Human Rights Meets Environment in the Amazon Basin


On June 6, 2011 EGA, the International Human Rights Funders Group, and Grantmakers Without Borders hosted a webinar focusing on the connections between environmental issues and human rights arising from proposed and current dam construction in the Amazon. The proposed Belo Monte Dam allows a case study though which grantmakers may view efforts to promote human rights and protect the environment. Although the Brazilian government has already approved the dam’s operating license, the project has come under serious scrutiny by civil society. The result is an increasing need for grassroots action with respect to human rights and environmental policy.

The Accelerated Growth Program has shown that projects are being pushed forward by interested parties such as the Brazilian Development Bank. Efforts to bring the matter to national courts have been rather ineffective. However, in many of these cases human rights and environmental issues transcend political boundaries, creating an opportunity to address them in a recognized international forum such as the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR), which can both set a positive precedent with regards to international human rights and environmental norms as well as increase public awareness.

The energy produced by the dams largely would be allocated to energy-intensive products such as aluminum, which are often exported to nations with higher manufacturing capacities like China. The actors who benefit are completely removed from impacted peoples. Dam projects such as the Belo Monte divert upwards of 80 percent of the river, meaning huge impacts to both biodiversity as well as the local population. While protests by locals have been effective in the past, the hierarchical structure of investment and construction employed today renders these small-scale protest measures ineffective. The lack of participatory democracy and transparency is indicative of the close relationship between the dam industry and senior bureaucracy; therefore it must be a key goal of funders today to aid grassroots organizations, allowing them the ability to disseminate information that counters the propaganda that is currently being spread throughout both rural and urban populations. Further, the power of interested parties in international bodies such as OAS indicates a need to support national NGOs and implement a coordinated strategy that focuses on strengthening an overall respect for human rights, which would ideally translate into the delaying or cancellation of many dam projects.

For Foundations The ability of foundations to make resources available on short notice is key. Often times, funding goes directly to democratic participatory efforts such as translating complex information to local organizations, which then are able to mobilize communities. The central lesson is the importance of grassroots organizations and education, as they both allow for the population to be informed of current events and potentially speak out against them. Other lessons include, but are not limited to:

1) Increase resources available for development of communication strategies and exchange of experiences among organizations.

2) Support independent research, which is has in the past refuted the findings of environmental impact assessments and delayed construction of dam projects.

3) Aid organizations that utilize a variety of legal tools to promote human rights and hold key players accountable by investigating human rights or environmental violations.

4) Support the development of a viable alternative energy strategy to show that more efficient ways of producing energy exist.

5) Support local organizations comprised of members directly connected to the issues; work with indigenous people and groups who possess in-depth knowledge of the region.