U.N. report on dam cites simmering native concerns

The current plan calls for a dam at the tip of the arrow and a large reservoir to the northwest. Graphic: A.M. Costa Rica file

A United Nations expert sent to study the situation of the country’s native peoples in the face of the El Diquís hydro project in southern Costa Rica says the government should address underlying issues affecting the native peoples in the country.

The expert, called a special rapporteur, recounted a host of simmering problems. Specifically he addressed in his 11-page report land tenure, representation, and the advancing of a law on native peoples, according to his own summary posted to his Web page.

The special rapporteur is James Anaya, a professor at the University of Arizona. He visited in late April and his report is available now in Spanish.

The Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad has plans to build a massive hydro generating station in the Río Térraba river system. Anaya notes that the current design would take 818.24 hectares of the Térraba native land, which represents about 10 percent of the reserve. The China Kichá people would lose 97 hectares and the Rey Curré and Boruca peoples would be affected because they are on land downstream from the proposed dam. Other native groups are in the area of influence of the project, said Anaya.

A cornerstone of international and Costa Rican law is that native peoples must be consulted before national governments make changes to their reserves and other holdings. Anaya’s report shows that there is frustration among the native peoples by what they see as the electrical institute’s heavy handed treatment.

Anaya said that such consultation should take place with the understanding that a dam may not be built. But it appears that the native peoples report that the electrical institute has not provided feasibility studies and the information necessary for them to make an informed decision.

Anaya proposed that an independent group, perhaps United Nations experts, be empaneled to facilitate the process of consultation. And the consultation process should begin at square one, he suggested.

The report said that many non-natives have taken over properties either legally or illegally on the various reserves in the area. There needs to be a way for the native leaders to recover this land, perhaps with the central government buying out those non-natives who have a legal right, he said.

The report also shows that many in the native communities do not trust their local development committees and see them as extensions of the non-native governments. The development associations appear to be in conflict with the traditional native leadership. Anaya said that the various native groups should be free to pick their own leaders and that the central government should pay for experts and other resources so they can negotiate on an equal basis. He noted that there is an asymmetry of power between the native groups and the dominant central government, in this case the electrical institute.

The Térraba have been irked since 2006 because the electrical institute moved heavy equipment onto native land to do geological studies. Anaya said that a sign of good faith was the institute’s announcement that the machinery would be removed. That happened during his visit to the area that is south of Buenos Aires de Puntarenas.

He also said that native groups and others have been unable to obtain the feasibility studies that the institute developed to justify the project. He suggested that they be released.

There also is simmering unhappiness over the failure of the Asamblea Legislativa to move forward a comprehensive proposal to provide more autonomy for native groups. There was a protest at the legislature over this issue last year and 30 persons were expelled by guards, he noted.

Anaya said that Costa Rica has an opportunity to be a good example to the world to resolve this issue in a way that shows full respect for the human rights of the native peoples in accord with a negotiated agreement.

The Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad said that the report was constructive and very positive and said that it is an important tool for consultation that will be an international example and a milestone in the history of the country.

The electrical institute reported some of Anaya’s comments in a news release but did not address his statement that full consultation means putting the construction of the hydro project in doubt.

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