New Internationalist

Dam Busters

Issue 183

new internationalist
issue 183 - May 1988

[image, unknown]
Dam busters
Third World governments bankrolled with international aid dollars
have a sorry record of railroading through mega-development schemes whatever
the costs to local communities and the environment. Pat Adams reports
on a new awakening in defense of ecological sanity.

The petition from the parishioners of Haiti's Verettes Parish was simple: 'We have already started shedding tears . people will lose their land, their houses, their garrets, their trees, their graves. Those who do not own land will lose their dwelling and their jobs.These pieces of land are our livelihood, they feed us and allow us to send the children to school.'

The Haitians were protesting a planned dam project that would flood their homes in the Artibonite River valley - an area known as Haiti's breadbasket. Backed by foreign aid agencies the dams would destroy almost ten thousand acres of prime agricultural land, a scarce commodity in food-short Haiti. As a result the project sparked a widely-based 'alliance of resistance'. Groups opposed so the project included local farmers, church activists and rural development workers, as well as human rights organizations and environmentalists outside Haiti.

With help from the French-based Comité Français de Défense des Droits de l'Homme en Haiti, a cost/benefit counter-study was carried out by local agronomists, economists and sociologists. Their detailed report on the river valley's agricultural economy - including the value of subsistence crops like corn, congo peas and sweet potato - concluded that flooding would destroy lands that could feed 60,000 Haitians annually. The researchers also found that total income from the valley's agricultural output was 40 per cent higher than the projected benefits of the two dams.

The study was greeted with a terse 'no comment' by the main promoters of the dam scheme - the Canadian International Development Agency and the Inter-American Development Bank. The Inter-American Development Bank even refused to make public their own study on the social and environmental impact of the dams. Canadian efforts to get a copy of she study from CIDA were also stonewalled. Is looked like a handful of aid bureaucrats working hand-in-hand with one of the most repressive governments in the Western hemisphere were on the verge of deciding without any consultation to flood one of Haiti's most fertile food-growing regions.

Haitians responded by organizing an enormous lobbying effort: nearly 9,000 people from the valley signed the petition of protest. Because it was dangerous for Haitians to publicly criticize the government of 'Baby Doc' Duvalier their signatures were destroyed after a parish priest attested to their legitimacy. Links with the extensive international network of the Catholic Church ensured the protest was publicized on radio and in newspapers the world over. In early 1983 the Inter-American Development Bank quietly decided to cancel one dam and postpone the other until 1990.

The parishioners saw clearly the connection between their own well-being and the health of their environment. It is a link that was also clear to the Bontoc and Kalinga people of the Philippines when their government threatened their homes with a huge dam project in the Chico River valley. Their statement of resistance has the ring of ecological outrage.

'Water eats up land. Slides will occur, caused by the dammed-up waters. There will necessarily be heavy silting and the water level will rise.The President says the dams are for the development of the whole country. But what about us? Others will be developed, but we, we are expected to go up to the mountains and eat grass.'

For these inhabitants of the Chico River Valley it took more than public protest to save their homeland. Some of them had to pay with their lives. It was in the early 1970s that the 85,000 native people were told their elaborate agricultural system of terraced rice paddies chiselled into the side of the Chico River Valley was slated to be destroyed to make way for four hydro electric dams. But the Bontoc and Kalinga flatly refused to move. Their appeals to the government in Manila fell on deaf ears. Then President Marcos' attitude was clear in an ad the government ran in Fortune magazine.

'To attract companies like yours,' the ad copy said, 'we have felled mountains, razed jungles, filled swamps, moved rivers, relocated towns, and in their place built power plants, dams, roads . . . all to make it easier for you to do business here.'

But the Bontoc and Kalinga people proved a more stubborn obstacle. They tried to prevent government crews from surveying their land and soon found themselves facing the Philippine military. By 1980 the fight against the dam was met with a full-scale military operation backed by air support. Villages were bombed and the local people fought back. The death toll rose on both sides. The effective campaign mounted by the indigenous resistance and the international outcry had led the World Bank to withdraw from the projects by 1975. Soon Marcos was forced to postpone the scheme. When the dictator fell the new Aquino government finally cancelled the dams altogether.

Bus success stories like the Chico and Artibonite River dams are still outnumbered by bad projects that go ahead despite massive environmental damage and human suffering. The international development banks that push these grandiose projects in league with all-too-willing Third World governments are a law unto themselves.

One of many current examples is India's Narmada dam scheme which is displacing 67,000 indigenous people from their traditional homelands. Unfortunately, such blatant violations of ecological sense will continue as long as the people who make the decisions are not the same people who suffer she consequences.

Whether it's a remote tribe in Brazil's Amazon, a group of peasant farmers in India, or a US town slated so be a radioactive waste dump site, communities everywhere want so be treated fairly when it comes to their environment. Ultimately, they want the right so determine exactly how their community's environment is going to be 'developed.'

Patricia Adams is the author of In the Name of Progress: The Underside of Foreign Aid (Doubleday Canada/Energy Probe, 1985) and Executive Director of Probe International.

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