In 2010, the presidents of Peru and Brazil made a deal to build 22 major Andes Amazon dams on the Marañón River – the Amazon River’s mainstem. The energy generated by those dams would go to vastly expand Peru’s Conga gold and copper mine, making it one of the biggest in the world.
The Conga mine expansion would have dumped 85,000 tons of toxic, heavy metal-laden tailings into the Ucayali River watershed daily. The Marañón dams would have blocked vital nutrient and sediment flow, likely doing irreparable harm to Amazon River and Amazon basin ecology.
Odebrecht, a Brazilian mega-construction firm, was picked to spearhead building. The projects were strongly opposed by the rural people they’d impact, and by an international alliance of environmental NGOs and river adventure tourists who see the Marañón as Latin America’s Grand Canyon.
Nine years later, the Peruvian and Brazilian presidents and Odebrecht executives involved in the deal are in jail or charged with corruption. All but two of the dam projects have been abandoned. The result came about largely due to the astonishingly successful resistance of local rural people.
Long before he became a wanted man, hiding in the home of the Uruguayan ambassador in Lima and begging asylum, Peruvian President Alan García signed one last big deal.
As Peru’s chief executive from 2006 to 2011, García had pushed for the construction of a staggering number of mega-infrastructure projects in the Amazon Andes – whether locals wanted them or not. His government’s official line: Peru’s natural resources belonged to all the people and their exploitation benefited all Peruvians, so the selfish interest of locals bearing the brunt of development impacts didn’t entitle them to a veto.
García pressed forward, ignoring intensifying local opposition. In the final months of his administration, he committed Peru to projects of staggering scale, import and impact, with unexpected repercussions echoing down to the present and likely beyond.
First among these Peruvian projects was Conga, a planned radical expansion of Yanacocha, an already enormous gold and copper mine in the Andean highlands which would make it one of the world’s largest mining operations. As proposed, Conga would disgorge an estimated 85,000 tons of toxic, heavy metal-laden tailings daily into the Ucayali River watershed.
But how to power Conga’s rock crushers, slurry pumps and cyanide leachers, – providing the gigawatts of power required to extract gold and copper from stony ore?
The answer: García met with then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva in June 2010 and signed a high level agreement for a series of hydropower projects that would dam the Marañón River 22 times along its length, to be built mostly by Brazil’s mega-construction companies.
A death sentence for the Amazon River
The Ucayali and Marañón are two of the greatest Andes waterways giving rise to the Amazon River. Snowmelt and rainfall drive their surging seasonal ebbs and flows, sending massive sums of floodwater and tons of nutrient-rich sediment down into the Amazon basin to the east, where a still vast rainforest helps regulate climate across the continent and provides an enormous carbon sink critical to curbing global warming.
On hearing of García’s plan, scientists balked. They warned that the dams would be an environmental disaster of epic, continental and even global proportions, threatening the livelihoods, food security, and maybe even the regional climate, of millions.
Still, García’s and Lula’s governments judged the mega-projects worthwhile; they pushed on in the name of national economic progress, and in the case of Peru, criminalized those who opposed them, according to critics.
In a famous 2007 editorial, García compared environmental campaigners and indigenous activists opposed to the dams and mine expansion to the Brothers Grimm fable of the Dog in the Manger: a greedy canine that keeps sheep and cattle from eating hay that he cannot enjoy eating himself.
In 2011, the president, nearing the end of his tenure, told Peruvian TV that if Peru was to advance as a country, the people had “to defeat the absurd pantheist ideologies that believe that the walls are gods and the air is a god… if we reach that point, we wouldn’t do anything, much less mining.”
The mega-dam swindle
In recent years, prosecutors in Peru, Brazil and the United States have pointed to darker motivations for the mega-infrastructure scheme.
The main beneficiary of the García-Lula deal turned out not to be Peru, but Odebrecht, a giant and corrupt Brazilian construction company, found since 2014 to be at the center of what the U.S. Department of Justice has called “the largest foreign bribery case in history.” Some of Odebrecht’s biggest projects were hydroelectric mega-dams.
Before the case was over, Odebrecht’s CEO, would be sentenced to 19 years in prisonfor helping hatch a scheme by which Brazil’s largest construction firms would make giant campaign donations to President Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) and other political parties, in exchange for lucrative government funded infrastructure contracts.
The exposure of Odebrecht’s crimes, and the crimes of other companies exposed in Brazil’s Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, sent an economic and political tsunami sweeping across Latin America, toppling governments from Brazil to Panama.
The aftershocks left federal chief executives, like Lula, incarcerated; others like, García, face prison. Lava Jato also paved the way for the soft coup against Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and the subsequent rise of ultra-rightist Jair Bolsonaro who took office in Brazil in January.
And in Peru, law enforcement inquiries revealed how subsequent Peruvian administrations planned to sacrifice the Andes Amazon headwaters, and by extension, the entire Amazon basin in a monstrously corrupt public works giveaway.
Where rivers rise, so do the people
The Peru-Brazil-Odebrecht scheme is a case study in another phenomenon: the forging of a highly effective David versus Goliath grassroots movement – a response by local communities and international NGOs who joined together in solidarity and resistance against an onslaught of political bullying and corruption.
In the end, despite bribery and conspiracy between national governments and Odebrecht, despite lawsuits and police bullets, the Conga mine expansion and the dam projects failed.
Of the 22 proposed dams – all once seen as a done deal – only two hold out even a remote prospect of ever being built; by February, even these are likely to be defunct.
While economic chaos – partly due to fallout from Odebrecht’s momentous fall – helped kill Conga and the dams, a crucial element in the survival of the Ucayali and Marañón ecosystems was the capacity of civil society groups and peasant militias to form a strong unbreakable alliance.
If, as is likely, those last dams lose their concessions this year, it will be largely thanks to the power of the people and their unyielding resistance to intimidation and exploitation.
The Trojan construction company
In 2012, farmers in the very remote Peruvian village of Tupén Grande, on the banks of the Marañón River in the Andes Mountains, were surprised to see sleek rubber rafts, loaded with scientific equipment, landing on the beach below their cliffside village.
The biologists who spilled out offered the local people cash to help gather plant and animal specimens as part of an ecological study. It was easy money, so the locals joined in. It was only later, when the Tupeneros brought their coca-leaf to market in the provincial capital at Celendin (a punishing twelve-hour hike out of their home canyon), that the riverine inhabitants learned they’d been tricked.
The scientists had not come there for a basic biological study, but to perform a government required Environmental Impact Assessment in preparation for a mega-infrastructure project that would dam their river and drown all of their homes, farms and pastures.
This is how the river people found out: the highlands around Celendin are inhabited by Quechua-speaking villagers, related by marriage and with an affinity to the Tuperneros. These upland villagers – turned environmental activists by necessity – had watched for years in horror and fury as the Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation destroyed their highland lakes with tailings from the gigantic Yanacocha gold and copper mine.
Now, the highlanders told their riverine cousins, with Yanacocha’s output dwindling, the García government had approved Newmont’s proposal to extend Yanacocha into the Conga mega-mine expansion, growth to be powered by the 22 hydroelectric dams. The company that the Peruvian government had chosen for the new projects, and to whom it had granted a $500 million construction contract, was the same firm that had originally sent in biologists in preparation for the destruction of the highlanders’ lakes and towns: Odebrecht.
The Odebrecht biologists, the Celendin activists told the Tupeneros, hadn’t been surveying the wildlife and plants because they wanted to protect them: they were taking a preliminary accounting of the dead.
If the dams went forward, the Environmental Impact Assessment, accomplished by guile, was the first legal step in turning Tupen and its narrow canyon into a 32 square kilometer (12 square mile) lake, destroying 12,000 hectares (46 square miles) of dryland forest. That may not seem like a lot, until one considers that the biodiversity destroyed comes from the narrow fertile sides of a steep canyon.
Dozens of fish species the villagers depended on would face extinction – as would their village. According to a Wildlife Conservation Society report published on the Public Library of Science, 156 types of fish live in the channels where the Chadin II mega-dam was to be built; experience from other dams suggests that a dam transecting this habitat could drive 90 percent of these species into oblivion.
Worldwide national and corporate bribery
Tupen and Celendin were but two global sacrifice zones – local communities and entire ecosystems – to be given up to feed Odebrecht’s profits and satisfy the infrastructure demands of Latin American and African governments.
The Brazilian construction company – founded as a small family firm in the 1940s by German immigrants in Brazil’s Northeast – had, by 2010, grown into an empire of bulldozers, cranes, concrete, and steel that stretched around the world, employing 181,000 people in 21 countries.
Odebrecht built metro lines in Venezuela (many steeped in corruption and still incomplete); ports in Cuba; and four of the much-criticized, graft-enmeshed stadiumsbuilt for the 2016 Brazilian World Cup – now white elephants. Across the planet, in Honduras, Angola, Brazil and Peru, Odebrecht flooded valleys to make electricity, tore up mountains and forests for mines, and paid hefty bribes to governments for the privilege.
In 2014, a scandal concerning overpayment for a refinery in Houston led Brazilian and FBI investigators to expose Odebrecht’s corporate network of corruption. They uncovered the company’s sophisticated illegal operation run by what a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor called an internal “Department of Bribery,” – incredibly adept at cutting backroom deals, but walled off from the firm’s main computer accounting systems via a secret internal network.
The source of Odebrecht’s empire, as prosecutors across the Western Hemisphere learned, was as old as modern civilization: public works graft, in the form of hidden kickbacks, often disguised as political campaign donations, that inspired administrators to hire and overpay Odebrecht with public funds for overpriced, environmentally and socially destructive infrastructure projects.
Take the World Cup stadium in the Amazonian city of Manaus for example, which has served minimal purposes since the event, causing one local judge to suggest turning it into a jail – it overran construction cost estimates by $25 million.
The Chadin II dam on the Marañón River was bid at $1.65 billion by Odebrecht; a University of Oxford report on mega-dams suggests this would have probably been less than half the actual final cost.
The rot in Peru
Thanks in large part to the confessions of Marcelo Odebrecht – the company’s former CEO, who turned state’s evidence in 2016 in return for a reduced sentence of 19 years incarcerated – three successive Peruvian presidents, plus prominent opposition leader Keiko Fujimori today face prison for receiving tens of millions in bribes.
Lava Jato revelations cast new light on the mega-projects these politicians oversaw, which now look not like attempts to benefit the Peruvian people, but rather like schemes to liquidate communities, national resources and ecosystems for personal gain:
Alejandro Toledo, president of Peru from 2001 to 2006, received $20 million in graft. He approved the Odebrecht-built Peru-Brazil Interoceanic Highway billed as vital to regional trade, linking Brazil to China-facing ports in Peru. Since its completion in 2011 it has done little for legitimate commerce, but it has fostered a spreading cancer of crime and deforestation across the southern Amazon.
Alan García, president from 2006 to 2011, received an alleged $8 million in bribes; he gave Odebrecht huge contracts, including the Conga expansion, the Marañón mega-dam deal with Brazil’s Lula, and Lima’s subway. (Since Peru could not afford to buy the dams itself, the Brazilian Development Bank, known as BNDES,extended the Peruvians a generous line of credit.)
Ollanta Humala, Peru’s president from 2011 to 2016, received an alleged $3 million in graft. As García’s successor, he continued pushing both Conga and the Marañón mega-dam projects forward, going so far as to declare a state of national emergency as a means of fighting growing local resistance.
These Peruvian governments would later claim, often and vociferously, that the dams and highway projects were intended for the public good: for rural electrification and the calming of a river that locals agree is both violent and dangerous.
But a United Nations Special Rapporteur found in 2013 that Peru ran a substantial energy surplus, and that the power of Chadin II was never intended for Peruvians but for the benefit of Conga and Newmont, the U.S. mining company.