Sunday, May 19, 2019
Subscribers Section User ID Password
Could micro hydro-plants be the solution to energy conflicts?
Louisa Reynolds
Send a comment Print this page

Small scale hydropower is affordable, reliable and sustainable, particularly for populations that live in very remote areas.

On April 28, 2012, the inhabitants of Las Cruces, a municipality located in the Northern department of Petén held a plebiscite or consulta comunitaria and voted against the construction of four hydroelectric dams: La Línea, El Porvenir, Isla del Cayo and Yaxchilán, that the Guatemalan and Mexican governments intend to build on the Usumacinta River that divides the two countries. 

Communities’ right to hold consultas comunitarias on issues affecting their welfare is recognized under International Labor Convention (ILO) Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal People, which was ratified by Guatemala in 1996, but has yet to be woven into the national legal system as the necessary ruling or reglamento has not been approved.

Originating in the Chamá mountain range, the Usumacinta River has a basin of 106 square kilometers (41 square miles) that stretches across the states of Tabasco and Northeastern Chiapas in Southern Mexico, as well as the departments of Quiché, Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz and Petén in Northeastern Guatemala, which have a total population of 7.5 million inhabitants.

Agustín Tebalán, president of the Petén Front Against Hydroelectric Dams (FPCR), explains to Latinamerica Press that if these projects go ahead communities, crops, Mayan archaeological sites and protected areas of biodiversity importance would be flooded. For the inhabitants of the municipalities of Las Cruces and Libertad this would mean displacement and the loss of their livelihoods. “We don’t agree with mega projects that only benefit large corporations and don’t take us into account,” says Tebalán.

Since the 1970s, Guatemala has been heavily reliant on hydropower, which has been promoted by successive administrations as a clean source of energy. Today, according to the National Commission on Electric Energy (CNEE), between 40 percent and 60 percent of the country’s electricity generation comes from hydroelectric plants, depending on the level of rainfall.

However, large-scale hydroelectric projects such as the four dams that the president Otto Pérez Molina’s government plans to build on the Usumacinta River have devastating social and environmental consequences and have been listed by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) as one of the main causes of conflict in the country, together with mining projects and land disputes.

Putting communities first
As well as their negative environmental impact, another major grievance frequently voiced by communities is the fact that they rarely benefit from large-scale hydroelectric dams, as they often lack access to basic services such as electricity and running water while their hydric resources are used to provide electric energy for urban areas located hundreds of miles away.

The construction of the Hidro Xacbal hydroelectric dam in the municipality of San Gaspar Chajul, in the highland department of Quiché, is a case in point. With a generating capacity of 94 megawatts, the US$250 million project is the country’s second largest hydroelectric dam and it generates electricity for 405 households in the department of Quetzaltenango, 130 kilometers (80 miles) away from Chajul.

When the construction of the plant began in 2007, the Mayan Ixil communities of Chajul, a municipality that suffered some of the worst massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan army against the country’s indigenous population during the 1980s, said that they did not oppose the project per se but were angered by the lack of prior consultation and felt it was a bitter irony that only the households located in the urban center of Chajul had access to electric energy.

“The service is needed. But it’s contradictory that they want to take it elsewhere,” said to Latinamerica Press Ixil leader Francisco Velasco when the construction of the plant began.

“Hydropower is the cheapest and cleanest source of energy. Communities need to know that. I think that communities are not opposed to the construction of a dam; what they want is to receive benefits and to have access to electric energy in rural areas. We’re currently working on that,” says to Latinamerica Press vice-minister for Sustainable Development of the Energy and Mines Ministry, Ivanova Ancheta.

Mario Hernández, director of Semilla de Sol, a local NGO that promotes community-based renewable energy projects, explains to Latinamerica Press that in order to ease tensions between Grupo Terra, the Honduran company that operates Hidro Xacbal, and the Ixil communities, a small-scale hydroplant was built in the village of Chel, with a generating capacity of 165 kilowatts, enough to provide electric energy for 1,600 households. The project was funded by international aid donors as well as government agencies; it is staffed by workers from the nearby villages who received technical training on electricity management and managed by the Chelense Hydroelectric Association, a group of Mayan Ixil leaders and all smallholders whose lands were used to build the project were adequately compensated.

Access to technology
The availability of electric energy ushered in a number of gradual changes in the village. Local businesses flourished and the number of small shops increased from 10 to 75 as they were able to remain open after dark and sell refrigerated goods. The local health center was able to purchase a refrigerator to store medicines and whereas before the hydroplant was inaugurated in 2007, the village had to pay per minute to use a single community cellphone, most households now have their own cellphones and chargers.

Chel’s small-scale hydroplant was so successful that Semilla de Sol currently launched similar projects in the municipalities of San Juan Cotzal, Nebaj and Uspantán, in the department of Quiché, and Colomba Costa Cuca and Guanagazapa, in the department of Quetzaltenango. And feasibility studies for six other projects are currently being carried out.

Nebaj’s micro-hydroplant was inaugurated in May this year after the US$50,000 project was first put forward in 2004. Hernández explains that although these projects have great potential, access to technology and financial resources remain the greatest hurdles.  Overcoming the communities’ initial mistrust is another barrier and in this sense, successful projects such as Chel’s hydroplant are crucial in terms of winning over hearts and minds. Once communities perceive the benefits, says Hernández, they actively participate in running and staffing the project as well as providing the necessary labor to build the plant. In the case of Nebaj’s new plant, for example, community volunteers cleared a 7 kilometer (4 miles) path to access the plant.

“There are many areas of Central America where water resources are very stable and secure, where small scale hydropower is affordable, reliable and sustainable, particularly for populations that live in very remote areas. There have been a lot of social conflicts with the region’s indigenous communities and I would hope that we’re not making those mistakes again but rather switch to small scale hydroelectric projects and work with local populations early on rather than confronting them with a fait accompli where they have to leave the regions where they have lived for hundreds or thousands of years without any proper compensation,” says to Latinamerica Press Worldwatch Institute analyst Alexander Ochs, co-author of a report entitled “The way forward for renewable energy in Central America.”
—Latinamerica Press.


From the outset, small scale hydro-plants involve community participation. (Photo: Semilla de Sol)
Related News
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
Reproduction of our information is permitted if the source is cited.
Contact us: (511) 7213345
Address: Jr. Daniel Alcides Carrión 866, 2do. piso, Magdalena del Mar, Lima 17, Perú