Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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The Inambari Dam

| Journey Latin America website: Papagaio magazine


When Hylton Murray-Phillipson, the green financier, writes to me, I sit up and take notice. Five years ago he invited me to stay with his friend Tashka for a long weekend. I was delighted to accept, though the logistics of the trip were complicated. Tashka is the paramount chief of the Yawanawa tribe.

The Yawanawa tribe live in the heart of the Amazon forest, in the state of Acre, Brazil, not far from the Brazil-Peru border. Hylton and I flew from London to São Paulo, then on to Rio Branco, the capital of Acre. Then we took a small plane to Tarauaca, landing in a grassy clearing in the jungle. After that we canoed up stream for a couple of days before reaching Tashka’s village. Some weekend!

That Yawanawa excursion wasn’t just a jaunt. On my return I wrote an article for a national newspaper about how the Brazilian authorities were proposing to tarmac the BR364 all the way from Rio Branco to the border with Peru. The highway, I reported, would have a severe impact on the Yawanawa tribe, whose territory was virtually adjacent.

Inambari DamNow Hylton was writing to me about another threat to the Amazon: the projected Inambari Dam in Peru. The Inambari dam was to be the first of a series of dams in the Peruvian Amazon to be financed by Brazil with by far the largest part of the hydroelectric energy generated being exported direct to Brazil. The dam, producing 2000 MW, would be the fifth largest in the whole of South America.

I rang up our obliging travel-agent. Could she give us one more day in the Peruvian Amazon?

Laura sounded sceptical. “Are you sure you can get from the lodge to the dam-site and back all in one day? That’s a lot of ground to cover in that part of the world.”

To tell the truth, for virtually the whole of my life I have been fascinated by the Amazon. In my gap-year, I criss-crossed Brazil, ending up in Brasilia at a time when the city, which is now the nation’s capital, was just a red scar in the jungle. I must have been back to the Brazilian Amazon half a dozen times since then. The lure of those great rivers and the seemingly endless forest is irresistible.

“I’ll give it a go” I replied.

In the event, landslides and torrential rain in the Andes earlier this year, forced us to delay our trip to Peru. My wife and I landed in Lima around 6pm on March 29th. Alfredo Novoa-Peña, who had been alerted via email by Hylton, met us in our hotel around 9pm.

Given the time-difference between London and Lima and the fact that we had changed planes in Madrid, Jenny and I had been travelling for around 19 hours so we were perhaps not at our most sparkling. Alfredo made up for it.

A former Peruvian ambassador to Germany, and now president of the Peruvian renewable-energy association, he was clearly himself renewably energized by the prospect of the looming battle. As we sat in the lobby, sipping our first Pisco Sour of the trip, he expanded on the briefing Hylton Murray-Phillipson had previously supplied. Brazil and Peru had already signed a memorandum of understanding, allowing Brazil to study, finance, build and operate six hydroelectric plants in Peru, including the Inambari dam, with most of the energy destined for Brazil, but many Peruvians were opposed to it. As far as the Inambari dam itself was concerned, 40,000 hectares or 400 km² of land would be flooded, including part of the buffer zone of one of Peru’s most important national parks. Up to 12,000 persons would be displaced. The downstream effect of the dam on the flow of the river had still to be assessed. Above all, Alfredo rejected the whole concept that Brazil could somehow buy up the Peruvian Amazon and exploit it for its own benefit.

He told me: “We do not want, we will not accept, we firmly reject the Brazilian model for the Amazon region. Over my dead body are we going to allow that. My youngest granddaughter is my inspiration. I am speaking on her behalf.”

Early next morning, my wife and I took the plane to Puerto Maldonado. Though there had been clouds over the Andes, which we had to cross on the way from Lima, as we began our descent into the selva, the vast green forest that is Peru’s Amazonian territory, the weather cleared. Looking out of the window at the landscape below, I began to understand what the fuss was all about. One of the reasons that this issue of hydroelectric power in Peru’s ‘high forest’ has become a political hot-potato, is because Peru has so many potentially excellent dam-sites, conveniently located on rivers which debouch from the steep mountain valleys onto the plains. From an engineering point of view, you can get a big bang for your buck.

Inambari DamIf Alfredo Novoa-Peña, and his allies, are convinced that Peru is making the wrong decision, that the sale of these precious natural resources to finance the explosive growth of its big neighbour, Brazil, cannot be justified, others take a different view. Peru, they say, is a poor country. It cannot afford to pass up a major economic opportunity and the resulting revenues which will flow into national coffers. A stable source of hydro-electric power can also, they argue, transform the lives of thousands of people living in the towns, villages and settlements of Peru’s Amazon region.

Around 7am the morning after our arrival at the lodge, I took the boat back upstream to Puerto Maldonado where Naturaleza, Brazil’s vigorous and well-respected nature protection organization, has an office. Forewarned by Alfredo, the director of the Puerto Maldonado office, Hector Vilchez, welcomed me warmly. I was left in no doubt that his team viewed the Inambari project with the greatest misgivings. But his English wasn’t good enough, nor was my Spanish, for prolonged conversation. Fortunately, Hector Vilchez had designated a young Peruvuian anthropologist, Daniel Valencia Samamé, to act as my guide and interpreter.

By 10am, Daniel and I had left Puerto Maldonado to head in a more or less south-westerly direction on the road to the Inambari dam site. If I had been expecting a rough track slicing through the forest, I was agreeably surprised. Though single-track, the road was tarmacked and for the most part in good condition. Every few kilometres, huge billboards had been erected. “CORREDOR VIAL INTEROCEÁNICO SUR : PERU – BRASIL!” the signs grandly announced.

Daniel explained: “This is going to be the route of the great Inter-Oceanic Highway which will connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. In Peru, the work has already started. But the bridge over the river in Puerto Maldonado still has to be built. And in Brazil, the road to the border still has to be completed.”

Suddenly, it all became clear to me. When Hylton and I had been visiting the Yawanawa a few years earlier, we had been campaigning against the hard-topping of the BR364 and the damage it might do to the indigenous populations in the area. Now I realized that the BR364 was not just a Brazilian road. It was a vital section of the Inter-Oceanic Highway!

I found myself looking at the road we were travelling on in a whole new light. Imagine, I said to myself, that the Brazilians actually complete their stretch of road; imagine that the bridge is built at Puerto Maldonado; imagine that Peru in turn continues to upgrade the highway to the coast. What would there be then to stop hundreds of lorries thundering along each day laden with logs and trees as they head from the interior of Brazil to Peru’s Pacific ports? The Japanese, I thought, and other Asian economies with their insatiable demand for tropical timber, must be beside themselves with joy at the prospect. As for the potential impact of the road on the rates of Amazon deforestation, well, the prospect was almost too hideous to contemplate. Up till now, all timber from the Amazon has to be exported to the Atlantic coast of South America. If you opened up the Pacific export route, you might as well put a match to the forest and have done with it.

We reached Inambari around 2pm. Daniel and I stood on the bridge across the river, at precisely the spot where there new dam will be constructed if the project is given the go-ahead. It was – no doubt about it – a stunning location. Two great rivers meet here, flowing in from two separate Andean valleys. It seemed to my untutored eye that a relatively simple structure, a few hundred feet long, would permit the impounding of a great wall of water with massive hydroelectric potential.

I permitted myself the first joke of the day. “From a technical point of view, Daniel, this dam site is a damn sight better than some other places I’ve seen.”

But of course, as Daniel was quick to point out, this was not really a laughing matter.

Inambari DamIn a few weeks’ time the Brazilian government will have to give its final decision on the Inambari dam. By then, presumably, it will have the benefit of the environmental impact study it has commissioned. People like Alfredo Novoa-Peña are sceptical.

“They have only spent US $200,000 dollars on the study. A serious study would cost at least $2 million.”

Will the environmental impact assessment factor in all the elements associated with the loss of 40,000 hectares of tropical forest? Will it take into account the transformation that will be wrought by the arrival in the area of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of workers? Will it look ahead, beyond Inambari, to the construction of other dams in the Peruvian Amazon? Already five other potential dam-sites have been identified. Those projects, if they go ahead, may result in a far greater displacement of people than the Inambari dam itself will. Peru’s indigenous tribes – the Asháninka, Shipibos etc - will certainly be massively disrupted.

And outside Peru? What will the generation of vast quantities of hydro-power in Peru, for export to Brazil, mean for developments in other parts of the Amazon basin? What use will Brazil make of these new cheap energy supplies except to hasten the already frighteningly-rapid transformation of its Amazon territories? And what in turn does that mean for the future of indigenous peoples, not just in Peru, but in the Amazon region as a whole? What does it mean for the fight against global warming, indeed for the future of the planet itself?

The irony is that, if Peru does go ahead with the Inambari Dam, presumably over Alfredo’s dead body, they will have to flood over 100 kilometres of the embryonic Great Inter-Oceanic highway, between Inambari and Puno. That section is not yet built, and if they go ahead with the dam, it never will be. And it may take several years to develop an alternative major road through the Andes to the Pacific. Every cloud has a silver lining.


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