Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dams here at home

With all this blog's discussion of dams in Guatemala, I thought I should mention that dams also generate controversy here in the U.S. In fact, we play host to 1,902 large dams, more than any other country in the world. Much of the controversy here centers not on proposals to build new dams but on plans to tear down old ones. In these debates, as in those over dam-building in Latin America, cultural survival and indigenous tradition are at play.

For some interesting discussion on this issue, check out:
  • This article in the New York Times about the Tea Party's efforts to prevent dam removal in Oregon
  • This article in the Smithsonian Magazine about the Klallam tribe and ongoing dam removal on the Olympic Peninsula
  • This trailer for an upcoming documentary on U.S. dams, DamNation, by Felt Soul Media

Monday, July 9, 2012

Dam Conflict

The New York Times offers another fascinating article on dam conflict in the Amazon, which it describes as “A confrontation between the insatiable appetite for energy and the enduring need for habitability”. 

The article focuses on the Belo Monte dam, currently under construction, which will be the third largest in the world. According to the article,

Proponents say:
  • Hydropower is vital to meeting energy needs in Brazil, which will be the world’s fifth largest economy by 2017
  • Belo Monte alone will offer 11,000 megawatts of installed capacity, roughly enough energy to power New York
  • Hydropower is the cleanest, cheapest and most dependable energy option for Brazil
  • Hydropower will help address unpopular and costly blackouts, with added importance in light of the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics in Brazil
  • Energy drives growth, which creates jobs and raises living standards for rich and poor alike

Critics say:
  • Belo Monte will harm the lives of 20,000 people living in the Amazon, including thousands of indigenous people
  • Only one quarter of the electricity produced will go to the public (30% will go to heavy industries like mining and smelting)
  • The reservoir will flood more than 120,000 acres of rainforest and move more earth than was moved for the Panama Canal
  • Rotting vegetation in the reservoir will result in enormous greenhouse gas emissions
  • Variable river flows will cause the dam to yield less power than advertised
  • The 20,000 page environmental impact study is “basically a work of fiction” and undermines the country’s system of environmental regulation

My own interest in dams lies heavily in the pursuit of equity between locals who lose their land and livelihoods when dams are built, and industry and urban-dwellers who benefit from cheap electricity. While the Chixoy dam provides 15% of Guatemala’s electricity, 28 of the 33 indigenous communities that lost land still do not have electricity today, three decades after the dam was built. This is one small example of the many inequities imposed by the developers of this particular dam. Dams should not serve to confiscate a natural resource from one group of (generally poor) people and bestow it on another group of (better-off) people—yet this is the effect that large dams, including Belo Monte, often have. Perhaps dam proponents can strengthen their cause by changing this paradigm.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Achi vs. Spanish

Celebrations of Maya Achi folklore here in my hometown, Rabinal
In an extensive report on damages caused by the Chixoy dam, ADIVIMA, the NGO I'm based with, lists as one of the major cultural impacts: systematic loss of the use of the Achi language. It goes on to say that, "The majority of youth in the displaced communities have stopped using Achi as a means of communication, due to various causes such as discrimination, devaluation of inherited customs, and adaptation to new environments where they live alongside other ethnic groups."

The research I'm undertaking seeks to quantify that loss. Yet as my surveys come in, I have been surprised to discover the high rate of Achi fluency retained by youth in the displaced communities. While I've not begun formal data analysis, an initial look suggests that loss of fluency may not be much different between displaced communities and unaffected communities - that is, by comparing the displaced communities to a "control group" unaffected by the dam, I may find that loss of Achi fluency is only minimally attributable to the dam.

That being said, other indicators in the survey may be more telling than fluency. For example, a very high percentage of youth in displaced communities indicate a preference for Spanish use with their friends during recess at school. This would suggest that while they may remain fluent in Achi - which is not surprising since it is the first and in some cases only language of their parents - they might be less likely to teach Achi to their own children. 

More on this to come.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Rio Negro Massacres

This short video provides a vignette of the construction of Chixoy dam, where I am conducting my research. It discusses violence perpetrated by the Guatemalan army against Mayan communities who resisted being displaced from their land. Ultimately, the communities were forcibly resettled in army-built "model villages" on inferior terrain far from their ancestral homes.

Amidst Guatemala's civil war, government security forces conflated peaceful resistance to the dam with the armed opposition. Moreover, violent repression was used as a tool to terrify indigenous communities into submission with the Chixoy development plan. For the community of Rio Negro discussed in this video, the massacres that took more than 440 lives are inseparable from the experience of displacement. 

This context colors all of my work here. Yet it is not my focus; in fact, the impact of the violence is something I will need to control for in my effort to measure the impact of the dam alone.

The two men featured in this video are my colleagues at ADIVIMA, an NGO supporting my work here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Clean energy vs. human rights

The Tucurui dam in Brazil generates an impressive 6% of the entire country's energy. Its construction displaced an estimated 25,000-35,000 indigenous people, submerged 2,850 square kilometers of rainforest, and had significant negative impacts on the health of local residents, water quality, fisheries and other wildlife.
Photo credit: Sócrates Arantes/Eletronorte

Guatemala’s electrical energy agency, INDE, says this of its hydroelectric dams:

In the light of one of the greatest environmental challenges we have faced in recent history—the progressive increase in global temperatures and the consequences that this brings, such as lack of rainfall in Guatemala—INDE as an institution has passed the test and succeeded in covering the country's energy demand with clean energy, in solidarity with nature.” (my translation; original here)

Indeed, dams are impressive sources of renewable energy. The Chixoy dam—the dam I am studying in Guatemala—provides 15% of the country’s electricity. Brazil gets 80% of its energy from hydroelectric dams.

Yet critics counter that dams are not as clean as their proponents claim*, and that the human impacts of dams have historically been too large to justify choosing them over other energy sources. Over the past 60 years, for example, 40-80 million people have been displaced by dams, according to the World Commission on Dams. Many millions more have been affected by loss of cropland, changes in disease vectors and disrupted river ecosystems. Affected communities are disproportionately indigenous and rural poor. Construction of the Chixoy dam forced the resettlement of approximately 3,500 indigenous people, almost all of whom live in inferior conditions today.

·         What are the long-term impacts of the forced resettlement of a people? How do we make decisions regarding energy and development if we don’t fully understand these impacts?
·         How far are we willing to go for climate-friendly? How do we balance the need to fight climate change with the human rights of a few? Is this really a choice we must make?

*In addition to the impacts dams have on local ecosystems, recent studies show that build-up of methane-emitting organisms in tropical dams (Brazil, Southeast Asia) due to blocked river flows makes these dams far less climate-friendly than we previously thought.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Damming the Amazon

This nine-minute video by the New York Times provides an interesting look at the conflict between hydroelectric development and indigenous cultural survival in Brazil, as the country dams the Amazon to meet its soaring energy demands:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Maps and Surveys


This map, via the Chixoy Dam Legacy Issues Study, shows communities that were displaced by the reservoir, and the settlements to which they were moved by the government. I anticipate that the movement from isolated villages to settlements near existing towns and roads will be a significant determinant of language-switching (from Achi to Spanish) among the younger generation.

My survey will be conducted among these communities, as well as communities unaffected by the dam.