Private Hydropower and the Politics of Nature in Mexico's Sierra Madre Oriental
AuthorSilber-Coats, Noah Robert
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis thesis concerns a boom in hydropower development in the central Mexican state of Veracruz. There has been a recent resurgence in hydropower globally, re-framed as clean energy and financed by private investors. Along with this, there has been a surge of interest in small hydropower, which is presented as more sustainable than large dams. Focusing on one river basin, the Bobos-Nautla where numerous small/private hydropower projects are currently being contested, I seek to understand how the trajectory of this process is shaped by (re)configurations of actors and institutions at multiple scales, and how this leads to particular places being constructed as sites of development. My theoretical approach draws on environmental governance, political ecology and Science, Technology and Society (STS), to build a framework for answering these questions. In order to contextualize the conflicts that are at the center of this research, I first consider the historical background of dam conflicts, both internationally and with a focus on Mexico. In the latter part, I trace the history of the electric industry in Mexico, its connections with water governance and the way that authority over rivers has been redefined through this process. Turning to the Bobos-Nautla river basin, I begin by following the history of hydropower development in these rivers, showing the numerous parallels between conflicts in the early 20th century and the current moment. I then follow the politics of environmental regulation surrounding the currently contested projects, arguing that defining what counts as protecting nature is a key terrain of struggle. In the final chapter, I look at the contested impacts of development on river flows and springs that supply water to rural communities, contrasting a narrative of untapped abundance espoused by project proponents with a narrative of scarcity and depletion advanced by opponents. Ultimately, I argue that these projects are planned in a way that systematically ignores their potential impacts and sidelines the communities most directly affected by them. But I end on a hopeful note, arguing that the shift to small/private hydropower provides opportunities for a different approach, even if currently the one being followed favors an extractive model of development.
Degree ProgramGraduate College