Chinese Project Threatens Indigenous Cultures and Biodiversity

Posted on May 15, 2011

Patuca River

Patuca River

The Moskitia (mos-KEE-tya): it’s the largest, most magnificent expanse of tropical wilderness north of the Amazon – and the Indigenous Peoples who live there are determined to keep it that way. For 3,000 years, Indigenous people have plied their dugout canoes up and down the Patuca River, the central artery of Honduras’ vast Moskitia lowland rainforest.  On its rich floodplain they grow cocoa, oranges, rice, beans, cassava, and other crops for subsistence and sale, and its fish provide their main source of protein.  “The river is our life,” says Lorenzo Tinglas, president of the Tawahka people’s governing council. “Any threat to the Patuca is a threat to four Indigenous Peoples—the  Tawahka, Pech, Miskito, and Garifuna—and we will fight to the death to protect it.”

The fight is on. In January, the Honduran congress approved a contract with a Chinese company to build the first of three dams on the Patuca River. In February, the four Indigenous groups and Afro-Hondurans who share the Moskitia formed a united movement to save the river, their livelihoods, and their unique cultures. The Moskitia is a world-class treasure, and it will take international pressure to stop this project.

What difference would dams on the Patuca River make? For Miskito leader Norvin Goff, the answer is stark and clear: “Dams on the Patuca River mean ecocide and homicide.”

Why ecocide? Dams in the Moskitia tropical rainforest would decimate this richly diverse ecosystem both directly and indirectly.  In the river, fish species that migrate upstream from the ocean during part of their life cycle would be blocked by the dams, threatening local extinctions. [Paula, I made this change on the assumption that the fish in question are not species found only in this river, in which case, an unqualified “extinction” is the wrong word. If they are in fact solely endemic to this river, and extinction is really the case, then we ought to make more of this in the text.] Downstream from the dam, the river’s volume, flow, and temperature would change, altering the habitats of shellfish, amphibians, plants, and bird species. Upstream, the reservoirs would submerge rainforest vegetation, soils, and organic matter, which would emit greenhouse gases as they rot. Reservoirs in the tropics produce high amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, accelerating global warming. The reservoirs and a network of roads would obstruct the migration patterns of hundreds of rainforest species. In the Moskitia, this includes endangered species like jaguars and tapirs, whose survival depends on large territories.

Why homicide?  Indigenous villagers who live along the Patuca’s banks depend on the river for their lives and livelihoods. It is their only means of transportation and communication through the vast, roadless Moskitia. Dams would obstruct commerce and trade for thousands of people. On stretches of river between the dams, the flows, currents, and channels would be altered; people whose knowledge of the Patuca has sustained  them for centuries would no longer master the river. Fish would disappear. Flood cycles that regularly wash nutrients over their agricultural lands would be changed. And road construction would open their forests to an unstoppable invasion of loggers, poachers, ranchers, and drug smugglers. The government even plans to build a military base to protect the construction project. “These impacts will be fatal for the survival of the Tawahka as a unique people,” says their elected leader, Lorenzo Tinglas.

As an endorser of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, Honduras officially recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consent for projects that would affect them. But the Indigenous Peoples of the Moskitia have not been consulted and they have not consented to dam construction on the Patuca River. An international outcry is needed to defend their rights and to prevent destruction of a world-renowned tropical rainforest.



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