Women at the Frontlines Against Destructive Dams

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What does a just and clean energy system look like? There are a lot of exciting possibilities, but one thing is clear: it does not include the wholesale destruction of a river ecosystem. It does not involve taking away women’s land, water and livelihoods, and forcing them to relocate. It does not mean severing a community’s spiritual ties to their ancestral territories. Yet this is exactly what happens in the building of large-scale hydropower plants.

Large dams are not only destructive and dirty, they are profoundly unjust, especially for women in the communities directly affected. Women often take charge of securing food, water and energy for their families. If, how and where they get these resources – and their quality – can seriously influence women’s daily lives, not to mention their long-term health and well-being.

Among other things, large dams can reduce or destroy local food and water supplies, forcing women to search for new sources and in extreme cases, communities to relocate. Increased time and effort may be compounded by increased dangers, such as increased risk of sexual violence when travelling further afield. With forced displacement, the uprooting carries a heavy burden on women, given the responsibility they feel to ensure the survival of their family and children in an unknown environment. Meanwhile, electricity generated by large-scale dams primarily flows to industries and urban populations, sometimes bypassing local women and their communities altogether.

Around the world, women are at the frontlines of the fight against destructive large-scale hydropower. The Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) is supporting them in their struggle to make their demands heard and respected by authorities, companies and financiers, including development finance institutions like the World Bank and regional development banks. Two of these cases are highlighted here: the struggle of women in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) against the INGA 3 dam, and the fight of women in Guatemala against the Pojom II and San Andres hydropower projects.

Dams in the DRC: Women No Longer in the Dark

© WoMin and International Rivers

In the 1970s and 1980s, millions of dollars were invested in two large hydropower dams on the Congo River, known as INGA 1 and 2. The claim was that the dams would provide greater energy access to people in the DRC). Some fifty years later however, less than 10% of the country’s citizens have access to electricity. 85% of the electricity generated from the dams goes to high-voltage consumers, mainly industries. The communities displaced by the dams still struggle to secure economic opportunities and some kind of justice, and many still live without electricity. Despite this abysmal track record, the DRC government is planning more dams and pursuing financing for the construction of INGA 3.

Maggie Mapondera of the African gender and extractives alliance called WoMin explains: “It is called the ‘Grand INGA Project’ because it is meant to be this massive development that will eventually – and this is the language that the African Development Bank has used – ‘light up Africa.’ They are selling this notion of development that is supposed to take Africa to the next millennium.” For more information read more here

As part of GAGGA, WoMin supports women and communities across Africa who are fighting against big infrastructure or extractive projects, including hydropower and coal plants, and mines. WoMin is active in the DRC and 10 other countries, including Burkina Faso, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

WoMin has joined forces with the Congolese organization Femmes Solidaires (FESO) and International Rivers to support women in the area threatened by INGA 3. FESO works directly with women who live close to the river, in Matadi and a few other towns. Salomé Elolo of FESO explains that the group’s mission is to build a women’s movement around the Congo River and its protection. To that end, FESO has created SOFLECO (Solidarité des Femmes sur le Fleuve Congo), an association composed of several local groups of women in the provinces and territories that have been, or will potentially be, affected by INGA. “Already we have six SOFLECO groups,” says Salomé. “We go to the communities and explain the consequences of INGA 1 and 2, we build alliances and do advocacy, demonstrations and lobbying both nationally and internationally.”

Salomé: “As a consequence of INGA 1 and 2, water downstream has declined and people had to be relocated. Women were most affected while their opinions had not been taken into account, during and even after the construction. They are the ones who use water most in their role to secure water and food in their families, and after relocation they had to walk longer distances to get clean water and work harder to produce the same amount of food on the more marginal land.  With INGA 3, these women and the communities will be deprived (again) of their means of subsistence, including arable land, water of the river, hunting, fishing, fruit crops, land of the ancestors, and their cultural enjoyment. They will be evicted from their lands and moved to a place not yet known. Moreover, with the construction of the dam many people and especially women fear a huge influx of migrant workers which may affect the safety of women and girls in the communities”

FESO, WoMin and International Rivers have jointly worked to strengthen the capacity of local women to carry out advocacy work and effectively defend their rights. These women have learned about the actors and financial flows involved and the regional and international instruments and mechanisms available to protect the rights of local communities, indigenous peoples and women. Maggie of WoMin explains the importance of this information, given that there is also Spanish and Chinese money involved in INGA. It is critical, she says, that “people can identify the enemy and organize on different levels against it.” WoMin has brought local women to its regional feminist schools and feminist participatory action research trainings, so they can develop their skills to tell their own stories, conduct research on the ground, and build political capacity to challenge the INGA project.

WoMin and International Rivers are also working in solidarity with allies in the DRC and communities directly impacted by the project to challenge the South African government directly, urging the country’s parliament to scrutinize the feasibility and risks of the project closely and withdraw funding. To learn more about this advocacy work, you can read more here and here.

It is still possible to block the construction of INGA 3. Through the continuous mobilization of women, supported by GAGGA, the affected communities, and specially women, are becoming more and more aware that INGA 3 is not necessary and will pose direct harm to their livelihoods. This mobilization and awareness raising of local communities has clearly contributed the fact that INGA 3 is not yet constructed.

Mayan Women Defend Freedom, Security and Territory

©AIDA

For the communities of the Ixquisis microregion in Guatemala, life was quiet before the Pojom II and San Andrés hydroprojects began. “Now it’s quite the opposite,” says Carla, an indigenous Maya Chuj woman. “We can’t go out and be safe, we don’t have that freedom because of the company’s presence… They came to our communities with lies, saying they would bring development and that is not true. All they have done is destroy our natural resources.” Carla (her name has been changed to protect her safety) is a member of one of ten communities that make up the Ixquisis microregion. They are part of a larger group defending their territory against the threat of the dams.

The approval of the loans and the start of the construction of the dams has led to the disruption of the communities’ ways of living, harassment of the communities, and militarization. “We feel great sadness, pain and fear for what is happening in our territory. The army and the police forces are taking care of these companies, instead of taking care of Guatemalan citizens. If they weren’t in our territory, everything would return to normal,” says Carla. “We have directly suffered threats, ridicule, abuse and discrimination by the police, the army and the private security of the company. As women, we have been treated as if we are irrational, wild animals.”

The construction of the dams has already caused severe environmental damage, including water scarcity and pollution, which have affected local people’s ability to fish, grow food, and maintain their traditional lifestyle. The affected people of the region of Ixquisis are primarily indigenous Mayans including the Chu, Q’anjob’al and Akateko ethnic groups. The affected Mayan communities and allied organizations have been protesting the dams for six years now. They have voiced their opposition to municipal, departmental and national authorities.

Through GAGGA, the Latin American environmental lawyers group AIDA is now supporting the women from Ixquisis in their vital work to defend their rights. “We generally work with local organizations of lawyers that are leading legal disputes or want to present cases where elements of the human right to a healthy environment are debated, or cases that have to do with sensitive ecosystems that are being affected. Our institutional policy is to work very closely with [local organizations] and support them in strengthening their legal strategy, and also support their media follow-up,” says Liliana Ávila, senior lawyer at AIDA. A key strategy is to support communities to make use of the accountability mechanisms of international financial institutions, the key financiers of large hydropower projects. 

As part of GAGGA, AIDA works to highlight the impacts of poorly planned development projects on women and bring women’s rights to the fore in environmental advocacy work. To this end, in August 2018, AIDA joined the International Platform Against Impunity and the Plurinational Ancestral Government of Q’anjob’al, Popti, Chuj and Akateko in supporting the Ixquisis women to file a complaint to the Inter-American Development Bank’sIndependent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism (known as the MICI). The complaint called on the bank to withdraw its investment in the dams (amounting to nearly $15 million), since the projects do not meet the bank’s own standards.

©AIDA

The complaint is unique. Not only does it contain a gender perspective, looking specifically at how women suffer most from large-scale hydroprojects, it also seeks to hold the bank accountable for violating its own gender policy. This is often ignored in complaints to development banks, which usually do not go further than community-level environmental and social impacts.

In a first positive step, the MICI has formally accepted the complaint and is now conducting a thorough investigation into the alleged policy violations. The investigation includes a visit to Guatemala scheduled at the end of 2019. Although publication of the MICI’s findings is not expected until 2020, the fact that the investigation is taking place is already an achievement. It could set an important precedent. AIDA hopes that the independent investigation will affirm the content of the complaint, and lead to better compliance by the Inter-American Development Bank with its own gender, social and environmental policies. Better implementation of these policies would strengthen protections for women, and improve sustainability of the IDB’s investments in general.

“We do not want dams. We want to live in an environment free of contamination. We want our territory to be free,” says Carla. AIDA’s support has enabled the women to understand where their fight fits into a larger context, which includes the key role of international financial institutions. It has also strengthened their activism as women. “We have learned, thanks to the organizations that have supported us in this fight, to create a space for ourselves as women.”

The complaint process has also been a valuable learning experience for AIDA, which has increased its knowledge on gender issues in relation to large infrastructure projects. The group aims to incorporate a stronger gender perspective in its future environmental and human rights work, and share experiences with other organizations, regionally and globally. With GAGGA’s support, AIDA is already preparing a new report focused on the impacts of dams on women’s lives. It includes analysis of gender-related policies and practices of international financial institutions, as well as the experiences and brave struggle of the women of Ixquisis.

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