Jonathan Leaning, Grassroots International’s Institutional Giving and Communications Coordinator, writes about the grassroots resistance to hydroelectric dams. This piece originally appeared on the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s website.
In the beautiful, verdant jungle of the Brazilian Amazon—the very lungs of the planet—a small handful of Indigenous Munduruku communities have lived in connection with their ecosystem for more than a thousand years. When news emerged about plans to construct a massive dam right on their lands, the core of the Munduruku’s age-old existence was shaken to the core. The proposed dam would level and flood huge swathes of land, destroy the integrity of one of the most important rivers in the Amazon (the Tapajos River), and threaten their culture in the process.
The dam developers anticipated little resistance from the Munduruku communities: they were isolated, barely a few thousand in number, and far from the centers of power and decision. The remote land seemed ripe for the taking, and when omitting the ecological and cultural damage from the equation, the profit would be enormous.
It didn’t quite turn out the way the financial backers had hoped. The communities got wind of the plan and began to organize. They linked up with a national Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens – MAB) which brings communities together to resist dams and fight for energy sovereignty. MAB provides access to information, data, training and spaces to develop collective strategy. The Munduruku began to form alliances with supportive national and international human rights, environmental, Indigenous rights and other networks.
After more than three decades of struggle, that small group of Munduruku communities achieved the unthinkable. Their years of coordinated direct action, education, alliance-building, international advocacy, and legal tactics finally paid off. It all culminated with the announcement in August, 2016 by the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) that they were cancelling the licensing of the São Luiz hydroelectric dam, citing an Environmental Impact Study. On the same day, Funai, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, finalized demarcation of their lands bringing them one step closer to having constitutionally protected territory.
It was a victory of tremendous importance. Throughout the world, large dams have forced 40-80 million people off their lands over the past six decades.
According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), dams are the largest single human-made source of methane, responsible for approximately 23% of all anthropogenic methane emissions. Worth noting, methane traps more heat than carbon dioxide and, therefore, is a more potent greenhouse gas producer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that methane has a warming impact 72 times higher than carbon dioxide if measured over 20 years.
Rather than offering a “solution” to climate change, big hydro-electric dams are false solutions that endanger the planet with the methane emitted and threaten to destroy local ecosystems and cultures, like the Munduruku. The world’s large dams emit 104 million metric tons of methane annually from reservoir surfaces, turbines, spillways and rivers downstream. Dam methane emissions are responsible for at least 4% of the total warming impact of human activities.
“If you want to take care of the forest you need to invest in us – Indigenous Peoples – because no one takes better care of the forest than we do,” says Antonio Dace Munduruku, a spokesperson for the Munduruku people.
That is one of the reasons much of the battle for the preservation of our environment, our planet, and climate is being fought successfully at the grassroots level, particularly among Indigenous and traditional peoples with deep roots to their lands and territories. This is why the CLIMA Fund is focusing on building support and funding for climate justice movements and groups.
A collaboration of four complementary funders (Global Greengrants Fund, Grassroots International, Thousand Currents, and Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights), the CLIMA Fund recognizes that the frontline communities most affected by climate change and environmental threats are best equipped to advance climate solutions and combat the impact of climate disruption. Reaching over 100 countries, the CLIMA Fund aims to raise and re-grant $10 million to Indigenous, women, and youth-led grassroots climate movement-building over the next four years.
Though the struggle against climate-warming megaprojects are difficult to win, the Munduruku success is not unique. Around the world, Indigenous Peoples and climate-impacted communities are advancing climate solutions that address the root causes of climate disruption, and are successfully challenging destructive projects.
Worth noting, the Munduruku and their territory face new threats from the recently inaugurated Bolsonaro administration that wants to abolish the environmental ministry and [further] open the Amazon to logging and mining. Indigenous Peoples, comprising less than 5 percent of the earth’s population protect 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. That means supporting Indigenous Peoples and the management of their territories must be a central strategy to challenge climate change.
In Latin America, a network of anti-dam movements in 13 countries (the Movimiento de Afectados por Represasa – a Latin American Movement of People Affected by Dams) is gaining strength, sharing learnings, successes and campaigns strategy across the continent. This year, they will be expanding their network to include movements from other continents, making it much harder for dam-building corporations to hoodwink isolated communities for the sake of quick, big profits at the expense of the environment.
Often resistance to megaprojects like dams comes at great cost. For example, in 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered for opposing the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras. Throughout the world, environmental justice leaders face violence, threats and assassination as they stand up to protect ecosystems and Mother Earth. The Indigenous organization Berta founded – COPINH (the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) – continues to carry on the work of resisting dams, advancing the territory rights of Indigenous Peoples, and defending Mother Earth.
When climate action is grounded in the experience and leadership of frontline impacted communities and connected by movements that have a clear analysis of the root causes of climate disruption, the results are powerful.
Throughout the globe, communities are weaving extraordinary solutions and connections, and building webs of resistance. Often they are accomplishing this on beat-up computers and cell phones, unpaid staff, sporadic electric power and barebones resources. One can’t help but wonder: what greater things could they accomplish if they weren’t mobilizing under the stranglehold of a shoestring budget?