When she discovered that a hydroelectric project was threatening her community’s river, Alba Domínguez, a member of the San José Civil Society, changed her sewing machines for meetings, picket lines, and other acts of protest. “I could only find time to sew at night. Little by little, I lost clients because I did not have the time. In the end, I had to leave my job”. Domínguez acknowledges that the struggle for justice has taken a toll on her finances, health, and family: “As a result of our opposition to the project, they even tried to accuse us of crimes we did not commit”. A decade later however, in spite of the dam’s continued operations, Domínguez feels satisfied.
The arrival of the Aurora I hydroelectric dam in the municipality of San José (located in La Paz Department, Honduras) dates back to 2009. In the midst of the post-Coup political crisis, the Honduran National Congress approved the General Water Law, which opened the possibility of ceding the country’s water resources to third parties. At the same time, certain areas of La Paz were declared water-producing zones. In 2010, the National Electric Energy Company granted permits to La Aurora Investment Company for a period of 30 years. “This is how the Aurora I project arrived, with a total concession of 102 square kilometres in five municipalities in indigenous Lenca territory”, explains the San José Civil Society, which has led the opposition to the dam. They add that the process culminated in the granting of operational permits by the local government. “We always suspected that they used signatures from other matters to legitimise this project on behalf of the local people”. No process of free, prior and informed consent was ever held. “This constitutes a violation of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation”, local social organisations argue.
Since they became aware of Gladys Aurora López, a deputy with the National Party and Vice President of the Honduran National Congress, and her interest in building this dam, San José Civil Society began to organise numerous meetings, assemblies, and town halls, in order to raise awareness among the people of the project’s impacts. However, they faced a company that began making promises to affected communities. “They promised them free electricity, water, homes, schools, an ambulance… but the truth is that the company has fulfilled practically none of their promises”. The only building they can recall the company actually providing was a space for religious celebrations.
“On the contrary, the construction of this dam has had very strong impacts, and deprivation remains the same in a department that has traditionally been one of the country’s poorest”, San José Civil Society explains. At least 50 families were forced to sell their lands to make way for the dam, and hundreds were left without access to drinking water, as water levels dropped on the upper reaches of the Chinacla River. “There are women in villages in the mountains who have to walk for up to two hours to find drinking water”. Moreover, the arrival of this project has not ensured electricity access in the area. In 2018, 49% of the population still had no access to the public electricity network. “Not even the landslides that occurred during Hurricanes Eta and Iota were enough to move the company to act with solidarity”, they add.
What this project did bring was an increase in conflict within the community and with the local government. Several activists who opposed the project were even forced to temporarily abandon their homes when they received threats that their houses would be burned, “because they opposed development”.
Looking to the Future
Despite this situation and Aurora I’s commencing operations in 2018, the San José Civil Society recognises that their struggle was worth it. “We do not regret a thing, because we are on the right side of history. Even so, it was only after 10 years had passed that the people realised that we were being cheated”. Moreover, they believe that their fight has raised awareness in the community. “San José did not manage to block the dam’s installation, but our example of organisation and resistance could stop other projects from advancing”. In saying this, the San José Civil Society is thinking of the dozens of communities that are organising and forced to include coordinated actions in the defence of their territory and common goods into their daily lives. They are also thinking of the communities who must do so in the face of the Government’s announcement (PCM 138-2020) to prioritise the construction of 14 hydroelectric dams.