Dam projects for hydropower threaten tens of thousands of indigenous people worldwide

International Day of the World's Indigenous People (9 August)

Several tens of thousands of indigenous people in Asia, Africa and South America are threatened with being uprooted and forced to resettle for the development of hydroelectric power. On the occasion of International Day of the World's Indigenous People (9 August), the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) points out that due to the construction of dams and subsequent flooding of the surrounding regions, hunter–gatherers, herdsmen, fishers and small farmers are losing their livelihoods and very likely being driven into lives of poverty. "Chin, Shan and Karen in Burma, Adivasi in India, Himba in Namibia, Mursi and Kara in Ethiopia, Turkana in Kenya, Mapuche in Chile, Aymara and Ashaninka in Peru and Native Americans living in voluntary isolation in Brazil are victims of the destructive exploitation of nature and people," warn Yvonne Bangert and Ulrich Delius of the STP. According to estimates by the human rights organization there are some 6,500 indigenous communities worldwide, with at least 370 million members.

"Hydroelectric power is frequently praised as an example of clean, renewable energy," notes Yvonne Bangert. "But the construction of mega-dams leads to massive violations of human rights in many cases. Moreover, the biodegradation of organic substances in dam reservoirs – especially in the tropics – releases far more greenhouse gases than coal or gas powered plants, and thus cause more harm to the climate."

Several Native American communities in South America are currently up in arms against the construction of mega-dams. The Mapuche in Chile want to prevent a trail of 60-meter high power poles from cutting through 25 of their communities to convey the electricity generated by the 5 dams. In Brazil, preparations for the construction of the third largest dam in the world, the Belo Monte, on the Xingu river in the Amazon rain forest are proceeding apace in spite of the resistance of the Native Americans and non-Indio riverside dwellers. The project involves submerging 688 square kilometers (265 square miles) of land. The dam threatens the existence of indigenous people in the region who live voluntarily in isolation and have never had contact with the rest of the world. In Peru, the inhabitants of 70 Aymara villages and at least ten Ashaninka villages are to be forcibly resettled so that dams can be built on the rivers to produce hydroelectric power for Brazil. These projects have been put on hold thanks to massive protests against the threatened loss of arable and ancestral lands.

In Africa, the 18,000 Himba people living in northern Namibia have been fighting for 15 years against the damming of the Kunene river. They do not want to give up their traditional way of life and have sent their representatives to investors in Europe to try and stop them from bestowing funds for the controversial mega-project. They have been successful so far. The Gibe-3 project in Ethiopia affects 10,000 Mursi and 1,500 Kara indigenous people, as well as 180,000 others living on the Omo river. They may become dependent on international food aid if plans are carried out to flood 211 square kilometers (81 square miles) of land for generating energy and new development projects. Construction of the dam will mean there is no more river silt, which forms the basis of the indigenous people's traditional cultivation. Among the Turkana nomads in neighboring Kenya, too, Gibe-3 is a cause for grave concern as well: Damming the Omo will cause the water level of Lake Turkana to sink and the traditional settlements, home to some 300,000 fishers, will suddenly find themselves far inland. Conflicts concerning access to wells and pasture land would be inevitable.

In India, 95 million Adivasi have been suffering for decades from the consequences of more than 4,300 dams, 300 of which were built just last year. At least 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 square miles) of land have been flooded and several million indigenous people relocated. Approximately 300,000 people, including 150,000 indigenous people, are currently faced with forced relocation due to the Polavaram mega-project on the Godavari river. In northeastern India, a region with more indigenous communities than practically anywhere else in the world, at least 168 dams are in the planning stage. The situation of many indigenous people in Burma is dramatic as well. They may be driven off their land due to Chinese plans for the construction of more than 40 dams to supply inexpensive electricity. Among others, this will affect the Padaung people, known around the world for the brass neck rings worn by Padaung women. In Kachin province, projects planned by China are fueling the war that the Burmese army is waging against the Kachin minority.

You can download the document (in German) here.