Hydroelectric plant put to referendum in Sicuani: Cabinet chief cuts deal to end protests and cool tempers

Flaring tensions over the construction of a 200-megawatt hydroelectric plant were cooled Monday, after premier Yehude Simon signed a 4-point agreement with local leaders in Canchis, a province located in the southern highland department of Cuzco.

The agreement puts the Sallca-Pucará hydroelectric plant’s construction and the granting of mining concessions on pause, until the decision can be put to referendum.

The accord also guarantees that no criminal charges will be pressed against leaders for last week’s protests, in which 75 people were injured after a violent confrontation broke out between 2,500 protesters and 150 police in Canchis’ capital, Sicuani.

Molotov cocktails, stones and broken glass bottles were hurled by protesters at police, who tried to control the mob with tear gas and by firing shots into the air.

But before residents take to the polls, a full-scale environmental and social impact study, including the evaluation of impacts on climate, earthquakes, wildlife, infrastructures, landscape and forests, will be conducted.

Hydroelectric projects can be highly disruptive to surrounding aquatic ecosystems, both upstream and downstream of the plant site. Water churned out by a turbine usually contains very little suspended sediment, which can lead to scouring of river beds and loss of riverbanks.

And, depending on the location, water exiting from turbines is typically much warmer than the pre-dam water, which can affect fish and other aquatic river animals.

Another disadvantage of hydroelectric dams is the need to relocate indigenous people living and farming where the reservoirs are planned.

According to the World Commission on Dams Report released in 2000, some 40-80 million people have been physically displaced by dams worldwide.

Provision of the environmental impact assessment study will be put up to tender as soon as I get back to Lima, said Simon, who was accompanied for talks in Canchis by Environment Minister Antonio Brack, Justice Minister Rosario Fernández, Energy Minister Pedro Gamio, Minister of Interior Remigio Hernani, Health Minister Oscar Ugarte, and Agriculture Minister, Carlos Leyton.

If the study determines that the Sallca-Pucará project cannot be considered a sustainable energy source, given the human, economic and environmental impacts of dam construction and maintenance, a referendum will not be held and the construction permanently halted.

The plant is to be built by an international consortium, comprised of Spanish ENGEL-AXIL. It is expected to invest $180 million if the project is given the green light.

Approximately 400 police, called in from Lima and Cuzco, guarded the building where the negotiations took place, as more than 2,000 residents gathered to listen in via radio and loudspeakers.

Unrest has been building up since at least early September and Sicuani, the capital of Canchis, has been the hub of violent protests and road blockades since October 20, when residents organized by campesino organizations began to protest the construction of the 200 megawatt Sallca-Pucará hydroelectric plant, claiming that it would cut off their water supply and thus reduce crop yields. Blockades were lifted only when Simon promised to travel to the area for talks.

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