Avatar and the Damming of Planet Earth

Kayapó warriors, Xingu River, Brazil
Kayapó warriors, Xingu River, Brazil
Terence Turner
The sci-fi epic Avatar has not only broken records at the box office, but also triggered a wide-ranging debate about the exploitation of the environment and the rights of indigenous peoples. Director James Cameron described his movie as "a broader metaphor (of) how we treat the natural world."

Destructive dams are one way in which the natural world is mistreated. By the end of the 20th century, about 50,000 large dams had choked more than half of the earth's major rivers. This massive engineering program has wiped out many plant and animal species and made freshwater the ecosystem most affected by species extinction. It has submerged wetlands, forests and farmlands with reservoirs that, taken together, would cover the entire state of California. Dams have also displaced an estimated 60-80 million people.

Indigenous peoples are often powerless and marginalized and have thus been particularly affected by dam projects. According to the independent World Commission on Dams, "large dams have had serious impacts on the lives, livelihoods, cultures and spiritual existence of indigenous and tribal peoples." The Commission reports that in the Philippines, almost all large dams have been built or proposed on land that belongs to the indigenous people. Similarly in India, almost half of the people displaced by development projects were tribal people, even though they account for only eight percent of the population.

The Enawene Nawe are skilled fishers, and fish are their primary protein source
The Enawene Nawe are skilled fishers, and fish are their primary protein source
Fiona Watson/Survival
Just as the Na'vi people on Avatar's Pandora are connected to all living creatures, many indigenous peoples are intimately connected to their lands, rivers and forests. Displacing them from their ancestral lands destroys their culture, history and sense of identity.

Dams continue to threaten indigenous lands and peoples. Here are some examples of ongoing projects and conflicts:

  • The Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon would flood about 500 square kilometers of land belonging to the Kayapó Indians and other indigenous peoples. Belo Monte is just one of more than 100 dams planned in the Amazon region.
  • If built, the Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia will affect about 500,000 indigenous farmers, herders and fisherfolk in the Lower Omo Valley and around Lake Turkana in neighboring Kenya. If the annual floods of the Omo River are stopped, the crops, cattle and fish on which the communities depend will be severely affected.
  • The Bakun Dam will soon flood 700 square kilometers of rain forest in Sarawak (Malaysia). It will devastate the ancestral lands of the Kayan/Kenyah and Penan peoples.
  • Dam projects threaten many fragile ecosystems and indigenous peoples in the Himalayas. The Idu Mishmi, a community of 11,000 in Northeast India, will soon be overrun when 6,000 construction workers move into their remote valley to build the Dibang Dam.
  • More than 60 dam projects have been proposed and are under construction in Burma, particularly in the territories of indigenous peoples such as the Shan and Karenni. Human rights organizations have documented many human rights abuses such as forced labor, rape, and extrajudicial killings in connection with these projects.

Indigenous peoples are fighting for their rights and against destructive dam projects. Movements around the world have fought for the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent regarding projects that affect their lands and resources. This right has been recognized by the World Commission on Dams and by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

International Rivers supports the struggles of indigenous peoples to secure their rights, and helps coordinate many of their campaigns against dams that destroy their ancestral lands. Please support our work and join our struggle.

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