By David Hill
26 January, 2016.- Large hydro-electric power may be cleaner than dirty fossil fuels, but it’s still dirty, as 170 organisations from around the world told governments and financial institutions in a statement released during the UN climate talks in Paris in December. It’s a “false solution to climate change”, they argued, saying it emits “significant amounts of greenhouse gases”, inhibits rivers acting as “global carbon sinks”, makes “water and energy systems more vulnerable to climate change”, and causes “severe and often irreversible damage to critical ecosystems” - to say nothing of the negative impacts on local communities and the 40-80 million people, at least, who have been forcibly displaced to date.
A similar argument is made by the Yagén Defence Front (YDF) in Peru which is fighting the proposed construction of a 600 MW hydro-electric power project, Chadin 2, which would dam the River Maranon and flood 32.5 square kilometres, numerous villages, and extensive croplands and valleys high in biodiversity. “They told us [Chadin 2] will bring clean energy,” a 2013 YDF statement read, but “it will generate large quantities of methane that contributes enormously to global warming. . . [I]t will destroy almost all the varieties of fish in our river and it will force us out of our lands and displace us into places we don’t know. No project that destroys the natural world and causes social problems can be said to generate clean energy. It is a lie.”
Three days after Christmas the YDF’s vice-president, Hitler Rojas Gonzales, was shot dead - with five, eight or 12 bullets, depending on whom you talk to - on his way home in Yagén, in the Cajamarca region in northern Peru. A 13 January ruling by Cajamarca’s Superior Court of Justice sentenced another Yagén resident, Alejandro Rodriguez Garcia, to six years prison for the crime and ruled he must pay 30,000 Peruvian soles (approximately £6,100) to Rojas Gonzales’s family. According to lawyer Mirtha Vasquez, from the Cajamarca-based NGO GRUFIDES, Rodriguez Garcia is the husband of Rojas Gonzales’s first cousin.
What kind of man was Hitler Rojas Gonzales and what had he been fighting for? Rosario Rojas, his sister, speaking from Yagén, told the Guardian he was “always fighting for the people” and was the first to come out against Chadin 2 and Odebrecht”, while Elmer Saldana, the YDF’s president, says he was a “good person fighting for the people” and committed to standing up against abuses.
For Milton Sanchez, from the Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina (PIC), Rojas Gonzales was a “much loved and respected person”, while Romina Rivera Bravo, from the Lima-based NGO Forum, says listening to him talk about “the struggle against Chadin 2 convinced you that it was possible to win, even though conditions aren’t in their favour.”
“I remember him as a serious man, passionate for his community, and with a fantastic sense of humor,” Camila Marino, a lawyer from NGO Earthrights International, told the Guardian. “He took us to Yagén and everywhere he went he was escorted by a little dog. There he opened the meeting with around 50 campesinos and discussed how he wanted his community to know more about the construction of Chadin 2 and how everyone in the region could be affected. He explained that their food comes from the very zone that would be flooded by the dam.”
Hitler Rojas Gonzales’s coffin and banners commemorating him. “My body, my blood, everything for the people,” reads one. Photograph: Anon.
Run by AC Energia, a subsidiary of the giant Brazilian firm Odebrecht, Chadin 2 is one of the two most advanced of more than 20 proposed dams for the River Maranon - the main source of the River Amazon. The dams are slated to be ultimately intended to provide power for numerous mining projects, such as the proposed Conga mine which has generated one of Peru’s fiercest social conflicts in recent years and is run by the US’s Newmont Mining Corporation partnered by Peru’s Minas Buenaventura and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.
Rojas Gonzales had been a long-standing opponent of Chadin 2 and was in the process of taking over as mayor of Yagén when he was shot, returning home from a ceremony just the night before. According to the 13 January sentence, he had been drunk and started to insult Rodriguez Garcia, challenged him to fight, drew a gun, pointed it at him and threatened to shoot, but the latter managed to obtain the gun and then shot Rojas Gonzales numerous times. However, many local people do not accept that version of events, saying others were involved, that it was Rodriguez Garcia who started things, and that Rojas Gonzales did not have a gun. The sentence makes no mention of Chadin 2, but what role might Rojas Gonzales’s opposition to it have played in his death?
Some people are tentative to draw conclusions. Earthrights International’s Marino says the connection between Rojas Gonzales’s death and Chadin 2 is “uncertain”, but it was “absolutely the result of the social conflict emerging in that area.” Antonio Zambrano, from Peru’s Citizens’ Movement against Climate Change, notes he was killed immediately after he was elected mayor and “it could have been promoted by the enemies he made directly as a result of his struggle against Chadin 2,” but he also acknowledges it could have been “stimulated by land speculation encouraged by investment in it.”
Others are certain there is a connection. “His death was a death foretold and a severe blow to the [anti-Chadin 2] struggle, and, although it’s difficult to prove it, we believe it’s very convenient for the operators,” says Forum’s Rivera Bravo. “He made things uncomfortable for the economic and political powers-that-be, and now he is no longer around. Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so.”
Claims and counter-claims are rife. Some people say Rodriguez Garcia was an open supporter of Chadin 2 and involved with it. Rosario Rojas, Rojas Gonzales’s sister, told the Guardian that Rodriguez Garcia had been providing personnel with food and lodging in his house in Yagén, while the YDF’s Saldana describes him as a company “worker” or “operator” who helped engineers with reforestation and provided transport to other personnel. According to GRUFIDES’s Vasquez, local people say he has been “the company’s contact in the zone regarding logistical issues” and “acted as a guide for company representatives.”
“The only problem [Hitler] had with his killer and his family was their differences in position regarding the construction of the dam,” Vasquez says. “Rodriguez Garcia was pro-company and pro-project, but [Hitler] was against it and in favour of the environment.”
Odebrecht denies any connection to Rodriguez Garcia. “There is no, nor has there ever been, any kind of relationship/connection between Mr Alejandro Rodriguez Garcia and Odebrecht, nor any subsidiary company, nor AC Energia, nor Chadin 2,” it told the Guardian.
Another allegation is that Rodriguez Garcia is selling land to Odebrecht, as claimed in Peru’s La Republica newspaper by Rocio Silva Santisteban, a journalist and former director of Peru’s National Coordinator for Human Rights. Odebrecht rejects that too, describing it as “untrue” and saying “Chadin 2 is currently in the engineering studies phase and is still far from acquiring lands.”
It is also alleged that other members of Rodriguez Garcia’s family have been involved with Chadin 2. “Local people accuse him of being a project worker, like his son Henry and his brother Hildebrando,” says Forum’s Rivera Bravo. According to Socorro Quiroz Rocha, based in the nearby town of Celendin, “Alejandro and some members of his family were working for Odebrecht [although] we don’t have access to any kind of contract. Clearly the problem is about selling land to the company. Hitler had been elected mayor and the crime happened after he took over. All this is what his family and other local people say.”
Asked to respond to the allegations that other members of Rodriguez Garcia’s family are connected to Odebrecht or Chadin 2, the company did not respond, saying it would need more time and their full names.
Odebrecht states it “emphatically” rejects any responsibility for what it calls the “lamentable incident involving Mr Hitler Rojas”, saying it is “not connected directly nor indirectly.” “The news going round on social networks and in the media are not supported by the report submitted by the Peruvian police that clearly states the motive and circumstances of the events that ended in Hitler Rojas’s death,” the company states.
Some are deeply critical of the Peruvian authorities’ response to Rojas Gonzales’s death, and of the 13 January sentence. Quiroz Rocha says that local residents claim four people were involved in attacking Rojas Gonzales, and that that is supported by the autopsy report.
“The only witness to the event asserts it was Alejandro who provoked the encounter and pulled out the gun,” says GRUFIDES’s Vasquez, who is reported to be appealing the sentence.
According to Ana Maria Vidal, from Peru’s National Coordinator for Human Rights, Rodriguez Garcia’s testimony was “automatically believed” and the sentence “ignored what the public prosecutor was asking for”, finding him guilty of “homicidio simple” rather than “homicidio calificado” and “punishing the killer with the lowest sentence in the Penal Code” - six years.
It is “incredible how still, in Peru, the lives of some people continue to be worth almost nothing,” Vidal wrote for Peru’s Radio Exitosa.
In October 2015 Cajamarca media reported that Odebrecht had decided to suspend operations at Chadin 2 and two other proposed dams called Rio Grande 1 and Rio Grande 2, immediately upriver from Chadin 2 on the River Maranon, until at least the end of 2016. Asked by the Guardian if that was still the case, Odebrecht says that construction of Chadin 2 is scheduled to begin in the second half of 2017 but “only if the agreement of the population is obtained.” Regarding Rio Grande 1 and Rio Grande 2, the company states it is “advancing with its Environmental Impact Assessments.”
Rojas Gonzales is survived by his wife, Amelia Rojas Micha, and six children, the youngest a two year old boy.