plan puebla panamáarchivos de los protestos globales •

Indigenous Resistance and Opposition to Dam Projects and the World Bank

(Part I)

Chiapas al Día, No. 286
Chiapas, México
April 17, 2002

There is a long history of resistance to dam projects. The World Commission on Dams (WCD) documents that in the 17th Century, Scottish fishermen tried to destroy a recently constructed dam. In 1910 John Muir tried without success to sway public opinion against the construction of a dam in California. After the 1950s, opposition to dams had extended throughout the world and become better organized. In this decade, protests stopped the construction of two dams in the Grand Canyon and the Echo Park dam on the Colorado River that would have been 173 high. This is similar to the height of the "El Cajón" dam that will be built this year in the Mexican states of Nayarit and Jalisco (see map), by a foreign corporation.

Each year, in April and October, large protests are held in Washington, D.C. against the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These institutions are tools used by the system and the rich countries in order to impose the same structural adjustment policies that have impoverished the world and the effects of these policies are now plaguing the people of Argentina. According to the WCD, the World Bank is a priority as a target of attacks and critiques about the effects of large dam projects, given that this multilateral bank is the largest funder of such projects. (To read more about the World Bank's role, refer to "Chiapas Today" bulletins 234 and 236 in

WCD's report, "Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making," released in November of 2000, concludes that, "As a development choice, large dams often became a focal point for the interests of politicians, dominant and centralized government agencies, international financing agencies and the dam-building industry." The WCD states that in general the people effected by the dam projects have not been taken into account in the decision making process. "Once a proposed dam project passed preliminary technical and economic feasibility tests and attracted interest from government or external financing agencies and political interests, the momentum behind the project often prevailed over further assessments."

Therefore, considerations about social and environmental impacts have remained outside of the realm of previous evaluations. In Chiapas, we see this with the construction of the La Angostura y Chicoasén dam. And the same drums are sounding at the Mexican border with Guatemala and at the basin of the Usumacinta river that divides us from our brother country.

The WCD also found that in the industrialized countries, "Alliances between local political interests, agencies and powerful public service corporations for the one purpose of developing water and energy, have imposed the planning and decision making regarding large dams." In the context of the Puebla Panama Plan, in which investments for infrastructure will not only be for dams but also for airports, ports, oil and gas pipelines, railways, roads, etc., we can imagine how the region is not only being held prisoner by the dam projects and by transnational ambitions for electric energy, but also in many other productive sectors. How much, then, will the governments in this highly indebted and impoverished region truly profit from these projects?

According to the WCD, "Both the multilateral and bilateral development banks played a significant role in getting Asia, Africa and Latin America started in the dam business." The World Bank began financing large dam projects in the 1950s, committing on average over $1 billion per year to this purpose. Between 1970 and 1985, the period in which the largest number of dams were constructed in the world, the amount had risen to $2 billion per year. "Adding in finance by the Asian, Inter-American and African Development Banks, as well as bilateral funding for hydropower, suggests total financing for large dams from these sources of more than $4 billion annually at the peak of lending during 1975-84."

Just to give one example, the World Bank's participation in India was decisive. The WB began to lend large quantities of money to this country in the 1970's, at the same time when political and legal reforms eliminated restrictions to states individually and directly contract foreign debt. Since then, World Bank loans to India have doubled or tripled each decade. This impoverishment, indebtedness and dependency is the same direction that the WB is bringing to Mexico under the scheme of "decentralization." If this were not enough, in the case of Chiapas, Governor Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía (either because it suits him, or because of ignorance) is promoting this mirage of so-called development with the introduction of the World Bank in state programs. This is the "India-nization" of the Indigenous people of Chiapas. If we permit this to continue, we will see in Chiapas the same catastrophic effects that the World Bank produced in India.

The WCD gives us other examples where the World Bank has been influential in promoting and funding many large dam projects. In the case of Brazil, WB and IADB financing for the 79 large dams constructed between 1950 and 1970 covered 10% of the costs of these dams. Between 1970 and 1990 this figure raised to 30% for the 47 dams constructed in this period. These statistics differs from smaller countries where multilateral institutions have played a particularly strong role. For example, in Colombia the multilateral lending institutions financed 40% of the 50 large dam projects. In Costa Rica the IADB and WB financed half of the hydroelectric capacity installed in the mid-90s, in a country that depends on hydroelectricity for 90% of its electricity generation.

From 1973 to 1977, the resistance of Indigenous groups to the creation of four dams along the Chico River in the Philippines forced the World Bank to cancel the project. Facing this, in 1982 the World Bank created some protection measures for Indigenous communities and in 1993 a mechanism for appeals. However, this bore few fruits. The WB continued to be a target for attacks, opposition and international movements against it. Some recent examples of resistance struggles against dams have taken place in China, Thailand, Turkey, Chile, Namibia, Lesoto and South Africa. According to the WCD, of the 36 projects with World Bank support that NGO activist groups have targeted with some success, only 12 are dam projects, 14 are projects for the management of forests and natural resources, 5 for industrial management or mines, and 2 urban infrastructure projects. The WCD considers the large dams to be important investments and at the same time they imply a high political risk. In addition, the large dams are usually justified with the claim that there will be great regional benefits while in reality, only the negative physical impacts are concentrated locally. Communities resettled due to dam projects lose not just housing and the means for subsistence, but also quality and availability of fresh water.

During the construction of the Pangue dam in Chile, started in 1990, severe impacts were caused to forests and the indigenous Pehuenche communities, traditional inhabitants of the region, who resisted being displaced from their lands. The World Bank's role was severely questioned due to the lack of transparency and the financial support the WB granted to a project that was clearly not sustainable. During a visit to Santiago in April of 1998, James Wolfenson, President of the World Bank, admitted that the Bank's support of the dam project had been a mistake and that the bank had performed "bad work" during the evaluation of the environmental impact of the project, since the Pehuenche indigenous people that inhabit the area had not been consulted.

After a dam has been constructed, on average 47% more people are "resettled" than were calculated in the plans for the project. Among the World Bank financed projects that have displaced people from their homes, dam projects caused 65% of the displacements, according to the WCD. This statistic does not include displacements caused by other aspects of dam projects such as canals, electric plants, infrastructure and associated compensatory measures, such as ecological reserves. According to the World Bank itself, out of 192 irrigation projects it approved for funding between 1961 and 1984, one third of these projects did not reach their objectives.

If this were not enough, the projects indebted the communities and enriched the corrupt. For example, during the construction of the Yacyreta dam in Argentina and Paraguay, more than 6,000 million dollars were "lost." According to the WCD, "accusations of corruption have stained many large dam projects in the past but have rarely led to legal proceedings." The WCD also notes that, "within the international financial institutions, there are few, or perhaps no, sanctions on members of personnel or countries, for non-compliance (...)." Therefore, by August of 2000, around 23 countries had ratified the 1997 Convention on Combating Bribery of Public Officials in International Business Transactions of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This is just one more ironic situation in which the rich countries claim their hands are clean at the same time that they satanize the Southern countries as corrupt in order to justify privatizations and other measures they are trying to push. The governments and businesses of the South can be just as corrupt as those of the North.

The World Bank has supported the construction of 538 large dams in the world, which have caused the displacement of 10 million people. The total cost for the construction of these dams reached 75 billion dollars. The WB concedes that the actual cost for the construction of a dam was on average 30% greater than the original budget. Also according to the WB itself, for 1994, only one of the dams that it financed helped to increase the incomes of those affected by the project. An internal WB study in 1990 showed that 58% of dam projects were carried out without taking into account the effects downstream of the dam, even when erosion, contamination, destruction of habitat, and other damage were predicted. For Example, in Indonesia eight people drowned during a protest against the dam. The Tucurua and Balbina dams in the Amazon Jungle flooded 6,400 square kilometers. In Thailand, the Pak Mun dam eliminated 51 animal species, displaced more than 25,000 people and generated just one third of the electricity it was planned to generate. For all of these reasons and more, in 1994, 2,154 organizations from all around the world demanded that the World Bank impose a world-wide moratorium on the construction of dams.

Critics of large dam projects convinced the World Bank and UICN (World Conservation Union) a global union of more than 800 governments, governmental agencies and NGOs, to host a meeting between supporters and critics of large dams that was held in Gland, Switzerland in April of 1977. Thirty-nine people participated in this workshop, representing governments, the private sector, international financial institutions, civil society organizations and people effected by dams. One of the results was the necessity to create the WCD that was founded in February of 1998 by 12 members as an independent Commission. In "Chiapas Today" Bulletin number 285 we explained some of the effects of large dam projects, and the WCD's conclusions after 2 years of studies that were published in 2000. However, we would also add that the according to the WCD, "In the majority of cases, projects have had a general tendency to not reach the planned level for electricity generation. Hydroelectric projects, such as in the case of the large dam projects, have incurred cost overruns and have had unsatisfactory performance levels."

During the last 30 years, activists have waged a strong struggle to pressure institutions such as the World Bank into adopting social and environmental policies. However, export credit agencies (ECAs) are today the largest providers of public funds for large scale infrastructure projects in the Southern countries. The majority of these agencies have no human rights, environmental and development standards. This permits them to support projects that even the multilateral development banks consider to be problematic, such as logging, mining, nuclear energy and petroleum prospecting, as well as dams.

In the words of the World Rainforest Movement (WRM):

"Dams have caused great damage in the region: the tropical forests are disappearing, the number of endangered species continues to increase, the health of the rivers is deteriorating, and poverty continues to increase at the same time that thousands of people displaced by dam projects fight to recover their way of life. Affected people have also seen the need to fight against dams. Their struggles are not easy. Many people have never seen a dam and do not understand the jargon of the industry or the process of construction of a dam. But people are learning quickly, and those who have been affected are making their voices heard."

"Colombian groups are forming a network in order to protect the rivers; the Pehuenche indigenous women are organizing marches in defense of the Biobio River in Chile, indigenous people and campesinos are protesting against the plans to increase the water level of the Temascal and Cerro de Oro dams, and a coalition of anti-dam groups are trying to obtain information about the rumor of plans for a new dam in the Torola River. But the struggles of those affected by dams, to stop or modify the large dam projects, have come at a very high cost." In the year 2000, leaders of the Embera-Katio indigenous group of Colombia asked for political asylum from the Spanish embassy after the assassination of other leaders due to the opposition to the Urrá dam project. This history has been repeated throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and these human rights violations will continue to increase with the plans for expanding the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Puebla Panama Plan (PPP).

The International Rivers Network (IRN) declared that:

"When the era of extravagance ended, communities began to become aware of the problems caused by the large dams and began to see them as symbols of the political repression the region has suffered from, and to confront the hard fact that in the end, they would be the ones to pay the price. The birth of democracy in Latin America was clearly confirmed by the image on television of a Kayapo indigenous warrior woman, when she passed the flat side of her machete across the cheek of a director of an electric company in Altamira, Brasil."

"Many of the struggles against dams involve the defense of fragile ecosystems recognized for their global importance. They also involve the participation of indigenous populations who have taken consciousness of their constitutional and legal rights, and of other traditional populations determined to not be displaced from the lands their ancestors have occupied for centuries. Many of these struggles are still not on the radar screens of journalists and activists, but we will hear much more about them in the future."


There has been worldwide protest and resistance against the World Bank's role on many levels. From infrastructure projects to the fight against poverty, from projects that have harmed the environment to those that have not taken into account women and indigenous peoples, etc. There has also been organizing against the large dam projects. The 1994 Manibeli Declaration was born from these protests. We remember and reproduce this declaration now, where people effected by dams manifested the following:

" Calling for a moratorium to the financing of large dam projects by the World Bank, in honor of the heroic resistance by the people of the village of Manibeli and others in India's Narmada Valley to the World Bank-funded Sardar Sarovar Dam, and of the millions of reservoir refugees around the world."


  1. The World Bank is the greatest single source of funds for large dam construction, having provided more than US$50 billion (1992 dollars) for construction of more than 500 large dams in 92 countries. Despite this enormous investment, no independent analysis or evidence exists to demonstrate that the financial, social and environmental costs were justified by the benefits realized;
  2. Since 1948, the World Bank has financed large dam projects which have forcibly displaced on the order of 10 million people from their homes and lands. The Bank's own 1994 "Resettlement and Development" review admits that the vast majority of women, men and children evicted by Bank-funded projects never regained their former incomes nor received any direct benefits from the dams for which they were forced to sacrifice their homes and lands. The Bank has consistently failed to implement and enforce its own policy on forced resettlement, first established in 1980, and despite several policy reviews the Bank has no plans to fundamentally change its approach to forced resettlement;
  3. The World Bank is planning to fund over the next three years 18 large dam projects which will forcibly displace another 450,000 people, without any credible guarantee that its policy on resettlement will be enforced. Meanwhile the Bank has no plans to properly compensate and rehabilitate the millions displaced by past Bank-funded dam projects, including populations displaced since 1980 in violation of the Bank's policy;
  4. World Bank-funded large dams have had extensive negative environmental impacts, destroying forests, wetlands, fisheries, habitat for threatened and endangered species, and increasing the spread of waterborne diseases;
  5. The environmental and social costs of World Bank-funded large dams, in terms of people forced from their homes, destruction of forests and fisheries, and spread of waterborne diseases, have fallen disproportionately on women, indigenous communities, tribal peoples and the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the population. This is in direct contradiction to the World Bank's often-stated "overarching objective of alleviating poverty;"
  6. The World Bank has prioritized lending for large dams which provide electricity to trans-national industry and to urban elites, and irrigation water supply for export-oriented agriculture, neglecting the most pressing needs of the rural poor and other disadvantaged groups. The Bank has provided $8.3 billion (1992 dollars) for large dams through the International Development Association (IDA), the "soft" credit window which is supposed to aid the poorest populations in developing countries;
  7. The World Bank has tolerated and thus contributed to gross violations of human rights by governments in the process of implementing Bank-funded large dams, including arbitrary arrests, beatings, rapes, and shootings of peaceful demonstrators. Many Bank-funded large dams projects cannot be implemented without gross violations of human rights because affected communities inevitably resist the imposition of projects so harmful to their interests;
  8. The World Bank plans, designs, funds, and monitors the construction of large dams in a secretive and unaccountable manner, imposing projects without meaningful consultation or participation by the communities affected, often denying access to information even to local governments in the areas affected;
  9. The World Bank has consistently ignored cost-effective and environmentally and socially sound alternatives to large dams, including wind, solar and biomass energy sources, energy demand management, irrigation rehabilitation, efficiency improvements and rainwater harvesting, and non-structural flood management. The Bank has even convinced governments to accept loans for large dams when more cost-effective and less destructive alternative plans existed, as may be the case again with the Arun III project in Nepal;
  10. The economic analyses on which the World Bank bases its decisions to fund large dams fail to apply the lessons learned from the poor record of past Bank-funded dams, underestimating the potential for delays and cost over-runs. Project appraisals typically are based on unrealistically optimistic assumptions about project performance, and fail to account for the direct and indirect costs of negative environmental and social impacts. The Bank's own 1992 portfolio review admits that project appraisals are treated as "marketing devices" which fail to establish that projects are in the public interest;
  11. The primary beneficiaries of procurement contracts for World Bank-funded large dams have been consultants, manufacturers and contractors based in the donor countries, who profit while citizens of the borrowing countries are burdened by debt and the destructive economic, environmental and social impacts of the large dams themselves. The Bank has consistently failed to build local capacity and expertise, promoting dependency instead;
  12. World Bank-funded large dams have flooded cultural monuments, religious and sacred sites, and national parks and other wildlife sanctuaries;
  13. In its lending for large dams the World Bank has tolerated and condoned theft of funds supplied by the Bank, often by corrupt military and undemocratic regimes, and has often made additional loans to cover cost-over-runs brought on by what the Bank refers to as "rent seeking behavior." Examples include Yacyreta Dam in Argentina and Chixoy Dam in Guatemala;
  14. The World Bank has consistently violated its policy on environmental assessment, and has allowed environmental assessments to be produced by project promoters and used to justify prior decisions to proceed with destructive large dam projects.
  15. The World Bank has never addressed in policy, research, or project planning documents, the decommissioning of large dams after their useful lifetime has expired due to reservoir sedimentation and physical deterioration;
  16. The World Bank has never properly assessed its record of funding large dams and has no mechanism for measuring the actual long-term costs and benefits of the large dams it funds;
  17. Throughout its involvement in the Sardar Sarovar Dam in India's Narmada Valley, a world-wide symbol of destructive development, the World Bank has consistently ignored its own policy guidelines regarding resettlement and environmental assessment, and attempted to cover-up the conclusions of the severely critical official independent review, the Morse Report. With the ongoing forcible evictions and flooding of tribal lands, the Bank bears direct legal and moral responsibility for the human rights abuses taking place in the Narmada Valley.


Here ends the Manibeli Declaration. It is fitting to mention that although the World Bank's policies have not changed much, the consciousness of the peoples and resistance struggles have. Today, this same ghost (the large dam projects) is haunting the PPP territories. The Governor of Chiapas must opt for a path different from the policies of impoverishment and dependency that have characterized previous governments.

Sources: Synthesis and quotes from Bulletin number 42 of the World Movement for Tropical Forests, January 2001; from the World Commission on Dams 2000 Report; Rivers of the World Volume 14, Number 3/June 1999. Also: "Historia Inconclusa de la Lucha Social", INI, Centro Coordinador Tsotsil, Bochil, Chiapas (Huitiupán, January 1999); treaties and agreement signed between inhabitants of the municipality of Huitiupan and the CFE (Federal Electric Commission); Magazine Ideas, Vlume 7, February 2002; International Rivers Network, "Guardians of the Rivers, Guide for Activists":; Forum "Para Donde Va Urrá?," August 2000; CIEPAC; WCD, Damming the Rivers: The World Bank's Lending for Large Dams (1994).

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