Dólares y Dolores Along the Rio Patuca

The fisheries biologist had finished his presentation and the last slide remained projected on the screen, a beautiful landscape vista of the wild Central American river that would soon be dammed. From the tables in front of the screen a man rose and began speaking in a low voice. Because he spoke slowly—Spanish was not his first or daily language—I could understand most of what he said with my limited vocabulary.

With quiet intensity he told his community’s story, a litany of broken promises and affronts from the government and settlers. He curled his fist into his chest and concluded, “A ellos van siempre los dólares…a nosotros van siempre los dolores.” It was sad and beautiful poetry—“to them always the dollars, to us always the pain”—and, delivered in front of that slide, he looked like an actor before a matte painting of his own river.

This scene unfolded at a workshop intended to produce recommendations for protecting the Patuca River below a proposed hydroelectric dam. The Honduran government had approved this dam, known as Patuca III, and then asked the Conservancy to help them develop environmental flow requirements for the river (the pattern of water levels necessary to maintain the processes and species that comprise a functioning river ecosystem; click here for more information on environmental flows).

The Patuca, currently undammed, is the longest river in Honduras and third longest in Central America. Downstream of the proposed dam site, the river meanders through the largest wilderness in Central America, home to thousands of indigenous people living in dozens of communities along the Patuca.

To determine environmental flows, scientists usually mine existing studies and data, deploy sophisticated tools and models, and synthesize the expert judgment of researchers and managers who are intimately familiar with the river in question. But for the Patuca we could find no published studies, no data sets, and almost no scientific experts who had worked on the river.

With the dam’s initial design and other preparations well underway, we knew we had a small window of time to propose environmental flow recommendations that could be incorporated into the dam’s operating plans. Our challenge compounded by a small budget, we struggled to define a way forward.

We soon realized that the people with the most at stake with any change in river flows—the downstream communities of Tawaka and Miskito people—were also the people who could best answer questions about how the Patuca River really worked.

Collaborating with Honduran government agencies, we organized a boat tour of the Patuca River. The expedition consisted of Honduran scientists and engineers and Dr. Peter Esselman, a fish biologist the Conservancy hired for this project.

Traveling in long dugout canoes, the expedition stopped at 11 communities along the river. At each, Pete and the other scientists interviewed fishermen, farmers, and boat drivers about how they used the river.  They asked questions about which fish they caught and the crops they planted and how river levels—with flows varying dramatically across the year—influenced these activities (to see Pete’s photos from the trip, click here).

The communities also sent representatives to the workshop described above. There, participants repeatedly emphasized the tight linkages between the river and their lives and livelihoods. The Tawaka and Miskito people relied on the river for water, transportation, and fish, while seasonal floods deposited nutrient-rich soil in low-lying farm fields to maintain their long-term productivity.

Combining the information gleaned from these interactions with some simple hydrological analyses we developed recommendations for environmental flows to keep the river healthy. (Pete Esselman and I wrote a journal paper on this project and more information on the process can be found here ).

The fisherman’s speech—expressing his fear that the river would be harmed and his community wronged yet again—outlined in sharp relief for me the human dimensions of this work. Getting the environmental flows right was important for freshwater biodiversity and ecosystems but it was also critically important for these people, people with incredible skills to deal with challenges most of us cannot even contemplate but with almost no ability to influence decisions made in far-off capitals of government and finance.

Globally, people who live along rivers like the Patuca have been the overlooked collateral damage in the process of dam development. Most controversies over dams focus on the people who will be forced to move because they live upstream of the dam and their homes and farms will be flooded by the reservoir. But the Conservancy’s Brian Richter and others recently reported that over 400 million people who lived downstream of dams had potentially been affected by changes to river flows and associated impacts to fisheries, agriculture and water availability.

The Conservancy is focused on restoring rivers below dams to benefit both ecosystems and people and working with governments and dam operators to improve the sustainability of hydropower.

For the Patuca, we were able to shine some light on the importance of the river to the downstream people. However, subsequent events confirmed that there are few neat and tidy outcomes in conservation. First, the Taiwanese funding for the dam was rescinded in May 2009, halting construction before it had even started. But just last Fall, Honduras announced that China would now fund the dam , along with two other dams (Patuca 1 and II) lower on the river. The scale and location of the impacts from these dams will be far different than what we anticipated during the environmental flow process. What comes next—for conservation and for the people of the lower Patuca—is again shrouded in uncertainty.

(Image: The workshop focused on environmental flow recommendations for the Patuca. Image credit: Jeff Opperman)

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