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Hydropower and Ecological Conflicts. From resistance to transformations

By: Daniela Del Bene.

Supervisors: Prof. Joan Martínez Alier, Dr. Beatriz Rodríguez Labajos. Tutor: Prof. Louis Lemkow


Hydropower is undergoing a new construction boom globally and is increasingly promoted as a sustainable and renewable source of energy. Yet construction of hydroelectric dams results in a growing number of ecological conflicts due to both ecological and social impacts. In response, impacted communities and activists are mobilising in social movements and international networks. To date, social research has largely focused on assessing the project-specific impacts of large dams and the associated opposition that has arisen. This research critiques the recent expansion of hydropower that is being legitimised through a discourse of sustainability, takes a territory-wide perspective and focuses on the transformative forces that arise from within anti-dam social movements. This thesis adopts the lens of political ecology and ecological economics and an activist-led research approach to investigate three main dimensions of anti-dam resistance. First, this thesis examines the expansion of hydropower along one recent commodity extraction frontier, the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh in India. This research was done in collaboration with local activists and independent researchers and through participatory regional mapping of 17 cases of conflict using the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice – EJAtlas. It analyses the actors involved and the valuation languages of the impacted communities who protest and mobilise, including concerns over disruption of local ecologies, violation of laws, and the violent character of hydropower expansion. It finally discusses imposed large-scale renewables as additional drivers of a ‘renewables’ extractivism’ promoted as sustainable green energyand by a ‘consensus of infrastructures’, parallel to a ‘consensus of commodities’. Secondly, this thesis adopts a comparative political ecology approach to inquiry trends and patterns of violent repression of the anti-dam protest globally. It analyses 220 cases of ecological conflicts over hydroelectric dams included in the EJAtlas database, focusing on four main categories of the ‘Outcomes’ namely violent repression of protests, criminalization, violent targeting of activists and assassinations, as well as the types of groups mobilizing, the forms of mobilization, and the most frequently reported socio-economic, environmental and health impacts. This section shows how violence particularly increases in Indigenous territories and how repression not only targets the opposition to specific projects but aims at delegitimising other and different relations to the territory, world-visions, and ontologies. Thirdly, this dissertation discusses how anti-dam movements play a central role in the production of forces for transformation that are born out of the resistance. This section is based on interviews with lead activists and community members and through personal participation in activist networks. It argues that in response to the land, water and energy grabbing (alias, sovereignty grabbing) caused by the hydropower industry, movements increasingly call for resistance to: ‘scale out’ across sectors (land, water and energy) to overcome the sectorialisation of social movements; expand the understanding of impacts, not only referring to ‘project-affected’ but to ‘(energy)model-affected people’, in order to widen the outreach of resistance; engage in an epistemic struggle for the recognition of a pluralistic understanding of land, water and energy. This section finally presents ‘energy sovereignty’ as an emerging slogan of anti-dam resistance and thus of the vocabulary of environmental justice to reclaim people’s control over different energy models and diverse and other ‘territorialities’.


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