Communities Worldwide Mobilize to Protect Rivers and Defend their Rights

International Rivers Program Staff
Monday, May 4, 2015

Around the world, the proponents of large dams consistently downplay or simply ignore the true socio-environmental consequences and risks of their projects, especially for local populations whose livelihoods depend upon healthy freshwater ecosystems. Such negligence too often is accompanied by gross violations of human rights, including the dispossession of indigenous peoples of their territorial land rights, and the outright denial of the internationally enshrined right to processes of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Such trends are perhaps not surprising when one considers that dam developers, focused on profit maximization, are often responsible for environmental impact and economic viability studies for their own projects, while wielding tremendous influence over government institutions. In many cases, dam investors are linked to mining, agribusiness, and logging industries that seek to reap benefits from extracting natural resources in extensive areas. This situation brings further encroachment into territories and ecosystems upon which local communities depend, which has resulted in numerous human rights violations.

Communities from the Amazon to the Congo, from Mesoamerica to Southeast Asia continue to organize in defense of their rights when confronted by proposals to dam the rivers they depend upon, oftentimes risking severe intimidation and repression. Here we highlight a few examples of community grassroots initiatives to  educate and mobilize in defense of rivers and rights from diverse corners of the world.

Tapajos River, Brazilian Amazônia

People who would be displaced by dams on Brazil's Tapajos River held a "Die-in" i front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in 2013.
People who would be displaced by dams on Brazil's Tapajos River held a "Die-in" i front of the Ministry of Mines and Energy in 2013.
Photo by Brent Millikan/International Rivers

Along the Tapajos River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, the Brazilian government has planned a series of large dams that would be devastating for the livelihoods and rights of the Munduruku indigenous people.  Moreover, the federal government has refused to demarcate a significant portion of the Munduruku territory that would be flooded by one of the proposed dams, as guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution. In response, the Munduruku people, with support from International Rivers and other partners, have mobilized to defend their rights through a variety of tactics, including denial of authorization of technical studies for dams about which they were not consulted, “self-demarcation” of contested territories, preparation of an “indigenous protocol” that defines how a process of free, prior and informed consultation and consent should be conducted, and participation in a public hearing on infrastructure projects and human rights, promoted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, DC.  

Magdalena River, Colombia

Along the Magdalena River, communities have initiated a movement to protect the largest river in Colombia, which has been slated for the construction of 15 new hydroelectric dams. When Upper Magdalena communities realized that El Quimbo Dam was being built without their knowledge and consultation, they created the Association of Affected Peoples by El Quimbo Dam (Asoquimbo). Asoquimbo began to demand the project developer, Emgesa, provide fair compensation for affected communities, especially fisherfolk and farmers who rent land and were not included in the census. Their case ended up in Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which also examined  the cases of all dam-affected peoples in Colombia. The Court ordered a new census for El Quimbo and defined dam-affected peoples as those who will suffer the loss of food and housing security, human dignity, or other fundamental rights – a precedent for Colombia.

Parallel to the construction of El Quimbo, the Colombian government gave Chinese state company Hydrochina the contract to prepare the “Master Plan for the Development of the Magdalena River,” which identifies opportunities for investment such as dams, dredging and a big waterway to transport goods for export (especially coal). Asoquimbo, together with Rios Vivos, the national movement to protect rivers, jumped to the defense of the Magdalena, and created a national campaign We Are All the River (Somos Todos El Rio).  More than 1,000 people participated in the first step of the We Are All the River campaign by following the river from its birthplace to the town of La Honda last March. Riding in canoes or walking, riding mules and taking buses alongside the river, people disseminated information along the way and educated people on the plans to develop the river. Participants in the We Are All the River campaign also seek to stand together in presenting alternative proposals to the destructive projects proposed in the master plan. The next stretch of the campaign will begin August 7 at the mouth of the river.

Panay Island, Philippines

Tumandok people protest the Jaluar Dam in the Philippines.
Tumandok people protest the Jaluar Dam in the Philippines.
Photo by T Lee/International Rivers

On the Philippine island of Panay, the proposed Jaluar Multipurpose II Dam – to be built with financing from the South Korean EXIM Bank – will displace an estimated 17,000 indigenous Tumandok people from their ancestral domain. No land has been allocated for resettlement. Instead, the people who will lose their homes and land are expected to migrate to nearby towns, against their will. The affected communities assert that the project proponents have failed to obtain their free, prior and informed consent as outlined in national law and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Despite facing intense intimidation, including death threats, assassination of one of their community leaders, and constant monitoring by military battalions, the Tumandok have organized themselves into the “Jaluar River for the People Movement” to assert their rights to their traditional territories. They have successfully brought the case to the attention of national parliament, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and South Korean investors. As a result of the community’s vocal and determined advocacy strategies, preparatory works have remained stalled. International pressure also pushed the South Korean investors to conduct a due diligence review of the project’s social and environmental implications before proceeding.

Kunene River, Angola-Namibia Border

For more than a decade, the Himba people have made known their objections to a proposed dam on the Kunene River. The huge Baynes dam project would put an end to their semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer livelihoods, which depend on this river in the dry season especially. In recent years, they’ve worked with legal advisors to voice their concerns; filed a complaint with the United Nations; carried out a number of large protest marches, and submitted declarations against the dam with their government and the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights.

Salween River, Burma

China’s Sinohydro and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand are proposing to build two large dams on the Salween River on the mainstream of the Salween River in Myanmar. These dams would inundate the territories of several indigenous peoples, including the Shan, Pa-o, and Karen. Since the area is considered an armed-conflict zone, there are three army outposts and battalions in the immediate area surrounding the proposed dam sites, which serve to intimidate local people and have been used to brutally quell activities deemed to be resistant to these government-backed projects. If these dams and others along the Salween River move forward, massive forced evictions and resettlement under the watch of the army is expected, fuelling internal strife and the possible influx of refugees to the Thai border. Resistance to the damming has been ongoing for over a decade. Despite threats and intimidation from the military, affected communities have expressed their opposition by organizing several protests and spiritual ceremonies, hoping their voices from the marginalized corner of the basins will be heard by decision-makers.

Teesta River, Sikkim, India

The Teesta IV hydropower project is part of a planned cascade of dams in this mountainous basin. It will submerge the lands of the Lepchas, causing the forced displacement of this indigenous tribe, the original inhabitants of Sikkim. The Lepchas have vociferously opposed this dam. They believe that the departed soul travels up the river and then rests at the bottom of the nearby Mountain of Kanchendzonga. The dams, they believe, will hinder the departed soul’s journey to its final resting place. These and other cultural beliefs have not been taken into consideration in the design of the project. In fact, the social and environmental impact assessment report of the project barely mentions the Lepchas, as they were not considered in the project studies, as defined by the Expert Committee of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Lepchas sought to correct this oversight, and met the Committee during its site visit, but they remained unaccounted for. The Lepchas thereafter boycotted the public hearing for the project, which is part of the environment clearance process. The Expert Committee recommended environmental clearance to the project, which the Ministry of Environment and Forests granted. This was done despite an international signature campaign against the project and findings of other reports. These reports, including the Carrying Capacity study of Teesta river basin, report of India’s National Board of Wildlife and report of the state’s senior forest official, questioned the cascade of dams on the Teesta river and its impacts on the Lepchas. The Lepchas have filed a petition before India’s National Green Tribunal challenging the environmental clearance granted to the project. The Ministry’s reply filed before the Tribunal does not deny a majority of the issues raised in the petition. The final hearing of the petition is expected to take place in May 2015.

Looking forward  

The above case studies reflect just a few of the many examples of how people throughout the world are mobilizing to protect rivers and defend their rights and livelihoods. These cases illustrate the importance of the movements of dam-threatened and dam-affected peoples as a critical frontline force in the defense of the world’s freshwater ecosystems.

Significantly, the companies and financiers involved in dams are often transnational or multinational in nature. This means that there are opportunities to leverage international and regional mechanisms, including the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises complaints system, the World Bank’s Group Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman, and the Inter-American Commission and Court on Human Rights, as well as launching court cases in the home countries of dam-building companies, to hold them to their extra-territorial obligations.

Since demands for recognition of human rights of dam-affected people are enshrined in agreements such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, international solidarity in these cases can therefore provide a needed boost when communities branded by dam proponents as “anti-development”  are pressured to withdraw from their protests. Legal challenges, community mapping to demarcate and assert traditional territories, and initiatives to raise awareness of the impacts of dams are all critical components of the struggles of local people which require ongoing support.  

International Rivers has for 30 years been a source of information about the human rights violations associated with large dam projects, and will continue to work  side-by-side with grassroots movements and indigenous peoples to help them meet the challenges of defending rivers and rights. We will continue to help them advocate for the realization of principles enshrined legal instruments for the defense of territorial rights, the implementation of Free, Prior, Informed Consent, and to collaborate on building strategies for the protection of livelihoods and rivers. We believe that to accomplish our goals of defending rights and rivers we need to strengthen civil society networks that unite grassroots organizations, NGOs and other key actors.

To do this, we need help to highlight and garner support for river defenders and their movements and to ensure the participation of grassroots leaders in public events at the national and international levels. We need support to bankroll and roll out legal research, draft lawsuits, organize community events and training courses, develop educational tools in appropriate languages, and for the exchange of knowledge and practical experience among movements.

In the meantime, as community advocates at the frontlines of defending their land and rivers continue to face repressive consequences imposed by governments, and threats to their safety, we need to build a stronger proactive response network, ready to raise the pressure at embassies and corporate headquarters. We hope you will join us.

Chixoy Dam: Reparations at Last!

On a Saturday last November, hundreds of Maya community members celebrated a historical event. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina asked forgiveness from the communities for the government’s role in the social, cultural and environmental destruction caused by the Chixoy Dam. Dam reparations set a new precedent – not just for Guatemala but for dam-affected communities around the globe.

The president officially presented the Reparations Agreement that the government of Guatemala and the 33 Chixoy Dam affected communities had been working on for many years. But the perseverance of the people in the Coordinating Committee of the Communities Affected by the Chixoy Dam (COCAHICH) and the savvy negotiations skills of Maya Achi leaders paid off. The agreement includes more than US$154.5 million to fund individual compensation, infrastructure, development assistance and environmental restoration. Implementation began this year.

The dam was built during a military dictatorship and financed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. By the time the dam was completed in 1985, more than 400 Maya Achi people had been massacred, thousands more displaced, and the livelihoods of 11,200 families subverted to give way to the dam. Survivors of the massacre were eventually moved to a resettlement village, but their living conditions have always been bad; they’ve lacked access to adequate housing, health care, electricity, water, education and employment. After the dictatorship fell, survivors partnered with international human rights organizations to begin a decades-long struggle for justice.

Governments and financiers seldom step up to take responsibility for the damages caused by their projects. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank for many years failed to recognize their obligations to address reparations for these communities. But beginning in 2008, Bank representatives, government officials and community leaders participated in a negotiations roundtable for reparations. The Reparations Plan of 2010 was the result, but political and economic interests got in the way and the plan was never implemented.

Then in 2014, the US Congress instructed the banks to ensure implementation of the 2010 plan, and the banks began to pressure the government of Guatemala. The US Congress made new loans to Guatemala conditional until the government began implementing the agreement with the Chixoy communities. And so the plan, four years later, gained traction.

Life will never the same for the Maya Achi. Their loved ones, whose lives were taken to make way for the dam, will not come back. But the Maya Achi can now begin to restore their lives, and restore their dignity.

Lighting candles for Chixoy victims.
Lighting candles for Chixoy victims.
Photo courtesy of James Rodríguez.