The many-headed Hydra: assessing the Indigenous-hydropower cycle in Costa Rica



This article explores the intersection of hydropower development and Indigenous rights within the context of climate governance. A historical rift between dam supporters and opponents has evolved into a contentious ebb and flow of dam proposal-resistance between hydropower industries and Indigenous communities around the world. Conflicts have recently intensified as dams are promoted as a climate mitigation strategy and are increasingly encroaching on Indigenous territories. Research analyzes a case study in Costa Rica, where an Indigenous-hydropower cycle emerged from a 50-year feud between the national electricity institute (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad or ICE, pronounced E-say) and the Brörán peoples over development of the Térraba river—each time the state proposed a dam, the Brörán peoples defeated it, and another would emerge in its place. In this article, I ask why dam building continues despite the multitude of critiques and documented negative social-ecological consequences of hydropower projects. To address this question, I introduce the adaptive cycle, which serves as a heuristic model to investigate how and why the cycle continues, as well as to understand the power, justice, and equity issues involved in climate decision-making processes. Through a political ecology framework, I assess the hybridity of interrelated social-ecological, political, and economic factors encompassing the human-water nexus, conceptualized as a hydrosocial territory. Analysis suggests a rigidity trap that spans across multiple scales of governance causes the cycle to repeat, and given the current acceptance of hydropower within the climate governance arena, the cycle is likely to continue.

Keywords: Indigenous Rights, hydropower development, Costa Rica, climate governance, adaptive cycle, political ecology

How to Cite: Hite, E. B. (2022) “The many-headed Hydra: assessing the Indigenous-hydropower cycle in Costa Rica”, Journal of Political Ecology. 29(1). doi: