 3” lies a pile of logs, while further on, a giant mechanical shovel dumps earth into a truck.
This road was used by local famers, but they’re not the only ones. The road also leads to the Yungas de Vandiola community whose inhabitants farm coca on the fringes of the protected area — and within it. According to a 2016 report from the U.N. Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), these plantations have spread across 642 hectares (1,586 acres) within this park, one of the most biodiverse protected areas in Bolivia.
Carrasco National Park contains a variety of ecosystems due to its varied topography, which ranges in elevation from 300 meters up to 4,700 meters (1,000 to 15,400 feet) above sea level. This accounts for its high level of biodiversity. As of 2017, 614 species of plants had been identified. However, Sernap estimates that the real figure is more than 3,000, and particularly noteworthy are the walnut and pine groves (queñua and páramo yungueño trees). The park is a genetic reservoir for commercially important trees such as Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) and mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and is home to 300 species of orchids, 50 of which are endemic.
Rodríguez, the mayor of Pocona, confirmed to Mongabay Latam that a large area of forest will have to be cleared for the dam, but adds, “This why we have the mitigation and reforestation policy.” The plan also requires that the course of the Ivirizu River be diverted.
For Carmen Capriles, an agronomist and environmental activist, deforestation and construction will also affect the natural cycles of animals. The project area is home to animals such as jaguars (Panthera onca) and Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus), Capriles said, adding that no one knows the extent to which other species that live in the park could be affected, given that it’s in an area that hasn’t been well studied. The few studies that have been conducted in the park confirm the presence of endangered and endemic species such as the Sehuencas water frog (Telmatobius yuracare), which is in danger of going extinct.
But Mayor Rodríguez said the work is being regulated so that “the project doesn’t greatly affect the flora and fauna.” Still, he acknowledged that, “like any project, it will have an impact one way or another.”
Rodríguez said this is why they will enforce the mitigation measures: “The biodiversity that we have in there, the lizards, frogs, toads and all the bugs, [the plan] specifies that they must be transferred with great care to safer areas of their natural habitat so that they are not damaged.”
Mongabay Latam contacted experts like biologist Lilian Apaza at the Noël Kempff Mercado Natural History Museum, who questioned which of the great diversity of fauna will be transferred. Apaza noted that in Colombia there have been cases of transfer, but monitoring has been done with only a few species, and there is no scientific and systematic documentation that defines successful cases.
Vincent Vos, a biologist at the Center for Research and Promotion of Farmers, said that in Europe, whole streams including fish and amphibians have been moved, and that there are some examples of relocation of mammals and birds, but that the results have been somewhat questionable. He said he considers it unlikely that they can move the fauna from the affected area in Carrasco National Park, taking into account the technical difficulties with catching them, the high cost, and the ecological limitations.
Another difficulty that both Vos and Apaza noted is that many species are territorial and that the vast majority would die if reintroduced in another area.
Biodiversity vs. Bolivia’s big energy plan
Biologist Donovan Osorio criticized the notion of generating energy in order to export it, especially in an area of such high ecological sensitivity that is also a national park.
Although the full details of the mitigation plan were not fully disclosed before Mongabay-Latam published this story, it was clear that the use of dynamite was being considered, since a license for use of hazardous substances was approved.
Mongabay Latam asked Energy Minister Rafael Alarcón at a press conference about the mitigation measures being considered for the Ivirizu project. He said everything had already been decided regarding the design and environmental license, without giving further details. “There is a set of actions that are being coordinated … to mitigate the environmental impact,” he said.
President Evo Morales has a goal of turning Bolivia into the energy center of the region, and at least five more hydroelectric plants will be built in the department of Cochabamba, in addition to Chepete-El Bala (La Paz) and Rositas (Santa Cruz), which are two of the largest.
That plan moved closer to reality when Minister Alarcón announced at the press conference that the Juana Azurduy de Padilla transmission line to Argentina would soon be ready to, for the first time, send Bolivian electricity abroad.
This article was first published by Mongabay Latam and adapted by Erik Hoffner.