Grassroots International nominated one of their Brazilian partners, the Movement of People Affected by Dams, to receive the annual award of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. The award honors courageous and innovative individuals for their activism. If selected, this award would not only reinforce MAB’s historic struggle to protect human rights and support those defending communities impacted by massive water projects; it would also provide monetary compensation and international recognition.
In fact, the nomination itself has already provided a boost to MAB’s reputation and a platform from which to raise the voices of those impacted by dams and hydro-electric projects.
A recent interview by MAB of Nikhil Aziz, the executive director of Grassroots International, appeared in Brasil de Fato, a weekly political journal. Reprinted below, the interview explores the general context of energy in current capitalist system, the importance of MAB’s work and the meaning of the RFK Center award nomination.
MAB: Energy production plays an important role within the current global context, especially hydroelectric energy, which is considered a “clean” energy. Nevertheless, social movements and environmental organizations are critical to the current model of energy production and consumption, because of its environmental and social impacts. In your opinion, is there a solution to this dichotomy between energy production and environmental issues? What would that be?
Nikhil Aziz: While the production of energy is vital to the global economy and for people in general, electricity generated through hydropower is not the best solution. Big dams have been seen by many governments like Brazil, India, China and even smaller countries as an integral part of their energy strategy. But we know that big dams benefit big corporations and big bureaucracies and not too many others.
They result in the loss of large portions of land including forests or farmland. They result in the disruption of rivers and water resources downstream. They result in the displacement of millions of people worldwide, especially indigenous peoples and peasants. In India alone it is estimated that since 1947 more than 50 million people have been displaced. They can cause increases in seismicity. They also produce methane (through reservoirs) which is a greenhouse gas like carbon. They concentrate energy production and distribution rather than decentralize it.
And in the end despite the expense in financial and human and environmental terms, their lifespan is not very long in the larger scheme of things. There are definitely other ways to produce energy, even using hydropower that can be less expensive, less centralized, and less damaging to the ecology and to humans. We need to move away from the mindset of big means better and value how smaller efforts multiplied can achieve similar or even better results.
MAB: Official documents from the Brazilian government shows a pattern of human rights violations at the construction sites of hydro-power dams in Brazil. Has the Grassroots accompanied the cases of human rights abuses in other countries, particularity at construction of dams?
NA: Yes, we have accompanied movements in other regions that are fighting against similar violations of rights. For example, in India and Pakistan, in Honduras and Guatemala, in parts of Africa we have supported movements and organizations of indigenous peoples and peasants who are opposing mega dams and river diversion and proposing alternative solutions that are more ecological and human-friendly.
MAB: In your point of view, which is the main contribution that Brazilian social movements can make to grassroots organizations in a context of capitalist crises?
NA: Brazilian social movements like the Movement of Dam-affected People (MAB) and the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and have been world leaders in terms of their critical analysis of capitalism and their solutions that are grounded in democratic process and which are supportive of people and the environment. The MAB and MST have been sources of inspiration to other movements not only in Latin America but also in Africa and Asia; and even in the United States. If you are resolute in your struggles in Brazil despite the increasing criminalization of activists you will continue to serve as a beacon for others. And that is a vital contribution we need in the current context of the crisis of neoliberal capitalism. If the social movements in Brazil are weakened then social movements around the world will be weaker.
MAB: What is Grassroots’ perception of dam-affected people in Brazil?
NA: Grassroots International salutes the courage and determination of the dam-affected people in Brazil – indigenous, Afro-descendants and peasants, including women. We know the risks you take and the challenges you face and are inspired by the fact that you continue to struggle for your rights and for an alternative form of development that is just and sustainable.
MAB: This year, Grassroots International nominated MAB for the 2013 Human Rights Award, organized by the Robert F. Kennedy Center of Human Rights and Justice. What is the importance of nominating a social movement from Latin America to this award?
NA: The RFK Memorial Award and other such recognitions are important because more than any financial reward they recognize and amplify the struggle movements like MAB face and the solutions they present. These awards also to some extent bestow a measure of security as governments are less likely to criminalize activists or movements that are internationally recognized and that have supporters in countries beyond their own borders who might mobilize support and solidarity when needed.
MAB: In your point of view, what is the symbolism of this award for the international community of human rights defenders?
NA: It is very important for the reasons mentioned above. If human rights defenders and activists are not known and their work is unheard of, then repressing them becomes much easier. If they and their work are known to a larger community of people both within their countries and outside of them the power of solidarity and support can make a difference in saving lives and protecting rights.