A Mega-Dam Dilemma in the Amazon

A huge dam on Peru’s Inambari River will bring much-needed development to the region. But at what cost?

The dam, to be built at the confluence of the Inambari and Araza rivers, is one of dozens expected to power South America's economic ascent. (Ivan Kashinsky)
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A demonstration against Brazil’s proposed Belo Monte dam in March 2010 brought worldwide attention thanks to the film director James Cameron, who went to Brazil to dramatize comparisons between the Amazon and the world depicted in his blockbuster Avatar. In Peru, Inambari dam critics are now accusing the government of selling out the country’s resources and violating indigenous people’s rights. Last March in Puno province, where most of the reservoir created by the dam will sit, 600 people turned out near the dam site, blocking roads and shutting down businesses.

Nevertheless, development of the interior has become a sort of state religion, and political candidates compete to see who can promise the most public works and new jobs. Billboards along the Interoceanic Highway, which will soon link Brazil’s Atlantic coast to Peru’s Pacific coast, some 3,400 miles, display side-by-side photographs of the road pre- and post-asphalt and bear captions like “Before: Uncertainty; After: The Future.”

President García has spoken forcefully against indigenous and environmental groups that oppose projects like the Inambari dam. “There are many unused resources that cannot be traded, that do not receive investment and do not create jobs,” he wrote in a controversial 2007 op-ed in El Comercio, a Lima newspaper. “And all this because of the taboo of past ideologies, idleness, laziness or the law of the dog in the manger that says, ‘If I do not do it, then let no one do it’ ”—a reference to a Greek fable about a hound that refuses to let an ox eat a bale of hay, even though the dog can’t eat it himself.

Last June, García vetoed a bill that would have given local tribes a say in oil and gas projects on their territory. He told reporters he would not give local people veto power over national resources. Peru, he said, “is for all Peruvians.”

Even in the Peruvian Amazon, the dam enjoys wide support. A poll of local business leaders in the Puno region found that 61 percent were in favor of it.

On my fourth day on the Inambari, I met Albino Mosquipa Sales, the manager of a hotel in the town of Mazuco, just downriver from the dam site. “On the whole it is a good thing,” he said of the dam. “It will bring economic benefits like jobs and commerce,” plus a new hospital promised by the state electrical company. Mosquipa’s caveats were mostly procedural: Lima should have consulted with local populations more, he said, and the regional government should have pushed harder for concessions from the dam builders. It was a line of complaint I heard often. People questioned whether the electricity should go to Brazil, but not whether the dam should be built.

Eventually I made it to Puente Inambari, a postage-stamp-size village of perhaps 50 buildings that will be destroyed when the dam is built. I had expected to find anger. What I found was enthusiasm.

Graciela Uscamaita, a young woman in a yellow long-sleeved shirt, was sitting in a doorstep by the side of the road. Her four young boys played beside her. Like virtually everyone I had met on the trip, she had the dark skin and prominent cheekbones of an Andean highlander. And, like the other local residents I talked to, she was happy about the hospital and the new houses the government has offered to build them farther uphill. In the meantime, there was the possibility of getting a job on a construction crew. “It will be better for us,” she said. “It will bring work.”

Clay Risen wrote about President Lyndon Johnson for the April 2008 issue of Smithsonian. Ivan Kashinsky photographed the Colombian flower industry for the February 2011 issue.


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