Peru's dam busters

Vanessa Baird discovers why the Asháninka people of the River Ene are taking a hard line against dam builders – and others.

This special report was published in the October edition of the New Internationalist 'Nature's Defenders' Buy this issue or subscribe from just £7

Voracious, rapacious and, ultimately, outwitted. The gigantic human-eating eagle that gave its name to Pakitzapango could be a lesson to all who have designs on this part of the world.

The sacred canyon of Pakitzapango. Local communities were not consulted about plans to build a 165-metre high dam here that would flood them out.

Ministry of Interior / Government of Peru

For years, according to local myth, the bird terrorized the Asháninka inhabitants of the River Ene in the Peruvian Amazon.

Finally, the people created an ingenious bait – a life-sized human figure, made of clay – and sent it in a boat towards the eagle’s hideout. When the eagle sank its claws into the figure, it got stuck and the humans were able to kill it. The eagle’s feathers were tossed into the river; where they landed, Asháninka settlements were established.

I’m thinking of this story as I sit in a stationary boat, five hours upriver – waiting. Waiting to get the okay to go further to the canyon of Pakitzapango, which translates as ‘eagle’s house’.

It’s been a long journey – 21 hours by road and boat from Lima. The gorge is tantalizingly close, just around the next river bend.

My companions – two French freelance journalists – and I are hoping to photograph it before the sun sets. Right now, the light is perfect; the river scene a dream.

The official plans for this area, however, are far from idyllic. They involve allowing the construction of a 165-metre high hydroelectric dam that will flood 734 square kilometres (181,375 acres) of forests, arable lands and waterways on which the Asháninka people rely. At least 10 communities would be inundated and an estimated 12,000 people affected, 10,000 of them indigenous.1

By uncanny coincidence, the eagle of lore was also building a wall of stones on the Ene – better to ensnare his human victims before devouring them. The gorge is supposed to be the vestige of his incomplete project.

The sun is going down fast and I’m starting to feel uneasy...

It’s been a good 40 minutes since Lucas Alberto and Leonel Ramos, our Asháninka companions and guides, went up the bank to check in with the community that is hosting us tonight. Lucas and Leonel are from the local indigenous NGO, Central Asháninka River Ene (CARE). Is there a problem with our visit?

Perhaps we weren’t simply journalists but spies...

The people we first spotted on the shore when we arrived have vanished into thin air. Only one woman in traditional brown dress stays, watching from above.

Then two young boys appear and start making their way down the steep bank on a tiny bicycle. The younger one, face painted red, can’t stop giggling. The older one lets slip that the entire community has gathered for a meeting up above.

‘What are they talking about?’


Suddenly there’s a commotion. Lucas and Leonel come running down the hill and jump into the boat.

‘Let’s go!’ says Leonel.


‘Back down the river!’


‘They don’t want you here!’

The pair are drenched to the skin. ‘They ritually castigated us for bringing you by giving us a soaking!’ Leonel explains. ‘They wanted to paint our faces too with stuff you can’t wash off.'

The community had gathered and decided that they had had journalists visit before and it hadn’t changed anything. And, anyway, perhaps we weren’t simply journalists but spies for the government or the company that wanted to build the dam?

Fair point, good question.

Soon we are careening through the dark on the swollen Ene, outboard motor full throttle as the pilot dodges whirlpools, looking for somewhere to stay the night, a community that will accept us, that will trust us.

All of a sudden, it seems like a big ask.

Legacies of mistrust

The people of the Ene-Tambo river basin have good reason to be mistrustful.

Over the years they have had their quota of outsiders after gold or wood or oil or human souls to save. In the mid-1980s, Maoist guerrillas of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) turned up, gained control and a long nightmare began.

Peru’s two decades of violence took an especially heavy toll on the Asháninka. Out of a total population of 70,000, around 6,000 were killed or ‘disappeared’. Thousands more were displaced, up to 40 communities destroyed or abandoned. Both the guerrillas and the army used and abused Asháninka people, and communities were set against each other. Sendero pressed children as well as adults into their ranks and carried out gruesome punishments against those who resisted. Many died of hunger. The army, for its part, would send Asháninka ahead of them when trying to root out the guerrillas hiding in the forests.2

As the violence intensified, entire communities had to be airlifted to safety. They were only able to start returning to their land in the late 1990s.

Today, once more, the Asháninka people are on the frontline. Their main adversary is the institution that should be protecting them – the State.

Under a 50-year energy agreement signed last year, Peru will allow Brazil to build six dams in the Amazon to generate electricity for Brazil. The 2,000 megawatt Pakitzapango plant would be one of the first to generate power for utility giant Electrobras. Two more, Tambo 40 and Tambo 60, are planned for the adjoining River Tambo.

Legally, Asháninka land is protected. But at no point did the Peruvian authorities or the companies involved consult the people affected by the Pakitzapango scheme. This is in plain contravention of both the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Office (ILO) Convention 169 which insists that no major development should go ahead without ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of affected residents.

The main Asháninka organization, CARE, took legal action and the company that was supposed to be doing the initial feasibility studies did not get its licence renewed. But the option remains for another company to step in. The prospect of a second big dam came one step closer in November 2010, when the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht was granted a licence for Tambo 40.

In the words of CARE’s president Ruth Buendia: ‘With Pakitzapango and Tambo 40 comes terrorism; not armed now, but economic.’3

Hydroelectric dams – a false solution

Hydropower is often hailed as clean and green. But building major dams across rivers actually abets global warming, creates pollution and spreads disease:

• Dams and reservoirs are responsible for 25% of human-produced methane, one of the most potent heat-trapping gases. Methane bubbles up from rotting organic matter in reservoirs. The massive amounts of methane produced by hydropower reservoirs in the tropics mean that these dams can have a far greater warming impact than even the dirtiest fossil fuel plants generating similar quantities of electricity. Large dams may be the single most important contributors to global warming: the 104 million tonnes of dam methane released each year accounts for around 5% of all human-caused global warming.

• Large numbers of people are evicted from their lands and homes to make way for reservoirs. But the livelihoods of millions also suffer because of the downstream effects: the loss of fisheries; contaminated and decreased amounts of water; and reduced land fertility due to the loss of natural fertilizers and irrigation in seasonal floods.

• Dams brew waterborne diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis.

• Of more than 40,000 large dams (over 15 metres high) worldwide, there are more than 300 giant (150 metres or higher). At 165 metres, Pakitzapango would clearly be a giant.

Sources: International Rivers; Ivan Lima, National Institute for Space Research, Brazil.

Birds in the forest, fish in the river

The night sky is powdered with stars as we climb up the bank to the community of Potsoteni, an hour or two downriver. Fireflies dart about. Lucas has been talking to the chief and we can stay the night in a school building. Small clusters of women sitting in the dark chat to us; one offers us a boiled sweet each.

The next morning, Mercedes, the school teacher, serves us breakfast. As we tuck into fish, yam, rice and hot chocolate, the conversation turns to food. Her son Jesús looks healthy enough, but Mercedes says some children in her class can’t concentrate because they are not getting enough to eat. According to UNICEF, 78 per cent of Peru’s indigenous children and adolescents live in poverty, and the poorest of these are in the Amazon.4

The problem, says Mercedes, is that the forest has changed. Where it used to provide for their needs, logging and clearing have meant that there are not only fewer trees, but also far fewer birds and animals to hunt. There are fewer fish in the river, too. Competition for these resources comes from colonos or migrant settlers.

Amazonian people receive only a small share of the government budget, but their territories are seen as treasure troves of national wealth. Former president Alan García famously described them as ‘dogs in a manger’ for not wanting to let multinational companies in.

‘You must write what we say’

From Potsoteni, we continue down the river to Union Puerto Asháninka. We are greeted by an affable man in a yellow T-shirt: Araldo Ventura, elected chief of the community. We are due to meet the community and conduct interviews – but I’m making no assumptions this time.

Small children dart about like skinny sparrows in the open-sided meeting house. Araldo raises his voice to be heard over their squealing. He introduces us, informing the community that international journalists can get their message out to the world.

We each give a little speech, explaining our purpose. People listen attentively; the body language seems affirmative as the words in Spanish are translated into Arawak. After a few exchanges, Leonel translates and sums up for us: ‘They are saying they will co-operate but you must write what they say.’

A man in a white robe is the first to speak: ‘We suffered years of violence here and the terrorists did not succeed in wiping us out; but now the government is trying to kill us with this dam. We don’t want the hydroelectric plant. It won’t bring us light. It will be light for others. We are being cheated.’

Maria Vervenita and some of her children. ‘We shall have to become beggars – that is not the Asháninka way.’

An elderly woman in green says she lost her children to Sendero. ‘And now we are going to lose our water!’

Others fear the diseases the dam – and the dam builders – will bring.

A young woman with a thin baby in her arms gets up to speak. She is 21 and her name is Maria Vervenita Ernesto Román: ‘The river provides the food we eat, the water we wash in. If they close the river it will flood the communities above the wall and cause drought in the communities below. We will have to become beggars – that is not the Asháninka way.’

‘If we have to move from here, where shall we go?’ adds a man called Efraín. ‘They say go further into the forest, but there are already people up there.’

A man with a deeply lined face comments: ‘We are the true conservationists. We don’t do big deforestation. We conserve our territories, our trees. Each person does their work.’

Some communities have gone along with a government conservation scheme called the Forests Programme, but he doesn’t believe in it. This is Peru’s contribution to an international initiative to save a million hectares of Amazonian forest. Peru is losing 150,000 hectares of tropical forest a year. The scheme is intended to save 300,000 hectares. The indigenous communities engaged in the programme are paid 10 soles (about $4) for each hectare conserved. The idea is to provide the communities with an alternative to selling the wood in their forests to logging interests.

The scheme is voluntary but many Asháninka communities are wary of it. Leonel explains why: ‘They fear that the government will turn round later and say “we gave you this money, now we will take the land we have paid for”.’

Many Western environmentalists, too, are suspicious of such market mechanisms for mitigating climate change. They see them as moneyspinners for those who can exploit the system, but failing in their core environmental objectives.

Araldo concludes the meeting: ‘We are not poor, we are rich. We want to work and to save our culture. We want to live like our grandparents lived. Take that message to your people. This is not an empty space. We live here. We don’t want Pakitzapango or Tambo 40.’

But what if the community is offered money or other enticements? It is common practice to divide indigenous communities in this way. I ask two of the younger men this question. They are adamant. ‘We won’t accept anything,’ says one. ‘We will prevent them from entering,’ adds the other.

‘How?’ I ask.

‘We will meet them in the traditional way.’


They both look a bit sheepish and then reply.

‘With arrows... we don’t want to... but this is our land, the land of our grandparents and great-grandparents. We have to defend it.’

I am reminded that two years ago, when police tried to dislodge indigenous protesters near the northern jungle town of Bagua, 33 lost their lives, 23 of them police.

Two views of the forest

Araldo, elected chief of Union Puerto Asháninka sings his resistance to hydroelectric dams.

Saturday is sports day in the Ene-Tambo river basin and communities come together to play volleyball and football. Samaniato, the community playing host this week, would be impacted by both the Pakitzapango and Tambo 40 schemes.

With evident pride, the community’s chief Juan Andres Pichiuranti shows me the coffee, cacao, cassava, peas, bananas and other fruits of the river’s floodplains. Damming the river would block the passage of the vital sediments that provide fertility and the migration of fish in the region.5

Back on the football pitch I spot some players who don’t look like the other people here. They are migrant settlers. Can anyone marry into an Asháninka community? I ask Leonel.

‘If they accept Asháninka ways, it’s okay,’ he replies. ‘But if they work too hard and take too much out of the forests, that can be a problem.’

This points to two diametrically opposed approaches to the forest. Outsiders tend to see the forest as comparatively empty of people but full of resources to be extracted as quickly and effectively as possible.

Forest communities see it as a mother, a provider, who must be treated gently and with respect. ‘You must take from the forest only what you need when you need it, not as much as you can get,’ is how one man puts it.

So who is in favour of the scheme?

I’ve come to the office of Mario Jeri Kuriyama, a local government official of the Ministry of the Interior in the jungle town of Satipo. His purpose, he says, is to ‘unite the State with the communities’. From all I’ve seen and heard it’s not going to be easy.

For him the dams represent development, progress and income. But he presents his views with caution, laying out the poverty of the region, the needs of the communities, and the difficulties the state has in attending to these needs because the population is ‘fragmented’ into small communities, ‘each wanting its school, its health post or hospital’.

The Pakitzapango dam would create 5,000 jobs for four or five years, he says. It would represent millions of soles of investment: the company would need to build a road, a hospital, a secondary school, and probably an airport, too.

He acknowledges that the failure to consult with local people was a major error; even local functionaries like himself were not asked for advice, he says with obvious pique.

But he thinks indigenous communities would benefit from negotiating with the multinationals. He cites the example of a community of the Tambo river that got financial help from the Spanish-Argentinean oil company Repsol to improve its cacao production.

The company has not yet started working in the area, he acknowledges. Locals have yet to experience Repsol’s poor record on human rights and environmental pollution in Latin America.6

Mario Jeri attributes indigenous rejection of major government-backed development schemes to ‘influential leaders’ and ‘the negativity of certain international NGOs’.

‘We would all like to keep this garden as it is,’ he comments, ‘to keep the land untouched. But we have this resource and we have needs to meet.’

He acknowledges that high levels of corruption make for distrust that any benefits would reach local people.

He is also vague about the exact measure of inundation that would take place, saying simply, ‘We don’t know yet.’

Crunch time

The coming few months are crucial. Peru’s new left-leaning president, Ollanta Humala, has said he will respect indigenous rights. But he is also politically close to Brazil and it is hard to imagine him tearing up the energy accord with such a powerful neighbour and ally. Meanwhile, civil society groups in Peru are calling for an urgent debate in Congress on the Energy Agreement with Brazil.

There are alternatives to the extractive model, better suited to the Amazon. For example, the area is rich in biological diversity and medicinal plants. Trade in more eco-friendly natural forest products could be developed. Community tourism is another potential area for sustainable development. There are energy alternatives, too: Peru has a high potential for both wind and solar power, while small-scale community-owned hydropower has a long and proven record for meeting local needs.

‘We all need a healthy Amazon, the lungs of the world’

So far Humala has indicated that he is unwilling to abandon the neoliberal development model of his predecessors, though he wants to distribute more of the fruits of growth.

I wonder what reception he would receive if he came to the Ene, a place few Peruvian politicians or high-ranking officials have ever bothered to visit?

Would he be able to take on board the views of the people who are trying to defend themselves, not from a mythological giant this time, but an all too real embodiment of suicidally destructive modernity – the giant hydroelectric dam project; the ultimate ‘false solution’ to global warming.

There are signs of hope. In June plans for a giant dam at Inambari were shelved after massive, paralyzing protests in the Puno area (see page 26). Perhaps the clamour against Pakitzapango, Tambo 40 and the other mega-dams being planned, could reach a similar pitch.

The struggle of the Asháninka is theirs but not theirs alone – it should be that of all of us. Quite apart from the moral requirement to take a stand against the ongoing abuse of indigenous human rights, we all need a healthy Amazon, the lungs of the world, for planetary survival.

International organizations (including media) have a role to play. They can, like Rainforest Foundation UK, support local groups in the Amazon such as CARE. But they can also hold to account governments, corporations and banks that are committing crimes against human rights and the environment and tell them: ‘The world is watching you.’


International groups involved in campaigning against Pakitzapango and other dams in the region:

Rainforest Foundation

International Rivers

Amazon Watch

Survival International

  1. Amazon Watch
  2. International Rivers
  3. Ruth Buendia on
  4. UNICEF, 2010
  5. International Rivers
  6. Repsol YPF Violates Human Rights and Pollutes the Environment