Contested socio-environmental imaginaries of water and rivers in times of hydropower expansion in Costa Rica

Francesc Rodríguez
The Chair of Technoscience Studies, Brandenburg University of Technology, Cottbus, Germany; rodriguf@b-tu.de

ABSTRACT: A wave of applications for private concessions to build run-of-the-river dams swept Costa Rica during the 2010s. These hydroelectric project plans caused concern among residents adjacent to the targeted rivers to the extent that a water conflict erupted in several communities of the southern Pacific side of the country. In this article, I use a multi-sited ethnographic approach, including a visual analysis, to explore the resistance of local people to these plans. My focus is on the contestation over the assumptions about water that are present in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of a hydroelectric project plan. By showing the underlying socio-environmental imaginaries that underpin the conflict over dam development, my article reveals ontological differences between institutionalised and non-institutionalised ways of knowing (and relating to) water. Reflecting on what I consider to be ontological disjunctions, I conclude that some of the technical aspects of the EIA report – such as the here-employed notion of environmental flow, which is estimated using only a hydrological approach – have constituted a technical orthodoxy, or dogma, that requires a rethinking of the institutionally dominant assumptions about the understanding and being of water and rivers in southern Costa Rica.

KEYWORDS: Socio-environmental imaginaries, environmental flow, environmental impact assessment, technical orthodoxy, water ontology, Costa Rica