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Ecological and Social Impressions of the Middle Patuca River and Potential Consequences of the Patuca 3 Hydropower Project

Esselman, Peter C.

The purpose of this report is to describe the outcomes of an 11-day field reconnaissance effort (starting 28 Aug 2006) in Honduras organized by the Empresa Nacional de Energia Electrica (ENEE) to capture and interpret knowledge from indigenous peoples within the Patuca watershed about ecological and social consequences the planned Patuca 3 hydropower project. A group of 12 researchers traversed 250 kilometers of the river in a large dugout canoe to conduct community meetings, interviews and physical surveys of channel cross sections and water chemistry. Sixteen interviews were conducted with individual and small groups of fishermen in 11 communities (29 individuals total).

The livelihoods of indigenous and Mestizo communities situated along the river are intimately tied to the health of the river and floodplain ecosystems. Fishermen reportedly capture 26 species of fishes and 17 species of crustaceans and reptiles to use for food. The dominant species captured for food are ‘tuba’ (Vieja maculicauda), ‘robalo’ (Centropomus undecimalis), ‘blanco’ (Centropomus ensiferus), tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and catfish (possibly Ictalurus furcatus). At least 14 species migrate annually between the river and the sea, suggesting that upstream-downstream connectivity (which may be interrupted by the dam) is a crucial ecological factor relied upon by many species. Reproduction and migrations are strongly tied to annual patterns of flow.

The river currently exists in a state that is altered from its historical reference condition. Compound impacts including extensive deforestation, Hurricane Mitch and sedimentation from upstream communities all currently influence the annual patterns of discharge and the ecosystems. Nonetheless, the river still provides many crucial services to communities, especially food, transportation and fertility for their crops, which are situated within the flood zone that receives flood sediments annually. Potential interruptions by Patuca 3 of key processes such as sediment delivery and the timing of floods are of concern to community members interviewed, though they commented that the predicted increase in dry season flow may be a good thing for navigation in the river.

From an ecological perspective, the greatest concerns about the predicted management regime of Patuca 3 are: (1) interruptions to the life cycles of migratory species caused by late onset of wet season; (2) extirpations of migratory species above the dam site caused by the physical barrier of the dam; (3) potential stresses (e.g., water contamination, decreased water flow) that may arise during the process of dam construction; (4) disappearance of important nesting habitats for reptiles caused by increased dry season discharges.  Fortunately, these management conflicts are relatively few.