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Oaxacans Protecting Land and Culture: Citizens’ March in Defense of the Rio Verde

By Tony Macias International Team – Mexico Witness for Peace

“A river dies when a dam is built!” Cenobio Chavez called into a megaphone at the head of Monday’s march in coastal Oaxaca.

On March 14, the International Day against Dams, thousands gathered in the city of Pinotepa Nacional to protest a proposed hydroelectric dam in the nearby Rio Verde, one of the most important rivers in Oaxaca. Cenobio is from Paso de la Reyna, a small town of 700 that sits at the river’s edge. (See our March 2010 blog post for more background info.)

If the dam is built as the Mexican Federal Election Commission has planned, Paso de la Reyna would lie just 1 kilometer from the base of a 500-foot concrete wall holding back a 5,000 acre artificial lake. In the event of a dam collapse, the town would be wiped from the map by a 300 foot-high wall of water moving at over 150 miles per hour. Town residents would have just 40 seconds to flee.

Paso de la Reyna is just one of the 19 communities that would be directly affected by the construction of the hydroelectric dam, to say nothing of the 100,000 coastal residents that would face negative social and environmental impacts. According to local organizer and spokesman Juan Gomez some of the consequences, include unpredictable and irreversible changes to water availability, the likelihood of dam failure in one of the most seismically-active regions of Mexico, desertification, and the interruption of water and nutrients flowing to a nearby environmental preserve hosting the region’s most biodiverse wetlands. Social impacts include the influx of thousands of temporary workers from other parts of Mexico, the loss of traditional farming and fishing livelihoods for thousands of locals, and the forced displacement of those can no longer make a living without their farms. And how many of those who are displaced will attempt to migrate to the United States?

Eloy Cruz, another local spokesman, said during Monday’s march, “We are not opposed to development; it’s not that we don’t want development projects… we just want them for the benefit of our people. The benefits [of these projects] are not for us… they want to export this electrical energy to other parts of Central America.”

Hydroelectric dams are a crucial component of the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project (MIDP), a series of nearly 100 planned megaprojects reaching from Mexico to Colombia. MIDP would bring billions of dollars in profits to international corporations. To date, there are over 47,000 large dams located throughout the world. And while international financial institutions like the World Bank provide loans and seed money to start these projects, it is developing countries and their taxpayers that end up footing the bill- both in terms of costly loan payoffs and annual maintenance fees which reached $46 billion dollars per year worldwide in the 90s. Furthermore, between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced by these dams.

Unfortunately, the new state government of Oaxaca has not yet taken a definitive stance on the dam project. Meanwhile, local government officials and representatives of the Federal Election Commission have begun to use new tactics to win over nearby residents. Tactics include offering to build basketball courts in communities that accept the project, pro-dam educational projects in nearby schools, refusing to recognize local elections of residents opposed to the dam and even circulating fake newspapers stating that Oaxaca’s new governor fully supports the project. To date there have been no serious threats or outright violence, but local organizers believe that this may not be far off. Anti-dam activists in the state of Jalisco have received numerous threats and are continuously harassed by state police forces. In Guerrero and Chiapas, respectively, environmental activists have been subjected to illegal imprisonment and even killed.

“We will do what is necessary –even give up our lives– because we are defending something more than money,” says Juan Gomez. “We are defending the environment which includes water, land, flora and fauna. It includes the future lives of our children and grandchildren. It isn’t something artificial that, if destroyed, we can just rebuild quickly. It is something unique that we have, and this is what motivates me most to continue in this struggle.”

Local activist Caudensio Villanueva said at the conclusion of the march “what happens in one country has repercussions on the international level… If more megaprojects of this type are done, we will further impoverish the most poor and the rich will just become richer.” He asked that Witness for Peace supporters in the U.S. “find a way to pressure our government so that this doesn’t keep happening.”

Eloy Cruz reminded us, “Even though we are very poor, we all have the same rights. We can’t let the dam be built, because then what will we leave to future generations?”


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