By David Agren
It’s a public works project of the grandest scale.
La Parota, a massive hydroelectric development 28 kilometers northeast of Acapulco, is projected to produce at least 765 megawatts of power, enough to light up the entire state of Guerrero for an entire year.
Its curtain is to tower 162 meters over the Papagayo River and its reservoir will flood more than 17,000 hectares, an area 10 times the size of the Bay of Acapulco.
The dam is also supposed to create 10,000 construction jobs, ensure a steady supply of drinking water for rapidly growing Acapulco and increase economic development in a marginalized region populated by subsistence farmers.
For the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), La Parota is a crown jewel in a string of high-profile projects meant to produce clean energy and help power the ambitious economic growth plans envisaged by the federal government.
There’s just one problem: The dam is expected to displace hundreds of small farms, many of which are organized as ejidos, the communal properties distributed to landless campesinos following the Mexican Revolution. And the farmers, or ejiditarios, don’t want to leave.
In the past dozen years, machete-wielding ejiditarios have derailed several high-profile development projects, including a $300-million golf course development in Tepotzlán, Morelos and a new airport for Mexico City in Atenco, State of Mexico.
But in the case of La Parota, a group of residents from the village of Cacahuatepec have opted for law books rather than machetes.
And in a story evoking the tale of David versus Goliath, the farmers took CFE to court and won an injunction in September against the dam, successfully arguing that the Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) and the National Water Commission (CNA) improperly granted permits for the project.
On Nov. 7, however, federal Judge Livia Lizbeth Larumbe Radilla reversed her decision, ruling that the laws permitting the dam’s construction would not directly deprive the complainants’ access to their land and water.
The villagers and their lawyers plan to appeal.
“We’re now in the second round of the game,” said Xavier Martínez, an environment lawyer with the civil rights firm that argued the landholders’ case.
Still, he called the judge’s original decision to halt construction “unprecedented,” and said the dam was not being impeded by the courts, “but a social movement.”
The CFE is not likely to walk away from the $800-million dam project - despite the legal roadblocks. Its crews have not yet returned to the La Parota site, according to Martínez.
Even so, say experts, the precedent set by the villagers of Cacahuatepec could complicate future large-scale infrastructure projects that require relocating established communities.
“Previously, the state would throw all of its weight behind the construction of these types of projects and nothing could be done about it,” said Arturo Pueblita Fernández, a law professor at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.
“Now there’s more openness and an attempt to avoid social conflicts. Therefore, it could be the case that construction on this project might never happen.”
The ongoing legal complications surrounding La Parota – and conceivably at other locations in the future – could complicate the economic growth objectives of President Felipe Calderón, who in September won congressional approval for a fiscal reform overhaul that was designed, in large part, to help overhaul the country’s sagging infrastructure.
Three decades in the works
The CFE first proposed building La Parota in 1976 on the Papagayo River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean southeast of Acapulco on the Costa Chica, a thinly populated and underdeveloped region known for its Afro-Mexican inhabitants.
The rugged hills of Guerrero, home to some of the nation’s poorest communities, have spawned numerous armed uprisings against the federal government. Its populace includes the People’s Revolutionary Army, or EPR, a long-standing Marxist guerilla group that has made recent headlines with a series of attacks on Pemex gas pipelines. According to lawyers working in the region, it is instinctive for Guerrero’s marginalized populations to fight back when encroached upon by outsiders.
The La Parota project, however, received little attention until CFE construction crews arrived unannounced in 2003. Then, a local movement to fight the dam was formed almost immediately.
Mario Patrón, a lawyer with the Guerrero-based Centro Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, worked with some of the residents fighting the dam. He said the locals’ determination to stay put grew even stronger as they learned of the impact of previous public works projects, including hydroelectric developments in Nayarit and the Mexico City-Acapulco highway, which displaced thousands after opening in 1989.
“At La Parota, an opposition movement was generated because … they’ve known that hydroelectric projects don’t bring development for those that get relocated,” Patrón explained.
“The campesinos said that they didn’t want to be kicked off their land and leave for [Acapulco] where they would be working in some bad-paying menial job.”
Despite a clause in the Constitution requiring compensation for land expropriations, the CFE has never made “a firm offer” to any of the impacted landholders, he added.
CFE spokesman Gerardo Cubos declined to comment on La Parota, citing the ongoing legal actions.
However, in comments published by the Mexico City daily El Universal shortly after construction was halted in September, CFE manager Gerardo Cruz Velázquez acknowledged to a business audience in Acapulco that the CFE fell short in pitching La Parota-area residents on the virtues of relocating.
He also accused international rights groups protesting against La Parota of being naïve to the situation in Guerrero and the dam’s potential benefits.
“It doesn’t interest them that people [here] eat nothing more than a tortilla with chilies once a day and they have to carry water jugs on their heads from the river to their homes,” Cruz Velázquez said.
Two United Nations representatives visited the impacted area in early September and expressed dissatisfaction with the CFE’s attention to transparency and human rights.
A recent Amnesty International study also expressed concerns. According to its August 2007 report, intimidation has been rife in the area and three people have been killed. In one of the killings, an opponent of the dam, Eduardo Maya Manrique, was dragged from his home by three unidentified men and stoned to death in January 2006, according to the report. No one has been charged in the matter.
The report also questioned the true number of people the dam would impact.
According to the CFE, approximately 3,000 people would have to be relocated, but Patrón put the figure at closer to 75,000, explaining that the CFE failed to account for residents indirectly impacted by the dam and its reservoir.
Even properties not submerged could be negatively impacted, he added. Two settlements, for example, would become islands. In other places, ground water would become scarce. The Papagayo River would also be permanently impacted.
The CFE’s website provides little information about the dam, its potential impact and prospects for future completion, although it boasted of other large ongoing and recently completed projects on the Santiago River in the western state of Nayarit.
Regardless of whether La Parota is ever completed, the ongoing judicial action in Guerrero is likely to have a significant impact on future public works projects undertaken by the federal government, said Martínez, the environmental lawyer involved in the farmers’ case.
“They just can't keep on building projects like the way they were,” he said.
SIDEBAR: When machetes beat back development
In July 2002, local farmers in San Salvador Atenco, backed by left-wing, anarchist and anti-globalization groups, fought with police for three days over a government plan to build a $2.3-billion airport in their town.
The airport would have taken over approximately 10,000 acres of land in 13 villages in the municipality outside Mexico City. In exchange, the farmers were to be paid $3,000 per acre as compensation, but the locals rejected the offer and took to the streets with machetes in hand.
Dozens of people were injured in the ensuing clashes. Nineteen public officials were taken hostage and later exchanged for imprisoned farmers in an act that critics said rewarded violence.
The government later raised its compensation offer to an amount reportedly seven-times the initial bid, but the farmers rejected it.
Finally, two weeks into the showdown, Transportation Secretary Pedro Cerisola announced the government was abandoning plans to build the airport in Atenco.
Tepoztlán, Morelos, 1995:
Golf Course Inflames Mexico Town
The News, with files from The New York Times News Service
A coalition of campesinos, small-business owners and environmentalists in this town south of Mexico City reacted violently in August 1995 after the municipal government approved a golf course development and industrial park in an ecologically sensitive area.
After 12 days of unrest – during which time the protesters beat back riot police with rocks and barbed wire, seized hostages and occupied city hall – the mayor backed down and promptly resigned.
Some Tepoztlán residents had accused Mayor Alejandro Morales Barragan of rubber-stamping the development project behind their backs.
Opposition to the projects drew together an unusual alliance of affluent people, who wanted to preserve the town's character, and villagers suspicious of the promises of foreign corporations.
Tepoztlán has become a favorite weekend retreat of Mexico City's wealthy elite. But many of its 13,000 residents still cling to the village's peasant traditions.
Development backers balked at suggestions their plans would have ruined the town, explaining that the project would have created more than 9,000 construction-related jobs and nearly 3,000 permanent service jobs. The land, they added, was indeed located inside of a national park, but was privately-owned. Environmental impact studies had also been completed.