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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Protests Yield Results

Air Date: Week of

More than 1,000 indigenous people marched in protest of the road proposed to be built from the Brazil border through Bolivia. (Intercontinental Cry)

From Myanmar and Brazil to Bolivia, popular protests against environmental mega-projects are taking root. Jeremy Hance writes for the online environmental news service Mongabay. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that governments and courts are paying attention to people power.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Across the globe, grassroots activists are not just alive and well, and mad as hell, they’re emerging as a force of change.


GELLERMAN: In many places, it’s environmental issues and opposition to mega construction projects that have people protesting. In Myanmar, demonstrators recently took to the streets to block a proposed dam that would have flooded a vast area.


GELLERMAN: In Bolivia, things turned violent when police attacked demonstrators who were trying to prevent a road from being built through indigenous lands.


GELLERMAN: And in the rainforest of Brazil, it was the proposed Belo Monte Dam that raised the ire of protesters, and a judge recently halted construction. To discuss environmental activism we turn to Jeremy Hance. He’s a staff writer with Mongabay, an online news organization that reports on the world’s tropical forests. Hi Jeremy, welcome to the show.

HANCE: Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: Let's first talk about the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. It’s going to be enormous; I guess the third largest dam in the world, if it's built.

HANCE: Yeah, if it’s built, it’s the third largest dam. It’s gonna be 11 megawatts, and between 11 to 17 billion dollars to build. So it’s a huge, huge project.

GELLERMAN: Well, it’s generated a huge amount of protests by indigenous people and international figures like film director James Cameron.

HANCE: Yeah, he’s visited several times now the indigenous tribes along the Xingu River, which is the river that the dam would be built on. And he actually brought Arnold Schwarzenegger down there recently, and also Bill Clinton has come out against it. And it is one of the more, sort of, international issues for dams right now. There’s a petition online that got signatures from over 600,000 people around the world that were opposed to this because of the impacts.

GELLERMAN: Well, what are the specific impacts that people are protesting?

HANCE: So it’s basically social and economic impacts. So the dam is going to be so large, that it’s going to divert around 80 percent of the river. It’s going to push, probably, several species of fish directly into extinction. It’s going to flood about 40,000 hectares of forest.

There’s a lot of indigenous tribes in the area, and there’s also local communities who have depended on this river for their livelihoods, for their fishing, for a protein source for thousands of years. So they’re going to see their entire way of life change if this dam is built. The government says around 16,000 people would have to be moved, NGOs in the area say it’s probably going to be more like 40,000.

Indigenous groups have been protesting the proposed Belo Monte Dam in Brazil for years. (Photo: treehugger.com)

GELLERMAN: But now comes a Brazilian federal judge, and he actually ordered a halt of the construction of the dam. Did the protests have any influence?

HANCE: You know, I can’t speak for the judge himself and whether or not the protests have mattered. This has been an issue in Brazil since 1975. But I think what he saw is he looked at it, and he was directly involved in a lawsuit by a fishing association, and he said: "Look, this is going to change the river. This is going to change the fish populations. This is going to devastate these people’s way of life." And so, he said, "No more construction on anything that would impact the fishing and the river itself."

Now, the thing that has to be remembered is that this has happened several times in Brazil. These lower courts get these lawsuits and they say: "You need to stop this construction. This is not right. This is illegal."

And then a higher court will get it and it will be overturned. So the government is pretty much betting on that this is still going to go ahead. So I think this is an issue that is still going to be going on for a while still.

GELLERMAN: Brazil says they need the dam for the energy. They have these vast natural resources, and they need to tap into them to develop the country and alleviate poverty.

HANCE: You know, that’s the argument for a lot of these big development projects. You know, the dam does provide 11 megawatts. It's several million homes can be powered by it. Around one third of the dam’s power is expected to go to the mining industry. So that’s a pretty significant chunk that isn’t going to serve the public, but is going directly to mining.

Roughly 600,000 people have signed a petition to stop the Belo Monte dam. (International Rivers)

But there are some issues even with the power. A lot of rivers in the Amazon right now have had a really, really low period. There have been two significant droughts in the Amazon region recently, and those have been linked, by some scientists, to climate change. The Amazon is probably getting drier. So the idea that the river is going to be the way it is forever and is going to provide this constant source of energy is a question. Brazil has plans for 146 dams in the Amazon right now. This one is a part of, I think, 7 dams in the area that would eventually be built.

GELLERMAN: Well, lets talk about another dam on the other side of the planet. This is in Myanmar, where the president recently pulled the plug on a dam project that would have generated electricity that would have mostly gone to China.

The Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. (Exotismo Travel)

HANCE: Yeah. This is the Myitsone Dam and it’s on the Irrawaddy River. It’s at the head of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. And it was a real surprise to everybody that the government actually did this. There’s been a lot of local protests. There is tension with the Kachin people who live in the area who would be ones would be most impacted by the dam. But it was still a real surprise that the Myanmar government sort of bucked China on this and said: 'We just can’t do this. There’s too much protests and too much public opposition.'

And, you have to remember that this is Myanmar. This is a government that is pretty much ruled by the military, is known for large crackdowns, for human rights abuses, for imprisoning political opponents, and things like that. So it was a real surprise that they did this.

GELLERMAN: Well, I think the people were protesting because it would flood an area three and a half times the size of Washington DC.

HANCE: Yeah, it would create a reservoir the size of Singapore. And it would have created drastic changes to the ecology - just like the Belo Monte Dam. And then there was also this tension with the Kachin people who have their own political group, they have their own army.

And I think the last thing the Myanmar government wants right now is armed conflict with its own people, especially over something that’s going to provide 90 percent of its energy to China. It wasn’t that Myanmar needs this for its own energy need, it’s that China is looking for anywhere in the world it can get to get more resources and more energy right now.

GELLERMAN: The President of Myanmar says he is stopping the dam, but only until his term of office is over in 2015. So it possibly could get restarted after that.

HANCE: Definitely. I mean, that’s the thing with these big development projects like the Belo Monte which was stopped in the ‘90s and then reared its head again. Even if the government says, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’ these projects are still on the books, and it could come up back again at any time with a new administration.

GELLERMAN: I understand that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was a force in the protest movement in Myanmar, and that the demonstrations there were mostly peaceful. But in Bolivia, there’s a road that they want to build through the rainforest and a natural reserve and indigenous people’s territory, and there, the protests turned violent.

HANCE: Yeah, and there's differing stories as to how this actually happened. But, so the protest was a really interesting one. The Tipinis Reserve, which is a reserve for indigenous people, and the road would go through the reserve, and around 1,500 indigenous people were marching from the Amazon to La Paz, which is the capital, and that’s a 310 mile walk.

So it’s a pretty big commitment - they’re camping out as they go and that kind of thing - but once they got about half way, there was about 500 riot police that were sent out and broke up the march. And there was violence. Tear gas was used and batons were used, and a lot this was captured on video. It pretty much shocked the Bolivian people, it shocked the government, and now the government says that they’re going to suspend the road project.

GELLERMAN: What’s interesting about this road is that while it goes through Bolivia, actually, it’s Brazil that’s paying for it. And it’s Brazil that I think is largely going to benefit from it, because they get to have a road through the Andes that they can use to export their soy and beef.

HANCE: Exactly. You know, it’s interesting, because in Myanmar, we have China who’s pushing for that dam, and here we have another sort of rising power: Brazil, who is having more and more sway in South America. And they’re the ones paying for this road - their construction company is building it. And so, there is a lot of resentment in Bolivia that this is really about Brazil’s needs and not about Bolivia’s needs.

GELLERMAN: Well, Evo Morales, who is the president, was a big backer of the road. And, now, as you say, he suspended it. What happens now?

HANCE: This is a unique administration. Evo Morales is himself indigenous. He came into power in Bolivia by promising the poor and the indigenous people that they would have a voice. He has been huge on the international stage on environmental issues. He refers to the damage being done to Mother Earth quite a bit.

And so he talks a real green kind of game. But when it came to this road, he was basically saying, this is going to be built. Now, after the protests and the violence that came out from it, he’s lost a lot of advisers who have stepped down in protest to the way that it has been handled. He has actually gone on television and asked for forgiveness for what happened.

He says that they’re going to have a national conversation about this road, and that it might go down to referendum for the two states that the road would go through. And so we’ll just have to see, and see how he deals with the issue going forward.

GELLERMAN: So we’ve got the Brazilian dam where protests happen there, judge rules against the dam. Then we’ve got the Myanmar dam where president says, ‘We’re stopping it, at least for the next three or four years.’ Then we’ve got this road in Bolivia. Am I seeing a trend here though that is that environmental protests really are having an effect worldwide?

HANCE: You know, I think that they are more than they get credit for. There are more and more people that are aware of the great issues facing us environmentally. And I think a lot of people are saying: 'enough is enough.' I don’t think any of these projects are completely off the table, but I have seen some projects that have been thrown out due to large-scale protests.

And even in the US, we’re seeing large-scale civil disobedience against the Keystone pipeline that would run from Canada to the US, bringing tar sands to us. So I think that there is more and more realization that if there’s going to be change in the way we look at our environment, governments are acting too slow, corporations are acting to slow, and I think people are saying, 'We need to stand up and start doing something.'

GELLERMAN: Jeremy Hance is a staff writer for Mongabay, which is an online news organization that reports on the world’s tropical forests. Well, Jeremy, thank you so very much!

HANCE: Thank you.



Mongabay Website


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