By Molly Clinehens
IAP Community Media Coordinator
In October I had the privilege to attend the Rivers for Life 3: The 3rd International Gathering of Dam-affected People and their Allies, which took place in the village of Temacapulín, México, two hours northeast of Guadalajara. This beautiful village from the 6th Century, which is home to intact indigenous temples and dozens of hot springs, faces submergence from the proposed El Zapotillo dam. The two neighboring villages of Palamarejo and Acasico, and a total of 4,816 hectares of fertile agricultural land would be submerged. The dam would have just 25 useful years and would provide water for industries in Guadalajara and León, the latter which currently loses 40% of its municipal water due to leaks and inefficiency. Against this backdrop, the 300+ activists from 54 countries convened to share strategies and stories about how to protect river ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
As I got to know but a handful of these amazing activists over the course of five days, a couple thoughts continued coming to me. First, I was struck by the enormous challenges and increasing criminalization activists face worldwide, coupled with their unyielding determination to defend their land, rivers and lives. A young man from Northeast India, where there are plans to build over 100 dams on clean and vibrant Himalayan rivers, told me that he has staged two hunger fasts lasting more than 30 days. He explained that it's illegal to commit suicide in India, and at certain point, the police arrest you and hook you up to a feeding tube while detained. A woman from Burma explained that dam constructions sites, which often are imposed onto communal village territory, are heavily militarized, and the SPDC employs the use of landmines around the sites. If villagers or their livestock accidentally step on a landmine, the SPDC forces the villagers to pay for the landmine, an excruciating insult in the face of the loss of lives or livelihoods they experience. She talked about how it is strictly forbidden to assemble in Burma, so often communities living upstream of proposed dams—in areas to be submerged—will notify people living downstream of these plans by putting messages in bottles and floating them downstream.
As I heard theirs and many others’ stories, I kept thinking about how we are all river-based communities; we all need free-flowing, uncontaminated rivers in order to live well on our earth. And as I soaked in the picturesque village where for so many centuries people have lived off the land, I couldn’t help but observe that we seem to destroy precisely that which gives us life. It's almost as if the more beautiful, healthy and intact an ecosystem or community is, the more at risk it is. The modus operandi of our global economic system, which prioritizes money above all else, continues to target the most pristine corners where life is most abundant.
Yet it is not enough to protest these projects. This was the second major message I took home from the conference, and one that arose frequently in formal sessions and informal conversations. We must strongly assert what kind of world and communities we do want. Activists talked about how their communities recognize it is essential—both for their health and life and for the strength of their campaigns—to put forth positive visions for their community and viable alternatives to the aggressive extractive model being pushed forward.
In fact, some of the most promising alternatives involve a seemingly subtle, yet powerful, reaffirmation of the value of traditional lifestyles. In Temacapulín, the struggle to save their village from being flooded has spurred people to become more actively involved in the community; residents have formed a fabulous community band with young and old musicians alike, and they have reclaimed the town’s history of struggle and resistance through (among other things) the renovation of a local museum. Friends in Guadalajara who are working to support Temaca's campaign told me how the very struggle has transformed a rather sleepy village into a vibrant, active community.
I was invited to the conference to lead a session on how to use video strategically in human rights campaigns. The session was a huge success, and it is increasingly clear that video is a powerful and essential tool in our struggles―both to expose egregious human rights violations, as well as show vibrant and viable community-based alternatives. It is by telling these stories out that we denounce what destroys us and affirm what gives us life. Through images, communities from vastly disparate parts of the planet that speak different languages can communicate with each other―through the power of images―about the similarities in their struggles. My father is a priest, and so others may not resonate with this terminology, but he once said “The only way to defeat evil is to put something more powerful down beside it.” I think this is exactly what we need to do, and that video can help us do that. Through video we can put forth alternative visions....and literally show what our visions look like, what they are about.
On the last day of the conference, we all marched to the dam site, down a dusty mountain on switchbacks in the glaring sun to reach the Río Verde, the river that would be dammed. Residents of Temaca were saddened to see how far along the dam construction is coming, in spite of a court order to suspend it. Already, the river is suffering from the massive amounts of earth removal and the razing of vegetation from the construction. We held a rally and a press conference to show that the international community is standing in solidarity with the people of Temacapulín. While manicured and well-heeled representatives from the region pledged to stand with the people of Temaca, Palmarejo and Acasico, and protect them against eviction, some people went and sat by the Río Verde to spend a quiet moment with it and say prayers for it. Others went and chatted with the workers building the dam, and later reported that they could be potential allies in this struggle.
I believe we are at a moment in human history when each and every one of us is being called to actively engage in constructing the kind of world we want. It is not a time to be silent or inactive, it is not a time to be fence-sitter, or merely watch as events unfold. The new world requires us all to be deliberate with our time and energy. People in the formerly sleepy, but now vibrant village of Temaca are realizing this. People in Bayview Hunter's Point in San Francisco―where corporations and the politicians are trying to reshape their community in a way that will not leave room for everybody―are realizing this.
Rubbing shoulders and sharing stories with activists who risk their lives to defend rivers and their communities and their cultures, made me, too, want to be like a shooting star, powerfully putting forth directional light.