Global rise in hydroelectric dams threatens tribal peoples


Survival International say rights of indigenous peoples are still being overruled by new dam projects

A new wave of hydropower projects is under way in the quest for clean renewable energy but tribal and indigenous peoples continue to be ignored by those pushing through the plans

The rising number of hydroelectric dams under construction worldwide, particularly in Brazil, Ethiopia and Malaysia, threatens the livelihoods and survival of tribal groups, according to a report by Survival International.

After a period of slower growth, the hydropower sector has recently begun expanding rapidly, with World Bank funding of dam projects increasing by 50 per cent since 1997. China has also emerged as the biggest funder, with involvement in projects in Malaysia and Ethiopia.

Survival International says that the rights of tribal peoples, which it defines as groups more isolated and seperated from society, continue to be disregarded despite international standards and guidelines established by the World Commission on Dams ten years ago.

'The governments of many countries, including most of Africa, do not recognise tribal and indigenous peoples as dam companies (invited and supported by governments) are more easily able to bypass tribal peoples' rights and operate on their land with impunity,' says the report.

It says consultations are often left too late - construction on the Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, for example, began in 2006 before the dam was approved by the environment agency, leaving the majority of tribes in the Omo Valley unconsulted and without advice on how the dam will affect them.

Brazil protests

Survival's campaigners point to the continuing protests in Brazil as evidence of the failure to listen to tribal and indigenous peoples and the damage dam construction has on their livelihoods and environment. In the latest in a series of protests, 300 Brazilian Indians occupied the construction site of Dardalenos Dam and held 100 construction workers hostage. The hostages were later released unharmed.

Hundreds of Brazilian Indians are also due to gather this week to protest the construction of the world’s third largest dam, the $17 billion Belo Monte dam in the Amazon rainforest, which the Brazilian government recently gave the green light.

Elsewhere, says Survival, the planned Gilgel Gibe III dam in Ethiopia threatens thousands of tribal people who depend upon the fertile silt deposits from annual Omo River flooding to grow food.

Also, the Bakun dam in Malaysian Borneo – which will flood an area the size of Singapore - has already displaced 10,000 indigenous people, with at least 11 other planned dams expected to relocate thousands more.
The main industry body, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) says it is developing a new protocol in conjunction with WWF and Nature Conservancy to 'improve the sustainability of projects' and that indigenous peoples would have their 'interests and issues represented'.

However, Survival says all hydroelectric dams on tribal peoples' land should be halted unless and until the tribes have given their 'free, prior and informed consent to the project'. It says in the case of isolated or uncontacted tribes, where consultation is not possible, there should be no development on their territories. 

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