It’s International Day of Action Against Dams and, as we kick off our global forced evictions campaign supporting dam-affected communities at risk of eviction in Mexico, this post looks at how video and visual imagery have helped propel campaigns to protect human rights in different dam-resistance struggles around the world. Know of other good examples? Join the conversation in the comments field below!
22 years ago, the image of an Indigenous woman wielding a knife before the face of a government engineer in Brazil circled the world. Tuíra Kayapó was one of 3,000 people voicing
opposition to the proposed construction of six dams along the Xingu River in the Amazon. The dams, they argued, would rob from themthe very core of their livelihoods – their homes, land, history, culture, food, water.
Tuíra’s gesture – and the black and white photo that captured it – spread rapidly via national and international media and became a powerful symbol of resistance. After years of debates, reports, and protests, this single image had managed to encapsulate the injustice of the situation in a way that was suddenly striking, resounding, clear. Also suddenly too risky for investors. Weeks later, five of the six planned dams were scratched and funding from the World Bank was scrapped.
To this day, many still credit the image of Tuíra with being the crucial tipping point in halting the construction of the dams. (As is often the case, however, these projects never really “go away” – the project for the Belo Monte Dam returned after decades and is now back on the table; local communities – and Tuíra – are, once again, mobilizing to defend their ancestral lands).
Costs vs. Benefits
The story of Tuíra is not unique to Brazil. For years, communities around the world – especially those at risk of losing their homes and lands – have fiercely opposed dams. At the same time, many governments and dam developers have continued pushing them forward.
So what is the real story: are dams important vehicles of progress, generators of jobs, providers of much-needed energy? Or are they dangerous and unsustainable projects that remove people from their lands only to benefit a select few?
The World Commission on Dams (WCD) was a remarkable endeavor that spent nearly 3 years listening to all sides of this debate in order to find some answers to these questions.
Noting that roughly 40-80 million people had been displaced by dams worldwide, the WCD’s final report concluded, among other things, that while “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development,” these benefits have also cost “an unacceptable and often unnecessary price.” At the heart of the debate, said the report, were “issues of equity, governance, justice and power.”
“Perhaps of most significance is the fact that social groups bearing the social and environmental costs and risks of large dams, especially the poor, vulnerable and future generations, are often not the same groups that receive the water and electricity services, nor the social and economic benefits from these.”
More simply put – who pays the price and who gets the benefits? And who makes that decision?
What the Standards Say…
International standards like the UN’s Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement provide clear directives on this issue. They firmly state that the removal of a community should always be the absolute last resort when a development project is being considered. Before that decision is made, all other available alternatives must be explored and it must be proven that the project will actually bring real benefits to the local affected communities. If – after all these conditions are met – the ultimate decision to remove a given community is made, the affected community must be properly informed, consulted, and must also be an active participant in the decision-making around the project. A community that is removed must always be adequately compensated and resettled, and they must always end up living in equal or better conditions than before their removal. Coercion, intimidation, violence, and the use of force are strictly prohibited.
Besides the UN, mechanisms within International Finance Institutions that fund dams – like the World Bank – as well as safeguards put in place by other funders like private banks also provide similar guidance (you can browse through a list of IFIs and banks here and here).
But these guidelines have all too often been ignored.
What the Videos Show…
Throughout the years, dam-affected communities have fought back when abuses have happened. They have organized protests, marches, campaigns, and other direct actions. They have also used video and visual imagery as powerful tools to document their stories and testimonies, as well as provide evidence of the violations that take place during the process of approving dam projects. This history of activism has been one of the driving forced behind the creation of guidelines and safeguards like the ones mentioned above, and it has also helped put the feasibility of dams in question and generate a global debate on the costs and benefits of these projects.
On this International Day of Action Against Dams and For Rivers, Water, Life – and as we kick off our support for dam-affected communities in Mexico also fighting to stay on their lands – this post highlights three examples of how videos and visual imagery have been used to propel change and support advocacy on the ground. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, so please add to it with in the comments field below!
1. On the same year that Tuíra’s photograph was taken, dam-affected communities were meeting throughout other cities in Brazil to share their experiences. These gatherings gave way to the birth of MAB – the Brazilian Movement of Dam-Affected Peoples (or Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens in Portuguese) – one of the strongest networks of grassroots advocacy on dams in the region. MAB has longed used video to mobilize communities and document abuse – it has also used examples of success, like the Vale da Resistência‘s remarkable 25-year struggle to defend their lands, to inspire other communities at risk. These videos are screened from community-to-community and then used to foster discussion about potential actions and advocacy approaches. For this post, I’ve chosen to highlight MAB’s latest production – Tucuruí, A Saga de um Povo, a video which shows that – 25 years after the construction of the Tucuruí dam on the Tocantins river in the state of Pará – some of the river-dwelling communities that were displaced to make way for the dam don’t have electricity, running water or sanitation. The video opens with an menacing montage that combines ominous close-ups of the dam’s concrete walls with scenes from the country’s military dictatorship during the years the project was put forth. The use of visual imagery is particularly powerful when we see the current living conditions of the community (including the spread of mosquitoes that were brought upon by the environmental changes and – at the worst moment – inflicted up to 500 bites per hour on community residents), and the violent repression of a peaceful protest towards the end (with the police chief professing “respect for the protesters’ human rights”). Here it is:
2. For more than 20 years, communities along the Narmada River in India have mobilized against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. This next video by Rakesh Khanna – a correspondent of the India Unheard project – shows the Narmada Valley residents marching to a government building in Indore to protest the lack of follow through in compensating the people that have already been displaced by the dam. (Also be sure to check out Dam – Way to Develop or Destroy? by fellow India Unheard correspondent Achungmei Kamei about the situation of 40,000 people facing eviction to make way for the construction of a megadam in Manipur, northeastern India):
3. The Three Gorges Dam in China, largest hydro-power project in the world, submerged 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages during construction. It also displaced an astounding 1.3 million people. Post-construction, thousands more have been forced to leave their homes due to unexpected consequences of the project like landslides and other environmental impacts caused by the changes in the region’s ecosystem. Many videos have been made about the Three Gorges Dam, but the one I’m highlighting today is a compilation of images shot in 2002. With no sound, we see red demolition marks on different walls through the streets, markets, and workplaces of the bustling communities that will soon be demolished. Then we see the destruction that happens when the communities are demolished. This is particularly powerful to me, as so often the invisibility of affected communities makes it possible for governments to underestimate the negative impacts of a mega-dam project. Here’s Part 1 (see part 2 here):
If you listen carefully, you will hear a similar message coming from these communities – their struggle is not about opposing dams or development for the sake of opposing dams or development. It is about opposing dams or development that violate basic human rights principles and values.
The WCD report acknowledges this by ending with a set of policy recommendations for pushing forth a more equitable development model, one that is based on “equity in resource allocation and in the spread of benefits, sustainability, openness and participation in decision-making processes and accountability towards present and future generations.”
Help us understand how video has helped these struggles around the world- contribute your own examples in the comments field below!