San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Indigenous community divided on dam project

BUENOS AIRES, PUNTARENAS – It is quiet and green in Térraba, an indigenous community in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, and the smell of rain is ever-present. While the community seems both tranquil and off the beaten path, a chat with residents quickly reveals that this community is at the center of one of the most important discussions on hydroelectric energy in the country.

It is here that the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, or ICE, plans to build the biggest hydroelectric dam in Central America. But to do it, ICE needs permission from the community’s indigenous residents. Part of the land at the dam site belongs to them.

Energy officials say that if El Diquís dam is not fully operating by 2018, countrywide blackouts could occur.

Work had already begun on the dam when members of the Térraba Indigenous Integrated Development Association, or ADI, filed a lawsuit against ICE to force workers off their land. Because of the lawsuit, a court order suspended work on March 21.

In Costa Rica, all indigenous territories are considered “inalienable” except in emergency situations, as outlined by the Indigenous Act of 1977. Article 169 of the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Communities requires the country to establish a consultation process before indigenous land is used by non-indigenous people for any purpose.

ADI’s lawsuit claims that a consultation process never took place, and indigenous residents only granted ICE permission to begin technical studies in the area (TT, Jan. 12).

A Mega-Project

Diquis Dam 2

Opposition to the dam is equally intense in the region.

Jessica Phelps

By diverting the El General River, the Diquís dam would generate 622 megawatts per year, enough power to supply one million consumers. At an estimated cost of $1.8 billion, with $80 million already spent, it would become the largest public investment in infrastructure ever undertaken in Costa Rica. ICE expects the plant to be up and running by 2016.

In order to complete the project, workers must flood 6,000 hectares, including 800 hectares in Térraba territory, and relocate 1,100 residents.

In February 2008, then-President Oscar Arias issued a decree declaring the project of national interest.

Yet while ICE officials are anxious to move forward, residents here are divided on the issue of granting permission for the project.

One group of residents who supports the project has organized several community meetings to convince neighbors that the dam would improve residents’ quality of life.

 “Those who fight against the Diquís dam have a hidden agenda,” said Jenner Rivera, a tall, muscular Térraba resident in his mid-twenties. “Many of those who oppose the project receive [development funds] from international nongovernmental organizations. If a dam was built, they’d lose those funding sources.”

For Anselmo Flores, a 51-year-old ICE security guard, the project would create much-needed jobs.

“[Residents against the project] don’t understand that most of us are in need of work. Unfortunately, news reporters always talk to the same people and give the rest of the country the idea that we all oppose El Diquís,” Flores said.

Like Flores, many other residents are eager to talk about the project, and they stress that no one has been designated to speak on their behalf.

ICE employee Jeffrey Villanueva, an environmental consultant working on the project, said community discussions about the project could last years.

“Many people in San José believe that residents of Térraba oppose the project because they seek compensation, but that’s not true,” Villanueva said. “Outsiders don’t seem to grasp the fact that historically government officials have refused to honor pending debts with our communities.”

 “We demand real job opportunities, as well as education and better access to health care. We want solutions to our water shortages, and we want a truly indigenous government set up within our reserve,” he said. 

ADI’s legitimacy to represent the Térraba people has also been questioned in recent years. According to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples issued by the United Nations in 2007, indigenous governments should be structured according to the desires of the indigenous residents. The ADI, however, were created by the Costa Rican government in the 1970s.

Resident Fabian Flores, Anselmo’s brother, said he needs more information before he decides whether or not to support the dam project.

“It’s just too early to take sides,” Flores said. “The lack of information is affecting most of the members of the community because ICE hasn’t taken the time to explain what the project is about in a comprehensive way. ICE officials have held meetings with members of the community, but the information they provide is so technical that not everyone here understands it.”

James Anaya, a United Nations special commissioner on indigenous affairs, visited the area in late April to investigate the dam’s potential impact on the community. Better communication between residents and government officials was one of the recommendations Anaya included in a May 30 U.N. report sent to Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry.

Anaya also encouraged officials to make public all ICE studies on the project.

Jehry Rivera, president of the Front for the Defense of Indigenous Rights, is an outspoken opponent of the dam.

“I don’t believe in negotiation. What are we going to negotiate?  People who support the dam want jobs. They believe ICE will provide steady jobs, but [ICE] hasn’t made any commitments,” Rivera said.

ICE officials say they expect to hire up to 3,500 workers. Once the dam is fully operating, jobs would be eliminated.

“Whatever job that ICE offers to this community is a starvation job,” Rivera said. “No one will overcome poverty with whatever wage they’ll get out of this. Some residents say they would support the project in exchange for better schools, roads and health-care facilities, but when I hear that, I wonder what the price of a river is.”

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