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Resurgence of large dams threatens tribal people worldwide, report says

To mark the United Nations Day of the World’s Indigenous People, today, August 9, Survival International released a report highlighting the devastating impact on tribal people of a massive boom in dam-building for hydropower. This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. Tribal peoples have suffered disproportionately from the effects...

To mark the United Nations Day of the World’s Indigenous People, today, August 9, Survival International released a report highlighting the devastating impact on tribal people of a massive boom in dam-building for hydropower.

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.

Tribal peoples have suffered disproportionately from the effects of hydroelectric dams built on their land, while the potential benefits rarely reach them. the British charity that advocates for tribal peoples said in a news release.

Survival released its report about the situation: Serious Damage: Tribal Peoples and Large Dams (Download a pdf of the report.)

Enawene Nawe.jpg

Over 70 small hydroelectric dams are being built along the Upper Juruena River in the Amazon state of Mato Grosso in Brazil, according to Survival. The small Enawene Nawe tribe (in the pohoto above) are fiercely resisting these dams. In both 2009 and 2010 the Enawene Nawe did not catch any fish during their annual trapping season–a disaster for a tribe which does not eat meat.

“This also meant they could not properly perform their most important ceremony, yãkwa, which involves the ritual exchange of fish with the spirits. The Brazilian authorities had to deliver emergency food aid in the form of farmed fish to the tribe,” Survival said in the report Serious Damage.

Photo © Fiona Watson/Survival

Enawene Nawe boy shows a smoked fish.jpg

An Enawene Nawe boy shows a smoked fish caught in a dam on the Adowina or Black River, which runs through rainforest claimed by the Enawene Nawe and which is being rapidly destroyed by cattle ranchers, Brazil.

Photo © Fiona Watson/Survival

Enawene Nawe men perform the Yãkwa ritual.jpg

Enawene Nawe men perform the yãkwa ritual, a four-month exchange of food between humans and the yakairiti or ancestral spirits, accompanied by dancing and chanting to the sound of flutes.

Photo © Fiona Watson/Survival

Highlights from the report:

  • Drawing on examples from Asia, Africa and the Americas, Survival’s report Serious Damage exposes the untold cost of obtaining ‘green’ electricity from large hydroelectric dams.
  • A rapid increase in global dam-building is currently underway. The World Bank alone is pouring U.S.$11bn into 211 hydropower projects worldwide.
  • The impact on tribal people is profound. One Amazonian tribe, the Enawene Nawe, has learnt that Brazilian authorities plan to build 29 dams on its rivers.
  • Across the Amazon, the territories of five uncontacted tribes will be affected.

“The Penan tribe in Sarawak face eviction to make way for a dam, and tribes in Ethiopia could be forced to rely on food aid if a dam being built on the famous Omo River is not halted,” Survival said in a news statement. “One man from the Omo Valley’s Kwegu tribe, said, ‘Our land has become bad. They closed the water off tight and we now know hunger. Open the dam and let the water flow.'”

Nyangatom girl with little sister.jpg

Nyangatom girl with little sister carrying her calabash after watering the family herd. Kibish, Lower Omo, Ethiopia.

Photo © Serge Tornay/Survival

The Ethiopian government is building Gibe III on the Omo river. It will be Africa’s tallest dam and is part of a series of five dams. Gibe I and II have already been built, Survival says in its report. (Read the related blog post: Omo River dam threatens traditional farming and culture in Ethiopia.)

“The tribes of the Lower Omo Valley rely on the Omo River to survive in what is an extremely inhospitable environment. During the annual flood, the river deposits fertile silt along its banks, in which the tribes are able to grow vital food crops. Some tribes graze their cattle along the riverbanks, as for much of the year there is little grass elsewhere. The hunter-gatherer Kwegu tribe also fish in the river.

“The dam’s constructors say they will release water to create an ‘artificial flood,’ but this cannot do the work of a natural flood in laying down enough rich silt to see the tribes through until the next year. Even if it could, the lives of the Omo Valley tribes would be in the hands of the dam operators, always under pressure to maximize cost-efficiency by reducing or stopping the artificial flood altogether, particularly in years of drought.

“The majority of the tribes living downstream have not been consulted, have no access to independent advice and little concept of how the dam will affect them.”

“Construction on Gibe III began in 2006, before the dam was approved by the Ethiopian environment agency. The majority of the tribes living downstream have not been consulted, have no access to independent advice and little concept of how the dam will affect them. The Ethiopian government shut down several regional community associations in 2009, making it almost impossible for the tribes to share information or discuss the dam.

“The Ethiopian government plans to use the Gibe III reservoir to irrigate huge tracts of tribal land in Lower Omo, to be leased to foreign investors for growing cash crops, including biofuels. The tribes have not been consulted about this land grab, which is in flagrant violation of the Ethiopian constitution and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Ethiopia has endorsed.

“The Gibe III dam, and the associated land grab, may affect the tribes’ food security so severely that these largely self-sufficient peoples will have to become dependent on food aid to survive.”

Kwengu settlement.jpg

Kwengu settlement. Lower Omo valley, Ethiopia.

Photo © Jerome Lewis/Survival

According to the Survival report:

“International financing and support for new dams began to dry up at the end of the twentieth century, as the negative impacts of poorly thought out and badly executed hydro projects became increasingly clear.

“It is now a decade since the World Commission on Dams recognized that large dam projects ‘have led to the impoverishment and suffering of millions’, and established firm standards and guidelines for future dams, which included projects being ‘guided by’ tribal peoples’ free, prior and informed consent to projects affecting them.”

Enthusiasm for large dams resurfaces

“Enthusiasm for large dams is resurfacing, driven by the international dam lobby which is working hard to paint its industry as a panacea to climate change. The lessons learned last century are being ignored, and tribal peoples worldwide are again being sidelined, their rights violated, and their lands destroyed,” Survival says in its report.

“Dam construction reached a peak during the 1970s, when for several years large dams were being built at a rate of about a thousand a year, according to the World Commission on Dams.

“This remarkable pace tailed off significantly in the late 1980s and 1990s, largely because of growing concerns over the negative impacts of large dams.

“The World Commission on Dams (WCD), created by the World Bank and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to investigate the effects of dams, was formed in 1998. The Commission’s report, published in 2000, found that, ‘Large dams have had serious impacts on the lives, livelihoods, cultures and spiritual existence of indigenous and tribal peoples.’

“The WCD recommended that, ‘Where projects affect indigenous and tribal peoples, such processes [should be] guided by their free, prior and informed consent.’

“The recommendations stopped short, however, of recognizing tribal peoples’ right to veto large dams planned on their land.

“China is now the single biggest funder of dams, replacing the World Bank.”

“China is now the single biggest funder of dams, replacing the World Bank. The China Three Gorges Project Corporation, builder of the controversial Three Gorges Dam which displaced more than a million people from around the Yangtze River, has been contracted to build a dam on the land of the Penan tribe in Sarawak. China’s biggest state bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, is considering funding Gibe III in Ethiopia, which is to be Africa’s tallest dam and will destroy the livelihood of at least eight tribes.

In 2003 the World Bank reverted from its cautious policy of the 1990s, when it stopped funding hydropower altogether, and committed itself to investing in high risk, high return hydro projects (like big dams), making an even more explicit commitment to scale up funding for hydropower in 2009.”


Click on the image above to enlarge a table of hydroelectric projects threatening tribal peoples. Courtesy of Survival International.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples:

“The world’s indigenous peoples have preserved a vast amount of humanity’s cultural history. Indigenous peoples speak a majority of the world’s languages, and have inherited and passed on a wealth of knowledge, artistic forms and religious and cultural traditions.  On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we reaffirm our commitment to their well-being.

The landmark United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, lays out a framework for Governments to use in strengthening relationships with indigenous peoples and protecting their human rights.  Since then, we have seen more Governments working to redress social and economic injustices, through legislation and other means, and indigenous peoples’ issues have become more prominent on the international agenda than ever before.

But we must do even more.  Indigenous peoples still experience racism, poor health and disproportionate poverty. In many societies, their languages, religions and cultural traditions are stigmatized and shunned. The first-ever United Nations report on the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in January 2010 set out some alarming statistics.  In some countries, indigenous peoples are 600 times more likely to contract tuberculosis than the general population. In others, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years before his or her non-indigenous compatriots.

The theme of this year’s Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is indigenous filmmakers, who give us windows into their communities, cultures and history. Their work connects us to belief systems and philosophies; it captures both the daily life and the spirit of indigenous communities. As we celebrate these contributions, I call on Governments and civil society to fulfil their commitment to advancing the status of indigenous peoples everywhere.” 

Posted by David Braun

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn