It's a familiar story: a corporate-backed mega dam could displace thousands of indigenous people and destroy a pristine ecosystem. We've heard it in China and Brazil. This time the threatened people are the Ashaninka tribe, and the land is the Ene river valley in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
The Pakitzapango Dam is part of a proposed five-dam energy project to funnel power from Peru to neighbouring Brazil. It's being backed by giant power companies and financed by the Brazilian Development Bank. Right now, the Peruvian congress is reviewing the deal. If it goes ahead, the dam will be another win for the corporates and the leaders who believe that economic development and environmental stewardship are conflicting goals.
The Pakitzapango Dam isn't the first threat to the Ashaninka people and their ancient way of life. In recent decades they've weathered land grabs, speculators and the vicious insurgency of Peru's Maoist Shining Path rebels. But the dam presents a new scale of threat. The Pakitzapango project would place a 165-metre-high concrete wall across the Ene river – destroying its rich sediment deposits and flooding fertile forests on its banks.
According to local activists, it threatens 90,000 hectares of Amazonian woodlands and could adversely affect 10,000 indigenous people – whose livelihoods are interwoven with the health of the Ene river valley. If the dam is built and the Ashaninka are displaced, many will likely relocate to the protected Otishi National Park, putting more pressure on its ecology.
Worse yet, while Peruvian powerbrokers were striking deals with their Brazilian partners, the Ashaninka were reportedly left in the dark (in contravention of international law):
Let's open the flood gates
The hydroelectric project was first proposed in 2008, after Peru and Brazil signed a bilateral energy agreement: right now, the concession to build the dam has lapsed and construction has been suspended. But the project is far from dead.
The legislation is stalled in the Peruvian Congress, awaiting a vote from the Foreign Relations Commission. President Ollanta Humala has yet to back the deal. Last month, he reversed his position on an environment-damaging multi-billion-dollar mining concession in the country's north, giving it the go-ahead. That decision was unpopular with local residents and international activists. Signing on to another destructive foreign-backed project wouldn't be smart politics for a leader who who rode into office with the support of indigenous people.
Further reading: The Atlantic has put together a beautiful slideshow profiling the Ashaninka's threatened way of life.