The world Commission on Dams: A Review of Hydroelectric Projects and the Impact on Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities

September 1999

Author: Joji Carino

The World Commission on Dams’ Process

Established through a process involving representatives from all perspectives of the debate, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) seeks to facilitate a better understanding of the past and more recent experiences with dams, as well as alternative options for development and effective and participatory decision-making processes. Against this background, the overall goals for WCD as prescribed by its mandate are to: review the development effectiveness of dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development; and develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards (where appropriate) for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring, and decommissioning of dams.

The design of the work program of the WCD reflects a strong emphasis on concrete outputs that help to fulfill the mandate. Three outputs have been planned for completion by June 2000: a global review of the development effectiveness of dams; a framework for options assessment and decision making processes for the development and management of water and energy services; and a set of criteria, guidelines, and standards where appropriate for the planning, appraisal, design, construction, operation, monitoring, and decommissioning of dams.

The WCD approach to studying the issues will focus on understanding the knowledge available on dams and the varying perspectives of different groups. Thus, the Commission’s approach will draw on four principal sources: expertise of Commission members and Secretariat staff (e.g., existing data and information to be collected, reviewed, and synthesized); consultation with interest groups (e.g. consultations, workshops, and meetings); case studies, cross-check analysis, and thematic reviews conducted and commissioned by the WCD; and expert advice and guidance solicited through panels and task forces.

Process of Developing WCD Thematic Review On Dams, lndigenous Peoples, And ethnic Minorities

The WCD’s thematic reviews address cross-cutting issues of importance in assessing both the historical experience with dams, and highlighting the emerging trends and the future context for water resources management involving consideration of dam and non-dam options. The thematic reviews will be: global in focus; identify and articulate varying concerns, issues, and perspectives; highlight commonalties and differences in concerns, issues, and perspectives across nations and regions; and describe the current knowledge base and practices on the issues. The five themes selected to provide the framework for the key questions and analysis are: social issues, environmental issues, economic issues, options assessment, an institutional processes. Subtopics are examined in detail within these thematic areas.

Indigenous peoples’ experiences with dams are an important element in the debate. One of the 17 thematic reviews is “Dams, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities,” which is designed to fully capture experiences of indigenous peoples in their encounter with dams and their perspectives on development in general and large dams in particular.

This thematic review is being developed in such a way that the indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, institutions involved in financing and creating dams, and other stakeholders participate and make contributions to it. Seven case studies were commissioned to document experiences of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities with large dams; the multilateral development institutions, dam developers and utilities were invited to make submissions on their experiences in addressing the issues of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in projects implemented by them. The Secretariat received the case studies (Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Canada, Norway, Philippines, Malaysia and Namibia) and three submissions (Hydro-Quebec, Inter American Development Bank and World Bank).

The Forest Peoples Programme, UK prepared a draft review paper on the theme, incorporating input from the case studies. In addition, the findings and conclusions of the paper were derived from an extensive review of the available literature, the results of an email questionnaire sent out to several hundred individuals known to be involved in the issues of indigenous peoples and/or dams, and telephone interviews with a number of legal experts, indigenous spokespersons and a wide range of actors, including industry, international development agencies, environment and development NGOs. Consultation with indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities continues through the final stages of the review paper’s completion.

A two-day consultative meeting with representatives of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities was organized in Geneva on July 31 and August 1, 1999. The objective of the Geneva Consultative Meeting was to share the findings from the case studies, submissions, and the draft review paper with the of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in order to receive their comments, inputs, and perspectives. Through the process outlined above, this thematic review proposed to provide all possible opportunities to articulate their concerns and development perspectives. Such opportunities also are available to governments, financial institutions, developers, and utilities.

Currently, the thematic review paper is being reviewed by a number of panel members chosen from among several stakeholder groups. Further, this paper will be subjected to critical review by other stakeholder groups, particularly governments, developers, utilities, and international financial institutions. Convergent and divergent views on findings, conclusions, and recommendations will be fully addressed as consultations with all possible groups, institutions, and governments are completed.

Dams and Indigenous Peoples

Dams in the present century are among the major development projects undertaken by nation-states. Between 1900 and 1950, nearly 100 large dams were built every year, all over the world. By the second half of the twentieth century this figure had peaked to over 500 dams a year. By 1997, an estimated 800,000 dams had been built in the world. More than 45,000 of these are large dams.

Fueled by growing demands for irrigation, and urban-industrial requirements for power generation and water supply, large-scale dam construction has failed to sufficiently take into account the social and environmental costs incurred in its wake. One of the most critical and contentious issues associated with large dam projects has been the impact on livelihoods and culture of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. McCully (1996) argues that all over the world, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities constitute the largest proportion of people who have lost their livelihoods to large dams.

Impact of Dams

The experience of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities with dam projects is rife with alienation, dispossession both from their land and other resources, lack of compensation or inadequate compensation, human rights abuse and lowering of living standards. Governments and international agencies have repeatedly failed to adhere to internationally- agreed rights of Ips&Ems. Procedural and conceptual failures in project planning and resettlement and rehabilitation have had serious impact on the lives of the indigenous people.

According to the World Bank (1994 Bank-wide review of projects involving involuntary resettlement), a majority of the people who have been resettled as a result of dam projects belong to the poorest and the most vulnerable sections of society. In the case of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, the psychological and social trauma of resettlement is exacerbated by the discrimination they face from mainstream society. The ties that bind them to their ancestral land are irreplaceable. The loss of traditional land has caused damage to the integrity, stability, and, ultimately, the survival of the community. Each impact adds a new rent to the fragile existence of the community. (Example: Between 1902 and 1963 the Nubian people of Sudan were displaced four times to make way for dams. In Philippines almost all large dams are built on the lands of the country’s 6-7 million indigenous people.)

A) Loss of Land

The construction of dams, their ancillary works and wider development projects (both agricultural and industrial) have led to the loss of large areas of agricultural land, forest, grazing land, fishing grounds and other resources from which indigenous communities derived their subsistence. The cost-benefit type of interpretation of the loss may have been inadequate in protecting the entitlement of the affected indigenous people. Though international conventions recognize the rights of indigenous people over common resources, land titling procedures have not been adjusted to accommodate these ancestral and customary rights. As a consequence, acquisition of the indigenous natural resource base for submergence or other activities is not included in the narrow definition of impact. Since rights over commons are not recognized, the question of compensation does not arise. The thematic review has undertaken extensive searches to locate national laws and practices upholding ILO conventions 107 and 169, and World Bank guidelines on involuntary resettlement and indigenous peoples.

B) Displacement and Conflicts

Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities affected by the secondary impacts of the dam projects do not often fall within the fixed definition of `project affected people’. For instance, the process of land acquisition for resettling the people forcibly displaced by dam projects can often lead to the dispossession of local community or reduction of their subsistence base. The resulting competition for resources between the settler and host community, in resettlement sites, could flare into ethnic conflicts. In fact there have been instances where resettlement has been used as a deliberate strategy by the state to foment ethnic conflict in order to consolidate political power. Some dams have contributed to ethnic conflict without ever being built.

C) Gender Inequities

Men and women are affected differently by dam projects. “Women are harder hit by resettlement than men since they are more likely to earn their living from small businesses located at or near their residences. Women may also be affected disproportionately in rural areas since they are more often dependent on common property resources. E.g. gardens may more frequently be on unregistered land than fields owned by men.” (WB, 1984:2/9). In many cases involving forced relocation of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, women have been denied compensation for the plots of land they have previously cultivated, because the plots were not registered in their names. If deemed ineligible for compensation, women-headed households and widows could be excluded from resettlement package. As men are recognized as heads of household, compensation often is paid only to them. Women as co-owners are not considered independently in the compensation package. Post-rehabilitation, women have faced abandonment, income decline, and destitution. The loss of access to commons with displacement creates fodder and fuel wood shortage, traditional craft suffers, incomes falter, and food scarcity results. When new water regimes lead to a change in crop patterns towards a high value mono crop, the result may be displacement of women who had been active in cultivation. Women face further hardship when community support structures disintegrate and family and kinship networks break down.

D) Human Rights Abuses

When indigenous peoples oppose efforts to relocate them, the response sometimes has been violence and human rights abuse. There are well documented cases where oustees and their supporters have been subjected to force for opposing dam projects. Other human rights abuses include burning of homes, illegal incarceration, and rape. Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities affected by contemporary projects said that human rights abuse is rampant and often involves multiple violations of international and national standards.

Impact on the Watershed

The impact of a large dam is felt over the entire watershed, well beyond the actual area of submergence. Activities such as compensatory afforestation undertaken to mitigate the environment impact of the dam, lead to further appropriation of the lands of indigenous peoples. Demarcating areas for soil and ecological conservation results in loss of more arable land. Indigenous peoples are forced to move uphill and cultivate inferior land. The disruption of the river upsets the aquatic regimen, disturbing the fishing grounds of indigenous peoples. In some cases commercial fishing in reservoirs has led to the accumulation of toxic chemicals that have seeped into the food cycle of the local indigenous community through their fish diet. In many cases, siltation of rivers and streams feeding dams causes abrupt flooding of agricultural land. The resulting situation has induced land scarcity forcing indigenous peoples to migrate to distant provinces.

Cause of Negative Impact

Large dams continue to have impact on indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. Laws to protect their rights are weak or not adequately implemented. The problems are rooted in a number of structural-institutional and political-economic factors. These factors erode the bargaining capacity of indigenous populations and seek to maintain their marginalized position in the society. These factors include: denial of the right to self-determination; structural inequalities in power between ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and the wider society in which they live, including racism and other institutionalized forms of discrimination; practices such as cost-benefit analysis and national planning that reinforce the marginalized status of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities; de-politicization of resource-related and other conflicts arising from dam building; institutional priorities of implementing agencies take precedence over the critical social and environmental costs associated with large dam projects; lack of accountability of planners and implementing agency towards affected people; and the intrinsic tendency of large development projects to maintain and reinforce inequitable access to resources and decision making.

Key Principles

From the process of researching the WCD’s thematic review of the experiences of indigenous peoples with dams from across the world and from consultative meetings held with them in Geneva and different parts of the world, the following are some emerging key principles to guide future decision making on dams involving indigenous peoples:

A) The United Nation’s Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should guide the interaction of national governments, the private sector and other external agencies with Ips. In particular, rights of indigenous peoples to self-definition, to the ownership and control over their territories, to exercise their customary law, to practice their traditional religions, to represent themselves through their institutions. Distinct and appropriate policies are needed to ensure that they are not further marginalized in the process of dam building.

B) Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities should move from being passive recipients of aid or victims of development to being active protagonists of their own development.

C) Accommodating indigenous peoples’ and ethnic minorities’ rights implies re-thinking the doctrine of eminent domain. Expropriation of their land in national interest, against their will, amounts to a violation of their fundamental human rights and freedoms. The meaning of “national interest” needs clarification in the context of multi-ethnic, pluralistic societies. The doctrine of eminent domain also needs re-thinking as dams are increasingly built for private profit. Dams built under such circumstances are not uniquely serving national needs and interests.

D) The principal of free, prior, and informed consent should guide dam building that may affect indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. Such consent may be sought at the beginning of the process of considering plans to build the dam.

E) Indigenous peoples’ and ethnic minorities’ fundamental human rights and freedoms must be secured during the dam building process.

F) Representatives of the people concerned should be involved in national and regional energy and water planning and not just at the project level. Full consideration of alternatives including those suggested by the peoples concerned, should be carried out before focusing on any particular project.

G) To ensure clear and binding agreements based on mutual understanding, learning from each other, and sharing knowledge, negotiations should result in mutually agreed, formal, and legally enforceable settlements. Further, settlements should not require the surrender of rights.

Other principles include:

H) The resettlement programs should be conceived and implemented as development programs

I) The peoples concerned should be integrally involved in joint environmental and social impact assessments. Social impact assessments should be given the same status and importance as environmental impact assessments.

J) The Geneva workshop noted the huge numbers of people affected by past dams who had been denied adequate compensation or rehabilitation. Many of their problems endure, or become apparent, after the dams have been constructed or made operational. A mechanism to assess such cases and ways of compensating them has to be developed.

K) The workshop emphasized the need for enforceable standards. The representatives of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities suggested the World Commission on Dams recommend establishment of some kind of international ombudsman or tribunal to oversee future implementation of such standards.


Some of the key issues emerging from the review process are summarized above. The issues summarized here do not represent views of the Commission which will be articulated in its final report. The primary aim of presenting these issues is to elicit further submissions and to receive comments and perspectives from different stakeholders. We invite input seek examples of good practice from different parts of the world related to: participation of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in the planning and decision-making process, and policy and institutional frameworks supported by legal and regulatory mechanisms with demonstrated capacity to protect the interests of indigenous peoples. The WCD wishes to learn from the past experiences as to social, economic, and political environments that actively promote the interests of indigenous peoples in the development process.


ICOLD (1997). International Commission on large Dams: Position Paper on Dams and Environment.

WCD mandate.

McCully, Patrick. (1996). Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams. ZED Books: London

Colchester, Marcus. (1999). Sharing Power: Dams, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities. Forest Peoples Programme.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.


(Courtesy Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine)



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