Rio Verde: 15 years of resistance against hydro-electric dams

In Mexico, hydroelectric dam construction is accompanied by serious violations of the human rights of thousands of indigenous peoples and peasant communities. Forced displacement, little or no compensation, inadequate relocation to unsuitable areas for cultivation, community organization breakdowns, and even loss of human lives are just some of the effects of mostly private initiatives, which are implemented with government support.

This problem is far from over as new hydroelectric projects emerge threatening the livelihood and quality of life of thousands of Mexican families, as it is the case of the company ENERSI S.A. de C.V. that intends to dam Rio Verde (the Green River) in the municipality of Santa Cruz Zenxontepec, Oaxaca state.

Photo 1: view of the town of Paso de la Reina in Oaxaca and Rio Verde in the background. Source: COPUDEVER.

On January 20, 2020, the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated during his morning conference that “no new dams will be built, Paso de la Reina dam in Oaxaca will not be built”. However, only one month later, the environmental impact assessment of this same hydroelectric project was published in the official ecological gazette of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT). According to it, the company proposed the installation and operation of a hydroelectric plant with power capacity of 17.9 mw, based on the deviation of 158.77 m3/s of water flowing through Rio Verde.

According to the complaint filed by the Consejo de Pueblos Unidos por la Defensa del Río Verde (COPUDEVER), on March 8, 2020, a Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), a helicopter was seeing flying from Pinotepa Nacional to Corral de Piedra and San Lucas Atoyaquillo, checking the area. It was also considered an intimidating act by the community members.


Background and the origin of COPUDEVER

The threats to Rio Verde and the ecosystem in the basin started about 15 years ago. The regional community organization process started in 2006, with the objective of resisting the Federal Government’s intention, through the Federal Electricity Commission, to build dams for the generation of electric energy. A year later, COPUDEVER was created and from then on their struggle continues. According to this organization, at least 6 hydroelectric projects are planned to be built in the hydrographic basin located in the municipalities of Santiago Jamiltepec, Santa Cruz Itundujia, Santiago Ixtayutla, Santa Cruz Zenzontepec, Tataltepec de Valdés and Tututepec. If all of these dams are built, the effects will be devastating and will mean the death of the basin, ecosystem and people’s lives.

In July 2018, the community managed to stop the infrastructure projects on Rio Verde through an injunction (701/2018) granted by the First District Court in the State of Oaxaca to the Ejido of Paso de la Reina. However, SEMARNAT and the National Water Commission appealed for review against the judge’s ruling. The communities understood this action as a “bargaining” of their rights by the government, thus favoring the companies.

Another attempt to build this dam occurred in 2019, when that same company presented the study for the first time. In August, the Chatino and Mixteco indigenous peoples spoke out against the project because of the serious effects it would have on their lives and the region’s ecosystem.

“Throughout our lives as Pueblos, we live together, care for and defend Rio Verde because it is the mother of our water and represents the source of life in the basin, in the Mixteca, Chatinos and Afromexicanos territories”, stated one of the community members on behalf of people from Sierra Sur to Costa de Oaxaca. On November 29 of the same year, the project was rejected by SEMARNAT due to inconsistencies, as disclosed by COPUDEVER on its official website.

Map 1: Lower Rio Verde drainage basin in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Rio Verde originates in the Central Valleys of the Oaxacan mountains and flows into the Chacahua lagoons. The Mixtec people, the Yutya Cuy and the Chatino Stäitya Taná, consider this river as “the mother of our waters”. The water gives life to the entire population of the area, allows them to grow healthy food and to support livelihood.


Effects of forced displacement

The construction of hydroelectric dams on Mexican rivers has led to the displacement of thousands of families. According to COPUDEVER,  big corporations operate visiting each family individually to force them to hand over their land, with promises of relocation and compensation that are later not fulfilled. They claim that the consultations are not carried out through assemblies.

According to one of the testimonies collected by the Movement of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers (MAPDER), those in charge of “convincing” communities members to sell their lands even threaten to kill them. “I told him that the land was not being sold. And do you know what he answered me? That, if the land was not sold, the owner of the land would disappear and then the widow would sell it”, said the resident threatened of eviction by the construction of El Naranjal dam.

Forced displacement is a multi-dimensional human rights violation that impacts the rights of a group of people who are forced to leave the locality in which they live, leaving behind – among other things – their belongings and support networks, and moving to a space in deplorable conditions – most of the time – in order to save their personal integrity (SÁNCHEZ-GARZOLI, 2016).

Photo 2: Villagers harvest papaya grown with the irrigation system from Rio Verde. Source: COPUDEVER.

Most of the displaced populations work with agriculture and livestock. These activities provide them not only financial resources, but their own food security. As their livelihoods are affected, many of these families are dispersed and end up in misery on the outskirts of large cities. Poverty is one of the main consequences of forced displacement. These families are deprived of access to adequate food, land, their own community and decent compensation.

Written by Clara Lorena Páez and Laisa Massarenti Hosoya


COMUNICACIÓN MAPDER. (2012, 3 noviembre). ¿Como terminar una comunidad de 140 años en 15 días? [Vídeo]. YouTube.

COPERACHA. (2019, 8 mayo). Río Verde, Oaxaca, diez años de resistencia de un pueblo. La Coperacha.

COPUDEVER. (2020, 17 marzo). Un nuevo proyecto hidroeléctrico amenaza al río Verde en Oaxaca: Copudever. Paso de la Reina.

EDUCA. (2019, 1 octubre). Pronunciamiento público de los pueblos chatino y mixteco de la Costa y Sierra Sur de Oaxaca ante nueva hidroeléctrica. Educa Oaxaca.

MACÍAS, L. P., GARIBAY, J. O. P., & JÍMENEZ, S. P. (2019). Análisis de desplazamientos por presas en México (2006-2016). Colectivo Geocomunes.

SÁNCHEZ-GARZOLI, G. (2016). Desplazamiento interno en Colombia: características y consideraciones hacia un escenario de post-conflicto. Dfensor, 4, 12-20.

SEMARNAT. Resolución Oficio No. SGPA/DGIRA/DG/ 9452 (2019) Rechazo del Proyecto de la empresa Generación Enersi S.A. de C.V. 29 de noviembre de 2019. Disponible en:

SOTO, G. C. (2007, marzo). El agua y los ríos amenazados en México. MAPDER.