As of 2000, forty-seven thousand large dams were choking, rerouting, and fracturing more than 60 percent of the earth’s rivers.1 These dams, while providing fossil-free sources of power through the generation of hydroelectricity, can have catastrophic impacts on fisheries, aquatic and terrestrial life, and nearby human communities. Dams have displaced approximately eighty million people worldwide; if the people whose lives have been impacted beyond immediate displacement were also counted, such as those whose traditional and/or land-based agricultural or fisheries foodways have been disrupted, then the number would be much higher.2

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project in subarctic Canada is a recent example of the social disruption and displacement that megadams impose on Indigenous and land-based peoples. Not only does the development of the Muskrat dam require the displacement of the Innu people,3 but it will also, according to an environmental-impact report, increase methylmercury in surrounding waters.4 Canada’s massive James Bay hydroelectric projects of the twentieth century exemplify the disastrous impacts of increased levels of methylmercury: the construction of the dams poisoned the food chains that the surrounding James Bay Cree relied on. The catastrophic social and environmental damage caused by megadams led the World Bank, once an enthusiastic supporter of large dams, to conclude in 2000 that “in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid” to secure the developmental benefits of large dams.5

Other social impacts of dam building besides displacement and the destruction of traditional foodways include: the creation of man camps, which are directly linked to increases in violence against Indigenous women and girls;6 increased racial discrimination; and, the destruction of ancestral burial sites and important cultural objects. Indigenous resistance to dams in North and South America is often met with threats of violence. For example, the award-winning Honduran Indigenous and environmental rights leader Berta Cáceres was murdered barely a week after she was publicly threatened for opposing a hydroelectric project.7

As climate change intensifies and the need for renewable sources of power increases, many countries are turning to hydroelectricity’s low carbon generation as part of their energy solutions. However, conceiving of climate change as solely an emissions issue fails to address the unjust cultural, political, colonial, and economic power relations that both contribute to climate change8 and shape megadam development. Currently, more than 3,500 hydroelectric dams are being planned or built globally.9 This is particularly important in the North and South American context, as the US, Brazil, and Canada are three of the top four largest producers of hydroelectricity in the world—making the impacts of large dams a very salient issue for this report’s focus on justice, self-determination, and Indigenous sovereignty in relation to water and technology in North and South America. Brazil leads the way globally with 256 large dams built or planned.10 In addition, 412 large dams are proposed, are under construction, or have been built in the Amazon Basin.11

Too often, hydroelectricity is still considered a “renewable” resource – for example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration12 and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy13 continue to consider hydropower a renewable source of energy – despite the fact that the lands and waters that dams flood are not renewable, nor are the human and more-than-human lives they disrupt and displace. Approaching hydroelectricity from an environmental justice perspective means understanding and working against the intertwined relationship between colonialism, violence against Indigenous people, and dam building. Consider, for example, the Pick-Sloan Plan, which supported the construction of five dams along the Missouri River in the 1940s. The dams flooded seven Lakota and Dakota reservations, forcing thousands of people to relocate, and enabling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to seize 550 square miles of Native land through eminent domain.14

Defending the self-determination and rights of people who are threatened by development-based displacement must be prioritized as part of climate change solutions – especially given that support for dams tends to come from economically and politically powerful global actors.15 Decolonization, landback, and Indigenous sovereignty are crucial parts of environmental justice. It is critical that policymakers in colonial nation-states like the US, Mexico, and Canada listen to the Indigenous and land-based peoples who would be impacted by proposed hydroelectricity development before projects are approved; uphold treaties with Indigenous nations; and honor and respect Indigenous sovereignty. Relationships with the land, water, and more-than-human life should first and foremost be initiated from a place of consent, reciprocity, and relationality. To this end, megadam projects should be opposed and undamming projects –  like the one advocated for on the Klamath River that would liberate the river, create better conditions for spawning salmon, and re-make Indigenous traditional ecological practices possible – should be supported.16 Further, I urge policymakers to understand that Euro-American/Western developmental and extractive frameworks are only one type of approach to managing human relationships with the environment,17 an approach shaped by specific cultural values – and an approach that climate change shows is not working. There is a need to honor and respect cultures and relationships to land, water, and energy that are not extractive. In many Indigenous and non-Euro-American cosmologies, water is life, not merely a resource to be extracted – for example, the Lakȟótiyapi declaration “Mní Wičóni” means water is alive.

  1. Victor Villalobos, “Megadam: ‘Obsolete Technology’ Wreaks Havoc across the Americas,”, October 25, 2019, ↩︎
  2. Ibid. ↩︎
  3. Colin Samson, “How a Controversial Dam Threatens Rights of Canada’s Indigenous Innu People,” Conversation, July 5, 2016, ↩︎
  4. Matt Hongoltz-Hetling, “US Demand for Clean Energy Destroying Canada’s Environment, Indigenous Peoples Say,” Guardian, June 22, 2020, ↩︎
  5. Christopher Shulz and Bill Adams, “The World Commission on Dams: Then and Now,” FutureDAMS, November 20, 2020, ↩︎
  6. Kyle Edwards, “‘How we treat women’: Worker Camps Make It Possible to Build Infrastructure in Remote Locations in Canada. Is It Worth the Human Cost?,” Maclean’s, May 13, 2019, ↩︎
  7. Jonathan Watts, “Berta Cáceres, Honduran Human Rights and Environment Activist, Murdered,” Guardian, March 4, 2016, ↩︎
  8. As Potawatomi scholar of Indigenous environmental justice Kyle Whyte writes, “climate change is an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism.” For more on the interconnected systems contributing to climate change, read the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice’s (CIEJ) essay “No Comemos Baterías: Solidarity Science Against False Climate Change Solutions.”

    Kyle Whyte, “Indigenous Climate Change Studies:  Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” English Language Notes, 55.1-2 (2017) ↩︎
  9. Reality Check Team, “Hydropower Dams: What’s behind the Global Boom?,” BBC, August 6, 2018, ↩︎
  10. John Vidal, “Why Is Latin America So Obsessed with Mega Dams?,” Guardian, May 23, 2017, ↩︎
  11. David Hill, “More than 400 Dams Planned for the Amazon and Headwaters,” Guardian, May 6, 2014, ​​ ↩︎
  12. U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Electricity explained: Electricity in the United States. 18 March, 2021. ↩︎
  13. Rocío Uría-Martínez, Megan M. Johnson, and Rui Shan, U.S. Hydropower Market Report (Oak Ridge, TN: U.S. Department of Energy, January 2021), ↩︎
  14. “Water Is Life: Nick Estes on Indigenous Technologies,” Logic 9 (December 7, 2019), ↩︎
  15. Christopher Shulz and William M. Adams, “In Search of the Good Dam: Contemporary Views on Dam Planning in Latin America,” Sustainability Science 16 (January 2021): 255–269, ↩︎
  16. Ivy Huwald, “Undamming the Klamath,” Humboldt Geographic, 1, no. 17 (2020), ↩︎
  17. Nicholas Cannariato, “‘Our History Is the Future’ Puts Standing Rock in Broader Native American Story,” NPR, March 6, 2019 ↩︎