Dam Development: Murder, Repression and Environmental Destruction in Honduras

The debate over the viability of the Patuca Hydroelectric Dam and the present administration’s plans to go ahead with its construction has finally brought the mega-project to the attention of the Honduran public.

The government’s plans override public interest and fail to consider the serious environmental consequences for the Miskitos and Tawacas who live on the costal wetlands and in the lower and central parts of the Patuca region.

For more than ten years, there has been talk of plans to build a series of dams on the Patuca River. As well, Plan Puebla Panama is advocating the construction of an unknown number of dams, which will supply energy to our "neighbours" to the North through the Mesoamerican Energy Interconnection Initiative (SIEPAC).

After a trip to Taiwan last October, the President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, announced that he had obtained $250 million in financing for the construction of the Patuca Dam, which will create a 72 square mile reservoir of water. The project will be carried out by the Tai Power Company, which has been granted a 15 year concession for energy production.

What is interesting about this process is that long before the company obtained the environmental permit to construct the dam, serious infrastructure planning for the project was already underway. Last December, the Honduran newspaper el Heraldo reported that according to statements from the Commercial Office of the Taiwanese Embassy, a team of Taiwanese engineers was in the Patuca region to carry out studies to determine the size of the area the reservoir would cover and to determine if there are any archeological ruins in the area.

We should point out that the Department of Natural Resources (SERNA) notified our organization that as of Dec. 4, no environmental permit had been issued for construction of the dam. This is somewhat like what happened in Alice in Wonderland – the sentence is given before the charges have been made.

It would appear that the preferred tactic when it comes to mega-projects is to obtain financing first and deal with the environmental permit later. So the whole process becomes merely a bureaucratic one, involving political, not environmental decisions.

Near the end of December, the local press reported that there was opposition to the project from the inhabitants of the areas that were to be flooded by the Guayape and Guayambre Rivers. However, President Zelaya firmly announced that the government was determined to proceed with the construction of the dam, despite opposition to it, and in response to accusations of politicization of the project, he said that "the State must exercise its power and fulfill its mandate."

Then, several days later, on December 20, in the police station in Guarizama (Olancho), which is located very close to the dam construction site, apparently two activists from the Olancho Environmental Movement (MAO) were killed by National Police agents. The MAO is a courageous organization that has decided to defend the forests of Olancho against the massive destruction that has been carried out in that part of the country.

The death of the MAO activists is linked to a campaign of intimidation against those who defend the forests in Honduras. The destruction of the forests is endangering the country’s water supply. In the last 20 years, water levels have dropped and rivers have suffered irreparable sedimentation.

The activists who were killed had been arrested, and then riddled with bullets by the National Police. In the meantime, the elite in power continue to allow illegal cutting in the forests. (It should be noted that President Zelaya is a logging magnate.) The destruction is happening so rapidly that it is doubtful that it will be feasible to maintain the water levels necessary to provide sufficient water for the Patuca Dam, on a permanent basis.

There are people who lecture us about the need for a national energy plan and insist on the need to construct mega-dams. But they fail to consider the fate of the Honduran forests and the role they play in the sustainability of our rivers.

In the meantime, there are plans to ask the US Army Corps of Engineers, as part of the Nature Conservancy’s Sustainable Water Management Programme, to advise the National Electricity Company on the sustainable management of the Patuca dam project.

Involving the Nature Conservancy (a monster that is one of the sacred cows of the environmental movement) as advisor on the project creates further doubt as to the viability of the project and raises concerns about long-term consequences. The Nature Conservancy, which has a rather dubious reputation, was the subject of an extended investigation by The Washington Post. The investigation revealed that the organization had used questionable environmental practices and was involved in real estate speculation in preservation areas. It also revealed that the organization has been known to use intimidation tactics in its bids to manage protected areas.

We should also point out that it was the so-called "glorious" US Corps of Engineers who were responsible for the dikes in New Orleans. They were the "heroes" of Hurricane Katrina. And the minority ethnic population of the city was abandoned while US troops were busy bringing "democracy" to Iraq.

To date, Mesoamerican Biological Corridor officials have remained silent as to the future destruction of Patuca River, which in fact, forms part of Corridor’s Corazon Project.  The indigenous and black peoples of Mesoamerica have come to see unprecedented duality in the actions of officials of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor: on the one hand, they permit the construction of mega-dams, and on the other they stand in the way of land claims by inhabitants who have lived on the land and looked after it for centuries.

There is no doubt that there is a severe energy crisis in the country. But there are other types of energy projects that would allow us to avoid the destruction of our rivers. SERNA has shelved the Cerro de la Hula project, which could generate more than 400 megawatts without destroying one of the biggest rivers in Central America. However, when it comes to options for energy production, the present administration of the country cannot see beyond old-fashioned "Hoover Dam" style projects.

We can only hope that the death of the MAO environmental activists is not a sign of increased repression and future imposition of projects through force.

Miriam Miranda is a member of the Honduran Black Peoples Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH).

Contact Information:

La Ceiba, Atlántida, Honduras.
Telfax: 504-443-2492

Rights Action has supported OFRANEH’s important community development work and hopes to continue to be able to do so. For more information, or to support the work of OFRANEH and other grassroots organizations in Honduras, contact Rights Action: info(at)rightsaction.org.