The Hydra of Hydroelectric ‘Sustainable Development': Infrastructures of Extractivism, Repression, and Violence in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico

Authors: Erik Post*, University of British Columbia
Topics: Development, Natural Resources, Indigenous Peoples
Keywords: hydropower, extractive industries, sustainable development, conflict, violence, indigenous peoples
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 32
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Small hydropower plants are portrayed as a prime example of sustainable development and their construction is experiencing a global boom. This paper analyzes how this portrayal obfuscates how small hydropower projects are implicated in predatory resource extraction, state repression, and violence through a case study of the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. Nahua and Totonakú land and environmental defenders contest the framing of these projects as sustainable development by the Mexican government and hydropower developers, arguing that they endanger livelihoods, lives, and ecologies. In response to a dozen projects, Nahua and Totonakú communities have formed organizations in defense of territory, including community police groups. Galvanized by this threat and the popular response, many of these Nahua and Totonakú organizations united in a regional council to coordinate popular and legal resistance efforts, drawing on a history of indigenous political organization as well as shared elements of Nahua and Totonakú cosmovisions. Extending the scope of existing scholarship on extractivism in Latin America, the paper incorporates sustainable development discourses and hydropower infrastructure into the analytical framework for investigating the articulation of extractive frontiers. Adding to the literature on socio-environmental conflicts over infrastructure, the case study demonstrates how multiscalar popular resistance has been relatively successful in challenging and stalling projects, even as land and environmental defenders have been assassinated, threatened, and repressed. The paper concludes that contestation over these projects has shaped political subjectivities, contrasting a state-sanctioned and corporate-driven ‘sustainable development’ socio-environmental project with alternatives rooted in indigenous autonomy and cosmovisions.

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