An hour by train from the magnificent Incan ruins of Machu Picchu lies the Vilcanota Valey. There, in the district of Santa Teresa, is the Urubamba River – the “sacred river of the Incas.”
While the Incans held it sacred, the government of Peru seemingly does not and plans to construct a hydroelectric dam named Santa Teresa II on it.
Back in 2012, the Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines (Minem) granted a temporary concession to undertake the required environmental impact and engineering studies to Luz del Sur (LDS), one of Peru’s pre-eminent electricity distributors and a subsidiary of Sempra Energy of California.
Despite overwhelming local opposition, President Ollanta Humala’s government has green-lit the $500 million project. The dam will see the waters of Urubamba pass through a tunnel almost nine miles long, after which turbines will generate as much as 280 megawatts.
About 2,000 families are scattered across 14 villages in the Vilcanota Valley, whose unique microclimate allows for the production of quinoa, coffee, flowers and fruit.
Tatiana Santillán, chairwoman of the town of Quellomayo and an activist striving to preserve the local environment, lamented that the first local people knew of the project was when representatives of LDS arrived to negotiate with owners of some parts of the land, leaving 24 hours to file an opposition request. “That,” charged Santillán, “is how this nightmare began.”
Santillán acknowledges the necessity of private investment to support development of the valley, but pleaded for this to be “smart, sustainable and responsible.”
As things stand, the 90 percent of inhabitants who depend upon agriculture will be negatively impacted. More than 12 miles of river will be drained to construct the tunnel, changing the entire geography of the valley.
Santillán denounced Santa Teresa I, a hydroelectric plant being developed by LDS near Cusco since 2010, for already damaging the environment due to mistakes by the company: four springs have dried up, excavation for a tunnel damaged rock irreversibly and one community has been left literally high and dry. She fears, “That is going to happen to us, too.”
Santillán further argues that because the valley has a direct environmental influence upon the World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu, Peruvian law forbids excavation, deforestation or other development. She has no idea why the government granted a licence to LDS.
The government, she added, believes Peru is undergoing an energy crisis, but Andean Hydro, another company “that wanted to do things properly,” was approached, only to be rejected by the government. Of Santa Teresa II, she declared, “We will not allow it.”
In December 2014, LDS held a meeting. A row of soldiers was at the door, allowing the entrance only of those deemed desirable, leaving Santillán and others outside. Scott Paton, a Canadian tourist, witnessed the episode.
The meeting was moved to another village where local media alleged that villagers rioted. Santillán holds that the media followed the government’s lead without investigating, ignoring those villagers who attempted to speak to them.
Adhering to a procedure set out in the Peruvian Electricity Concessions Act, Santa Teresa residents dispatched more than 10 oppositional letters to government agencies including the Presidency of the Republic, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and Minem.
No response was received other than a note from Minem in September 2012 requesting $270,000 within 10 days before the claim could be heard.
Santillán bemoaned that LDS has taken legal action, accusing locals of being “terrorists, violent and even murderers.” She concluded, “They are doing it to frighten us, but they will not succeed.”
Communication has been attempted with Sempra Energy, which owns 80 percent of LDS shares, but no response has been received. LDS itself declined to respond to requests for comment.