El Bala Hydroelectric Project: On the Table Again

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Bolivia's Madidi National Park

Bolivia’s Madidi National Park

The Beni River, part of the Madeira Drainage in Bolivia, is home to one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, including the Pilón Largas and Madidi National Parks. The region is inhabited by 424 species of flora, 201 species of terrestrial mammals, 652 species of birds, 483 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 515 species of fish. The area is also home to Indigenous communities, including Tsimanes, Tacanas, Mosetenes, and Uchupiamonas peoples, and rural farmers.

As far back as the 1950s, dam engineers proposed building a hydroelectric dam in the El Bala Narrows. After years of debate, the proposed El Bala Hydroelectric Project was stopped in 1998 due to local opposition and international studies.

Now, twenty years later, the government of Bolivia appears resolute to proceed once again with the Bala Project, which includes the El Chepete and El Bala dams.  

“We are going to build the project, it is in our agenda,” stated Bolivia’s Ministry of Energy Rafael Alarcón, in March 2017. The energy produced by the two dams is primarily intended for export to Brazil. 

If built, this project would flood portions of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, yet the project has not disclosed its impacts to biodiversity. Biologist Enrique Richard of Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz says the project will affect the fragile natural cycle of a section of Amazonia, known for its diversity, and would cause environmental disequilibrium that will accentuate the effects of climate change throughout the region. 

More than 5,000 people would face relocation, yet downstream communities have not yet been consulted. 

Tourism would also be affected, as close to 30,000 tourists (domestic and foreign) visit the parks annually, generating up to $15 million in yearly revenues for community economic development initiatives.

Geodata, an Italian engineering company, was granted the contract to develop the feasibility studies for El Bala hydroelectric project and then, without a bidding process, was awarded the contract for the final design of the project. 

Bolivian protestors speak out to protect the Beni River

Bolivian protestors speak out to protect the Beni River

Thankfully, Bolivian activists are standing up to protect the Beni River and communities from these dams. Pablo Solón is a former UN Ambassador and negotiator on climate change, and a principal investigator with the Bolivian Center for Information and Documentation. He sent a letter on July 11 to government officials demanding an investigation into the contracts between the National Electricity Company of Bolivia and Geodata to identify possible economic harm to Bolivia.

Solón points out that the El Bala and El Chepete dams will not be profitable under current electricity prices. Geodata itself recommends postponing project development until the project economics are more favorable. Solón is calling for an investigation to determine how much economic damage would occur due to the planned project, determine responsible parties, and initiate legal proceedings. 

Now, however, the Bolivian government is lashing out at these river defenders, threatening both Solón and his colleague Rafael Archondo with legal charges. These charges are clearly meant to silence Bolivian leaders who are speaking out to protect Bolivia’s rivers.  

These charges are unfortunately part of a global trend criminalizing environmental defenders and water protectors who speak out for Indigenous People’s rights and the protection of natural resources. Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, has called on the international community to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to violence against environmental human rights defenders. 

The Bolivian government should immediately drop all charges against Pablo Solón and Rafael Archondo. Instead, it should review Solón’s and Archondo’s findings about the El Bala and El Chepete dams and investigate alternatives that will better serve Bolivia’s people, economy and environment.