Resolving the Boruca dam conflict in Costa Rica
Author: Jurgen Carls and Warren Haffar
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 11/04/2008
Since the mid-1990s, growth in electricity consumption in Latin America has averaged about 5 percent per year, one of the highest and most sustained
growth rates in the world and one that is expected to continue at least to
2015. To meet this demand, governments and, increasingly, the private sector
and multinational financing institutions are developing new power projects
throughout the region.
In Central America, electricity from new and existing plants
is being transmitted from countries that have excess capacity to countries in
need of electricity. This situation has made the region one of the world’s
hotbeds for the development of hydroelectric projects. This has occurred
alongside growth in ecotourism and the region’s identity as being a leader in
Currently, there are as many as 120 hydroelectric projects
under construction in Latin America. Collectively, these plants are estimated
to produce 22.000 MW of new electrical capacity during the next years from 2003
Many national and international researchers and activists
have argued that the costs, social, financial and environmental of large dams
outweigh the benefits. “The World Commission on Dams” has concluded that, “on
balance, the ecosystems impacts of large dams are more negative than positive
and they led, in many cases, to significant and irreversible loss of species
and ecosystems. In Costa Rica they are particularly controversial, especially
the Boruca Project on both environmental and social justice concerns”.
In 2002 The Ombudsman Center for Environment and Development
(OmCED) was asked by the Government of Costa Rica to mediate between the
national and local interests of the Government of Costa Rica, the interests of
the main stakeholder group, the Indigenous Peoples, and the interests of
potential financing institutions such as the World Bank and others, in regards
to the construction of the Boruca Hydroelectric Dam, located in southern Costa
On behalf of OmCED, a working group was established
comprised of an independent international finance expert, a representative of
the Government of Costa Rica and an external consultant responsible for
development issues and international cooperation. The main objective of this
working group was to promote a dialogue between the national institutions
involved and the Indigenous Reserves in the Buenos Aires region who are
potentially affected by the Boruca Dam.
In 2003, the International Peace and Conflict Resolution
Program at Arcadia University (IPCR) and the United Nations mandated University
for Peace (UPEACE) embarked on a cooperative examination of the conflict
surrounding the proposed construction of the Boruca Hydroelectric Dam, located
in southern Costa Rica. This project-based learning experience was developed to
bring together theory and practice, illuminating for students the inexorable
link between peace and conflict resolution and sustainable development. Through
partnerships with the Kan Tan Ecological Project and the Indigenous communities
in the region, along with field visits to the Inter-American Court of Human
Rights and local Civil Society organizations, faculty and students utilized the
mediation framework to identify the underlying needs and interests of the
primary conflict stakeholders.
With the financial support of the IDRC, the Boruca – Project
has been analyzed as a case study whereby a mediation approach has been put
into place by ICE as a means to secure increased electrical capacity in Costa Rica.
Specifically, this analysis assesses the value of this
approach, how it has been put into practice and its utility in securing
agreement for energy policy in Costa Rica. Using the “mediation framework” as
a new paradigm for identifying differing positions and underlying interests of
all stakeholders involved, as well as a method for achieving or moving closer
to sustainable development, an additional component of this analysis explores
what the transferable lessons of this approach are and if they serve as a
useful model for other countries in the region.
This manuscript represents the outcomes of the OmCED working
group and the field research results of Arcadia University.
The hypotheses outlined were:
a) “Energy needs and production is increasing in the region”
b) “Conflict resolution of the Boruca Hydroelectric Project
c) “Alternative energy options are feasible in Costa Rica”
d) “Regional Indigenous development opportunities in the
south of Costa Rica exist”
a) Energy Needs and Production is increasing in the
Electricity consumption in Latin America has averaged 5% per
year since the 1990s. For this reason, the area has become one of the world’s
hotspots for hydroelectric development projects. One hundred and twenty
hydroelectric projects are being constructed in Latin America.
Energy demand and production is increasing in the region;
however, there are limitations due to the conditions of each country as well as
restrictions based on local situations. In this context, demand reduction and
energy saving tactics are also necessary to meet electricity demand.
A renewable market development agreement must include energy
delivery according to needs, price stability, increases in local job
opportunities and development goals, as well as decreased carbon generation,
improved green image and financial support for the achievement of these
objectives. This situation requires not only rethinking the design of
electricity projects but also the public process by which the designs are
conceived and implemented.
Costa Rica generated 98% of its electricity from renewables:
80% hydroelectric, 15% geothermal, 3% wind and 2% from fossil fuel combustion,
making Costa Rica by far one of the most clean electricity sectors in the
world. Unfortunately, Costa Rica is losing its leading role in clean power.
According to the latest operational plan (2002), by the year 2020,
hydroelectricity will decrease to 67% and fossil fuel will increase to 29%,
while other sources will only account for 4%. None of the expansion scenarios
include a significant role for other alternative energies such as solar or
The Costa Rican electricity sector faces a number of
pressures from changing global and regional regulatory trends. The Central
American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) requires liberalizing energy markets and
the Central American Wholesale Electricity Market will also go into effect.
This greater cross-border grid connection will open up Costa Rica’s electricity sector to competition from neighboring countries.
Hydro-energy production is an option for producing energy
but on balance, the potential impacts of large dams such as the Boruca Dam are
more negative than positive on both environmental and social terms.
b) Conflict Resolution of the Boruca Hydroelectricity Dam
The Boruca Project has been chosen for this analysis as a
case study because of the speculation generated by this project, the potential
negative impacts of the dam, insecurities, fears and hopes of the main
stakeholders involved in the project region.
The dimension of environmental impacts outlined in detail
such as loss of natural resources, particularly biodiversity, sedimentation of
downstream areas and erosion of soils due to deforestation, reveal the
potential environmental impacts of the Boruca Dam.
Resistance of civil society groups and in particular from
Indigenous communities and environmentalists, was evident during the long term
planning process of the project.
Human rights, particularly those of the Indigenous Peoples,
enshrined in both international and national laws and instruments have been
violated and would have been further violated if the project was constructed.
A stakeholder mediation analysis has been used for
identifying different positions and underlying interests of the parties
The mediation concept of positions versus interests can be
used when thinking about how to design and implement projects. Taking into
account each stakeholder’s position, it becomes evident that these positions
may not reflect their desired outcome. Knowing stakeholders’ desires and
tolerance allows for flexibility in planning and implementation. It is crucial
to discover and understand each position’s interests, and why they hold the
position they are presenting. The early involvement of all stakeholders invites
dialogue and frames the argument around the positions, interests and needs of
Listening carefully to stakeholder positions, interests,
fears and needs in an atmosphere of confidence was successful in the Boruca Dam
Case. Listening was the essential element of confidence building. The conflict
could have been resolved earlier and easier had the forum for an adequate
discussion been available to the stakeholders right from the beginning of the
The analysis assists in preparing the necessary arguments to
either support the Boruca Dam Project or to rule against the project. It helps
the parties to underline their positions and needs while the parties themselves
will have to be ready to sacrifice some of their positions to facilitate an
agreement. It was through these dialogues that the authors of this manuscript
understood the reasons behind the positions of the stakeholders and also the
goals of the project.
Finally, after a thirty years process of planning and
discussing the pros and cons of the Boruca Dam, the interventions discussed in
this document, underlined by increasing national and international resistance
and pressure against the dam, the idea to build the dam was dropped by the
Government of Costa Rica and a smaller dam will be constructed in the region.
The design of the smaller project El Diquis offers many
advantages in comparison to the Boruca option as far as the size of the area
flooded, relocation of people, environmental impacts, number of archaeological
sites affected and finally the costs involved.
The Boruca Dam example cannot serve as a model for other
projects in the region because it has taken 30 years to decide not to construct
the dam. Yes the conflict resolution of the Boruca Dam was possible. The
stakeholder analysis and mediation framework applied during the last five years
can be used for comparable project situations in the region.
c) Alternative Energy Options are feasible in Costa Rica
A number of factors are driving the current global renewable
energy boom, for example, the passage of the Kyoto Protocol, growing awareness
of global carbon constraints and the high prices, security risks and
international conflicts associated with fossil fuel energy. The most important
driver may be the falling costs of renewable energy. The economics of
alternative energies are improving rapidly as the technologies mature, the
industry grows and the costs of conventional fuels increase.
Due to strong policy support renewable energy is growing
very fast. A series of countries including 14 so called developing countries
have some type of renewable energy promotion policy programme. Europe plans to make 22% of its electricity with renewables by 2010. Sweden plans to be oil free by 2020 and in Germany the alternative technology energy market is
Developing countries receive about US $ 500 million each
year in development assistance for renewable energy projects, training, and
market support. The World Bank Group is committed to a target of at least 20%
of average growth annually in both renewable energy and efficiency lending over
the next five years.
Costa Rica needs to rethink the energy project design by
taking into account not only the financial viability of a project but also the
environmental and social costs of power production. Full–cost accounting taking
into consideration externalities are therefore essential to promote optimal
economic efficiency of alternative energy production.
Committing to a fossil fuel free generation plan would
create a more dependable, secure and less expensive electricity system in Costa Rica then the current national generation plan. A clean power plan is well within
the proven resource potential of the country and the capabilities of the energy
The cheapest source of non-conventional energy is most often
conservation, through efficiency and demand management programs which so far
cannot be observed in practice. An 11% reduction in power demand by 2025
through demand management programs is a realistic approach. There are a series
of options available such as public campaign to save energy, load management,
real time pricing, industrial and appliance standards. Focusing on reducing
peak load can significantly reduce utility spending on new capacity.
New efficient technologies would increase these savings. New
metering technologies also allow for real-time pricing which can significantly
lower peak energy demand.
The Costa Rican electricity system is well structured to
enact efficiency measures because ICE does not struggle with split incentives.
The mandate of this public company is to provide the public service of
electricity as cheaply and efficiently as possible, not to make a profit. With
the CAFTA agreement, however, this of course will change.
Alternative energy technologies, namely solar, wind,
biomass, and geothermal, are under-utilized in Costa Rica’s energy sector. All
of them are economically viable when life-cycle social and environmental costs
Today, Costa Rica is doing very well and generates 98% of
its electricity with renewable resources. However, if the country follows ICE’s
present expansion plan, the country will move to 17% fossil fuel generation
which will cause environmental, security, and price crises in the future.
It is recommended to make use of the alternative energy
potentials of the country and revise the current expansion plan.
The emerging global carbon markets represent a very
important financing opportunity for renewable energy in Costa Rica. The country has already proven that it is very capable of handling these types
of projects. It was the first developing country to build “Joint Implementation
Projects” under the Kyoto Protocol.
The overarching barrier to the increase implementation of
alternative energy in Costa Rica is a lack of strategic vision and coordination
within the electricity sector. The primary players in the country must define a
coordinated national level “Sustainable Energy Strategy”. The strategy must
include a strong monitoring system and frequent evaluations to ensure
implementation. With such a strategic vision proper legal, regulatory,
institutional, financial and technical infrastructure can be created or
reinforced to encourage large scale and sustainable energy in Costa Rica.
d) Regional Indigenous Development Opportunities in the
south of Costa Rica exist
The situation of the Indigenous Peoples of Costa Rica is
definitely precarious, and it is unacceptable that these communities continue
to live under systems of marginalization and absolute poverty. The Costa Rican
government must take steps to clarify the legal structure and position of the
Indigenous Peoples within the country and its reserves. An Indigenous
Commission in the Legislative Assembly will be established and will lead the
task of reviewing the existing legislation.
This could include the change of the legal status of the
communities and the integration of the reserves into regional development
plans. Such an initiative would encourage cultural and ecotourism, mining
opportunities, agriculture and forestry systems. The practice of
conservationist agriculture, cattle ranching as well as measures such as
“Payment of Environmental Services” for the protection of natural resources
such as water, flora and fauna, scenic beauty and carbon fixation, are of great
importance for the development of the reserves.
The Payment of Environmental Services in particular is vital
for the protection of natural resources and constitutes an important element of
development for the Indigenous communities in Costa Rica.
Social organization constitutes one oft the most dynamic factors
for the development of the reserves. It is understood that the banding together
of different sectors of the Indigenous population under aims and defined
objectives should be economic, social, environmental and political in scope.
This includes having up-to-date legal certificates, legal capacities and
accounting, as well as development experience with community projects.
The lack of intended capacity and of local management on the
part of existing organizations is a worrisome aspect. Therefore the strengthening
of local organizations is seen by the authors of this manuscript as the prime
motor for change towards more horizontal processes of planning and
implementation of projects. By means of training, organizational support and
assistance to establish local services an “Integrated Pilot Project for the
Development of the Indigenous Reserves” is recommended.
An integral development focus must approach a new
relationship towards the non-indigenous population of the country, putting
aside discrimination, paternalism, clientelism, institutional authoritarianism
and other ill-advised methods. On the contrary, a dialogical relationship of
shared responsibilities between Indigenous and non-indigenous organizations
must be established as an indispensable condition, in order to maintain a
process of sustainable development of the reserves in the region.
In summary, the pilot development project should emphasis
the following areas:
(a) Legal framework and human rights of the Indigenous
(b) Social organization,
(c) Training and job creation,
(d) Program of production projects, and
(e) Local services.
Bio: Jurgen Carls is a research fellow at the UN mandated University for Peace, in the department of Environment, Peace and Security. Warren Haffar works with Arcadia University in the United States.