When studying the detailed data of 220 dam related environmental conflicts in the Global Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) we see a similar pattern of violence as in other extractive sectors like the oil industry.
“Large hydro is a very big part of the solution. I fundamentally believe we have to be involved,” Rachel Kyte of the World Bank has stated.
Big dams are back, riding the so-called low-carbon economic development riddle once more. The World Bank, pension and climate funds, Chinese capital. Cash is flowing to dams like a wild-water river. Close to 4,000 hydropower dams of 1MW+ are planned or under way.
The 2000 World Commission on Dams exposed the massive social and environmental impacts plus greenhouse gas emissions from large dam reservoirs. The results were so ‘damning’ that the whole sector froze for some years.
But at least since 2011, the sector is again in full swing. Not only big dams, but also smaller projects are planned along entire river valleys, such as in the Indian Himalayas, the Balkans, Anatolia, Central America, the Alps, etc. These latter can also cause severe cumulative impacts and be highly conflictive.
Hydroelectricity is generally considered a form of renewable energy and dams are therefore legitimised by governments, companies, funding agancies, etc to pursue an alledged energy transition.
However, when studying the detailed data of 220 dam related environmental conflicts in the Global Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) we see a similar pattern of violence as in other extractive sectors like the oil industry.
Our study highlights how collective non-violent resistance is met with repression, criminalisation, violent targeting of activists and assassinations.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, called the pattern of killings “an epidemic”. And this is sadly the reality in many countries.
Some cases were covered in media across the globe, like the murder on Berta Caceres. But the silenced massive repression goes much broader.
Also, there is little recognition of the fact that the communities who resist are often not just saying no to a dam but are rejecting the narrow techno-economic rationalisation of cost-benefit or of technicalities for energy efficiency or ‘cleanness’ that is used to justify the dam.
There is also the usual ‘project reductionism’ that turns limited and flawed environmental impact studies into legal weapons in the hands of the dam builders.
Big dams are generally more disruptive, but smaller projects are often promoted under the same capitalist and corporate-led logic in large scale. Under these conditions, they constitute again a problem rather than a sustainable option.
There is finally many forms of ‘slow violence’, for example where effects of climate change and desertification are exacerbated by dam construction but poorly taken into account and yet they gradually make territories not able to sustain life anymore.
The first large anti-dam movement saw the light in the 1980s and has vastly denounced impacts of such projects. The First International Meeting of People Affected by Dams took place later in 1997.
Ever since, resistance has grown stronger, wider, deeper, wide alliances have been created across movements and with the academy. Studying the 220 conflicts in the EJAtlas we found that:
- Out of 10 categories covering the main economic-industrial activities, water management conflicts such as dams are among the most intense and conflictive (Along with mining, nuclear energy and fossil fuel projects).
- Indigenous communities are among the most mobilized social groups globally, and at the same time they often are the most impacted group.
- Resistance is largely non-violent and in the public domain: street marches, petitions, artistic performances, standing in rising dam waters, hunger and thirst strike, etc...
- Alliances against extractivist plans are on the rise, for example with trade unions of the energy companies, agroecology movements, pedagogists, etc. The opposition is increasingly propositional and proactive towards systemic changes.
- Spaces for alternative knowledge production are on the rise. This includes reports and community-based participatory studies, for example to detect specific impacts or to plan truly sustainable and community-controlled energy systems.
- Companies are largely responsible for intimidating and criminalising the opposition, and in many cases even for allowing assassinations to happen. In almost one fifth of the cases, protesters have been violently targeted and in almost one tenth at least one activist was assassinated. Rates are higher in indigenous territories.
- Displacement, loss of landscape and sense of place, land dispossession, loss of livelihood and loss of grounded traditional knowledge are the most common socio-economic impacts.
- Dam regions have mental health impacts too, such as in the case of the Pehuenche peoples in the Alto Bío Bío region in Chile, sadly affected by very high suicide rates.
How to move forward
Repression, criminalization, violent targeting and assassinations employed against activists are common features of dams. The data suggests that repression and violence in dam projects cannot be considered as rare cases of bad management but are a systemic practice to curb opposition and to legitimise different visions and proposals.
The violence usually occurs in an atmosphere of impunity, amidst a general mainstream acceptance of dams by governments and companies as necessary for sustainable energy.
However, it all begs the question what sustainability actually means, what it is supposed to actually sustain. Capitalist investments or life cycles? Violent repression that targets resistance undermines the emergence of alternative visions, cultures that are not only sustainable but actually regenerative, what some have also called ‘pluriverse’.
Communities opposing dams should not be called protestors but protectors of other life sources and other ways of life. Moreover, it is often in those same impacted territories where claims for an energy autonomy, sovereignty and democracy materialise in concrete proposals and small scale initiatives.
The broader path of socio-economic transformations that many communities and organizations have already undertaken is operating a profound epistemic, ontological and anti-colonial shift. By recognizing and appreciating this shift we can build a better future together, a more environmentally just future.
At the EJAtlas project, we are currently expanding the database of conflictive hydroelectric dams in order to create a representative sample of impacts, resistances, bottom-up proposals, etc.
We particularly aim at collecting data from (but not exclusively) countries with high numbers of dams (built or projected) but only few cases mapped yet (for example from Congo DR, Pakistan, Russia, China, Brazil, USA, etc).
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