“Starting here, we´ll be underwater,” says Aldo Santos, who works for the nongovernmental organization Rural Educational Services, as his truck drove along a stretch of the Inter-Oceanic Highway.
When the massive US$4-billion Inambari dam is complete, it will include a reservoir of 410 square kilometers on the river of the same name, and the area where Santos points, the village of San Gaban, will be one of more than 50 villages that will be either underwater or affected by the project.
The plant, located at the corner where the Cuzco, Puno and Madre de Dios departments meet, will produce 2000 MW, three-quarters of which will be sold to Brazil.
Under an energy agreement signed by Peru and Brazil last June, Brazilian firms will operate six hydroelectric plants in Peru for 30 years and Peru, in turn, will sell most of the electricity to its neighbor, for its voracious industrial appetite.
But local residents are not pleased.
“We will defend our people with our lives. We live and work here,” said Víctor Alarcón, president of a campesino community group in Puerto Manoa, part of the Puno province of Carabaya.
The dam will flood 46,000 hectares, and displace 15,000 people and leave more than 100 kilometers of the Inter-Oceanic Highway, which links Brazil to Peru´s Pacific ports, underwater. The highway is still under construction.
Environmental damage is imminent and environmentalists warn of irreversible damage to the buffer zone surrounding the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park, famed for its biodiversity named by the National Geographic Society as one of the world’s seven “iconic natural sanctuaries.”
Organizations such as the Civil Labor Association and ProNaturaleza have warned that Peru received a raw deal in the agreement, assuming most of the cost, economic, environmental and social risk, without a clear benefit. The organizations have said Peru is giving up a portion of its natural patrimony and resources to foreigners.
The government of Peruvian President Alan García has argued that the area that will be directly affected by the dam has already received the impact of heavy migration. Now, the international highway´s construction must to be added to that.
The area is, indeed, not virgin forest and it is not home to Amazonian indigenous communities, but rather, mainly migrants from Puno´s highlands who have moved there in search of new farmland, where they have lived for about half a century, growing cacao, pineapple, bananas and yucca, while a smaller population lives off of small-scale fishing and the highly-contaminating artisanal gold mining along the Inambari River.
But while the area is not a conservation zone, a chain of social consequences are inevitable, many warn.
“They haven´t explained well to us what we´re going to do when we leave,” said Olga Cutida, president of the Inambari Action Committee. She says the company running the project, the Brazilian-controlled Empresa de Generación Eléctrica Amazonas Sur, offered her a comfortably-sized house in the neighboring Cuzco region, but she has no idea what she will live on there.
Company sources say that the displaced may be able to work on the dam itself, which requires at least 4,000 people for as long as five years.
In Mazuko, a tiny village in the Huaypetue area of Madre de Dios, one of the most contaminated corners of the Amazon basin because of informal gold mining, some small-business owners are actually hoping the megaproject will spur commerce.
But the nongovernmental organizations and other activists say the final equation will leave the local population at a loss: environmental damage, loss of the already falling fish population, human displacement, more informal activities.
To add insult to injury, some of the arduous work that went into building the Inter-Oceanic Highway, which will be partly flooded, will be lost, and forced to relocate, a project that could cause a conflict between the Cuzco and Puno departments over where it will be relocated.
Epicenter of resistance
Puerto Manoa is one of the centers of resistance to the project. Signs that read “No to the Inambari Dam” can be found around the village.
Most of the towns that will be flooded share the sentiment, not the case of those outside of the dam line, which are mostly divided.
While tensions in the area grow, those in favor of the dam say the project should go forward for one major reason: better relations with Brazil, the recipient of the electricity, meaning income generation for Peru.
In their book Peruvian Amazon in 2021, Marc Dourojeanni, Alberto Barandiarán and Diego Dourojeanni said that Brazil´s growing population of more than 200 million and its unsatisfied energy demand cannot be met by Brazil itself, “which has exhausted all of its technical and environmental possibilities.”
For lawyer Mariano Castro, of the nonprofit Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, the government moved too quickly to sign the agreement for the project, and a time bomb has resulted from the brewing tensions among those who will be affected.