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‘Nature Is Always Speaking’: Proposed Dams Threaten Indigenous People and Wildlife in Central America

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More than 400 dams are currently proposed, but thanks largely to a feisty indigenous resistance—as well as a non-profit—they are still yet to be built.

If you were to somehow snorkel up the Sixaola River from the Caribbean Sea to its source in Costa Rica’s Talamanca Mountains—charging up rapids, scaling waterfalls, and gaining more than 10,000 feet of elevation in the process—you would notice an apparent paradox: The further from the ocean you ventured, the more marine fish you would encounter.

Costa Rica’s streams are dominated by amphidromous fish and shrimp, creatures that split their curious lives between freshwater and salt. Species like river gobies, mountain mullet, and banded shrimp lay their eggs in downstream reaches; once hatched, their larvae wash to the ocean, where they develop until they are large enough to reenter their natal rivers and ascend to the headwaters, maturing as they travel. Navigating these vertiginous streams requires extraordinary adaptations: Gobies in the genus Sicydium, for instance, inch up sheer rock faces using pelvic fins that evolution has modified into suction cups. The climb eventually weeds out all but the hardiest migrants, animals whose stamina would impress a salmon. The Sixaola and other Costa Rican rivers thus function as what scientists refer to as “altitudinal biological corridors”—ties that bind the mountains with the ocean, the highlands with the low.

The Sixaola and its tributaries provide sustenance and spiritual passageways as well as ecological connections. As you travel upriver, you will pass through the valle de Talamanca, a lush, sloping bottomland whose indigenous residents, the Bribri, cultivate bananas, plantains, cacao, and yucca. The river sustains the Bribri, furnishing drinking water and edible fish like bobos and lisas, species of mullet. It’s also fundamental to cultural life: According to Jairo Sanchez, a Bribri member who lives in the valley, rivers serve as trails that guide “spiritual helpers” through the world, and thus deserve respect.

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Thanks !

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