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Indigenous anti-dam activist in Peru wins top U.S. environmental prize

Date: 29-Apr-14
Country: Peru
Author: Mitra Taj

An indigenous activist whose lawsuits helped derail plans to dam Peruvian rivers to supply electricity to Brazil has won a top environmental award in the United States, prize organizers said on Monday.

Ruth Buendia, a 37-year-old leader of the Ashaninka people in the Peru's central Amazon, will collect the Goldman Environmental Prize and $175,000 on Monday evening in San Francisco with six other recipients from different countries.

Buendia's winning highlights one of several efforts around the world to halt mega dams proposed in emerging countries where surging demand for electricity outpaces supply.

Buendia said the Paquitzapango hydroelectric project - one of five dams envisioned churning out up to 7,200 megawatts in a pact between Brazil and Peru - would have flooded her people's traditional land, displacing between 8,000 and 10,000 people.

The government okayed the project without informing Ashaninka communities that would be affected, Buendia said, thus violating an international law on indigenous rights that Peru signed.

She took the matter to local and international courts, and the government eventually suspended its plans for Paquitzapango and other dams.

In Peru, where protests against mining and energy projects often turn violent, it was a rare peaceful victory for activists.

"There was no conflict," Buendia said in an interview. "We just used their laws that they were not applying."

The 50-year energy agreement was signed in 2010 by former presidents in Brazil and Peru as a way to export electricity to the energy-hungry powerhouse while creating thousands of jobs in poor, rural regions of its smaller South American neighbor.

The plan has been largely abandoned by succeeding administrations. But last month Peru said it was considering resuming work on another of the stalled dams, Inambari, seen as a first step before Paquitzapango and other projects can be revived. [ID:nL2N0M92FV]

At 2,200 megawatts, Paquitzapango would be twice as powerful as Peru's biggest hydroelectric station.

But the Ashaninka see the project differently, Buendia said.

According to traditional lore, a giant eagle once devoured people at the same swell in the Ene River where the dam would be built. The Ashaninka finally killed the monster, and his feathers floated down the river, giving rise to different Amazonian tribes.

"For us the Paquitzapango dam meant the eagle was coming back - this time not to eat us but to flood us out of existence," Buendia said.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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