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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.

Por

Renata Bessi

Photos by

Santiago Navarro F, Renata Bessi and Aldo Santiago

Translated by

Sam Warren

Community-Based Energy

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)

Comparison
 
While the Plan Grande plant has 18 kilowatts of power, the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, on the Gualcarque River in the Lenca village of Río Blanco–where the indigenous activist Berta Cáceres was murdered as a result of protest against the project–has 21.3 megawatts of power and is commercially considered a small hydroelectric plant. This status was conferred by its funders, the FMO (Financierings Maatschappij voor Ontwikkelingslanden), of the Netherlands. By way of example, the Itaipú hydroelectric plant, Brazil’s largest and the second largest in the world, has an installed capacity of 14,000 megawatts.

“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.”

How electricity arrived
 
Those who arrive for the first time and are not from the community would say, at first, that it is impossible to carry turbines, generators, poles, cables, and cement to the village’s beach on a small boat. But this is not the greatest problem. There are no wide roads where the river is, but only small paths; there would be no way to transport all the equipment necessary to the winding road upriver, where the powerhouse and the dam wall were built.
“Well, that’s how we did it. And not only the men, us women too. The men go lobster-fishing a large part of the year. The ones who are captains go for the whole season, 8 months, it starts in June and they stay until March. The ones who are sailors go for three. Almost all the youth go. So we had to work just as hard,” said Bernarda Baños, 63 years old.
This wasn’t a one-time effort. They had to carry the turbines and generators to the town in small boats twice.
Until 2006 the people of Plan Grande used gas lamps. “And when we didn’t have money to buy gas, we made coconut oil lamps. All this beach you see, along the entire shore there were coconut trees and that’s where we got the oil from,” recalls Baños.
In 2006, a diesel generator plant arrived in the neighboring town of Betulia, donated by the Spanish Cooperation Agency for International Development (or AECID, for Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo). “We knew that one of their representatives was going to be in Betulia. That day it rained a lot and we couldn’t go by sea, so we walked for hours to get there. So we talked with him and he told us that if we got a hold of a helicopter to carry the equipment to Plan Grande, then they’d give us a plant too,” remembers Dilsia Reyes, from the organized women’s group of the community and president of the community council.

See what the community representatives’ response was to the AECID member:
 
Without helicopters and “on our own backs,” as Reyes put it, the community maneuvered the plant upriver and managed it for four years, until 2010. “We had three hours of energy per day, from 6 pm to 9 pm. At 9 pm we all went looking for a lamp because the plant turned off,” said Reyes. To generate three hours per day of energy the plant consumed three gallons of diesel and as time went on the community could no longer sustain it.
The town’s second project hit the mark. After abandoning the diesel plant, the community presented their need to an international organization and was awarded financing to install a small hydroelectric plant.
“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.
Edgardo calculates that it’s possible to acquire all the apparatuses for energy generation by spending around $10,000 USD and assures that the project’s maintenance is more reasonable. “Before we were spending at least 1000 lempiras ($42.50 USD) per month to maintain the system; now we spend no more than 100 lempiras ($4.25 USD),” states Edgardo.
Plan Grande’s turbine is propelled by gravity-driven water from the San Matías River, which forms part of the Lis Lis River Basin, in the Matías Microbasin and El Gringo Gorge Forest Protection Area. Part of the water from the Matías River is diverted from its course by a PVC pipe that connects with the dam wall, passes through the powerhouse and returns to the normal course of the river some meters below. “Studies were done to determine how much could be diverted from the river without causing harm,” explains Edgardo.
“At first we didn’t know about turbines, we had technical assistance to manage them and also for the installation of the pipes, the dam wall, the electric system, the cables, the poles. Now we train each other. Installing the transformers, for example, is now a responsibility of the townspeople. That is, the problems aren’t so complex; we already resolved them. The idea is to work so that we have full autonomy,” Edgardo added.

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.

Profits for the community
 
Before, there was nothing cold in Plan Grande, remembers Reyes. When the sailors came with their products, we had to give them away because there wasn’t any way to conserve them. “Now they bring their products, their lobsters, they give to everyone in the community who needs it and the rest they store for their own consumption or for sale. So nothing goes to waste. It’s all consumed.”
Now they can maintain computers. “We created a basic center in the community so that children could learn to use computers,” says Padilla. The women’s group in the community was also able to realize their bakery project. “We can plan our production with greater certainty,” said Nolbia Cortez, who forms part of the women’s group.
In addition to the possibilities for work and learning generated by the use of power, the production of energy itself generates profits for the community due to the fees paid for use. That is, a part of the resources is used to maintain the system, and the rest goes to a communal fund for the town’s use.
“We have made a petty cash fund so that people in the community, in moments of need or emergency, can go to the treasury and obtain an allowance to take a sick person to the hospital, for example. We have also created a fund for loans, small credits. If I have a need, whether it is urgent or not, there is a fund where I can apply for a loan. We have as collateral the use of energy; if we don’t pay the loan, our service is cut,” explains Edgardo.
With the fund, children studying at the community school have been given scholarships. “The assembly decided on the parameters for the scholarship. One is for high academic achievement. The other is for the degree of the child’s need,” said Edgardo. Further support goes to the school administration.

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.”

The report:
 
The cases of Río Blanco, Guadalupe (Betulia), and the El Tumbador estate form part of a general context of the despoiling of the commonly held properties of indigenous, black and poor rural peoples, with the purpose of ceding these properties to third parties, alien to the community, so that they may be exploited.
The State has been the judge and the judged: it allies itself with the interests of the investors, it constitutes itself as their first business partner. Far from protecting the indigenous and poor rural communities, it favors their despoilment. This is shown in the murder of Berta Cáceres, as it was the same State that persecuted Berta Cáceres and refused to hear her denunciations that now has exclusive control over the investigation and the search for “justice,” as was documented by the International Expert Assessor Group (GAIPE, for Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas).

The project on the Betulia River bears the Gold Standard Premium Quality certificate, which confers sustainable project status
The Gold Standard Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Switzerland which provides premium carbon credit certification. That is, the certificate attests that the project promotes reduction of polluting gas emissions and has the right to carbon credits that can be sold to countries which have to meet reduction goals.
The government of Honduras has oriented its actions in the development, enlargement, modernization and optimization of electrical services around the generation of what it considers to be clean energy. In official reports, the Honduran government boasts that 61% of the national electrical grid is powered by clean energy.
“We have taken our experience to other areas. We’ve talked. We had an event in San Pedro Sula, where there were multimillion-dollar hydroelectric projects, and we shared the example of Plan Grande with them. And do you think they paid attention? No, they didn’t care. But oh well, in Plan Grande we’re fighting to do something healthy for the community and the environment.”

Turbine House


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:

It flows through a PVC pipe


The pipe carries the minimum quantity of water to the powerhouse

The flow of water is not interrupted


To put the water at risk is to put our own lives at risk

The pipe continues to the powerhouse


There is a great variety of fish and other living things in the river

Powerhouse


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.

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