January 2, 2006

Mexico peasants take up machetes against Acapulco dam

By Catherine Bremer

ARROYO VERDE, Mexico (Reuters) - A two-hour Jeep ride
inland from Acapulco, with its fast-food chains and high-rise
seafront hotels, Gregorio Garcia's family lives a simpler life
in the tropical forest of southwestern Mexico.

A stream provides water, the soil bursts with squash and
fruit trees and the forest provides fuel and medicinal leaves.
Lunch is thick maize tortillas, salted deer meat, fresh chile
sauce and coconut milk. Even the air smells sweet.

Yet this tiny paradise could soon be nearly 500 feet (150
m) underwater in the basin of a huge dam that will power new
floodlit, air-conditioned hotels as Acapulco expands.

"They say the dam will bring benefits, but not for us. We
will be completely under water," Garcia said, his black eyes
glistening with anger as he sat by his roomy adobe and wood
home surrounded by pigs, goats and giggling children.

Due to be completed in 2012, La Parota will be one of
Mexico's biggest dams, flooding swathes of forest and
subsistence farmland around the Papagayo River with a basin ten
times the size of Acapulco's famous bay.

The $1 billion project has sparked violent clashes, leaving
at least two dead as it pits those set to be flushed out of
their ancestral lands against villagers living around the dam
site, who have been swayed by promises of jobs, tarmac roads
and new schools.

Sparring among "for" and "against" camps is on the rise. In
December a man had a hand hacked off and his face slashed.

In hamlets like Arroyo Verde, crops are being neglected as
men armed with machetes spend days and nights manning
roadblocks to keep engineers out. In bigger villages,
cinderblock houses are daubed with anti-dam slogans.

"It's quiet here, there's no alcohol or drugs. You can't
put a price on it. We will fight to be left in peace. If we
have to die to defend our rights we will," said Garcia, whose
father founded Arroyo Verde as a young man.

Mexico's federal electricity provider, the CFE, says 16 out
of 19 affected communities in Guerrero, one of Mexico's poorest
states, have signed in favor of the dam at local meetings.

Once the rest are on board, it will launch the project and
start moving the peasants to new homes elsewhere, it says.

But human rights lawyers say the meetings were rigged.
Peasants who oppose the dam say local political bosses offered
cash for signatures and used armed police to keep them away.

"They offered me money but I wouldn't sign. What they are
doing is not legal," said elderly farmer Martiniano Luna, in
the village of Oaxaquillas.


The 900 megawatt dam would boost Mexico's power supply as
national demand grows, especially in Acapulco and Mexico City.
Central America is also keen to buy Mexican electricity.

"We need hydroelectric projects and La Parota will benefit
Acapulco and give locals a better quality of life. We have to
convince them," said CFE project coordinator Umberto Marengo.

Mexico generates nearly a quarter of its electricity from
hydroelectric dams, and plans to build dozens more.

Yet globally the tide of opposition to dams is growing.

Worldwide 40 million-80 million people have been displaced
by some 45,000 large dams, according to the World Commission on
Dams, something critics say cannot be justified given the
average lifespan of a dam is just 50 years.

Dams can drive away downstream river communities too as
rivers are plugged for up to two years to fill the basin. Once
dammed, rivers can be reduced to a dirty trickle below the
basin and can sporadically flood to dangerous levels.

Marengo denied the Papagayo would be cut off. The CFE says
La Parota will displace 3,000 people, while opposition groups
put the figure at 25,000 with many more at risk downstream.

Countless animal and plant species from armadillos to
tamarind trees will also be drowned.

If forced off their land Guerrero's peasants face
unemployment and rejection elsewhere. Rights workers fear their
children could end up selling sex on the back streets of
Acapulco, a fast growing resort city of 1 million people.

"These people are rich in the sense of what they derive
from their soil but not once you put them in an urban setting,"
said International Rivers Network campaigner Monti Aguirre.

The CFE says it will give displaced peasants new houses
elsewhere but has yet to say where or discuss compensation.

It says those living around the dam will benefit from a
34,600-acre (14,000-hectare) freshwater basin that could be
used for fishing and boating trips for tourists. And the dam
will produce water for Acapulco, which brims with thirsty golf

Yet many here don't see that as a reason to leave their
livelihoods, history and buried dead to become sediment in a
dam basin.

"There is no way and nowhere for us to go. My umbilical
cord is buried here," said Barbara Hernandez, 22, breaking into
sobs in Aguas Calientes, referring to an indigenous custom.

Behind her, a mural depicted armed revolutionary peasant
hero Emiliano Zapata and the message "La Tierra No Se Vende"
("Land Is Not For Sale").

Yet dams are highly profitable, and indigenous peasants are
rarely a match for wealthy investors.

"La Parota is for tourist resorts and golf courses in
Acapulco," said human rights lawyer Priscila Rodriguez. "The
peasants just get to pay the price."