A River of Impunity: The Situation for Environmental Defenders Opposing Hydropower Projects

Maureen Harris
Tuesday, July 26, 2016

“I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the sacred river and I am separated from my children because of the threats. I cannot live in peace, I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped. But I refuse to go into exile. I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up this fight.”
- Berta Cáceres[i]

A homage to Berta Cáceres
A homage to Berta Cáceres
Modified, original by Chixoy via Wikimedia Commons

The recent high-profile killing of Berta Cáceres, a grassroots indigenous activist who successfully led opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam in Honduras, was tragic and deplorable. It was also emblematic of the increased and deadly threats faced by environmental defenders around the world.

In a recent report, Global Witness documented a shocking 59% increase in killings of environmental defenders in 2015 compared to the previous year: the highest annual toll on record, with 40% of those killed indigenous people. Frontline Defenders has reported that 45% of all killings of human rights defenders in 2015 were linked to the defense of environmental, land and indigenous peoples’ rights, with the highest tolls in Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

Since Berta’s murder and the killing of her colleague, Nelson Garcia, in March, the tragedies have mounted. Earlier this month, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, another indigenous activist and member of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh) was found dead; in the lead-up to her killing Lesbia had been working to oppose a hydropower project in western La Paz department. On 21 June 2016, the body of environmental defender Nilce de Souza Magalhães was discovered near the Usina Hidrelétrica (UHE) dam in Porto Velho, Brazil. Nilce was a leader of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) and active in denouncing human rights abuses perpetrated on her community due to the UHE project, prior to her disappearance in January.

International Rivers is deeply concerned by these statistics, by the murders of our close friends and partners, and by the very real and ongoing threats faced by many of those we work with on a daily basis. We welcome the important and timely initiative by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders to conduct a thematic study on the threats faced by environmental defenders. In a submission to the Special Rapporteur, we have urged ongoing attention to this issue, in order to bring perpetrators to account, end systemic impunity and take urgent action to prevent further harm.

Reports show a recent spike in killings and conflicts relating to hydropower development, including in relation to land confiscation and involuntary resettlement. The risks to environmental defenders from large-scale hydropower are likely to increase. A growth in energy demand worldwide and commitments at the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) mean that numerous developing countries are increasing investment in hydropower dams in the name of “clean energy.” This is happening despite an overall decrease in hydropower development globally. Recent studies have shown that emissions from large dams in tropical basins contribute to climate change, in addition to dams’ other serious social and environmental consequences. Large dams are also frequently economically unviable, with costs overrun averaging 96%.[ii]

The Special Rapporteur and other human rights bodies should closely monitor the upward trend in hydropower construction in some countries for its human rights impacts and threats to environmental defenders. This is especially important when dams are built in countries with weak legal regimes, repressive governments and rampant corruption, or they’re built on lands and territories belonging to indigenous and ethnic minority peoples and other marginalized groups. Construction of large-scale dam projects often entails the loss of large swaths of community land, as well as extensive depredation of species and ecosystems and the livelihoods and cultures dependent on them. Hydropower construction is occurring in the global context of intensifying natural resource conflicts, as land and freshwater resources become increasingly scarce and new areas are opened up to exploitation, often by domestic and multinational corporations financed by international development banks and private financial institutions.

Murders and killings represent just one end of a spectrum of harm – from threats of violence to criminalization and restrictions on freedom of movement and association. In each of the regions where we work, community leaders, activists and human rights defenders face harassment, intimidation, legal threats, violence, forced disappearances and killings for working to protect their communities against forced displacement, loss of lands and resources, deprivation of livelihoods and violence due to hydropower dams and other large-scale developments. The perpetrators of these human rights violations have included politicians, government officials, state military and police and the private security forces of dam construction companies. Threats, violence and harm typically go uninvestigated and unpunished.

Large-scale hydropower projects are prone to corruption, due to the vast financial resources required for their development. In many countries, graft and non-transparent governance processes mean decisions are made behind closed doors. Affected communities and the public have limited or no access to information and cannot participate in the decision-making process.

Legal protections and environmental and social safeguards are weak or poorly enforced. Laws and policies covering rights to land of indigenous people, farmers and local communities are absent, lack clarity or are incomplete in many jurisdictions. Projects are regularly approved without consulting local people or obtaining their free, prior and informed consent. Impacts on affected communities are inadequately identified and managed. Their health and livelihoods are affected by water pollution; damage to local water sources, fisheries and farmlands; forced displacement and involuntary resettlement. By stimulating migration and land speculation, hydropower development frequently occurs in tandem with other high-impact activities, such as energy-intensive mining and large-scale export-oriented agribusiness.

In some regions, hydropower projects are increasingly developed and financed by private sector and state-owned agencies and banks. In contrast to multilateral development banks and other international financiers, these entities tend to lack human rights and environmental safeguard policies and grievance mechanisms accessible by project-affected communities. In the case of transboundary investment, laws and policies regulating corporate behavior in host countries are often absent, increasing the lack of accountability and the risks faced by environmental defenders.

Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres
Goldman Environmental Prize

Environmental defenders face particular vulnerabilities. Many are indigenous people and women, and they face intersectional discrimination. Those we work with often live in remote areas with limited access to information, communications, or avenues to seek protection or justice for the threats they face. They are fighting for basic needs -- access to food and livelihoods, identity, and survival as a community or as a people – against powerful economic and political interests. The avenues available to them are limited, and they’re exposed to heightened risks. Many do not seek protection due to the very nature of these vulnerabilities.

Environmental defenders opposing hydropower dams and other mega-development projects are often marginalized and branded by authorities and the public as anti-nationalist and anti-development, or as pursuing political objectives. They may be denied legal protections or face legal threats and intimidation as a result of this categorization. 

Each of these issues increases the risk of conflict between communities and developers and the threats to environmental defenders. Despite clear risks to environmental defenders and human rights violations perpetrated against local communities in many projects, actors including international financiers, development banks, transnational corporations, dam-builders, governments and others have routinely continued to invest in and push forward these projects without due regard to the consequences. 


  • Many of the acts perpetrated against environmental defenders are intended to instil fear into other campaigners and silence critics of destructive projects. Increased public reporting on human rights violations would raise the visibility of environmental defenders and highlight the important role they play in defending their communities and countries against the impacts of such projects.
  • The Special Rapporteur should recommend further studies to understand the extent and scale of attacks on environmental defenders and the risks inherent in particular sectors, such as hydropower. This should include broader issues of criminalization and intimidation of defenders and the role of both state and non-state actors perpetrating these acts.
  • The Special Rapporteur should analyze the legal gaps, deficits and loopholes that heighten risks for environmental defenders, including weak environmental standards and laws protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, land rights and customary title to territories and resources.
  • The upward trend of threats to environmental defenders associated with hydropower development should be monitored. The Special Rapporteur should consider the development of an environmental defender database to track defenders at risk and to link them to initiatives of organizations monitoring cases and providing protection. 
  • The Special Rapporteur should analyze the developments in transnational investment in hydropower dams and other large-scale development projects and the increased risks to environmental defenders due to such developments. Such an initiative would benefit from close collaboration with the Working Group on Business and Human Rights and other Special Procedures, notably the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Private-sector actors and business enterprises must accept their share of responsibility, and business enterprises should take specific steps to fulfil their legal and ethical obligations. All dam developers and financiers must respect the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior informed consent regarding projects that affect their territories and livelihoods, and adopt strict due diligence, monitoring and reporting procedures for the respect of human rights, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • International financial institutions and other financiers must explicitly tie their continuing support for development projects to the implementation of safeguards for human rights. Multinational businesses should ensure and make clear through both policies and action that they do not undertake projects in countries where these basic protections are flouted or absent.
  • The particular vulnerabilities of environmental defenders must be taken into account. Protection mechanisms should be developed addressing these vulnerabilities in consultation with environmental defenders.

[ii] A. Ansar, B. Flyvbjerg, A. Budzier, & D. Lunn, Should We Build More Large Dams? The Actual Costs of Hydropower Megaproject Development’, Energy Policy, March 2014, pp.1-14.