World Rivers Review
Volume 12, Number 2 / April 1997

Coalition Call for International Moratorium on Large Dams

by Aleta Brown & Patrick McCully

Delegates at the first International Meeting of People Affected by Dams have demanded an immediate international moratorium on the building of large dams. Attendees of the meeting, held March 11-14 in Curitiba, Brazil, said the moratorium should last until a number of demands are met, including the provision of reparations to the millions of people whose livelihoods have suffered because of dams.

"We have stopped dams in the past, and we will stop more in the future," states the declaration. "Over the years, we have shown our growing power We have occupied dam sites and offices, marched in our villages and cities, refused to leave our lands even though we have faced intimidation, violence and drowning. We have unmasked the corruption, lies and false promises of the dam industry We are strong, diverse and united and our cause is just."

The "Declaration of Curitiba," which was endorsed by representatives of dam-affected people and dam opponents from 20 countries, opposes the construction of any dam not approved by the affected people "after an informed and participative decision-making process."

In addition to reparations, the declaration gives a number of conditions that must be met before a moratorium would be lifted, including an end to "all forms of violence and intimidation against people affected by dams and organizations opposing dams," and the creation of an international independent commission to review the performance of dams supported by international aid and credit agencies.

Over the past 50 years, some 30 to 60 million people worldwide have been displaced by large dams. Tens of millions more living downstream have been impoverished due to falling productivity of their farmland and fisheries after dam construction.

Conference attendees came from dam-affected communities in India, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand and Lesotho. The meeting was organized by the Brazilian Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) with help from IRN and an international committee including India’s Save the Narmada Movement (NBA), the Biobío Action Group from Chile (GABB) and the France-based European Rivers Network.

Delegates from Brazil’s MAB made up the majority of people at the conference. Presently, Brazil has around 600 large dams (defined as over 15 meters), with another 494 more proposed. MAB representatives included people from communities threatened by planned dams in the central Amazon who had travelled for up to a week by boat and bus to reach Curitiba; farmers displaced by Itaparica Dam who have just filed a claim with the World Bank’s inspection panel (see that story); people living downstream of the huge Tucuruí Dam in the eastern Amazon who have suffered filthy water, an explosion in mosquitos, and increased diseases since the Tocantins River was impounded; and representatives of the rural communities in the Uruguay River basin who have for twenty years been successfully fighting a proposed complex of 22 dams.


Fighting for Dignity

Fulgêncio Manoel da Silva, a farmer displaced by Itaparica and a regional organizer for MAB, told the meeting that where dam-affected people in Brazil had not united to demand adequate compensation, "the effects were terrible with many farmers ending up penniless, with no land or other source of income." Not long after he learned his family would lose their land to Itaparica, he met a family of beggars living under a bridge who once made a living farming their own land before being evicted for a dam. This experience shocked da Silva into organizing the Itaparica families. Although displacement has increased the rates of poverty, violence, alcoholism and other social problems in local communities, at least the regional power company has been forced to provide much better land and community facilities than would have been the case without organized protests, da Silva said.

Simón Ruiz Lerma, President of the Committee for the Defense of Mayo Culture from the state of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico, described how his indigenous community suffered after they lost their lands to the Huites Dam in 1992. Ruiz said that his community wanted the dam because they were told it would bring them irrigation and electricity. Instead, the people of Huites have been left without land, without money to pay for electricity, and without even a source of drinking water.

Dams have disproportionately affected poor, rural communities. Those who depend most on the land for their livelihood, those who still work directly with natural resources, those whose heritage is woven into the land itself have the most to lose – and the least to gain – from large dams in their communities.

Mehda Patkar, a leading member of India’s Save the Narmada Movement which has worked to stop the Sardar Sarovar Dam, told the conference, "We commit ourselves to save the Narmada, and the most ancient civilization in its lap, and the valuable natural resources there. This, we are confident, will be nothing less than waging a war against all big dams and the projects that are destructive, non-sustainable and socially unjust." (See the story of people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam.)

As the Declaration of Curitiba notes, although delegates at the conference came from many different parts of the world, all shared similar experiences of displacement, environmental devastation and cultural impoverishment. The delegates also recounted the unfulfilled promises of dam builders for compensation from dams. There was widespread agreement that struggles against dams were also struggles for democracy, and for the rights of communities to control and manage their water, land, forests and other resources.

Delegates were unanimous in demanding that no dam should be built until the authorities have obtained the informed consent of the affected people. The conference passed a resolution condemning non-governmental organizations which "legitimate large dam projects by working as consultants for project authorities when the costs and benefits of the dams have not yet been established and when affected people have not been fully informed and consulted on resettlement."

Conference delegates also shared experiences of successful and unsuccessful strategies used in opposing dams and forcing dam builders to provide just compensation. They agreed that an important long-term goal was to raise public awareness of the destruction caused by dams, the failure of dams to deliver their promised benefits, and of the many sustainable and appropriate methods of river management which could be implemented instead. Luis Della Costa, a leading activist in the Uruguay Basin affiliate of MAB, stressed that "mobilization is education" and that "involving people in direct action is the most educational act you can take." Della Costa added that "whatever the outcome of your struggle, you’ve never lost if you’ve educated the people."

Finally, to symbolize the growing unity of dam opponents around the world, the Declaration of Curitiba announced that March 14, currently the Brazilian Day of Struggles Against Dams, will from now on become the "international day of action against dams and for rivers, water and life." The international organizing committee for the Curitiba conference will be responsible for coordinating the international day of action.


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