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A decade of resistance against a hydroelectric plant
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Community opposes dam that would affect farming and livestock.

Despite police repression and harassment from government officials and workers of the company Hidrotambo, the community of San Pablo de Amalí, in the central Ecuadoran province of Bolívar, maintains its opposition to the construction of a hydroelectric dam that would alter their farming activities. Clashes with police and soldiers have led to several lawsuits over sabotage and terrorism; however this has failed to intimidate the local population that has been fighting  for 10 years.

In 2003, during the administration of former President Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005), the company Hidrotambo (a consortium of Plasticaucho Industrial, Electrogen, Corporación para la Investigación Energética and Spanish firm Ingehydro) got the National Directorate of Water Resources — which is today called the National Water Secretariat — to grant it a 50-year concession for more than 90 percent of the Dulcepamba River basin. The company’s intention was to build a hydroelectric dam that would contribute eight megawatts to the national power grid.

The concession allowed for about 5,400 liters/second during the rainy season and 1,960 liters/second in the dry season. In 2005, shortly before the Ecuadoran Congress ousted Gutiérrez, Hidrotambo secured a rate of 6,500 liters/second.

The project will affect the 74 communities in the Dulcepamba River basin, from San Pablo, in the upper reaches of the mountain range, to San Pablo de Amalí, in the subtropics where the dam is built. According to the non-governmental organization Ecological Action, about 45,000 people will be affected, but compensation is only provided for two families whose farms are in the dam’s construction site.

Unfulfilled promises
In 2004, resistance from the community prevented the firm contracted by Hidrotambo, called Constructora de los Andes (COANDES), from starting work to divert the river toward the site where the dam was to be built. So one year later, the company signed a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers, but continuous clashes with the community forced the military to abandon the project in 2008. 

During his 2006 electoral campaign, President Rafael Correa visited San Pablo de Amalí and said he would close the project when he came to power, which indeed happened. However, in March last year the work restarted with a contract directly controlled by the National Electricity Board (CONELEC) and the provincial government of Bolívar.

This new contract is even harder for communities than the one signed under Gutiérrez. The new one prohibits campesinos from using river water for irrigation or livestock breeding.

“We went to seek a concession for water to irrigate and were told they can give us enough for a half-inch hose. That is not even enough to irrigate an orange tree,” said Manuel Trujillo, leader of San Pablo de Amalí, during a meeting on June 18 between the community and lawyers of the human rights legal group Regional Foundation for Counseling in Human Rights (INREDH).

Indeed, clause 12 of the contract transforms Hidrotambo into the absolute owner, not only of the water, but also of the entire communal territory adjacent to the future hydroelectric plant.

“The permit holder shall have the right to build and operate, as the owner, drinkable water or wastewater systems, and is also authorized to construct, operate and maintain roads, bridges, runways or perform any other work necessary for future site access to the center to be constructed, or places associated with it,” it reads.

Conflicts with the people peaked on Dec. 15, 2006, when about 1,500 campesinos from affected communities clashed with about 300 soldiers near San Pablo of Amalí. During that year there had been continuous military incursions using tear gas. The troops also controlled access roads and made seizures on public buses under the pretext of searching for weapons.

“What they wanted was to know who leaves and enters the community,” Trujillo said to Latinamerica Press.

As a result of the clashes, 22 lawsuits were brought against residents of San Pablo de Amalí, and 14 community leaders were detained and accused of rebellion. Two months later, the National Ombudsman Office observed the actions of the Army Corps of Engineers and requested the military cease operations against the community, but during a flare-up Feb. 26, 2007, about 70 military officials launched tear gas directly at community residents, wounding many.

In December 2008, the Constituent Assembly granted amnesty to the campesinos of San Pablo de Amalí who were being sued, and the Army Corps of Engineers left the area.

Lawsuits against the community
Project work resumed despite President Correa’s promise, and without reviewing or updating the project’s environmental permits. As in previous years, there were again clashes with the special police forces.

On Aug. 16, 2012, the Interior Ministry sent a commission to investigate the facts, but only met with Hidrotambo and staff and didn´t visit the community.

For these latest confrontations, Trujillo and Manuela Pacheco, another San Pablo de Amalí leader, have been brought to trial for sabotage and terrorism. A Nov. 12 arrest warrant was issued for them, so they went underground until the legal team defending them is able to revoke that order. The process is ongoing and both leaders are disposed to go to jail if they are convicted.

“We’ve decided not to flee, because it’s awful to be far from family,” Pacheco told Latinamerica Press. “And if we have to go to jail, we’ll go with our heads held high.”

On June 18, delegates of the National Ombudsman Office, the Ministry of Environment, CONELEC, the provincial government and representatives of Hidrotambo returned to visit the project site. State officials backed the company by only allowing two members of the community to join them.

Furthermore, a representative of the National Ombudsman Office, Consuelo Cano, barred the groups defending the community from participating in the trip.

“No one invited you,” Cano said.

However, human rights organizations present could observe the effect on people and their farms caused by the river’s diversion, which is already 40 percent completed.

“As a result of these clashes, most villagers live in constant stress and it has disrupted their vision for the future as individuals and as a community,” Beatriz Villarreal, an INREDH officer who provides social and psychological counseling to the community, told Latinamerica Press.

“Children and some of the elderly have been evacuated because of the risk, while others are staying in their houses because they don’t have anywhere to go, and they are getting ready to defend [their homes],” Trujillo said. “It’s been 10 years of fighting and everything has gone back to zero.”
—Latinamerica Press.


Residents of San Pablo de Amalí protest the diversion of a river to build a dam. (Photo: Jessica Matute)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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