A Series by New Scientists
The van slows to a halt under a grove of alders, nose to nose with a pickup truck filled with men in western shirts, cowboy hats and boots, machetes strapped to their belts. I file out to meet the group of local farmers, campesinos, along with the rest of the veteran anti-dam activists who have, somewhat reluctantly, allowed me to tag along. As we greet each other, we are also greeted by a deafening hum of cicadas, seeming to signal our entrance into a territory that is not our own. We continue down the hill to where dozens of people have started to gather on the concrete patio of the local elementary school to discuss a series of dams proposed on the river below. As the meeting begins, Pablo takes the microphone. He is one of the more seasoned activists. “Who knows what a dam is?” The crowd is uncertain; some shake their heads. Luckily, Pablo is prepared. “A dam is an invention of the white man to steal water and energy!” The response is ambivalent. A local man takes the floor and explains that company representatives had convinced him with their promises of new roads and schools, but now he’s not so sure.
After an hour of speeches, the meeting closes with handshakes and promises to “defend the river.” We load back in the van and head off to the next gathering further up the valley, where another hydropower project is planned. As we prepare to leave, a younger activist says, half-joking, “They think you’re a spy.” It is not the first or the last time that I would hear this, and I try to diffuse the tension. “Aren’t spies supposed to be inconspicuous? I don’t think I’m doing a very good job.”
At six feet tall, pale-skinned, bearded, and speaking accented Spanish, I stand little chance of blending in here in the mountains of rural Veracruz, in central Mexico. Still, the suspicion is well-founded. As we make our way through these mountains over the next two days we hear stories of the sudden appearance of trucks, helicopters, and bulldozers from which emerge company and government representatives who extoll the benefits hydropower will bring to the region. At every river crossing we see evidence of their presence in the freshly-painted concrete posts bearing inscrutable numeric codes.
There is nothing new about communities fighting displacement by dams. In fact, until the 1980s Mexico occupied the dubious distinction of displacing more people in this way than any other country. So there is something very familiar about this situation. Yet there are also elements that diverge from the established narrative. Instead of a state-owned mega-project, the plans for Veracruz call for dozens of “mini” hydropower projects to be built by private companies. These projects don’t resemble the wall of concrete threatening to flood an entire valley. Instead, they entail miles of tunnels and tubes blasted through the mountains, threatening to suck rivers dry and spit them back out downstream.
Not everyone sees it this way. Proponents argue that the negative impacts are insignificant when compared with the benefits of generating clean energy. But whose interest does clean energy serve? As a graduate student in geography, that is the knot I hoped to untangle.
In downtown Xalapa, the state capital, I locate the office of the federal water agency, CONAGUA. After several false starts, I talk my way in for an interview with a mid-level official. Once I find my way to his office, I’m told to wait, so I pass the time browsing a calendar that showcases the country’s finest dams and irrigation systems like so many swimsuit models.
“The ingeniero will see you now,” his secretary informs me. Ingeniero—engineer, but a much more laden term in Mexico. An ingeniero is well-educated, someone with technical expertise, a thoroughly modern individual. I introduce myself, hoping that my attempt to appear professional by putting on a button-down shirt doesn’t come across as too ridiculous. His stern demeanor indicates that he too might wonder if I’m a spy.
As if reading my mind, he warns me not to trust the “pseudo-environmentalist” groups organizing against the hydropower projects. “They’re only out for personal gain and have no technical foundation,” he tells me. I try to turn the conversation to the question of whether diverting water for hydropower could cause a conflict with other users of a river. Some communities, I suggest, might have been using water for a long time without acquiring a permit from the federal agency. What about them? Incensed, he shoots back, “If someone is using water without a permit, then they have no rights!”
I knew that, in fact, only some of the hydro projects in the region had obtained CONAGUA’s permission for their own proposed water use, yet this didn’t seem to bother him. It isn’t until later that I understand what is going on: the World Bank had pressured Mexico to reform its water law so that water use for hydropower would not need the approval of the federal agency. For all of the ingeniero’s bluster about being the sole authority for decisions about allocating water between competing users, his authority has been gutted when it came to using water to generate electricity.
In the midst of trying to navigate the bureaucratic channels in Xalapa, Emilia invites me to Zongolica, where one of these mini hydropower projects had recently been completed. An anthropologist and activist, her mission is to gather community input for a lawsuit denouncing the damage caused by construction. I jump at the chance to join her, hoping to better understand the actual effects of these projects. But after traveling since dawn to reach our destination, I begin to realize how immense this landscape is. The closest we come to the project is when we round a curve of the winding dirt road, cresting a hill to look across a broad valley. On the opposite side, a bright blue line traces the edge of the ridge as though someone had taken a giant marker to the landscape: the tube that carries the water downhill to the power station.
We make our way to a community meeting hall, only to find it empty. After some time, a man from the village arrives and apologizes: when they agreed to the meeting, they forgot that it was elementary school graduation day – a major event in this rural community. Though it is not what Emilia and I had hoped for, we chat with him about the hydropower project. He tells us about a dozen springs that used to supply water to the households, scattered throughout the mountains, that stopped flowing when construction started. He recounts floods unlike any they had ever seen that buried fertile farmland with silt, cutting off access to the plots of maize and coffee on the far side of the river. When the conversation ends we stroll down to the school and join the celebration, gratefully accepting a plate of chicken and mole prepared for the occasion.
Still hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of these projects on the landscape, I return to Epapa, in a different part of the Bobos-Nautla River Basin, where the earlier meeting took place. There are projects planned here as well, and construction has begun on a road to access the river. During a recent heavy rain the road gave out, leaving a scar a hundred yards wide that’s plainly visible from the bottom of the canyon as Ignacio , a local teacher, shows me around. As we stroll through the ferny, orchid-laden forest, crossing the Jalacingo River on a makeshift log bridge to the spot where he and a group of families used to raise trout and serve them to visitors on Sundays, he kicks aside overgrown vegetation to reveal markers of the pipeline’s proposed path and the site of a future power station.
In front of the landslide, a high-tension electric wire is thrown into sharp relief against the ocher earth. Although this place feels remote, surrounded by quiet groves of sycamore and sweetgum, the hydropower developers will not have to travel far to connect to the grid and export energy to distant sites. A peculiar feature of Mexico’s electricity market actually makes it possible to trace energy through contracts between hydro projects and industrial consumers. In this case, the patron is a mining consortium from the state of Puebla. Elsewhere, Walmart, airports, and textile manufacturers fill out the list of clients for the dozens of projects now under construction.
Ignacio tells me that when the hill gave out, it destroyed the pipe that carries water from a spring up the canyon to the several dozen homes that comprise Epapa. We hike to the water source where he and other members of the town’s “water committee” built the infrastructure that connects the spring to the village. We mark the point with a GPS for use in a legal injunction to halt construction, and placing it on a map against the planned hydropower infrastructure I can see why there is reason to be concerned: the spring would be surrounded by diversion tunnels that could alter the flows that sustain it. Although this risk is vehemently denied by the company behind the project, the Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the claim brought by Epapa and their allies, ordering a halt to construction.
Like Epapa, each community in these mountains has running water thanks to the efforts of self-organized water committees. When I speak with those who run the organizations—mostly older men—they talk of the struggles of building and maintaining the systems. But there is joy in their accomplishment, as well.
Committee members from nearby Hueytamalco invite me to join them on a maintenance visit to their water source. After making our way into the hills to the spot where cool, clear water fills a concrete tank the size of a small swimming pool, we recline and enjoy a picnic of pork tacos. When lunch is over, I watch as they gently, methodically flush leaf litter and sediment out of the tank. As we follow the pipe down the mountain, opening tiny holes that vent air bubbles and spray us like a breaching whale, a committee member asks, “Can you believe they want to take this away from us?”
Schematically, the water systems built by these committees and the plans of hydropower developers are not entirely dissimilar. Each diverts water from its natural flow into a pipeline where the force of gravity carries it to its new destiny. Yet there is a difference of scale: in the former, the pipes are no more than six inches wide. For the latter, the pipes can be more than six feet wide—enough to capture the entire flow of the Jalacingo River during the dry winter months. And then there is the fact that hydropower diversion systems would cut across this landscape with seeming indifference to the lines that already exist to carry water to communities. This comparison was suggested to me by a member of another water committee as we visited his community’s water system. “Nature is here for man to exploit. We exploit this spring. How? By bringing water to the community for life: to drink, to cook, to bathe, to water our plants. But it’s for us. With these projects, it’s all going to be for someone else. . . . I wish the government had come and said, ‘This project is for the community. Here are the technicians (técnicos). Develop it with them.’”
The days in Epapa pass slowly. Antonia, my host, has been at the forefront of local opposition to the hydropower projects, which have divided the community. She complains frequently about the “traitors” in the village, those who she claims have “signed with the company” hoping to receive a payout when the project is completed. My naive attempts to hear more sides to the story are constantly hindered by my association with her, so I spend the hot afternoons compiling documents—environmental impact assessments, contracts for sale of energy, water use permits, regional plans, and maps. In the cool of the evening, I drift into the street with Antonia’s younger relatives, where they show me music videos on their phones and we swat a badminton birdie until dark. Overhead, migrating dragonflies—libélulas, they tell me—float past the houses and down into the valley at the center of all this conflict. The only interruption to our game comes from an unmarked silver pickup driven by a técnico from the hydropower company, returning from the river. In the front seat we can see one of Aurora’s uncles—everyone here is related—president of the water committee, but evidently now a “traitor” as well. They glare at me as they pass.
It is tempting to conclude that communities should have more say in decisions about energy projects that threaten to disrupt their everyday lives and alter the landscapes they call home. But I know this is overly simplistic. How can a community’s voice be heard when its voices are many, and contradict one another? How can we resolve the differences between those who say a river is an integral part of their territory that should never be exploited by outsiders, and those who seek to make the most of the decisions that have already been made by those in power?
I believe there is a middle ground between “clean energy at any cost” and unflinching opposition to anything that resembles a dam. The question posed by the water committee member above points in this direction: Why couldn’t these projects be designed and operated with community input? Why couldn’t the energy generated be used to create jobs locally instead of being exported to mines and maquilas elsewhere? Energy systems must be transformed away from the use of fossil fuels—you will find no argument against that here. But the technological challenge is just the beginning. The bigger question remains: How can renewable energy be used to create a more just region, not to mention a more just world?
Header photo is a canal on the left side of the river that diverts water for a nearby town. Opponents claim the hydropower projects would damage this system. Photo by Noah Silber-Coats.