Bearing witness to communities endangered by dams

A new film connects two environmental struggles a world apart, telling the story of their similar paths of resistance. Part documentary and part call to action, Damocracy narrates the histories of struggle against two dam hydroelectric projects: Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon basin in Brazil and Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River in southeast Turkey. These two dams are about 6,500 miles away from each other, yet their destructive impact will be remarkably similar. Equally striking are the similarities between the movements that have risen up against these dams. Damocracy is the story of popular struggles to “have the last remaining rivers of the world run freely.”

Damocracy, which is available on YouTube, was directed by Todd Southgate, a former CBC broadcast journalist who has been living in Brazil for the past 13 years. The film was put together on a “shoestring budget,” he told Waging Nonviolence, a fact belied by its professional quality. Activists resisting these dams in Brazil and Turkey had been building bridges with each others’ movements even before the film came out. “I’m just using my tools as a communicator and as a filmmaker to take that message even further,” said Southgate.

To underscore the similarities, parts of the film include split-screen scenes that show events in Brazil and Turkey side by side. Viewers are simultaneously shown a Christian mass in Brazil and a Muslim prayer in Turkey as the frame then shifts to demolition at both dams’ construction sites, presented adjacent to each other. Sound alternates from one side to the other, from a protest against Belo Monte to a protest against Ilisu. The effect is a form of visual solidarity, where the film itself reinforces the commonalities of the struggle that these two peoples are facing.

Belo Monte and Ilisu

If completed, Belo Monte Dam in Brazil will create a reservoir that floods 258 square miles, displacing 40,000 people, many from the city of Altamira. Downstream of the dam, the flow of the Xingu River will be reduced by 80 percent — dramatically impacting the lives of the 25,000 indigenous people from 18 different ethnic groups that call that area their home. For these people, their entire ways of life will be disrupted.

Indigenous groups such as the Arara and the Kayapo rely on the Xingu for travel and for sustenance. “It’s our market we’re talking about. The river is our market,” says one member of the Kayapo in the film. At least nine fish species in the Xingu will be threatened with extinction due to the decreased river flow. A speaker at a convergence in solidarity with peoples impacted by Belo Monte remarked that “the death of the forest is the end of life. The death of the Xingu River is the death of everyone.”

Damocracy debunks the myth that dams are environmentally friendly. Dam hydroelectric power is often lumped in the sustainable energy category because it does not involve burning fossil fuels. However, in addition to disrupting natural habitats, dams release methane gas, an emission caused by the decay of oxygen-starved vegetation submerged in the reservoir. Methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, making dams a major contributor to global warming.

Halfway around the world, construction of the Ilisu Dam in southeast Turkey continues. Between 35,000 and 70,000 people will be displaced by Ilisu. At this crossroads of cultures, residents’ mother tongues include Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac. But at the forefront of international and domestic opposition to Ilisu is the village of Hasankeyf. Just 10 miles upstream from the dam site, Hasankeyf was one of the earliest permanent human settlements and has remained inhabited for at least 9,500 years. Its archaeological record tells the history of the rise of civilization through a plethora of empires that have controlled that slice of Mesopotamia.

The village is also home to such outstanding architectural examples and natural formations that it is the only location in the world to meet nine of the 10 of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s criteria for recognition — and protection — as a World Heritage Site. In order to be recognized, a site only needs to meet any one of the UNESCO criteria after the government that controls that site applies. Unfortunately, Turkey’s interests lie in destroying Hasankeyf, not protecting it.

‘They don’t give a damn’

Even today, the Turkish state is running a full-court press of propaganda aimed at selling the international community that Hasankeyf will be preserved. The state claims that Hasankeyf’s monuments will be relocated outside of the flood zone and a museum erected, ignoring the fact that Hasankeyf’s entire topography is a monument worthy of preservation. Damocracy rightly calls the village “an open-air museum.”

Similar spin is being sold by the Brazilian government, mostly focusing on Belo Monte’s supposed role as a purveyor of “green energy.”

Interestingly, both Belo Monte and Ilisu have been in the works for decades. Both have been stopped multiple times. And yet, both states press ahead with these destructive projects–each with their own motivation. As one of several planned dams to dot Turkey’s southeastern landscape, Ilisu is part of the country’s counter-insurgency strategy against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish rebel group seeking autonomy from the Turkish state. The dams will collectively create a “wall of water” that could severely hinder the rebel group’s mobilizations. As for Brazil, the impetus is most likely monetary, given that Belo Monte will be the third largest hydroelectric plant in the world.

Over 23 years ago, the World Bank pulled its funding from Belo Monte due to widespread international opposition. Similarly, the Ilisu project lost its export credit guarantees from European credit agencies after the Turkish government failed to take necessary precautions to protect the environment, cultural heritage and local communities in the region.

Nonetheless, both dams recently resumed construction after the governments supplied state funding to domestic private banks. Local and regional courts in both Brazil and Turkey have ruled the dams’ construction illegal, yet those rulings were quickly overturned by higher courts. This steamrolling through legal regulations and international and domestic outcry led Cornell University anthropologist Terry Turner to declare on-camera that these dam-crazed governments “don’t give a damn.”

The future of resistance

In the face of their respective governments’ persistence, activists have remained as resilient and defiant as ever. From May 2 to May 9, indigenous activists in Brazil peacefully occupied Belo Monte’s construction site until a regional court authorized the use of force to remove them. These activists are raising the issue of respecting Brazil’s own laws around indigenous rights and asking why internal displacement and the destruction of culture is not being treated as a human rights crisis.

Meanwhile, on May 18 an International Rivers Conference was held in Istanbul to connect dam-affected communities around the world. Kayapo Chief Megaron Txucarrame was in attendance with his daughter, emphasizing the need for solidarity. The conference aimed to challenge the impunity of governments and their ability to make decisions that will destroy the climate and culture of entire regions.

Following the conference, nearly two dozen activists in Hasankeyf blocked the entrance to the Ilisu construction site. Activists included representatives of dam-affected communities from around the world. Given the trajectory of the conference and these two most recent actions, it seems clear that both groups of activists are increasingly planning to use direct actions to bring global attention to these issues.

International solidarity will be a significant element if these dams are to be stopped, particularly as the Brazilian and Turkish governments are vulnerable to international criticism. Members of non-governmental organizations operating in solidarity with dam-affected communities are working to get other countries to speak out against these dams, particularly the Ilisu Dam, which would severely restrict the flow of water southward to Syria and Iraq. In this way, Damocracy is a vital element in the plan to foster international awareness.

But these direct actions are also aimed at having a tangible impact on their own. By occupying the constructions sites, activists are delaying these projects and forcing project managers to hire costly private security or deploy the state’s police force. Every day construction is halted, profit margins dwindle. At some point, these projects will no longer remain economically viable, a reality that could, in particular, actually shut down Belo Monte.

As for his own motivations for creating Damocracy, Southgate said, “Once you see something like this, you’re morally committed to protect it. That’s where the whole idea of bearing witness came from. And with my trade and skill set, it’s my responsibility to communicate these issues to people that don’t have the chance to get out there themselves.” He continued, “But to convey it in such a way that they too feel that they’re going to lose something — that’s the challenge.”

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