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19 de octubre de 2015 | | | | | |

Costa Rica: environmental activist threatened for his struggle against hydroelectric dam

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In the first days of October, the chair of Costa Rican environmental organization Union Norte por la Vida (UNOVIDA), Otto Mendez, participated in a community meeting where the San Carlos Electricity Cooperative (COOPELESCA) would talk about their hydroelectric project "La Union", in Tigra de San Carlos, Alajuela province. At the end of the meeting, a participant of the assembly threatened Mendez several times with burning down his car.

"Once the meeting was over, a participant told me to leave, otherwise he would burn down my car. I was inside the car, and he yelled this to me several times", said the threatened environmental activist in an interview with Real World radio. "What´s serious to me now is not only the threat, but how the neighbors and COOPELESCA are categorically denying this ever happening", he added.

The hydroelectric project "El Futuro" was shelved a few months ago by the National Environmental Technical Secretariat (SETENA) of Costa Rica, after UNOVIDA and local community members gathered over 700 signatures against the project. Nevertheless, COOPELESCA is putting the project on the table again, now with the name of "La Union".

The Environmental Federation of Costa Rica (FECON) expressed its solidarity with Mendez and denounced the threat at national and international level. In a press release, they explained that at the meeting, Mendez proposed COOPELESCA´s general manager, Omar Miranda, to have a discussion about the promised job sources and benefits of the hydroelectric project. "In a community with many needs, the participants started to insult Mendez, an attitude that was allowed by Miranda", said the environmental federation.

"FECON would like to blame COOPELESCA for the eventual attacks against the life and property of Mendez or his family, considering the complacency attitudes with reference to the stigmatization and verbal assaults suffered by the activist". "We believe it is a shame that a company that is supposedly of social nature, carrying the flag of solidarity economy, acts in such a "transnational" way, by allowing intolerance and violence against those who think differently and oppose a certain project making use of their citizen rights", added the press release.

Mendez said that he is being accused of opposing development and this "provides a reason to people" for them to react against him. And that in this way, COOPELESCA could have "mitigated" the damage handling the assembly in a more careful way towards him. Nevertheless, he highlighted "I was not threatened by a worker of COOPELESCA", but by a person how approached him at the end of the meeting, when he was leaving.

A few days ago, the company issued a press release and a video where they "deny FECON´s claims over supposed threats against an environmental activist", according to its website. Mendez was clear: "I can accept that Mr. Omar Miranda had not heard this person threatening me. That could have happened. And also I could say the same for the many COOPELESCA workers present". However, "they can´t deny the threat took place. I think that on the long run we will have to go to court, because they don´t listen, they can´t say this didn´t happen, because it did", highlighted Mendez. "It would be healthy for instance that the company said that they didn´t listen to the threat, but they can´t say it didn´t happen", he added.

FECON explained that La Tigra, San Pedro, Las Palmas, Valle Azul and El Progreso, La Lucha and Chachagua communities opposed the damming of La Tigra River together with the Chachagua River, the only rivers without dams in a region with over 30 hydroelectric projects.

Among the impacts of hydroelectric dams, Mendez highlighted the division of communities, the "death" of rivers, the loss of species, among others. "It violently impacts ecosystems and especially the accumulation of so many hydroelectric projects in one region". Nevertheless the environmental activist is optimistic about "some good signs with positive attitudes" by the Environment and Energy Mining Ministry.

FECON warned in their statement that "stigmatization, threats, violent acts and murders against environmental activists are not isolated events, there are over 76 types of assaults against environmental defenders in the past decades". These attacks include individual and collective lawsuits, persecutions, direct attacks, burning down houses and shops, and even murders".

"All this violence has resulted in the murder of Jairo Mora, Antonio Zúñiga, Olof Wessberg, Oscar Quirós, Jorge Aguilar, Óscar Fallas, Jaime Bustamante, María del Mar Cordero, David Maradiaga, Kimberley Blackwell and Diego Armando Saborío, environmental murders that took place from 1975 and 2014, most of them which remain unpunished", warned FECON at the end of their press release.

Imagen: Federación Ecologista de Costa Rica

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