Latin America Campaign
Dams for power, dams for irrigation, dams for development.
Latin America’s energy planners have tapped all possible sites and all possible reasons in their schemes to dam the region’s rivers. Huge dams became imposing monuments to the military despots who seized power in Latin America during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Notorious dams such as Itaipu, Guri, Tucurui and Yacyretá became the centerpieces of ambitious plans to expand mining and energy–intensive industries. They also lit the bare light bulbs in the swelling shantytowns around Asunción and Sao Paulo where the victims of rural land wars took refuge.
Many of the rivers of the region were strangled by these projects, turned into staircases of dead lakes, but the military regimes were content as long as the dollars continued flowing freely into their coffers. Meanwhile, Latin America’s debt to foreign banks was rising at a dizzying rate. As the World Bank looked the other way, hustlers trafficked millions of dollars in phantom steel and cement, rose to become senators and presidents, then borrowed even more money for the next round of boondoggles. Equipment suppliers and engineering consultants from Tokyo and Oslo peddled their services, passing unmarked envelopes to public officials as appreciation for their cooperation.
Yacyretá Dam went $10 billion in debt, Itaipu $20 billion. At least 40 percent of Brazil’s massive foreign debt was run up for investments by the electric sector. The dictators must have known they wouldn’t be around to see the bills become due. Millions of people were forcibly removed from their homes as their lands were flooded. Deprived of their livelihoods, their food supplies depleted, their water polluted, these mostly rural people were pushed further into poverty by these so–called "engines of development." Shocking images form a grim scrapbook of the region’s dam–building hey–day: monkeys howling in the rising waters, millions of hectares of rainforests and other critical ecosystems drowning in stagnant black water, indigenous families being led away from age–old communities to shabby relocation camps, fish floating belly up, and hired gunmen to keep project opponents from taking to the streets in protest.
Dissent was brutally crushed in a number of hushed–up incidents. In Guatemala, Chixoy Dam opponents were murdered In Paraguay, the police bludgeoned squatters who built makeshift huts on the shore of Yacyretá reservoir. In Colombia, the oppression against dam opponents continues, with the brutal assassination of indigenous leaders.
As the era of free spending came to a close, society began to awaken to the problems posed by large dams, and to view them as symbols of the political repression the region had suffered – and to face the daunting fact that, in the end, they would be paying the bill. The budding of democracy in Latin America was vividly confirmed by television images of a Kayapó woman warrior running the blade of her machete across the cheek of a power company director in Altamira and by thousands of farmers in the south of Brazil daring to occupy dam sites and electric company offices during the building of Itaipu.
Environmental regulations now make the process of planning and approving a dam more rigorous and therefore more costly. At required public hearings, communities mobilize to express their opposition to the appropriation of their water resources by multinational corporations and national economic groups. Now, the works of the dam pharaohs and their vast power transmission networks are up for sale. Private companies from around the world are interested in buying state electric companies, but only if the national governments help finance the takeovers. Some 38 percent of the cost of Brazil’s electric sector "privatization" has been funded by loans from the country’s National Development Bank.
As the last dams from the 1980s are now being completed, years behind schedule and billions over budget, the dam builders say they have learned from their mistakes – acknowledging studies that were never done, resettlement plans that are not complete, reservoirs that were poorly planned. Still, large dams remain the most visible manifestation of political and economic power in a region where politicians gain votes based on the scale of the engineering works they build. Large dams continue to be promoted, planned and built in the region. Latin America continues to remain fertile ground for Northern dam builders who can no longer sell hydro technology in their own countries, where most major rivers are already dammed and rising environmental consciousness has caused large dams to fall out of favor. According to industry analysts, the leaders in hydroelectric potential in Latin America are Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina.
The raging international debate about the costs and benefits of large dams has not yet reached many decision–makers in Latin America. But the debate is widening, as the fishermen and indigenous people who resisted earlier dams are now being joined by city dwellers who have come to realize they also rely on clean and healthy rivers. Citizens’ groups have begun to acquire the technical sophistication to be able to challenge the industry’s contention that dams promote economic and social development.
Many of the dam fights ahead involve fragile ecosystems recognized for their global importance. They involve indigenous populations who have become aware of their constitutional and legal rights, and other traditional populations determined not to be moved from lands their ancestors have occupied for centuries. You may have not yet heard of these controversial projects, but you will be hearing more about them in the future -- Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, and Santo Antonio and Jirau dams on the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon, La Parota on the Papagayo River in Mexico and dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in Chilean Patagonia.
These dam fights will undoubtedly bring to light better alternatives to the contested projects – information that can perhaps form the foundation for a new energy future for Latin America. Anti–dam forces will have their work cut out for them as they fight for alternatives to destructive river projects. Despite the continent’s blistering tropical sun and robust winds that sweep across undeveloped coastal plains, energy experts in the region say new energy sources are still years away from being feasible alternatives. And the nations of Latin America are only now beginning to try to manage demand for energy, particularly by gluttonous energy–intensive industries. There is a better way, and the time to pursue it is now.