Going Under: Indigenous Peoples and the Struggle Against Large Dams

During the past few years, the resistance of indigenous and other minority communities to the construction of large dams has intensified and become increasingly better coordinated. In some regions, local resistance has become better organized and more effective. Globally, strengthening transnational ties contribute information, resources, and political leverage to the struggle. Both of these sets of processes contribute to and benefit from the widening acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous groups.

The construction of large dams continues to fuel an intense debate between dam proponents and opponents, a debate which hinges on different perceptions of the economic, social, and environmental benefits and impacts of large dams. Highly controversial undertakings, large dams are seen by their proponents as a relatively efficient means to store critically needed water, to produce electricity, and to control the flow of rivers. Critics cite their negative environmental and social impacts, particularly the relocation of masses of people, who are largely members of indigenous and politically marginal socioeconomic communities.

The debate over dams is further complicated in countries where large dams remain potent symbols for nationalist pride, and are revered as evidence of a nation's progress, the commitment to modernization, and the ability of humans to tame and reshape nature through technical ingenuity. Large dams, among the largest structures built by humans, are as much a symbolic expression of a particular development ideology and an attitude toward nature as they are concrete and rock structures that generate electricity, store water, tame floods, and displace communities. But what some see as monuments to progress, others see as monuments to political corruption and social inequity.

Controversies over dams are not just simple disagreements about whether one dam or another is or is not a viable project. They strike right to the heart of the philosophical, political, and moral debates about contemporary development efforts. At the heart of this debate is a fundamental difference in world views, views which reflect different sets of assumptions about "the good life," "the common good," the relationship of humans to nature, and the means of and the cost at which development is to be achieved. Depending on one's views, rivers may be revered as living deities, valued as the center piece of complex habitats, or coveted for the stock of water flowing untapped to the sea.

The history of dams goes back thousands of years, but the history of large dams (those measuring 15 meters or more from foundation to crest) spans only the past six decades. During this time, the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), the leading association of the $20 billion per year dam industry, estimates that the world's rivers have been reshaped and regulated by means of more than 40,000 large dams. More than 35,000 of these have been erected since 1950. China has constructed more than 19,000 since 1949. India has built more than 3,000 since independence. The United States, Japan, and the former Soviet Union have also been active dam builders.

Dams and Consequences

As the articles in this issue illustrate, the ecological and social consequences of large dams have been extensive. Worldwide, reservoirs created by these dams are estimated to have a combined storage capacity of 10,000 cubic kilometers, equal to five times the volume of water in all the rivers in the world. More than 400,000 square kilometers -- an area equivalent to the size of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania -- have been inundated by reservoirs worldwide. In the US alone, reservoirs have submerged an area equivalent to New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Among these submerged acres are fertile flood plains and the rich wildlife habitats of marshes and forests. To dam planners, areas proposed as reservoirs seem like remote and sparsely populated regions with underutilized water resources. But the strips of farmland and forest scheduled for inundation are usually the best available lands in the region and more economically important than their size might suggest. They are also more culturally important than is recognized by planners.

The human consequences of large dams are even more dramatic than the ecological consequences. Forced resettlement associated with the construction of dams and the filling of their reservoirs displaces and destabilizes communities. The unfortunate reality has been that development for some has been built upon the impoverishment of others. It has been clearly demonstrated that the impoverishment of displaced people is a major risk in development-caused involuntary population resettlement. Empirical evidence shows that impoverishment and social disruption are not minor risks: these have been the reality for the great majority of people involuntarily displaced by development.

Displaced Peoples

The scale of this problem is enormous. No one can say how many people have been displaced by dams -- dam builders have not kept count -- and once displaced, many oustees (as displaced people are called in India) become politically invisible and disappear into the masses of urban poor and landless. A conservative estimate of the number of people displaced by dams in the past fifty years is 50-60 million people. A World Bank study concluded that worldwide during the current decade million people per year have been displaced by development programs -- more than the number of people displaced by war and natural disasters.

The overwhelming majority of these displaced people have been poor and politically powerless, and a disproportionately large number of them are members of indigenous communities. In India alone, more than 20 million people have been displaced in the past four decades and it has been estimated that as many as 75 percent of these people have not been rehabilitated. According to Indian government estimates, 40 percent of all those who have been displaced by dams are adivasis, who represent less than 6 percent of the Indian population. Similarly, in the Philippines, almost all large dams have been constructed in areas occupied by the country's indigenous people. Worldwide, these "oustees" have, in most cases, been economically, culturally, and emotionally devastated by relocation.

Dams are tangible and dramatic evidence that fuel modernist convictions that humans can obtain mastery over nature. This position derives from a convergence of two views of nature, one sees nature as threatening and dangerous -- in need of containment, and the other sees nature as a stockroom of resources to be exploited for technological advancement. So long as the most pressing problem is defined as one of water or energy shortage, or the need to maximize the exploitation of water resources for "modern development," it appears justifiable to appropriate resources from one segment of society for the benefit of another. The aggregate calculations of costs and benefits is used to justify resource appropriation when one segment of society argues that they can exploit these resources more efficiently than they are currently being exploited. The justification for the appropriation of flowing water resources places a high value on water and energy while ignoring other resources currently exploited by communities living within river basins and it obscures issues related to the distribution of benefits.

What dams allow is the appropriation of resources from rural, low-resource-use populations and the diversion of benefits to more politically-visible, high-resource-use, urban populations. This transfer or redistribution of resources from low-resource-use populations to high-resource-use populations is done without the consent of the low-use group and is justified in terms of both human need and progress. Resources perceived as unused or wasted are taken as part of the manifest destiny of high-use portions of the population. The failure to adequately address the problems associated with involuntary displacement by dams means that some people enjoy the gains while others share only the costs and pains of this "development." Proponents have justified these projects by stressing the needs of water- and energy-starved populations, while opponents have stressed the incalculable loss of unique environmental and social resources.

Part of the problem, is the means by which the costs and benfits of dams are calculated. Cost/benefit analyses (CBAs) generally weigh projections of aggregate costs against aggregate benefits of dam projects without regard for the distribution of these costs and benefits. Negative project impacts are justified by this method when the aggregate benefits outweigh the sum of the costs (the calculation of which may include some but never accounts for all of the adverse effects on displaced peoples). In practice the costs of dams have not been fully accounted for and benefits have been consistently overestimated. Analysts have generally minimized the estimated value of resources lost through the alteration of ecosystems and maximized the estimated benefits of diverting water resources. The practice of externalizing costs allows planners to tolerate greater risks -- risks which could have been prevented or mitigated. Social costs, in particular, have not been fully accounted for in these estimates and some real costs are externalized out of project calculations and left to be borne by the displaced populations.

Resettlement Kills

Numerous case studies have demonstrated that forced displacement tears apart communities and disperses the fragments, disrupts patterns of social interaction and interpersonal ties, destabilizes and renders useless integral reciprocal help networks, and scatters kin and other social groups. This dismantling of social ties may leave the individual people physically intact, at least in the short term, but it destroys communities. The result is widespread anomie, insecurity, and a loss of cultural identity that compounds the loss of natural and manmade capital. The great majority of people displaced by dams have statistically disappeared, swallowed up by urban slums and camps of migrant laborers.

Indigenous groups are more vulnerable than others to the risks discussed above. Their remote areas of residence are often a last refuge from cultural assimilation. Evidence suggests that very few indigenous people ever recover from the economic and psychological disruption caused by dislocation. Displacement severs what are often strong spiritual and cultural attachments to land and threaten communal bonds and cultural practices which hold these societies together.

The devotion to progress and modernization that justifies large dams and sees a specific kind of change as inevitable has been expressed by Vidyut Joshi, a supporter of the massive Sardar Sarovar dam project in India:

"We have welcomed change in the name of progress, development and modernization. This being so, why should we object when tribal culture changes? A culture based on lower levels of technology and quality of life is bound to give way to a culture with a superior technology and higher quality of life. This is development. What has happened to us is bound to happen to them because we are part of the same society."

This view devalues tribal ways of life and alternative relationships with the environment, especially where conflict over resources is at issue. Instead it makes clear the conviction that dominant elements of society are justified and even duty-bound to force change on marginal populations.

While existing guidelines for dam construction suggest that projects should result in an improved standard of living for project affected people; however, the evidence reveals that just the opposite has happened. Measured by income levels alone, displaced populations which had no appreciable measurable income prior to relocation may show statistical improvement in income levels. But this narrow measure fails to account for the full value of their previous lifestyle and the full effect of the shift from a subsistence to a cash economy. Measured against their previous levels of leisure, dietary diversity, stores of social capital, and access to forest and river resources, the exploitable assets of displaced people generally decrease and their lives worsen socially and economically. Diets decline and mortality rates increase.

The Struggle Against Dams and the Quest for New Practices

The articles in this issue identify many of the problems with past practices and highlight the central issues in the evolving debate over how productive steps can be taken to a new set of practices. Numerous case studies have demonstrated the degree to which the relationships among dam affected peoples, governments, and the dam building industry are dysfunctional. These relationships are now imbued with misunderstanding and distrust and trust is not apt to be easily regained.

Compensation, modeled on the the values of the dominant society, are often designated in a way that aggravates rather than mitigates the negative impacts of the social disruption caused by involuntary displacement. For example, compensation provided to men but not to women, and to nuclear families but not to larger social units fails to account for extended family and communal structures. In addition, this compensation overlooks the importance of common property (forested land, water bodies, grazing land, sacred grounds, etc.). After displacement, frequent participation in group activities decreases and leaders, rendered powerless in the relocation process, become conspicuously absent from new settlements. The widespread loss of fundamental social capital remains unperceived by planners and uncompensated by relocation schemes.

Given the history of dam construction and compensation, it is hardly surprising that the indigenous groups and marginalized people affected by dams have become convinced that resistance to projects is one of their few viable alternatives. Resistance has proven to be far more effective at protecting their long term interests than cooperation.

What is needed is not simply a more informed mechanism for identifying and calculating the costs and benefits of building dams, but both a more fundamental transformation of the way development decisions are made and a reexamination of the measures by which difficult development tradeoffs should be weighed. There is no justice in destroying one community to quench the energy and water thirsts of another.

The situation is not yet changing significantly but several recent developments are promising signs of a potential for change. Building upon effective movements opposing dams in South Asia, the Philippines, Latin America and elsewhere, dam opponents have built international networks and demonstrated that they are not powerless. An international conference of dam-affected people held in Curitiba, Brazil, in March 1997 issued a declaration which drew upon the shared experiences of dam affected peoples. This declaration asserted "over the years we have shown our growing power...we are strong, diverse, and united and our cause is just." The special interests of indigenous peoples were recognized by these participants who demanded, among other things, a moratorium on dam construction until "the territorial rights of indigenous, tribal, semi-tribal, and traditional populations affected by dams are fully respected through providing them with territories which allow them to regain their previous cultural and economic conditions."

These groups argue convincingly that dam projects are neither morally supportable nor economically viable without the full, informed consent of affected communities. New practices need to entail full access to information, the protection of group rights, recognition of the importance of land in compensation plans, the active involvement of affected communities in project planning and appraisals, and in the design and implementation of all mitigation efforts, and a just arrangement for the arbitration of disputes. Any revised approach to dam planning also needs to accept that alternatives to large dams may prove to be more viable when social factors are also taken into account. Active engagement between dam planners and affected communities may also result in greater predictability and efficiency for dam builders.

In April 1997, in Gland, Switzerland, a meeting of 40 representatives from the dam industry, dam-affected peoples' groups, NGOs, governments, and academia called for the creation of an international commission on dams. An independent world commission was formed in February 1998 by two sponsoring organizations -- the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) -- with a mandate "to review the development effectiveness of dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development" and "to develop internationally-accepted standards, guidelines, and criteria for decision-making in the planning, design, construction, monitoring, operation, and decommissioning of dams."

The issues at stake in the debate over large dams are fundamental and the task facing the World Commission on Dams (WED) is daunting. Can large infra structural projects be reconciled with participatory development? How can competing resource demands and cultural concerns be equitably addressed? How are states to meet the needs and interests of disparate populations within their borders? By what means can social costs be weighed against projected economic benefits? To what degree should the costs of dam projects be externalized to be borne by communities who do not share fully in the projected benefits? And to what degree should the interest of indigenous people receive special consideration?

A strength of the WCD process lies in the stated commitment to an inclusive process that has the potential to assist in amplifying the voices most often drowned out in this debate -- those of displaced people. But limited funding and time constraints threaten the commission's ability to fully involve indigenous groups, to translate and distribute documents widely, or to fully engage with all participants in the debate.

Whatever the outcome of the WCD, the struggle against large dams appears determined to continue and widen not just until the rights of local communities are recognized, but until the conflicts over resources are equitably and justly resolved. Altering the dysfunctional relationship between dam planners and communities scheduled for displacement will require a commitment on the part of planners to share rather than withhold information, to empower rather than disempower communities, and to involve representatives of these communities in decisionmaking processes. An important asset in this struggle is an informed and engaged transnational public. If large dams are economically justifiable, there is no reason that those who pay the costs should not reap a significant share of the benefits.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: