A group of environmental activists traveling from Zacatilihuic to Tehuacan, Mexico were attacked Saturday after protesting the Atzala-Coyolapa hydroelectric project in the Sierra Negra, the mountain chain that crosses the state of Puebla.
When driving by Zacacoapan, a black double cabin pick-up truck blocked their way and masked armed men forced the activists to step down, get on their knees, face the bushes by the road with their heads down and wait while they sprayed gasoline over the bus.
When the attackers left, the activists turned their heads only to see their bus on fire. They weren't able to identify any of the attackers or the truck's details.
Some have pointed out the bus could have been attacked because it belonged to a company outside of Puebla, rather than a local one. However, victims believe it was an act of political intimidation for their activities against the hydroelectric project.
The Sierra Negra de Puebla is a region under constant threat by mining, manufacturing and other environmental threats in a mostly Indigenous territory. Activists and local residents fear the new hydroelectric may damage the region's ecosystem.
The project consists of three different dams spread across seven kilometers along the Coyolapa, Atzala and Huitzilatl rivers, affecting about 160,000 people in the Zoquitlan, Coyomeapan and Tlacotepec Indigenous municipalities in the Sierra Negra.
The plants have an investment of 327 million Mexican pesos (about US$17.5 million) and will provide energy to local mines and manufacturing enterprises for the next 30 years. The project will be taken over by the Hydroelectric Company of Puebla and the Hydroelectric Projects of Puebla, a branch of the Railroad and Mining Mexican Group, GFM.
The main beneficiary will be the Autlan Mining Company in Teziutlan, which provides metal alloys to GFM.
The main dam will rise 11 meters above the Coyolapa river, in Zoquitlan, where more than 77 hectares of forest will be chopped down.
Since it's a mainly Indigenous territory, the government must carry out popular consultations to approve the project. However, local residents have denounced it as treacherous, claiming the consultation shouldn't even happen.
“The mayor (of Zoquitlan) has sold out to the company,” said Martin Barrios, president of a human rights group in Tehuacan. "He resembles more a legal representative than a mayor. In a meeting, they had a screen, a mock-up of the project and a truck full of beer for the people.”
Barrios claims the project would affect local ecosystems, agriculture, ranching, water tables and fauna.
About 17 different Indigenous communities are organizing to stop construction.
Other hydroelectric project in the Sierra Negra, called San Antonio, has just recently been approved by Mexico's environmental department, despite being rejected by the country's water ministry and four of the five affected communities.
The San Antonio Hydroelectric will be built over the Ateno and Zempoala rivers and will annually require almost double of the rivers' waters. While the rivers only carry 350 million 837 thousand cubic meters of water each year, the project will need 614 million 952 thousand cubic meters in the same period.
Experts and activists warn this will be an environmental disaster, draining the region from its water.