Future: Three Ashaninka men in the village of Boca Anapate, where local people are prepared to fight to protect their land and communities (Picture: Graeme Green)
‘We will use guns, knives or whatever else to defend Pakitzapango,’ says Nancy Carbolico, chief of the Ashaninka village Pamakiari, deep in the Peruvian Amazon. ‘We are completely against the dam. Even the grandfathers and grandmothers, everyone will go and fight so they don’t build the dam.’
It’s taken eight hours to travel up the Ene River to Pamakiari by small motorboat. On the way, Paula Acevedo from the organisation Central Ashaninka del Río Ene (Care) points out the spot in the river where energy companies propose the construction of a 165-metre-high hydroelectric dam. ‘They [Ashaninka] won’t have a place to live,’ she says. ‘There’s huge concern about the consequences of building the dam.’
The Pakitzapango Dam is one of five such proposed structures in the Ene River area, part of a larger plan to build more than 60 dams in the Brazilian, Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon over the next two decades. Pakitzapango alone could produce up to 2,000 megawatts of energy a year, with most of it exported to Brazil.
According to its opponents, some 734sq km of forest and arable land would be flooded, with ten Ashaninka communities (more than 10,000 people) displaced, their food supplies and livelihoods destroyed.
‘The children are going to suffer because of the dam,’ says Carbolico. ‘We live from fishing. We’re not going to have fish to eat. Maybe if we go to another place, we’ll die. We’re going to defend ourselves, our village.’
Brazilian energy company Eletrobras is behind the dam projects in Brazil and Peru, with construction company Odebrecht said to be lined up to conduct pre-feasibility studies in Pakitzapango.
Eletrobras declined to answer any questions, while a spokesperson for Odebrecht issued a statement claiming it is impossible to know what the effect of the dam would be without conducting studies. However, the Ashaninka believe if companies are allowed to conduct studies, construction of the dam would quickly follow, regardless of the findings. They are against any attempts by the companies to come on to their land.
The Ashaninka have already lost their land once. In the 1980s and 1990s, during Peru’s civil war between government forces and Maoist guerrilla group, Shining Path, around 6,000 Ashaninka were killed, 12,000 disappeared and 15,000 displaced.
Parallels have been drawn between the civil war and the fight against the dams (Picture: Graeme Green)
Mario Chirisenti, another community leader at Pamakiari, lost his parents when he was 15. He draws a direct parallel between the conflict and the dam: both forced the Ashaninka off their land. ‘My parents were killed in the civil war,’ he says. ‘People were forced to move. Now we have things here – our lives, schools, medical centre. It’s unfair if we have to move again. The activities we do here – hunting, fishing – if the dam is built, none of this will be possible.’
I travel further upriver to Boca Anapate. Village chief Gamaniel Lopez is equally determined to stay. ‘I’m worried about my grandchildren,’ he says. ‘I remember in the 1980s, the violence and terrorism, and now this. The people who are going to build the dam don’t care but it’s us who will suffer. If they build the dam, we have nowhere else to go.’
Lopez objects to the idea that Odebrecht or other companies would help the communities. Even if the Ashaninka were offered money to move, he says they would refuse. ‘We don’t want to move to another place,’ he says. ‘We want to stay here. There are no people who’ve come here offering economic support. But we don’t want it, even if they do offer. We know that money ends but this land does not.’
Back in the town of Satipo, I meet Ruth Buendia, president of Care. She says: ‘What’s being done is illegal. We have documents that say the Ashaninka own the land. We own the titles to the land.’
The Ashaninka have the legal right to say ‘no’ to the dam, Buendia argues. But despite claims from Odebrecht that local communities would be involved in any process, and Peru ratifying laws requiring the consultation of indigenous peoples on issues that affect them, Buendia says the Ashaninka have never been consulted.
Rainforest Foundation UK has launched a campaign to stop the dam. If legal strategies fail, the Ashaninka are prepared to risk their lives to defend the river. ‘If we have to, we will use force,’ Buendia says passionately. ‘We don’t want fighting but if this will be the last chance to stop the dam, we will fight.’