Despite controversy over environmental destruction of surrounding communities, the Comisión Ejecutiva del Río Lempa (CEL) in El Salvador has began constructing a new hydroelectric dam in the Río Torola located in the northern part of the department of San Miguel in an area known as El Chaparral. Construction began at the beginning of January this year and is expected to continue for fifty months.
Proponents of the project say that the dam is in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol and has the potential to provide electricity to two hundred thousand families in El Salvador. Other touted benefits would include new economic opportunities in agriculture, fishing, and tourism.
However, there is great contention about the benefits of this project due to the resulting flooding of current communities. Contractors and government officials assure that those individuals who lose their land will be compensated and provided a place to live, but according to parish priest, José Antonio Confesor, of the community of San Antonio del Mosco, the majority of the local population does not agree with the construction. Others living in the affected areas say that they were deceived by CEL concerning the purchase of lands.
The project is being financed by a loan from the Banco Centroamericano de Integración Económica (BCIE) for 163 million dollars and by the government that has contributed 56 million dollars. El Chaparral dam is part of the Salvadoran government’s recent efforts to diversify and find cleaner sources of energy. The director of renewable energy in the Ministerio de Economía (Minec) has also recently expressed interest in the production of ethanol and biodiesel.
Because El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Latin America, alternative energy sources such as ethanol production and hydroelectricity are in many ways difficult to implement and are minimally beneficial when compared to similar projects in other countries. Ethanol would be difficult to produce independently since El Salvador does not have ample farmland to do this on a large scale, and hydroelectric projects in the past have done little for the displaced populations in rural areas since they usually are not the people in need of more electricity. What they do need is their farmland and homes that are subsequently flooded by dam construction. In the 1950s, many displaced persons from the 5 of November dam project joined guerrilla forces against the government.
Though in past years analysts have warned of future energy shortages in El Salvador, this month it was reported in the Diario Co-Latino that Salvadorans were consuming about three percent less energy due to current economic hardships. Furthermore, projects such as El Chaparral are not necessarily built with the Salvadoran population in mind. The government’s more immediate concerns in the energy sector is producing energy that can be exported abroad. This exporting of energy may indeed be beneficial for the economic situation of El Salvador in some ways, but it also deepens international debt since El Chaparral and similar projects are being financed by international loans.