September 4, 2020

Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED) together with the  Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN), the International Indigenous People’s Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), and the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) have organized the webinar “Breaking the Barriers: A Webinar on the Impacts of Large-Scale Dams in Asia” last August 11, 2020. 

Attended by over 200 participants, the webinar discussed and developed a common analysis of the burning issues on natural resources and crimes of TNCs in the region. The webinar specifically discussed the implications of large dams and their impact in rural communities and the Indigenous Peoples (IPs). 

The largest dams in the world can be found in the Asia-Pacific region. These aggressive developmental projects rake profit through the rabid plunder of land and natural resources. It leads to environmental destruction, loss of livelihood, displacement of rural peoples, attack on people’s rights, and the further damage to the IPs’ right to self-determination.

Impacts in the environment

The first speaker at the webinar is Ms. Lia Mai Alonzo,  the executive director of the Philippine non-government organization Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) and secretariat member of APNED. APNED is a network of organizations and individuals working on the issues of human rights, environmental protection, and natural resource conservation. 

Alonzo started with the definition of large dams. She defined that large dams have a height of over 5 meters from the lowest foundation to crest impounding over 3 million cubic meters. Large dams have affected the environment in more ways than one. They can block ecological continuity; over 40% of global river volume is moderately to severely affected by fragmentation because of large dams. The barrier causes sedimentation and these sediments are rich in nutrients that could have reached downstream are needed by different species for their sustenance. 

Dams also poses danger to the health, safety, and livelihood of nearby communities. The downstream area of the river usually experiences lower water supply while the upstream parts are being submerged. It may pose cause local extinction of species because of loss of biodiversity. When this happens, it endangers the source of livelihood and food of the people. Especially if the area is an ancestral domain, it negatively affects the right to self-determination of the Indigenous Peoples (IPs).

Financing Dam Projects

The second speaker is Mr. Shankar Limbu. He is a Human Rights Attorney in Nepal of the Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP). It is an organization that promotes, protects, and defends the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples in Nepal.

Limbu started the discussion with the specific impact of large dams in IP communities and the roles that International Financing Institutions (IFIs) and Governments play to push forward such damaging projects. This deadly collaboration has led to the detriment of culture, identity, and self-determination of IPs.

According to Limbu, the fundamental challenge remains that IPs are legal right holders of ancestral lands and domains, but they are always overlooked and ignored in decision-making processes. In some cases, when they join the process, they are fed with lies and misled with false information. There should be detailed discourse especially on how these projects will affect the holistic development of IPs and not just the positive impact per se. National environmental policies should meet the IP rights and should be mandatory to all IFIs and governments, Limbu concluded.

Large dams and such damaging projects have long been proven to be detrimental to the people and planet. The broadest number of people together with indigenous communities must come together to overcome the challenges posed by large dams. The collective assertion as rights holders must continue; the decision-making process must be reclaimed. The rights and welfare of the people should be at the heart of development—not greed, not profit, not the interest of the rich and powerful few.