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Human Security and the Threat of Hydroelectric Dams

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hydroelectric dam security

By Dr. Kate Brannum
Program Director, International Relations at American Public University

Over the last several years, Central American governments have increased their efforts to build hydroelectric dams, often under the auspices of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM is an offsetting scheme that allows developing countries to create emission reduction projects and then sell the carbon credits to developed countries to help meet their targets under the Kyoto Protocol. The logic is that hydroelectric dams give out fewer emissions than fossil fuel plants. However, while conceived and promoted as ways to improve environmental security, these projects  can threaten not only environmental security, but the personal, community, and food security of vulnerable populations.

In essence, the cost of increased environmental security for some is being paid for by the most vulnerable. Many of these hydroelectric projects involve incursion on indigenous lands and destruction of local ecosystems. The U.N. has recognized that collective rights are an essential component of human rights for tribal groups. However, these rights will only be respected if international organizations can promote environmental security without encouraging the violation of their own norms.

In order to reduce harm to indigenous groups, the U.N.’s own norms oblige it to the principle of “free, prior, and informed consent”. This principle “recognizes indigenous peoples’ inherent and prior rights to their lands and resources and respects their legitimate authority to require that third parties enter into an equal and respectful relationship with them, based on the principle of informed consent.” This is crucial because the indigenous are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.

Many indigenous groups and human rights organizations argue that projects supported by the U.N. have not been based on free, prior and informed consent. Obtaining consent can be challenging because indigenous peoples not fluent in Spanish must be fully informed in their own language, forms must be fully explained to those that cannot read and technical terms and implications must be explained to those affected. However, in many projects there has been no real attempt to follow best practices and overcome these challenges. As Charles Saina Sena, executive director of Ogiek Rural Integral Projects noted, “consent must be obtained without coercion, prior to commencement of activities and after the project proponent’s full disclosure of the intent and scopes of activity in language and process understandable to the affected indigenous people and communities” (2005, 2).

One of the reasons the indigenous groups may not grant consent is the impact on their livelihoods and cultures. These projects may involve the destruction of agricultural land, grazing land, and fishing grounds on which the indigenous are dependent for food security. Additionally, downstream communities may be dependent on the river system and surrounding wetland and yet not be considered affected communities.

Dams are a particularly painful issue in Guatemala given the 1982 government massacre of indigenous residents that made way for the Chixoy hydroelectric dam, supported by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. While nothing on that scale is occurring now, new dam projects do threaten the safety of Guatemala’s indigenous. For example, the Santa Rita Hydroelectric Plant was registered as a CDM project in June 2014. Since 2010 there has been strong opposition to this project because stakeholders in the affected communities were not consulted and did not provide free prior and informed consent. This prompted the CDM Board to do a formal review for the first time ever. However, despite this review the project was registered last June.

This is not a matter of technicalities or simple process. These violations have real-world effects, not only because people are losing their land, but because protests have led to violence and death among indigenous throughout the Americas. While abuses of the scale seen in the 1980s are not currently occurring, continued abuses of protesters and local communities undermine the legitimacy of these efforts. Many of these incursions without proper consent involve violent clashes between indigenous groups and police or company personnel. In 2008, in Panama over 50 peaceful protestors of Chan-75 were taken into custody (CS 2010, 2-3), the Inter-American highway was shut down in protest, (Comunicado Movimiento 10 de Abril 2011) And, in Guatemala in August 2014, there were three deaths and 50 injured during protests against forcible evictions.

During a session at the U.N.’s climate summit COP 20 in October 2014, Maximo Ba Tiul, a representative of the People’s Council of Tezulutlan of Guatemala, asked: “Why do our human rights have to be violated to mitigate climate change effects?” If the U.N. wishes to demonstrate a commitment to human security this question needs to be answered, and it needs to address the issue of disproportionate impact on the indigenous.

Also by Dr. Kate Brannum: Minors Crossing the Border: It’s Not About the Chupacabra

About the Author
In 2011 and 2013, Dr. Kate Brannum was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of Security and Global Studies. Kate received her bachelor’s degree with a concentration in international relations from James Madison College of Michigan State University. She earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research focused on international compliance with norms against torture. Dr. Brannum has been working as an instructor and administrator for the last 20 years. Her current interest is international norms and human rights. She loves to teach online courses and is committed to helping her students succeed in their endeavors.

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