Sunday, April 6, 2008

We have no links to the armed groups, but we can't stop them from supporting our movement."

Another Narmada Program in Mexico

Los Guajes, Mexico — At a makeshift checkpoint near the Papagayo River, machete-wielding farmers stand vigil. They are here to keep out the heavy machinery, as well as the undercover agents they say come disguised as teachers and doctors trying to bribe their leaders.

"The government will have to kill us all before we stop fighting," vowed Elizea Manrique Manzaneres, a 76-year-old grandmother at the checkpoint.

Maximiliana Gonzalez Manrique worries about what her life will be like if she is forced to relocate from her native El Guajes. She opposes the La Parota Dam, an issue that has split the town.

Farmers who oppose a planned hydroelectric dam gather near the town of Los Guajes, Mexico. They vow to keep out heavy machinery and power company agents.

Mexico's latest flash point of social unrest is in the sweltering mountains an hour east of Acapulco, home to the prolonged battle over the massive La Parota Dam, a key piece of Mexico's plan to increase energy production.

The proposed hydroelectric project would provide enough electricity to power a large swath of western Mexico — including the luxury hotels of Acapulco — and ensure a stable water supply of water for hundreds of thousands, according to the government. Construction of the dam would create 10,000 jobs over about six years, a boon in one of the poorest areas of Mexico.

But the $850 million project will also flood more than 42,000 acres and a dozen communities, displacing 25,000 residents. They are mostly poor farmers who make their living harvesting watermelons, squash and corn along the edges of the lush Papagayo River.

Changes to the ecosystem are expected to affect an additional 75,000 residents living downriver. Los Guajes is about 15 miles upriver from the proposed site of the dam, at Cacahuatepec, and stands to be flooded.

Opponents say they don't trust the government to provide new housing or employment for all the displaced residents. The government claims fewer than 3,000 residents will need to be relocated.

Teodoro Vasquez, 78, said he has nightmares of being relocated to a crowded Acapulco slum.

"The young people can change their lives," he said. "But for us at this age, what other life can we find?"

After six years, major construction has yet to begin as the government and local communities wage a complex legal fight that appears headed to the country's Supreme Court.

The dam has led to an increasingly hostile battle for the hearts and minds of residents in Guerrero state.

At government-sponsored assemblies, locals say the government has used intimidation, threats and bribery to sway public opinion in favor of the dam. Opponents of the dam say four of their leaders have been assassinated since 2005.

Amnesty International has warned of human rights abuses in the area, and the United Nations has criticized the government's handling of the project.

And in a move that sent shivers through the Mexican capital, the Popular Revolutionary Army, known as the EPR, announced its opposition to the dam last fall. The EPR, a guerrilla movement that emerged from the mountains of the state of Guerrero in 1996, has a history of violence. Last summer it carried out a series of bombings of oil pipelines in central Mexico, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in losses to businesses.

"[The dam] will not happen, there will be no excavation," warned an EPR official, identified as Comandante Francisco, in an interview with the Mexico City daily newspaper Milenio. Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army has also pledged his support for farmers opposing La Parota.

Farmers' groups say they prefer legal briefs to guns.

"Our movement is peaceful," said Felipe Flores, a leader with the Council of Ejidos and Communities in Opposition to La Parota Dam. "We have no links to the armed groups, but we can't stop them from supporting our movement."

But analysts say that the threat of violence may be the only thing keeping the Mexican government from forcing the project on residents.

"If the government is stopped, it will be precisely because they were worried about the highly explosive fallout from imposing the project," said Mario Martinez, a sociologist with the Autonomous University of Guerrero.

The Federal Energy Commission, the government agency charged with building La Parota, declined an interview request.

President Felipe Calderon, already embroiled in a military conflict with Mexican drug cartels and a contentious debate with leftists over reforming Mexico's energy sector, may not be inclined to risk a social uprising over the dam, Martinez said.

The government has long dreamed of damming the Papagayo River, and the Federal Electricity Commission began technical studies 30 years ago. But the project, opposed by local farmers since it was first proposed, was not approved until President Vicente Fox's administration in 2003. Some preliminary work, such as building roads to the construction site, was completed before work was suspended because of the legal battle.

Opponents are convinced the government aims to produce electricity to eventually sell to the United States and will hand over the water to multinational companies that will take profits out of the area.

"We are going to suffer the damages and others will get the benefits," said Flores. "The dam will make this a desert zone, and we won't allow it."

Supporters say the dam will bring the modern age — including highways, schools and hospitals — to one of the poorest areas of Mexico.

Hector Vela, the mayor of Tierra Colorado, one of the municipalities that would be affected by the dam, said La Parota's benefits outweigh its problems.

"There's no kind of industry here, and the dam would help generate that kind of work," he said. "Our young people mostly migrate to the United States, so that's why they like this project. At least for six or seven years they would have a good source of work."

But opponents, especially older residents, say supporters are sacrificing their ancestral lands for short-term gain.

"Here I can live from the earth," said Rosendo Quinones, a 61-year-old protester. "Here we're in charge of our own destiny."

Divisions between supporters and opponents have polarized many of the communities near the Papagayo River.

Julian Blanco Cisneros, an opposition leader in the village of Los Guajes, said opponents don't go to the weddings of supporters and rival factions even go to different Masses. Opponents charge that those supporting the dam have been bought off. They call them "vendidos," or sell-outs.

Blanco said he has received kidnapping threats and no longer answers his home phone. He said unknown agents offered him the equivalent of $50,000 to stop speaking out against the dam.

"That money won't make you happy forever," he said. "I'm not going to betray the people."

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