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Residents Protest Proposed Pacuare Dam

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Caribbean-slope residents, environmentalists and members of area indigenous communities continue to protest the proposed construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Pacuare River, claiming the project will foment death in the river and the forest that surrounds it.

The dam, which has been planned since 1996 and would begin operations in 2012, would produce 158 megawatts annually, according to officials from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), which is managing the proposed project. The dam would be built approximately 70 kilometers east of San Jose.

Opponents say the lake the dam would create would inundate much of the wilderness around the river, including a part of the Alto Chirripo Indigenous Reserve, forcing those who live along certain portions of the river to relocate.

Eugenio Guido, leader of the Friends of the Pacuare and one of the founding members of the Association to Save the Pacuare - two groups fighting construction of the dam - said the man-made lake that would come as a result of the dam would submerge large portions of the communities of Progreso and Bajo de la Honduras, as well as the indigenous communities of Bajo Pacuar and Nimari.

Guido, quoting the environmental impact study ICE submitted to the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), said Bajo Pacuar would be the most seriously affected. He said Bajo Pacuar residents would not only lose many homes, but also land they depend on for agricultural use.

Members of the Costa Rica tourism sector also are calling for a halt to the project - the Pacuare, a popular rafting destination, provides some 500 jobs directly related to tourism and at least another 2,000 secondary jobs, said Rafael Gallo, owner of the rafting company Rios Tropicales, which operates on the Pacuare.

Gallo told The Tico Times the damage the dam could do to the tourism industry in the area "could be very, very grave."

"What they plan to do is control the lever of water," Gallo said. "There could be long periods without water or with too much water."

Lars Christensen, an independent guide who has been working on the river since 1994, said even if the flow of water from the dam were enough to permit rafting after its construction, "it's not gonna be the same at all."

While Gallo said the dam would be devastating to the tourism industry in the short term, in the long term, parts of the virgin area could be completely destroyed.

"In the long term, it is our children and grandchildren who will be left with dirty water. In the short term, our rafting and tourism, and in the long term, the world," Gallo said.

Mauricio Alvarez, an energy specialist with the Costa Rican Federation for the Conservation of the Environment (FECON), said the dam would have a profound impact on the culture of the communities along the river.

"The identity of the people have with the river is so huge," Alvarez told The Tico Times. "They've come to rely on it as a source of enjoyment, as something that must be protected for future generations."

Opponents of the project claim that ICE has begun construction access roads along the river without the respective permits.

Alvarez, who said he has visited the site and seen the roads, claimed the practice of clearing roads before obtaining official permission is commonly practiced by companies building hydroelectric dams. He said that in such cases, "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission."

He said FECON representatives filed an official complaint about the roads this week, alleging that ICE has obtained neither municipal permission nor the approval of SETENA to being work.

Some residents near the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba in early August lashed out against development of the dam by burning ICE machinery, deflating tires and verbally threatening workers.

Alvarez speculated it was the roads, which wiped out portions of trails traditionally used by local indigenous and farming communities, that provoked the sabotage.

The situation forced ICE to temporarily suspend work on the project. No suspects have been identified in the vandalism.

Rogelio Zeledon, an ICE official working on the dam, defended the project, telling AFP wire service that Costa Rica "has an extremely important hydroelectric potential, of which only 19% has been taken advantage of."

Zeledon and other ICE officials did not return numerous phone calls from The Tico Times requesting further information about the dam this week.

Residents of eight different communities along the river, including the indigenous community of Bajo Pacuar, have actively protested construction of the dam.

Guido, of Friends of the Pacuare and the Association to Save the Pacuare, said the groups have obtained signatures of more than 2,000 community members declaring their opposition to the project.

Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez briefly mentioned the possibility of declaring a portion of the river a national park last year - a move that would likely stop work on the dam (TT, Sept. 19, 2003).

Officials from the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) this week said they are still conducting technical studies to determine whether the zone warrants designation as a national park.

The studies would have to demonstrate there is sufficient biodiversity and that the zone contains threatened or endangered species, said Jenny Asch of MINAE's Protected Areas Management division.

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