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In Bolivia, Indigenous groups fear the worst from dam project on Beni River

  • More than 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by flooding from the construction of two dams in Bolivia, according to Indigenous organizations and environmentalists.
  • Successive governments have mulled the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project for more than half a century, and the current administration of President Luis Acre has now revived it as a national priority.
  • While Indigenous groups have successfully rejected the plan in the past, this time a group of 10 Indigenous organizations have signed an agreement with the state energy company approving feasibility studies.
  • If completed, the reservoirs for the project would cover a combined area larger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and inundate an area that’s home to thousands of plant and animal species.

The Bolivian government has revived a long-held plan to build a hydroelectric plant in a corner of the country’s western La Paz department, sparking concerns about the potential displacement of more than 5,000 Indigenous people from the area.

The affected communities live in two protected areas, Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, parts of which would be flooded for the twin dams of the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project.

President Luis Arce, who served as minister of the economy in the earlier administration of Evo Morales, is following the same road map as his predecessor, who in July 2007 announced the original plans for the hydroelectric dams as a national priority.

Since 2018, there have been concerns that around 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by dam construction. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

The idea to generate hydropower in the Beni River Basin, specifically in El Bala Gorge, has been around for more than 50 years and given up on numerous times due to its economic unfeasibility and high environmental cost. The last time it was rejected by Indigenous communities was during the Hugo Banzer government in the late 1990s, before being nearly resurrected under Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.

Since then, the issue had largely faded for the six Indigenous communities that live in the area: the Mosetén, Tsiman, Esse Ejja, Leco, Tacana and Uchupiamona. The groups are now speaking out against the hydropower project, saying it would “cut off” the three rivers vital to their existence: the Beni and two of its tributaries, the Tuichi and Quiquibey.

“This would mean forced displacement and that means taking away our territory. We would be forced to leave our space, our ancestral domain,” said Alex Villca, a member of the National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (Contiocap) of Bolivia. “We would be giving up what is most important: without territory there are no Indigenous peoples. This would be accepting a silent death. Wherever they take us, it would never be the same.”

The Indigenous leader said the problem goes even further. He said that in the Chepete mountains, some Indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation — believed to be Mosetén, although there aren’t many studies to confirm this — and that they would be “totally” affected if the dams were constructed in the area. “We know from our brothers that there exists, in the peaks of the Chepete, a community in voluntary isolation that must be unaware of all these plans. Imagine how that would affect them if this project comes to fruition,” Villca said.

Tenders resumed

In 2021, Bolivia’s National Electric Energy Company (Ende) resumed the commissioning of the Chepete-El Bala project, announcing tenders for geological and geotechnical studies. The state-owned company said that in the case of the Chepete plant, the planned reservoir area would flood 46 square kilometers (18 square miles) of the total area of 3,859 square kilometers (1,490 square miles) of the Pilón Lajas reserve. The reservoir at El Bala, meanwhile, would cover 94 km2 (36 mi2) of the 18,895-km2 (7,295-mi2) Madidi park.

El Bala Gorge on the Beni River. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

In August, the Office of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (Cpilap) signed an agreement with Ende authorizing the final design studies for the Chepete-El Bala project.

The agreement establishes that Cpilap must “allow the entry of Ende Corporation and its contracted companies to the areas of direct and indirect influence in order to carry out research, information gathering, socialization and data collection that allows studies, the creation of projects, to finalize the design to implement electric power generation, transmission and distribution.”

Villca spoke out against the signing of the agreement. “What worries us is that the tenor of the agreement is that it not only allows for complementary studies but also, in the future, allows Ende to start construction of the Chepete and El Bala hydroelectric plants. This is much more serious.”

Cpilap is a regional organization that brings together 10 Indigenous organizations in La Paz department: the Indigenous Council of the Tacana Peoples, the Office of the Indigenous Leco de Apolo, the Leco Indigenous People and Larecaja Native Communities, the Mosetén Indigenous Peoples Organization, the Indigenous Peoples of de San José de Uchupiamonas, the Esse Ejja of Eiyoquibo Indigenous Community, the Regional Council of T-simane Mosetén of Pilón Lajas, the Native Agroecological Community of Palos Blancos, the Tacana II Indigenous Communities of Rio Madre de Dios, and the Captaincy of the Araona Indigenous People. All of these organizations, according to Villca, are connected to Arce and Morales’s ruling party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS).

Gonzalo Oliver Terrazas, president of Cpilap, said five of the six affected Indigenous communities agreed with the hydropower project. The sixth community are the Mosetén, who didn’t sign the agreement. “This agreement doesn’t mean that the dam will be built,” he said. “The goal is to determine the feasibility or infeasibility of the project. Another important aspect that the agreement has is the social component, which we have included so that there can be electricity and housing projects.”

The Association of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey Rivers, an organization started in 2001 to defend the ancestral territories of the six Indigenous communities impacted by the project, has demanded that a prior consultation be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the project. The communities met over one weekend and decided to reject the government initiative, demonstrating that there are leaders for and against conducting feasibility studies for the project.

The hills of El Bala near the town of Rurrenabaque. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

“We remind [the government] that in 2016 there was a 12-day vigil and the expulsion of the Geodata and Servicons companies that had started work and studies in the territory without fulfilling a free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] consultation in good faith so as to receive the consent of the communities,” said a document published by the association.

Terrazas said the signing of the agreement with Ende doesn’t mean there won’t be consultation with Indigenous communities. He said that if the feasibility of the project is approved, a consultation will be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the construction of the hydropower plants.

In January 2018, Ende returned the prefeasibility study to the Italian company Geodata Engineering for correction. Geodata recommended “to postpone the development of the El Bala 220 hydroelectric plant until the conditions in the Bolivian energy market and abroad indicate that it is convenient to start its implementation.”

City-size reservoir

The project, which would start after a public tender is launched, would flood at least 662 km2 (256 mi2) of land for the two dams, according to Indigenous groups. Combined, the two reservoirs would cover an area five times bigger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. And if the dried-out salt lake of Poopó, in the department of Oruro, doesn’t recover, Chepete-El Bala would be the second-biggest lake in Bolivia after Titicaca.

The project calls for building the first dam in the Beni River’s Chepete Gorge, 70 km (43 mi) upstream from the town of Rurrenabaque, in the department of Beni, and the second near El Bala Gorge, 13.5 km (8.3 mi) upstream of the same town.

The town of Rurrenabaque, which would have two dams upstream. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

The Chepete dam would raise the water level to 158 meters (518 feet), forming a lake that would be 400 m (1,312 ft) above sea level. The dam at El Bala would raise the water level by 20 m (65 ft) and its reservoir would be 220 m (721 ft) above sea level. Unlike the Chepete dam, which would be a concrete wall, the dam at El Bala would consist of gates and generators in the middle of the river.

According to the Solón Foundation, an environmental NGO, a total of 5,164 people would be relocated for the project, the majority of them Indigenous. The area is also home to 424 plant species of plants, 201 land mammals, 652 birds, 483 amphibians and reptiles, and 515 fish species. It’s not clear which species are most likely to go locally extinct as a result of the flooding, or how many would be affected.

The main fear of the Indigenous communities in the area is that the construction of both dams would mean forcibly displacing more than 5,000 residents. The construction of the second reservoir at El Bala, according to the Solón Foundation and Indigenous organizations opposed to the project, would flood the entire community of San Miguel del Bala. There’s no official information on a displacement plan for the communities more than 1,000 residents.

And with the construction of the Chepete reservoir, a little more than 4,000 Indigenous people would be displaced. All the populated areas affected by the reservoir, according to Geodata, have collective titles belonging to the Tacanas, Lecos and Mosetén peoples. Additionally, development on the river could interfere with the livelihoods of many residents, who fish and farm and, in more recent years, oversee communal tourism activities.

Chepete Gorge on the Beni River would be dammed to power a hydroelectric plant. Image courtesy of Alex Villca.

Valentín Luna is an Indigenous Tacana leader and head of the San Miguel del Bala community. Currently, there are at least 20 eco-lodges that have been built in the Madidi and Pilón Lajas protected areas. Most of these initiatives are managed by the local communities. Four of these eco-lodges would be flooded by the dams, according to Luna: one in Chalalán overseen by the Uchupiamonas, one run by San Miguel del Bala residents, one in Villa Alcira, and one run by the Chimanes and Mosetén of Asunción del Quiquibey.

For the Indigenous people who don’t want the dams in their area, the main worry isn’t the end of tourism. They fear that the six Indigenous groups will disappear along with it.

Banner image of Chepete Gorge on the Beni River, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) upstream of the village of Rurrenabaque. Image courtesy of Alex Villca.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Sept. 7, 2021.