Community Defenders Celebrate 4th Anniversary Blockade of Proposed Hydroelectric Project on Oaxacan Coast

October 3, 2013

Guest post by Jonathan Treat. Photos are by the author.

This post is also available in Spanish.

Introductory note from the author:  I had the pleasure and privilege recently of writing about a happy and inspiring event celebrating the anniversary of nonviolent resistance to a proposed hydroelectric that would directly and very negatively affect 43 community on the Oaxacan coast.  Unfortunately, some of the communities who have led that resistance recently have been hard-hit by torrential rains and extensive flooding.  At least 40 homes in Paso de la Reyna alone--including those of many interviewed in the article--have been flooded.  I urge readers to send much needed and much deserved support to these communities that for 4 years now have been courageously commited to nonviolent struggle in spite of threats and considerable risk. Information on how to do this is at the bottom of the article.

This photo essay is dedicated to the memory of community defender and environmental activist Noé Vázquez, who was brutally murdered on Aug. 2, 2013 as he was preparing for his hosting of the opening ceremony for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Mexican Movement of Men and Women Affected by Dams and in the Defense of Rivers (MAPDER) http://www.mapder.lunasexta.org.

The blockade is simple, but its implications profound. A thick steel chain across the only bridge entering the small town of Paso de la Reina, municipality of Santiago Jamiltepec of roughly 500 residents on Oaxaca´s southwestern coast, is attended daily by men and women who prevent the entry of anyone connected with a proposed hydroelectric dam project on the Rio Verde.  And for four years that strategy has been successful.

Fidel Heas Cruz, resident of Paso de la Reina and member of COPUDEVER at blockade

Local community defenders, together with people from other communities and members of Counsel of Peoples United for the Defense of the Rio Verde (COPUDEVER), came together recently at El Zanate, a lush green riverside site near the entrance to the town, to celebrate the fourth anniversary of their ongoing, nonviolent blockade, and their success in halting the project to date.

“We´re here to celebrate this successful and peaceful blockade.  Since we decided to put up the blockade at the entrance to our ejido (communal land holding) in July 2009 to prevent anyone from the CFE (Federal Electric Commission) from entering to do their surveys and studies for the project, none of them has been able to do that work.  So this is a very significant day, celebrating with our compañeros our decision to put the first stone in the way of the dam project,” explained Eva Castellanos Mendoza, local community activist and a member of COPUDEVER.  “And it’s a triumph.  The blockade has worked.  If it hadn´t been here, I think the CFE would have completed their work and probably started with construction of the dam.”

Engineers from the Mexican Federal Electric Commission (CFE), surveyors and government officials, at times accompanied by police, have all tried on various occasions to pass the blockade—each time without success.  CFE engineers even tried to conduct surveys for the project by skirting the blockade and coming upriver in an inflatable motorboat.  Townspeople on watch noted their surreptitious attempt and called together a community commission, who confronted them and escorted them out of town—without their boat and surveying instruments.

“They were almost ready to cry because we’d kept their boat and their equipment,” explained Manuel Sánchez Riaño.  “They were pleading with us, saying how expensive it was.  We gave it all back to them, but told them not to come back.

Manuel Sánchez Riaño, Paso de la Reina resident and member of COPUDEVER

The proposed Mexican government´s CFE “Paso de la Reina Multiple Uses Hydraulic Project“ would have far reaching impacts beyond that community.  The Rio Verde, site of the proposed dam, is one of the most biologically diverse and extensive river basins in the state of Oaxaca.  And if constructed, the project would directly impact 17,000 residents and indirectly affect another 97,000 in 43 mixteco, chatino, afromexican and mestizo communities in six coastal regions. Vast areas of fertile agricultural lands and access to water sources would be lost, and community defenders and environmentalists argue that the project would be devastating to the local biodiversity of flora and fauna of the region, including the National Park, Lagunas de Chacahua.

Opponents of the proposed hydroelectric project note that in addition to the negative environmental impacts, the loss of agricultural lands would deprive residents of agricultural and fishing areas, forcing many to migrate–often ripping communities’ cultural and social fabric.  Hence the ongoing and widespread opposition to the project.