In Honduras, a hydroelectric project for autonomy
The half-truths created by the green economy marketplace are many. In various parts of Latin America there are mining projects stamped with the label “green,” hydroelectric dams that fall within the Clean Development Mechanism and at the same time destroy forests, water and the social fabric of indigenous and rural communities. But Avispa Midia found, in a corner of Honduras, one small community on the Caribbean, known as Plan Grande, where there truly is green energy production—or rather “community energy,” as the town’s residents call it.
Six kilometers (4.8 miles) from Plan Grande lies the community of Betulia. The two communities have shared in the diverse attempts undertaken to produce their own energy within their territory. At first the two communities attempted it by using a small diesel-powered turbine. A second effort saw the installation of a commercial hydroelectric plant in Betulia, though not in Plan Grande. Although the people of Betulia rejected this project, it was implemented anyways, causing social and environmental damage as a result of a dam that, even so, was recognized internationally as a Gold Standard Premium Quality sustainable project. In this report, divided in four chapters, we share the experience of the two projects.
Santiago Navarro F, Renata Bessi and Aldo Santiago
Versión en español
Yadira Santos lightly bends her knees, as if she were climbing a staircase, amidst the turmoil of the Caribbean waters of Honduras, on a beach by the town known as Rio Coco. She looks for the reporter and says excitedly, “Come on!” A storm was coming and this was the only way to arrive at the final destination–by boat. Yadira insists: “Come on, if we wait more than five minutes the storm will hit us full on and we won’t get to the town today.” There was no other option. The reporter, assures her team, placed one of her feet on Yadira’s knee as Yadira tried to lend some stability to the boat; then she pushed herself off and threw herself inside. Half an hour later, everyone disembarked safe and sound in Plan Grande.
Plan Grande is not, geographically, an island. It is a small town that lies on the same Caribbean coast of Honduras. But even though it is on the American continent, visitors must arrive either by boat or an hours-long hike along paths through dense forest. It is connected neither by highways nor wires. That is to say, the community is not connected to the national electrical system, which relies heavily on contributions from large public and private dams; they produce 32.8% of the country’s electricity, according to government figures from 2017.
The town isn’t connected and doesn’t need to be. It has its own hydroelectric plant, a small power station that generates its own energy communally. The turbine is small, with only 18 kilowatts of power, but it is enough to supply 120 houses in the town, around 500 people. The dam itself is just over six meters (about 20 ft) wide and the waterfall goes no higher than three meters (about 10 ft)
“We work with the flow of water that comes from the mountain, and it’s not large. Our logic as a community is not of limitless consumption, it is not the logic of commercializing energy, it is the logic of meeting our most basic needs. Thus we adapt our consumption to what nature offers us,” said Oscar Padilla, of the community council. “What we propose is not to stop using technology that has been created, but to use it responsibly and with respect for our rivers and forests. Because, yes, nature does have limits.”
“The whole town joined together to build the project and figure out its organization and administration. It’s been three years now that we’ve had truly clean energy for the 120 homes in the community,” said Edgardo Padilla, of the Electricity Committee, the administrative committee for Plan Grande’s energy project.
Energy for autonomy
When we talk about community projects, we mean that which is community-developed and community-sustained, Padilla made clear. “We know of other communities that received donations of turbines and generators, but they didn’t succeed in maintaining the project. So we worked hard to create a way of organizing ourselves, in such a way that the whole community has the responsibility for the energy we generate,” he explained.
The community council was responsible for the project construction and the entire community participated in the process. After it was ready, an Electrification Committee was created, which administers, maintains and supervises the project. “We have an executive committee with seven members, a coordinator, the treasurer, president, secretary, members. Also, we have operators, who operate the system. When big problems arise we hire technicians from outside the community. And we rotate these responsibilities throughout the community, so we have to prepare other people to exercise these functions.”
The decisions are made in a community assembly. “We periodically convene the assembly for the economic report of revenues and expenses, very detailed reports. In the assembly the people have the opportunity to ask questions and propose ideas, improvements. We, as directors, analyze them and follow up. There are no restrictions in the assembly,” he explained.
The committee generated rules for energy consumption. “We thought of norms of use that would allow for the division of energy among the people in the most egalitarian form. With respect for the capacity of the river, we created some restrictions. For example, we don’t allow the use of air conditioners. We don’t allow one person to have too many electrical appliances because it restricts the consumption of another person, it takes away their right, so we have consumption maximally calibrated.”
Four rates were created, of 250 lempiras ($10.60 USD), 200 lempiras ($8.50 USD), 130 lempiras ($5.50 USD) or 100 lempiras ($4.40 USD) monthly, depending on consumption and home appliances. “There are fines if people don’t respect the rules. They were all decided on in assembly. People educate themselves because they know how much it costs all of us to produce energy,” sustained Edgardo.
The example of Betulia
If a private hydroelectric project had been built in Plan Grande, it would have damaged the forested, mountainous area above the town, comments Padilla. “It would have taken away a good part of the forest for the construction of a dam and it would have used the entire flow of water. The truth is that they already came to propose the purchase of our project. But our logic is different, it’s to utilize the minimum flow of water necessary and adapt our consumption to it. We work with the aim of protecting our forest above, our source of water. We know that if there’s no forest, there’s no water,” said Padilla.
6 km (3.7 miles) from Plan Grande, in the town of Betulia–the same one that initially had a small diesel plant–there is now a commercial hydroelectric plant. “The river of Betulia is destroyed. Before it was fertile, people went to catch shrimp in the river. Now the river is muddy, and it floods. The fishing grounds that used to exist no longer do.”
Legal basis for despoilment
Beginning in 2010, according to the report Human Rights Violations in Extractivist Projects in Honduras, from the Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development (CEHPRODEC, for Centro Hondureño de Promoción para el Desarrollo Comunitario), 40 contracts with private businesses were approved for the generation of hydroelectric energy. 21 of these projects were within the territory of the Lenca, Pech, Tawahka, Misquito, Tolupan and Garifuna indigenous groups.
The government that followed the 2009 coup saw the approval of Decree 233-2010, repealing the ministerial decrees 001-96 and 158-2009, which prohibited hydroelectric projects in protected areas. This in turn made possible the approval of laws favoring the concession of rivers, the construction of dams, mineral exploitation, hydrocarbon exploration and the approval of the Special Regimens of Development (RED, for Regimenes Especiales de Desarrollo) or “Model Cities” in the following government (2010-2013) presided over by Porfirio Lobo Sosa.
The General Law on Water, also reformed in 2009, promotes the concession of bodies of water to third parties and based on this legal framework 40 contracts were conceded to private businesses the following year, without any previous consultation of indigenous communities.
The processes of the concession and despoilment of these communities’ natural resources, sustains the report, are complemented by repressive policies based on the militarization of public spaces. Some examples include the Anti-Terrorism Act, the NGO Control Act, the Illicit Association Act, and the creation of military police and elite police forces.
An experience to share
Padilla speaks to the communities harassed by hydroelectric megaprojects:
If you have a river, don’t sell it. The communities need to be ready for when the multimillion-dollar hydroelectric projects arrive. These projects are a disaster for the communities. We have the example of Betulia nearby. Business people arrive and in many cases the community isn’t ready, they don’t have enough information and they say yes to the projects. They draw you a beautiful picture of the generation of clean energy but when the time comes, things are very different.
I invite the communities to look favorably on the work we have done in Plan Grande. Take note, we are ready to give any information they might need. Our people can even lend technical assistance and can go to other communities, share the experience. The Committee also has its doors open to explain everything, how we manage the project in the community, the technical and administrative parts as well as the organizational parts.
Learn more about the flow of water for energy production:
The pipe continues to the powerhouse
There is a great variety of fish and other living things in the river
At the center, the water-powered turbine. To the side, the red machine has become obsolete, as it is powered by diesel.
Here, the pipe exits the powerhouse. The water returns to its normal channel, and to the river, which itself goes out to the sea, the source of the community’s food. No one knows they cycles of life in their surroundings better than they do.