People Power versus Hydropower

Affected communities say mega-dams put profit over people, environment

A massive, very active social movement against the loss of land and ecosystems caused by hydro-electric dams is making headway in Brazil.  The movement is little known in North America so far, but that’s changing. And it’s on the brink of spreading across the world wherever large dams are being built and waterways threatened.  

But what’s all the fuss, some may ask.  Doesn’t it usually only affect isolated communities, and isn’t hydropower a much more environmentally friendly source of cheap energy, especially compared with nuclear, coal, or oil? Are these anti-dam activists clinging to a kind of prosaic, but impractical pastoral way of life, or just trying to push the dams into somebody else’s backyard?

Not so, says Alexania Rossato of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) recently on a Grassroots International-sponsored tour in the U.S.  The 20,000 families making up the MAB anti-dam movement in Brazil, she maintains, “are not against hydropower or even electrical generation [in principle], but how it’s being done.”

Dam-generated electricity could be an innocuous enough idea, but it is the mega-scale projects that pose serious problems. And it mostly boils down to one major problem:  greed.  

The profit potential in hydroelectric dams is enormous.  The bigger the dams, the bigger the profits – particularly if one does not include the larger environmental and social costs involved in construction.  While big money winds up largely in the pockets of a handful of foreign investors and associated corporations, an estimated one million people have been displaced by dams in Brazil alone. Seventy percent of these people have received no compensation whatsoever.

And the people who suffer the most are—no surprise here—women. As communities and livelihoods are displaced or destroyed, particularly among indigenous communities, women are left to care for their families while men leave to try to find work elsewhere.  The community networks of support many mothers count on vaporize as their communities and livelihoods are dispersed. Faced with the daunting task of feeding their children and few options, many women become trapped in prostitution rings that so often accompany massive construction projects;  often they are plagued by resulting sexually transmitted diseases and social exclusion. “Women are also the least likely to be included in negotiations with corporations because normally, land and house titles are in the man’s name,” Alexania notes.

There are other costs. Despite being touted by energy companies as necessary for Brazil’s people and its progress, the 34 proposed dams are actually designed to provide energy to big corporations and projects, not people.  That’s why average Brazilian families, including those located near the dams, pay up to 10 times more for their energy than companies do—among the highest rates in the world. (Interestingly, despite their prolific energy production, Brazilians pay almost twice as much per kilowatt as North Americans.) Alexania points out that these giant dams in the Amazon mostly benefit industrial agriculture plantations, mining operations, and other megaprojects, most of which.have highly negative impacts upon the environment and social fabric of rural Brazil

The negative impact of mega-dams moves beyond the indigenous and small farmer communities along the river ways to the river itself, the land up and down stream, and all the vegetation and animals dependent on the river. With over 60  percent of world’s largest rivers (>1,000 km in length) already dammed, it is estimated that dams and their reservoirs account for 4% of green house gases.  GRAIN, a land-grab watchdog group, estimates that industrial agriculture alone accounts for between 44% and 57% of all greenhouse gases.  The Amazon is one of the lungs of the planet yet some of the largest dams in the world are projected to be built there. The issue affects not only Brazilians, but everyone.

The challenge for social movements like MAB are monumental:  a handful of powerful investors can meet behind closed doors thousands of miles away from the unsuspecting target communities, draw up their construction plans, calculate profit potential, and analyze which communities and government officials would be the most pliant.  So how can a handful of poor, disparate communities possibly resist this powerful force?  Isn’t the situation hopeless?

Alexania doesn’t think so.

She herself came from an area threatened with being bulldozed out of existence by a well-connected and powerful international consortium of investors.  But the communities mobilized, fought for and won major concessions, compensation and new lands.  Growing up in that whirlwind of community organizing, town meetings, negotiations with corporate and government officials, mass rallies and occupations of dam construction sites, Alexania received the best political education one could have.  After graduating with a journalism degree, she joined MAB so other communities could learn from her experience.

Since 2004, she has been part of the many victories that MAB has managed to accomplish. And the list is long. Only a month ago, they managed to stop a dam—before it even left the drawing board—in Jequitinhonha in the southern Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.  They have stopped many dams from being built, and for the dams they weren’t able to stop, they have secured compensation, land for resettlement and community development support. MAB’s current struggle, along with other mass organizations, against the third largest dam in the world, Bello Monte, has been reaching world headlines—much to the chagrin of the forces and companies behind the dam.  

What do dam-affected communities want?

Above all, “we want to be consulted” not bulldozed, Alexania explains.  Stopping the dams from being constructed in the first place remains the primary goal, but that is not always achievable. In those cases, one immediate and very basic demand is that if a dam is to be built, then the families affected must be fairly compensated in land, housing, and sustainable livelihoods.  While nothing replaces conserving existing communities the environment where indigenous cultures and livelihoods have thrived for generations-- even centuries – it is vitally important to engage community leaders in discussions in matters that so profoundly affect them and their future.  

One of their current major projects which Grassroots is supporting them with is the Tapajos River where one of the largest dam complexes in the world is slated for development.  Five dams will be built, flooding an area of 528.2 square miles or  212 times the size of Central Park.  MAB organizers are going door-to-door in the communities on the river, sharing the kind of information that the investors and associated government officials are loath to share.

International work—linking their network of action to movements of dam-affected people in other countries—is also a major new objective for them. The central issues of environment, water, women’s rights, and indigenous rights are where their cause resonates with millions across the planet.  MAB’s hard-earned lessons and strategies can help indigenous and peasant communities around the world that are in the cross-hairs of the global dam industry.  

Solidarity across borders is a key strategy for halting repression of anti-dam activists.  A global, united network of movements sharing information and strategies will help strengthen dam-affected or targeted communities as much in Brazil as in other nations. When international allies join in by mobilizing their action networks to pressure Brazilian politicians major dam projects such as the Bello Monte dam, it lends weight to the demands of the affected communities.  

Similarly, when GRI sponsored the tour of Alexania and her colleague Josivaldo Alves from MAB through the eastern US, they were able to expand their network of allies and to link up with more mass action and advocacy networks which can mobilize pressure on officials and corporations at key moments.  Alexania notes “Dam industry corporations are sensitive to bad PR,” and this forces them to be more accountable.

 “The process of organizing, mobilizing, and building awareness is a long struggle,” says Alexania, but the result is a more united, stronger peasant and indigenous movement that is making the world better for all of us.