A Frontier Comment
Vol. 48, No. 52, Jul 3 – 9, 2016
Early in the morning of March 3, Berta Cáceres was assassinated as she slept. Nearer home Shankar Guha Niyogi, the legendary trade unionist who showed alternative path of trade union movement to the tribal mining workers of Chattisgarh was shot dead when he was asleep.
A world-renowned environmental activist, Berta had been a driving force in protecting the lands and waters of rural communities in Honduras. Among the many victories of the organisation she founded was the delay of a megadam project on the Gualcarque River that could be disastrous for the indigenous Lenca people living there. Guha Neyogi was eliminated because his idea of new trade union initiative caught the imagination of a vast number of unorganised sector workers in the Bhilai industrial region.
For one thing Berta is not alone, nor is her story unique to Honduras. Across the Global South, mega hydroelectric projects are expanding—driven by governments and multinationals as a source of ‘cheap energy’, and branded by international institutions as a solution to poverty and the climate crisis.
But despite claims that they create clean energy, dams often have devastating impacts. They displace communities, destroy the local social fabric and spiritual ties to land, lead to privatisation of land and water, and generate food and job insecurity. Often used to power mining and fossil fuel extraction, they’re part of a system that damages the ecosystem and advances climate change.
Increasingly, communities throughout Latin America have been resisting these projects. Some have succeeded in protecting their territories in the face of violent repression. Yet when these groups go so far as to speak out about the root causes of the projects—corporate greed, unfettered capitalism, political impunity—they, like Berta, may be targeted and killed. When industrial capital, rather multinational capital, is challenged by honest and sincere social activists like Berta and Niyogi, they are silenced once and for all. With mining activity increasing in leaps and bounds challengers face more life risk than ever before.
International development banks and transnational corporations are pushing an expansion of megahydroelectric dams at a rate never seen before. In Honduras, the Agua Zarca dam that Berta fought against is far from the only project: The Lenca people alone are facing the prospect of 17 dams being imposed within their territories.
This picture is being replicated across the region. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos’ master plan for the strategic use of the Magdalena River calls for adding 11 to 15 megadams to those already in operation. In Peru, former President Alan Garcia made the construction of 20 megadams along the Marañon River into a national priority with the signing of a single decree in 2011.
Overall, 829 hydroelectric projects were approved in South America during 2014, with a total investment of US$22 billion.
The power and resource grab going on throughout Latin America has roots stretching back to Spanish colonisation. And in India it has roots in British colonisation. In many ways what is happening in Chattisgarh and elsewhere is worse than old colonisation. The river Gualcarque—with its deep spiritual significance for the Lenca people—was famously defended against Spanish invaders by indigenous resistance leader and hero, El Lempira. Although the form has evolved, the struggle against powerful foreign forces in the region has continued to this day.
Conquering not with swords and horses but with a ruse of “corporate social responsibility” and market-based mechanisms, the plunderers of the 21st century are bolstered by a deepening and globalised neoliberal agenda. The package of privatisations, deregulations, and loosening of restrictions on trade and finance prescribed under the “Washington Consensus” for global trade—widely implemented by institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the 1990s—tipped the balance of power towards the interests of corporate global elites.
Berta and Niyogi posed a threat to a development paradigm based on the enrichment of global elites—so much so that the forces pushing that agenda felt it necessary to take their lives.