Boruca Hydroelectric Project

This topic submitted by Emily Donohoe at 12:48 AM on 5/19/07.

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Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

Emily Donohoe
Costa Rica

Boruca Hydroelectric Project

The Boruca (or Brunka) is one of the eight indigenous groups of Costa Rica. They live in the Boruca - Térraba Indigenous Reserve, population approximately 2,500. Unique to the Brunka are their singular handicrafts and crafts, the Fiesta de los Diablitos (‘Little Devils Festival’) and their belief in mythological god Tatica Kuasran and his son Sancrawa. The Reserve is located 250 km of San José, at the foothill of the BrunqueĖa Mountain Range [1].

The Boruca and other indigenous peoples of Costa Rica are watching bulldozers move into their land knowing that their homes, their culture, and their way of life are soon to be washed away.

Costa Rica is one of the most racially homogenous countries in Latin America. When the Spaniards came they did not encounter the great native empires that they did in Mexico or in Peru. Instead, they found several tribes that were fragmentary and culturally diverse. Since Costa Rica is a land bridge between North and South America, its tribes displayed traits from either area, and sometimes from both regions[2].

Some years ago geologists from the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) found that important bauxite deposits were present in the subsoil of the El General Valley in Costa Rica. In 1970, the country’s Legislative Assembly passed law No. 4562, relative to an industrial contract where by ALCOA has (or had, we still do not know), the right to exploit, for 25 years and with a possible 15 year extension, a volume of up to 120 million tons of bauxite and the obligation to instill an aluminum refinery in the same territorial district [3].

Aluminum foundries require a great quantity of low-cost electric energy. The project was feasible provided a hydroelectric dam was to be built on the Rio Grande de Terraba. For this purpose the river would be dammed to form an artificial lake over an area of 250 square kilometers at its highest level [3].

This “Boruca” dam triggered off a series of movements of Costa Rican citizens against what they considered to be the violation of and putting at serious risk enormous extensions of the national territory.

On a national level, several protests were made that obliged ALCOA to desist in their project. But the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) has refurbished the objectives of the hydroelectric mega-project. Previously, it was to provide electricity to Costa Rica and some Central American countries, today it is to supply electricity for Mexican and some South American needs. In the event that it were to be implemented, it would be the largest hydroelectric project in Costa Rica. The hydroelectric project is so massive that it is being compared to the Three Gorges Dam in China. Despite international and domestic laws forbidding the relocation of people from their land without their informed consent, the people of this region have not been consulted about the project or their relocation. Some have not even received any official government information telling them they will have to move [3].

According to ICE, the Boruca Hydroelectric Project will have the following dimensions[4]:
• The area of the dam 260 Km2
• The height of the dam 230-260 m
• The installed capacity 1400 MW
• Annual energy production 5300 GWh

The mega-project involves the flooding of 25,000 hectares of land belonging to the indigenous territories of Boruca, Babagra, Rey Curre, Salitre, Terraba and Ujarras among others. As a result, thousands of members of these communities would have to be moved to other parts of the country, adding to the long list of peoples displaced by hydroelectric projects throughout the world. Seven indigenous reserves would also be affected, covering 20% of the total area of the basin, in addition to archaeological deposits and important pre-Columbian settlements [3].

Hydroelectricity is electricity produced by hydropower. Hydroelectricity now supplies about 19% of world electricity. It is also the world's leading form of renewable energy, accounting for over 63% of the total in 2005 [5].
Most hydroelectric power comes from the potential energy of dammed water driving a water turbine and generator. In this case the energy extracted from water depends on the volume and on the difference in height between the source and the water's outflow. This height difference is called the head. The amount of potential energy in water is proportional to the head. To obtain very high head, water for a hydraulic turbine may be run through a large pipe called a penstock.
While many hydroelectric projects supply public electricity networks, some are created to serve specific industrial enterprises. Dedicated hydroelectric projects are often built to provide the substantial amounts of electricity needed for aluminum electrolytic plants.
The major advantage of hydroelectricity is elimination of the cost of fuel. Hydroelectric plants are immune to increases in the cost of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal, and do not require fuel to be imported. Hydroelectric plants tend to have longer lives than fuel-fired generation, with some plants now in service having been built 50 to 100 years ago. Operating labor cost is usually low since plants are automated and have few personnel on site during normal operation [5].
Where a dam serves multiple purposes, a hydroelectric plant may be added with relatively low construction cost, providing a useful revenue stream to offset the costs of dam operation.
Generation of hydroelectric power impacts on the downstream river environment. Water exiting a turbine usually contains very little suspended sediment, which can lead to scouring of river beds and loss of riverbanks. Since turbines are often opened intermittently, rapid or even daily fluctuations in river flow are observed. Dissolved oxygen content of the water may change from pre-construction conditions. Water exiting from turbines is typically much colder than the pre-dam water, which can change aquatic faunal populations, including endangered species. Some hydroelectric projects also utilize canals, typically to divert a river at a shallower gradient to increase the head of the scheme. In some cases the entire river may be diverted leaving a dry riverbed.
Large-scale hydroelectric dams, such as the Three Gorges Dam, have created environmental problems both upstream and downstream.The existing research shows that hydropower is not only socially and environmentally destructive, but that it can also make a significant contribution to global warming, particularly in the tropics. Through the processes of growth and decay, soils, forests and wetlands continuously consume and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, the two most problematic greenhouse gases. When those ecosystems are flooded by the dams’ reservoirs, the pattern of fluxes of CO2 and methane with the atmosphere is totally altered. Plants and soils decompose when flooded and will eventually release almost all their stored carbon. Permanently flooding tropical wetlands will tend to increase their methane emissions as well as making them a net source of CO2 [6].
Another disadvantage of hydroelectric dams is the need to relocate the people living where the reservoirs are planned. In many cases, no amount of compensation can replace ancestral and cultural attachments to places that have spiritual value to the displaced population. Additionally, historically and culturally important sites can be flooded and lost. Such problems have arisen at the Three Gorges Dam project in China, the Clyde Dam in New Zealand, and the Ilısu Dam in Southeastern Turkey [5].
The Boruca Project will accelerate deterioration of soils vegetation and the hydraulic regime due to the promotion it will give to the building of highways and roads on lands that are not apt for agriculture in general, and due to the displacement of the population in the reservoir depression, the stimulation of migration towards the zone, speculation over private land and national reserves, and destructive exploitation of forests by logging companies [4].
For almost 30 years ICE has had a camp within the lands of the Brunca indigenous people in what is presently the indigenous territory of Rey Curre. Over all this time the Brunca have been mere witnesses of the movements in the place, but now they are talking. They say that ICE acts in bad faith when it states that they agree to abandon their lands. They also state that ICE must have used the attendance sheets that they signed in good faith at the meetings they were invited to by representatives of the institution to prove that there was majority agreement by the indigenous peoples to leave these lands [7].

Until now, the Costa Rican Energy Institute (ICE) has provided the affected communities with very superficial information, preventing their access to detailed written information about the true impacts that the project would have on them. Informed consent to the project is thus impossible [7].

With such an approach the government is infringing the Indigenous Law (No. 6172 of 29 November 1977) and Article 16 of the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples ratified by Costa Rica in 1992 (Law No. 7316, 3 November 1992), which states: “the peoples concerned shall not be removed from the lands which they occupy. Where the relocation of these peoples is considered necessary as an exceptional measure, such relocation shall take place only with their free and informed consent. Where their consent cannot be obtained, such relocation shall take place only following appropriate procedures established by national laws and regulations, including public inquires where appropriate, which provide the opportunity for effective representation of the peoples concerned.” Additionally, the government would be also violating the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, because the project would affect the famous Terraba-Sierpe Wetland, the largest Ramsar Site of the Country’s Pacific coast and one of the major mangrove systems of Central America [7].

What is the reason for so many social and environmental impacts? Contrary to the usual discourse of improving people’s lives by providing them with electric energy, in this case the project is aimed in the words of President Miguel Angel Rodriguez “at providing Mexico and the United States with cheap energy” (La Extra, 4 April 2001). At the same time, the whole project would generate large benefits to constructing and energy transnationals because the Costa Rican Energy Institute would seek “strategic alliances with large foreign companies” to finance the project (La Nacion, 21 May 2000) [7].

A revision in the design of the Boruca dam has been offered by Marcelo Antinori, Coordinator of Plan Puebla Panamá and Region 2 division chief of infrastructure and finance. The new proposed dam on the adjacent Veraguas River, which will likely be funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), will only flood 5,400 hectares and displace no one [8].
The Inter-American Development Bank was established in 1959 as a development institution with novel mandates and tools. Its lending and technical cooperation programs for economic and social development projects went far beyond the mere financing of economic projects that was customary at the time [9].
The IDB is the main source of multilateral financing for economic, social and institutional development projects and trade and regional integration programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is the oldest and largest regional development bank [9].
The Brunca say “Did the emissaries of power think that the ‘docile Indians’ would be willing to leave the bones of our ancestors, our plantations and our humble homes? They underestimated us because they did not know us (and they still do not know us) because the god that inspires them has made they overbearing. The spirit of all our ancestors, the mountains and the river, the air and the landscape, have no price. They have not realized yet that there are things that money and manipulation cannot buy. But they live and breathe for the god of money, they cannot understand. That is why they treat us this way.” Local people signed a Manifesto of the indigenous communities affected by the Eventual Construction of the Boruca Hydroelectric Project, which ended with the following words: “Our history, our identity and our cosmovision have since time immemorial been intimately linked to the earth, the rivers, and every expression of nature in our territories. To abandon our territories for us implies death, the end of our history [7].”

This is an issue that has been debated for over thirty years with invested parties on both sides. An alternative has been proposed and debates over the location of the dam continue. The debate over the Boruca Hydroelectric Dam will continue to develop and hopefully the stakeholders on both sides of this issue will be at the table when the final decision is made.


1. Working Abroad. 2007. Kan Tan Project, Costa Rica.
2. Info Costa Rica. 2007. Indigenous People.
3. World Rainforest Movement. 2001. Costa Rica: Opposition to hydroelectric dam.
4. The indigenous territory of Rey Curre. 2001. The Boruca Hydroelectric Project.
5. Wikapedia. 2007. Hydroelectricity.
6. World Rainforest Movement. 2003. Dams: struggles against the modern dinosaurs.
7. World Rainforest Movement: 2001. Costa Rica: Indigenous territory threatened by hydroelectric dam.
8. BICECA: A Project Of The Bank Information Center. 2007. IDB 2007 Civil Society Meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica – A Step Backward?
9. Inter-American Development Bank. 2007. What is the IDB?

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