Costa Rica: Indigenous People Sidelined in Plans for Dam

  (IPS) – The Diquís dam, the largest hydroelectric project in Central America, is worrying indigenous communities because Costa Rica’s state power company has excluded them from the decision-making process, in spite of international treaties that stipulate that they must be consulted.Indigenous people in Térraba in the southern district of Buenos Aires, which has the highest population density for five of the country’s eight Indian tribes, complain that the national utility, ICE, has never consulted them about the project, as it is required to do under International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which held a session in mid-May, reminded governments of the need to cooperate with native communities as the owners of natural resources in their territories.

This is not the first project of its kind that the state electricity monopoly has tried to push through in the southern part of the country.

The first, the Boruca hydroelectric complex, began to be discussed in the 1970s but was brought to a halt by strong opposition from local communities, and by doubts about its location in an area of seismic activity.

The plan was for a dam that would have flooded an area of 25,000 hectares to generate 1,500 megawatts of electricity. In the 1990s, the Veragua project met with a similar fate. Both projects were located on the Río Grande river in Térraba.

The projected Diquís dam on the El General river would have a planned capacity of 622 megawatts that would supply the energy needs of one million people. The projected cost is 1.85 billion dollars, making it the largest public investment in infrastructure ever undertaken in Costa Rica. If everything goes ahead as planned, ICE expects the plant to come onstream in 2016.

The dam would flood 6,000 hectares, displacing 1,100 people. Within the affected area, 800 hectares is indigenous territory belonging to the Térraba people, which is why the tribes are requesting consultation on the project.

The huge plant was declared to be of national interest in February 2008 by the government of President Óscar Arias. It is part of ICE’s strategy for expanding the country’s energy capacity, now estimated at 2,100 megawatts, which it wants to double in the next 10 years.

This month the constitutional court turned down an appeal for protection, presented in February by community leaders who claimed the right to be consulted. The final text of the ruling has not yet been released.

Genaro Gutiérrez, leader of the Térraba indigenous Integrated Development Association (ADI), told IPS he was disappointed at the position taken by the constitutional court and said that if there was no change in 15 days’ time, "we won’t let the ICE workers into the site."

In his view, ICE is breaking the law in going ahead with the work. He said the ADI of the Térraba Indigenous Reserve in Buenos Aires is, by law, "a separate government, and consultation is necessary."

ADIs were set up on every indigenous reservation by the state National Commission for Indigenous Affairs (CONAI), and act as local governments, but they have been criticised as not being representative or participative enough, of imposing ways of organising different to indigenous people’s own ways, and of being vulnerable to political manipulation.

The ADI headed by Gutiérrez presented a proposal to ICE requesting 10 percent – a "negotiable" proportion – of the profits of the hydroelectric plant, for development in the reserve. "We don’t want to let them do good business and leave indigenous people out in a discriminatory way," Gutiérrez said.

The Térraba are divided over the project. Gutiérrez said they are not opposed to the dam being built. "What we want are reliable benefits for the development of the district and the indigenous community," he said.

"It’s the government’s project, not ours, and if they don’t give us anything we won’t let it happen on our territory," he added.

A different position is taken by Ditsö, a non-governmental organisation supporting indigenous peoples that helped lodge another appeal for protection, this time with respect to the environmental impact of ICE operations in the community of Térraba, which is still being processed.

Ditsö’s communications officer, Marvin Amador, told IPS there are two opinions about the dam among the Térraba indigenous community. On the one hand are those who "have informed themselves" and are against the project, and on the other hand those who are for it, who "either are not informed, or are hoping to get something from it."

There is no consensus on the issue. Amador maintains that Gutiérrez cannot make the decision to negotiate with ICE "unless he consults the community; that involves the state, and Genaro is no longer a legitimate representative, he only still holds his position because of a series of flawed procedures."

He said both the ADI and its leader were discredited within the community.

The Ditsö spokesman was extremely critical of the constitutional court, and said that its dismissal of the first appeal for protection had "a very simple" explanation. "Ever since the government started to exert an influence, the court has systematically made decisions that openly run counter to" the country’s laws, in line with "vested interests," he said.

Ditsö is against the building of the dam, but Amador said the group’s goal was for consultation to take place and for the indigenous community to decide. Its opposition is due to the indigenous people being, once again, sidelined and forgotten.

"It is said that 80 percent of the energy generated will be exported," although ICE denies this. But even if the power is used for domestic consumption, "the indigenous people are being asked to give us their resources and heritage, in exchange for so-called development that will not reach the poorest of the poor," he said.

Ditsö says the Diquís project will have an enormous impact, socially and culturally, on the Térraba way of life. According to Amador, the dam will flood 50 archaeological sites, among them "ancient burial sites with a major spiritual significance."

ICE did not respond to IPS requests for comment on the matter.

The mayor of the district of Buenos Aires, Feliciano Álvarez, told IPS that he supports the construction of the Diquís plant.

Álvarez said it would have a great impact on the area, and that the municipality is advocating "for the labour to be drawn from the local area." He also said he was confident that the project would increase local trade and lead to improved infrastructure.

Amador, however, was critical of that stance. "Agreeing with this kind of project depends on one’s vision of what constitutes development," he said.