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The Journal of Peasant Studies
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fjps20
Environmental justice movements in globalising
networks: a critical discussion on social resistance
against large dams
Esha Shah, Jeroen Vos, Gert Jan Veldwisch, Rutgerd Boelens & Bibiana
To cite this article: Esha Shah, Jeroen Vos, Gert Jan Veldwisch, Rutgerd Boelens & Bibiana
Duarte-Abadía (2021) Environmental justice movements in globalising networks: a critical
discussion on social resistance against large dams, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 48:5,
1008-1032, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2019.1669566
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2019.1669566
© 2020 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Published online: 25 Nov 2019.
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Environmental justice movements in globalising networks:
a critical discussion on social resistance against large dams
Esha Shah, Jeroen Vos, Gert Jan Veldwisch, Rutgerd Boelens and
Water Resources Management Group, Wageningen, Netherlands
We examine the social resistance against large dams as
environmental justice movements in four case studies - the Sardar
Sarovar Project from India, the Hidrosogamoso from Colombia,
the ‘new water culture’movement in Spain, and the Lesotho
Highlands Project from Lesotho - with diverse social, political and
environmental contexts. We discuss three broad issues. First, the
nature of the involvement of civil society and metropolitan
intelligentsia in leadership roles. Second, how cross-class and
multi-sectoral alliances have been forged between the local and
the global. And third, how the notion of environmental justice in
relation to social justice is adopted in these movements.
Environmental justice; social
movements; large dams;
protest movement against
Since the 1980s, large dams are at the centre of intense debates regarding their profound
social, agrarian, and environmental impacts. In the background of these debates, in many
parts of the globe, a wide range of social movements have emerged, representing voices
of the people marginalised due to the construction of large dams. These movements
increasingly use the frame of environmental justice to deﬁne their struggles. Some scho-
lars argue that, in general, the environmental justice frame has globalised in two signiﬁ-
cant ways –through ‘the horizontal diﬀusion of the term by transfer, reproduction and
contextualisation’and through ‘vertical extension to encompass the concerns that are
truly global in nature such as climate change or that do not end at the national border’
(Walker 2009, 355). Not just in terms of framing but also in institutional-political and oper-
ational ways, these anti-dam movements have increasingly been vertically networked,
they have often crossed borders and built international alliances and coalitions. Further-
more, it is argued that these movements are marked by leadership structures that signiﬁ-
cantly involve NGOs or civil society organisations and urban intelligentsia, often described
as ‘rooted cosmopolitans’or ‘movement brokers’who signiﬁcantly inﬂuence the struggles
at the ground at the local and at global levels (Sikor and Newell 2014; Borras 2016). And
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
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CONTACT Esha Shah email@example.com Water Resources Management Group, 3a Droevendaalsesteeg, Wagen-
ingen University Campus, Wageningen, Netherlands
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES
2021, VOL. 48, NO. 5, 1008–1032
lastly, they have also triggered a shift in the notion of justice understood in purely distri-
butive terms –as ownership and control over productive resources –to also involve equal
distribution of environmental ills and beneﬁts, representation in decision-making and gov-
ernance, and recognition of locally diverse cultural norms and rights (Fraser 1996; Schlos-
berg 2004; Escobar 2008; Borras 2016). The studies on transnational environmental
movements, for instance, on extractive industries have also shown the bottom-up and
top-down processes in forging alliances between local protest movements and global
environmental organisations (e.g. Osuoka and Zalik 2010; Urkidi and Walter 2011).
Similar issues are discussed on social movements related to agrarian issues like land grab-
bing and land reform (e.g. Borras 2010; Temper 2019). In this context, a plea is made that
there is an urgent need to comprehend the universalising and globalising tendencies of
environmental justice movements and examine them in terms of concrete practices
and processes which underlie these struggles (Sikor and Newell 2014).
In this article, we examine the anti-large dam movements as environmental justice
movements. The large dams may be constructed for single purpose uses, such as for irri-
gation or hydroelectric power generation, or serve as ‘multi-purpose dams’which also may
include, for instance, ﬂood protection, drinking water provision, and other uses (e.g.
Hommes, Boelens, and Maat 2016; Hidalgo-Bastidas, Boelens, and Isch 2018; Shah,
Boelens, and Bruins 2019). We engage with four case studies from the North and South
with diverse social, political and environmental contexts. They are: the Sardar Sarovar
Project from India, the Hidrosogamoso from Colombia, the anti-large dam ‘new water
culture’movement in Spain, and the Lesotho Highlands Project from Lesotho. We have
selected these case studies because of our close personal and political association with
the protest movements against these dams at some point of our scholarly work, and
because we have closely followed their course of development and relevant literature
over the years. Although the size of the dams, the submerged area, and the number of
aﬀected people vary signiﬁcantly between these cases, they all include social groups
with diﬀerent interests and all show dynamic interaction between local, national and inter-
national movements. All four case studies are contemporary and very relevant for the
current context of the anti-large dam movements globally, and two of the cases –the
Sardar Sarovar Project on the river Narmada and the anti-dam movement in Spain –are
internationally well-known. While we could have selected other cases of important anti-
dam struggles (e.g. Moore, Dore, and Gyawali 2010; Del Bene, Scheidel, and Temper
2018; Johnston 2018; Bakker and Hendriks 2019; Boelens, Shah, and Bruins 2019; Fox
and Sneddon 2019), the choice of these four case studies from the vast number of such
movements over the globe reﬂects our collective scholarly engagement.
In these selected four case-study movements, we aim to examine two broad issues.
First, the nature of the involvement of NGOs, civil society, and metropolitan intelligentsia
in leadership roles; how local-national-global connections between these groups have
inﬂuenced or aﬀected these movements and how cross-class and multi-sectoral alliances
have been forged and how tensions and contradictions have been negotiated between
the local and the global. The paper thereby engages with the question if and how anti-
dam movements are ‘globalising’, and how they relate to the localised, particular places
of struggle. Second, how the notion of environmental justice in relation to social justice
is adopted in these movements. Neither neatly separating nor merging the issues
related to social justice (‘red’concerns) and environmental justice (‘green’concerns), we
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1009
aim to understand how they emerge and change in relation to each other in the response
to the conﬂict against the large dam.
The notion of environmental justice lends itself to many connotations. Here we aim to
give a brief review of some of these debates in order to make our own position clear.
After a thorough review of the debates on environmental justice, Schlosberg attempts
to bridge the environmental (‘green’) and social (‘red’) concerns and refers to environ-
mental justice as a matter not only of distribution of environmental ills and beneﬁts but
also of recognition of diverse cultural identities and governance norms and forms, and
deepening of the democratic right to participation in policy and decision-making pro-
cesses (Schlosberg 2004, 537). We notice that in activist and academic debates, on
the one hand, there is a strong argument to recognise diﬀerence and, on the other,
there have been many attempts to ﬁnd a uniﬁed or common concept of and stance
towards environmental justice. Martinez-Alier et al. (2016) for instance examine
whether there is a global environmental justice movement. They argue that since the
mid-1990s, an explicit connection is established between the environmental justice
movement in the US and the environmentalism of the poor in Latin America, Africa
and Asia (Martinez-Alier et al. 2016). They argue that although all environmental
conﬂicts referred to targeted local grievances, there is a global movement for environ-
mental justice. This movement is global because all types of local conﬂicts appear reg-
ularly elsewhere in the world or such issues at local level ﬁnd global networks and
connections and hence operate at a global level.
Despite the fact that he presents a somewhat diﬀerent stance, this discussion also
relates to David Harvey’s exploration of how diverse oppositional strategies and struggles
rooted in particular places –the kind of locally bounded struggles that Raymond Williams
called ‘militant particularism’–can be united in a wider, universalistic, global politics.
Harvey argues that the achievements of environmental justice come only with ‘confront-
ing the fundamental underlying processes (and their associated power structures, social
relations, institutional conﬁgurations, discourses, and belief systems) that generate
environmental and social injustices’(Harvey 1996, 401). Harvey argues that the link
between the (global) environmental justice movement and the environmentalism of the
poor can be established. There clearly is a two-way movement in the debate on how to
understand environmental justice. On the one hand, the idea of justice is broadened to
include Nancy Fraser’s tripartite schema of distribution, recognition and participation in
particular contextualised locations (Fraser 1996), whereas on the other hand, there have
been attempts to unify the ‘militant particularism’of the local kind into a global political
In this respect, Schlosberg points at the danger of creating a global idea of environ-
mental justice, which he thinks should not come at the expense of ‘the localised, particular
places where that power and injustice are experienced, known, and resisted’(Schlosberg
2004, 534). Other scholars have equally challenged the idea of such global unity and
argued that a closer look at the diﬀerences in the context in which struggles for environ-
mental justice are located is required (e.g. Forsyth 2003; Escobar 2008; Perreault, Bridge,
and McCarthy 2015;Boelens, Perreault, and Vos 2018). In the absence of such critical
1010 E. SHAH ET AL.
engagement with the diﬀerences in history, culture, state structure, and public discourse
the global environmental justice movement, only tactically aligned with the local move-
ments, may ‘fall in to the trap of staying within a world that is “thinly known”’ (Williams
and Mawdsley 2006, 669). There are other scholars, however, who even question the
binary between the global and local and instead argue that the way framings of justice
is scaled in such translocal, transnational movements, is messy and complex (Sneddon
and Fox 2008).
With this discussion in the background, we aim to address the following two questions
for our analysis of anti-large dam movements: (1) To what extent have the anti-dam move-
ments at the local level found synergies or provoked tensions with national and inter-
national environmental justice movements? (2) What issues, concerns and demands are
expressed by local anti-dam movements? The ﬁrst question is about the character of
the alliances between local, national and international anti-dam movements and their
eﬀects on the local protest movements (see, e.g. McCully 1996; Khagram 2004; Johnston
2018). On the one hand, it is often criticised that the globalising focus of environmental
movements has given priority to campaigning against international capital (especially
the World Bank) and its impacts concerning the environmental (‘green’) issues, thereby
overlooking or even ignoring the interests and demands of the locally aﬀected people
and hence the concerns of social justice (Sen 1999). On the other hand, international
anti-dam movements have been successful in politically questioning and challenging, at
global levels, the eﬀects of unequal distribution of environmental ills and beneﬁts of
large dams and thereby they have strategically helped local movements (e.g. Khagram
2004; Johnston 2018). Taking into consideration these two-sided arguments, we especially
address the ways in which the globalising of anti-dam movements have provoked syner-
gies and tensions between the global and the local. And ﬁnally, we also examine the role
of leadership in shaping the course and character of the movements. The second question
engages with the nature of the local struggles against large dams: the debate on the ‘red’
and ‘green’struggles explained above. We ﬁrst discuss each case study separately while
comparative insights are debated in the conclusion.
Sardar Sarovar Project on river Narmada
In the international debates on large dams, the case of social movement against the Sardar
Sarovar Project (SSP) on river Narmada in India is well-known. The SSP is one of the thirty
large dams originally planned to be constructed as part of the Narmada Valley project
(NVP). The idea of the project can be traced as far back as 1946, just before independence
in 1947, when achieving food security was a major challenge in front of the emerging
nascent nation. The construction of SSP started in 1961 under Prime Minister Nehru but
was stopped due to the conﬂicts between three states –Maharashtra, Gujarat and
Madhya Pradesh –on the issue of riparian rights. The 20-years of interstate conﬂict
ended in 1979 with the ﬁnal award of the tribunal. However, the action for and against
the dam gathered speed only after the World Bank agreed to fund it in 1985.
Between 1961 and 1985 a great deal had changed in the conditions that justiﬁed large
dams. The overriding concern related to the food shortage and the political implications of
the dependence on the ship-to-mouth food aid from the US did not command the same
sense of urgency as it did in the 1960s and 1970s (Friedmann 1990). At the same time, the
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1011
Nehruvian model of modernity built on temples of large dams and nuclear plants came
under criticism from more than one directions. The allegedly capitalist mode of production
in Indian agriculture (and consequently the requirement of large dams as source of inten-
sive irrigation) and resulting forms of proletarianisation was an issue that caused intense
and prolonged debate among the Marxist scholars throughout the 1970s and 1980s
(Patnaik 1990). The environmental and social violence of the green revolution as a
model for agrarian development were much criticised as well (Shiva 1988). Ecological
and social impact of deforestation and importance of community-managed or pre-colonial
water management systems were much in debate too (Bandyopadhyay 1987; Bandyopad-
hyay and Shiva 1986; Agarwal and Narain 1997). The social movement against the large
dam needs to be placed in this wider context of contestations to the development
model that hitherto was considered a gateway to modernity.
The debates on SSP were deeply inﬂuenced by these mounting criticisms of Indian
modernity and democracy, but also sparked a number of speciﬁc responses. An intense
debate among the proponents and opponents of the dam erupted on the pages of
India’s premier journal Economic and Political Weekly between 1989 and 1990 (Dhawan
1990). This debate rehearsed every contestation that not only marked the movement
but also became a major rallying point in the international debate leading to the formation
of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) (Moore, Dore, and Gyawali 2010). The knowl-
edge that was contested covered forest loss, seismic risks, extent of the social and cultural
impact due to submergence and displacement, reservoir capacity for diﬀerent heights of
the dam, coverage of proposed irrigation area, water logging and soil salinisation as nega-
tive ecological impact of intensive irrigation, internal rate of return and cost–beneﬁt ratio
of the investment.
In the background of this arena of contested knowledge, however, it is the convergence
or conﬂict between the ‘red’and ‘green’aspects –between social justice and environ-
mental sustainability –that has proven most challenging in shaping the movement. The
ﬁrst phase of the movement was all about redistributive justice whereas ecological
issues were hardly in the picture. The ﬁrst intense agitation was organised in 1978–1979
immediately after the disputes between three riparian states were settled in the Tribunal
Award and dam building was resumed (Dwivedi 1998, 142). The struggle in this ﬁrst phase
was about displacement of high caste and landed class of middle and rich peasantry from
the agriculturally advanced Nimar plains in Madhya Pradesh. These farmers practiced
capital-intensive agriculture and belonged to the part of peasantry that had most
beneﬁted from the state-sponsored green revolution and the accompanied subsidies,
cheap electricity (and hence easy access to ground water) and favourable input and
output prices. After the introduction of electric pumps and subsidised electricity in the
1970s, these farmers cultivated a number of commercially remunerative crops (Baviskar
1995, 217–218). There was a general feeling among these capital rich farmers and their
political constituency that Madhya Pradesh was a loser in the Tribunal Award. The struggle
of this politically powerful middle and rich peasantry got support from the Congress party,
which was in opposition in Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly at that time. But the
movement collapsed soon after the leader of the Congress party won the state election.
The struggle in this phase focused on renegotiating the height of the dam in order to
save some of the Nimar villages from submergence. Later on, the landed farmers from
Nimar plain formed an important constituency of the second and internationally most
1012 E. SHAH ET AL.
well-known phase of the movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which began in
1985–1986 with the entry of charismatic leader Medha Patkar. Their involvement,
however, as Baviskar argues, formed a major contradiction in the movement (Baviskar
1995, 219–220). These farmers practiced the kind of high input high output capitalist agri-
culture that the movement criticised as the reason for making the destructive technology
like large dams a necessity. Also, even when the two-thirds of the people displaced by the
dam lived in the plains, it was the landed and politically powerful Patidar farmers who
were most active in the movement. The landless labourers from lower castes and sched-
uled tribes, nearly 40% of the people aﬀected, were absent from the protests and ranks of
leadership (Baviskar 1995, 220). The movement in Nimar plains in both phases was heavily
focused on the issue of displacement and hence redistribution, however, its class character
could hardly make it qualify as environmentalism of the poor (Guha and Martinez-Alier
In Gujarat as in Madhya Pradesh the ﬁrst instances of protests in 1983–1984 were on
displacement and better rehabilitation. In the beginning, therefore, the social responses
not yet formalised in the anti-dam position were all about social justice and redistribution.
In fact, the Gujarat government responded to the years of lobbying by two local NGOs –
ARCH-Vahini and Rajpipla Social Service Society –and accepted the principles of rehabi-
litation prepared by these organisations in collaboration with the research institute
Centre for Social Studies in Surat, Gujarat. The rehabilitation policy thus presented in
1987 was by far the most liberal in Indian history. At that time, the acceptance by the
Gujarat government to incorporate the terms suggested by the displaced people them-
selves was a momentous triumph. However, in the next couple of years the activists
groups in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat took a radical no-dam position on the ground
that proper rehabilitation of all displaced people was impossible, ﬁrstly, because the gov-
ernment had no real idea of the extent of displacement, and, secondly, because it would
be impossible for the government to ﬁnd good quality land for rehabilitation. It was not
only the matter of rehabilitation and hence redistribution alone that prompted the no-
dam position. The dam was ultimately opposed on the grounds that it would have
mostly displaced the poor and marginal tribal people for the anticipated ‘national
good’. The movement deﬁned itself as against the model of development that demanded
such sacriﬁce. The question ‘whose development at whose cost?’became the movement’s
The turning point in the movement, however, is often counted as several moments of
contact in 1986–1987 with the Northern environmental NGOs. These NGOs, especially in
the US, had emerged in response to the exponential increase in the 1970s and 1980s of
the lending by the Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) for large development projects,
and their destructive environmental and social impact in the South (Schwartzman 1991,
407–410). While the movement in Narmada valley was gaining momentum in the early
1980s, these Northern environmental NGOs were involved in an intense campaign
against the World Bank funded national highway Polonoroeste project in Brazil and the
resulting agricultural colonisation of a vast region (Schwartzman 1991, 397–405). The cam-
paign largely involved a series of hearings at the US Congress on environmental impact of
the international aid projects in general. The campaign succeeded in making the World
Bank withdraw its funding for the project in 1985. What is important here is to point
out that this ﬁrst round of campaign on improving environmental performance of the
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1013
World Bank and other multilateral development banks did not emerge from the locally
expressed concerns by the aﬀected people. It was led by the Northern environmental
NGOs who were concerned about the environmental and social impact of multilateral
lending in the South. The next round of the campaign against MDBs’lending for road
extension in Brazil was more radical and, although led by the Northern environmental
NGOs, the campaign closely engaged with the struggle of the local people and their per-
ceptions of their lives and future. It is often portrayed as the ﬁrst global alliance in the
environmental movement (Sen 1999, 391).
Around this time in 1984, back in India, a group of environmentalists walked the length
of the Narmada valley and wrote a powerful critique of the environmental (and social)
impact of the project which was widely circulated (Kothari and Bhartari 1984). This was
the ﬁrst time that the project was viewed as an environmental issue. The environmental
aspect of the movement fully crystallised after the visit of the Narmada valley by the
US-based NGO, Environmental Defense Fund, one of the key members of the campaign
against MDB lending, and in turn the visit of Medha Patkar to Washington D. C. to meet
with the Bank staﬀand the US politicians. The movement now had a clear alliance with
the Northern environmental NGOs, but at the same time, it separated from the key
local alliance the local NGOs (Sen 1999, 347). While the movement was further consoli-
dated in close association with the International Narmada Campaign, its stand on the
dam shifted from ﬁghting for the rehabilitation of families and communities to ﬁghting
against the environmental destructions and later, in 1987–1988, to the ‘no-dam’position
(Udall 1995). After the intensive lobbying of the Northern Environmental NGOs and the
International Narmada Campaign, the World Bank commissioned an independent
review of the SSP, and ﬁnally pulled out of the project in 1993. The movement against
the large dam continued even after the World Bank withdrawal. The construction of the
dam was eventually resumed after a long and protracted legal battle and after the
Supreme Court gave a verdict to allow the government to increase the dam height. The
dam was eventually completed in 2014.
Summing up, we highlight two conclusions which would be comparatively discussed
further in the last section of the paper. Firstly, the movement side-stepped the state in
forging international alliances, and although refocusing from rehabilitation alone to
environmental sustainability broadened the scope of the movement, in the process the
idea of social justice as the principal focus of the movement was compromised.
Because of the involvement of the Northern environmental NGOs, the signiﬁcant part of
the struggle remained focused on making the World Bank withdraw from the project.
However, it is doubtful if withdrawal of the World Bank made any ground level diﬀerence
to the distributive concerns related to the displaced people. Secondly, the idea of environ-
mentalism of the poor might be diﬃcult to apply here because the movement was signiﬁ-
cantly formed by the participation of people from diﬀerent social strata –both tribal and
high caste landed rich peasantry; its class character was a major contradiction of the move-
ment (Baviskar 2005).
Hidrosogamoso hydropower project on the Sogamoso River
We now discuss the case study of an important Colombian hydroelectric mega-project, a
case in which the social movement was successful in building a national alliance and
1014 E. SHAH ET AL.
scaling up towards international networks, but its forces were weakened at the local level
due to powerful elites and oppressive state structures deploying violence, and due to
people’s profound diﬃculties to urgently solve basic livelihood needs. Like most countries
on the South American continent, Colombia’s economy and society are deeply coloured
by the extractive-export model of promoting economic growth. Sectors like largescale
mining and agribusiness demand not only raw materials but plenty of energy. Accordingly,
Colombia has the third largest installed hydropower capacity in South America: 127 hydro-
electric projects are in operation, and in 2014 the environmental licenses were processed
for another 120 projects (Soler, Duarte-Abadía, and Roa-Avendaño 2015; UPME, 2016). One
of the country’s largest mega-hydropower facilities, recently constructed, is the hydroelec-
tric project on the lower Sogamoso River, which includes the Tocoporo reservoir: Hidroso-
gamoso. It is located in the mid-Magdalena, Santander, in the canyon where the
Sogamoso River crosses the La Paz Mountains, 62 km downstream from the Suárez and
Chicamocha rivers. The case study discussion is based on several periods of ﬁeld research
with the local movements between 2015 and 2019, and preparatory interviews conducted
yearly, since 2010 (see also Roa-Avendaño and Duarte-Abadía 2012; Duarte-Abadía,
Boelens, and Roa-Avendaño 2015).
Hidrosogamoso was ﬁrst conceptualised in 1943, the project was resumed in 2009 and
completed in 2015. The project owner was previously a Colombian public-private
company ISAGEN S.A., now owned by a Canadian multinational, Brookﬁeld Assets Manage-
ment. The hydropower project’s generation capacity is 820 MW, equivalent to covering
about 10% of the nation’s energy demand. The energy produced is sent to the intercon-
nected national energy grid; the mining, petroleum and agro-capitalist industries are the
nation’s largest consumers (Roa-Avendaño and Duarte-Abadía 2012).
Although the dominant view in Colombia portrays the Sogamoso riverside territories as
unused or socially desolate, the zone’s history shows how ﬁshermen, landless rural people
and settler farmers lived in the region and took advantage of periodic ﬂooding down river,
alternating with diverse productive activities. They have also established a complex
network of food exchanges through interaction with the indigenous communities pre-
viously settled in the Yariguies highlands, upriver, and in the lower areas, including the
wetlands and surrounding zones. These followed the historical practice called ‘amphibian
rhythm’, adopted also by the migrant groups settled here who were displaced by the
armed conﬂicts. The amphibian practices involve moving into and out of the river and
swamps depending on the season (Fals Borda 2002). The immigration during the last
three decades of the twentieth century shaped the recent settlement patterns along
the banks of the Sogamoso River. The river and its associated ecosystems (gallery
forests, beaches, islets, wetlands) have oﬀered the sole means of subsistence to hundreds
of families ﬂeeing war and hunger (Roa-Avendaño 2010).
The Hydroelectric Project has dammed this river’s water, ﬂooding an area of approxi-
mately 7,000 hectares, aﬀecting nine municipal territories (Duarte-Abadía, Boelens, and
Roa-Avendaño 2015). Building Hidrosogamoso has thus transformed the territory pro-
foundly by converting the productive use of water and land into energy demands,
tourism, and other industrial and recreational purposes. Fishing, artisanal mining, subsis-
tence agriculture and pastoralism have been deeply aﬀected; the local populations’
food security and livelihoods now depend on the outside market (Novoa, Pardo, and
Rico 2011; Duarte-Abadía, Boelens, and Roa-Avendaño 2015). Their settlements are
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1015
located in high-risk zones characterised by (para-)military violence, social vulnerability and
productive dependence on the (violated) ecology, with no title to land or access to capital.
Their organisational forms tend to erode along with local livelihoods, due to the environ-
mental damage caused by the hydroelectric project: the river has always been their refuge
Being aware of these negative impacts attached to the dam construction, local leaders,
aﬀected communities, NGOs, regional scholars and alternative media reacted against the
project and the company forming a mass social mobilisation. This revolt happened few
days after the machines entered the territory. In order to understand the nature of the
local struggle and the character of the alliance we describe three constitution stages of
the social movement.
The ﬁrst is related to the foundation of the Living Rivers Movement, Movimiento Ríos
Vivos. It has grown from the national network that gathered opposition around other
dam development projects in Colombia, such as the Salvajina, Anchicava and Urrá
dams. These have mobilised against large dam impacts from 1996 onwards, in association
with REDLAR –the Latin American Network Against Dams and for Rivers, their Commu-
nities and Water. The second stage of mobilisation started more than a decade later
with a self-organisation initiative, in 2008, which integrated several leaders from the
aﬀected community hamlets in the watershed. In 2011 the Societal Movement to Defend
the Sogamoso River was set up, comprising environmentalists, NGOs, union organisers,
workers, some community leaders and residents of the dam’s area of inﬂuence. They con-
stituted a regional branch of the Living Rivers Movement. The Movement sought to inte-
grate and unify the watershed’saﬀected people to resist and oppose the project. However,
the movement began only after the environmental licensing was issued and after the con-
struction already had begun. Meanwhile, large landowners in the Betulia and San Vicente
Chucuri valleys rushed to have their ﬁrst negotiations with the company. At the same time,
amidst misinformation from formal media, the critical mass of information was unattain-
able for smallholders. This put the majority, who were living in the mid and lower parts
of the river valley, at a disadvantage. Project implementers easily ignored the dam’s impli-
cations for these small farmers, and the latter had diﬃculties to set strategies for nego-
tiations or resisting the project.
In the third stage, the company made headway in negotiating with various stake-
holders in a way that created divisional interest within the social movement. It happened
in a context in which the mega-hydropower project had unconditional support of local
large landowners, who did get involved in the bargaining process with the company, suc-
cessfully claiming large compensations for their land that was to be ﬂooded. Many of these
local elites have direct linkages with the corrupt para-politics and para-militarism that ulti-
mately determined the political decisions regarding the Sogamoso mega-projects and the
security guarantees to develop it. The aﬀected communities did not have the opportunity
to negotiate directly with ISAGEN, rather, they were forced to accept the previously estab-
lished compensation imposed by the company. The regional government and municipa-
lities stepped aside, no longer operating as state authorities defending their
constituencies’interests but becoming the company’s facilitators. Consequently, the
Movement confronted a situation in which the people’s joint vision of the watershed
increasingly got fragmented, with each group or individual seeking their own opportu-
nities. This inequality in negotiations, and the absence of any genuine consultation or
1016 E. SHAH ET AL.
public discussion of the project, helped polarise communities: some complained and
negotiated with the company, others resisted and avoided to receive any beneﬁt from
the company (this was the position of Ríos Vivos). There were also many people and com-
munities shifting their positons back and forth –opposing, negotiating, and collaborating
at the same time.
Initially, the Movement ‘Ríos Vivos’pursued intense education and dissemination of
information to publicly debate the impact of the project but it was already late by then
because environmental license was legally approved and the construction was already
underway. Citizen participation mechanisms, recognised in the Constitution, were used
to request a public environmental hearing. However, this did not signiﬁcantly inﬂuence
the way the company or governmental institutions behaved. The aﬀected communities
intensely felt unprotected due to the individualised negotiations with the company.
Despite these obstacles, the ‘Ríos Vivos’movement, through the support of national
NGOs, continued to organise rallies and protests locally. For instance in Bucaramanga,
the regional city centre, they demanded greater governmental support and response.
Increasingly, actors with environmental and social concerns partnered. For example, the
workers who built the dam also took part, as a strategy to reduce the workload and
somehow curb the dam design’s impacts. On 14 March 2011, the International Day for
Action against Dams, a three-day mobilisation resulted in a negotiation platform among
the company and those aﬀected, plus members of the Church, some NGOs, council
members from Santander’s regional government, the labour union, and others.
These negotiations made little progress in favour of the people aﬀected or the environ-
mental sustainability of the region. On the contrary, they calmed down social unrest,
helping to ensure the company’s economic sustainability. For this reason, recent years
have witnessed many confrontations, marches and protests. Tatiana Roa, Coordinator of
CENSAT Agua Viva (National Health, Environment and Work Central Association ‘Living
Water’), a longtime partner of the movement, explains that the Living Rivers Movement
has had two social driving forces. The ﬁrst had to do with its formation by integrating
people and organisations not aﬀected by the project, such as the Labour Union of the Pet-
roleum Industry and other local, national and international NGOs. Its purpose was to make
visible the socio-environmental impacts of building the dam. However, their participation
often took an ambivalent form –for example, this resulted in claiming individual compen-
sation from the company to purchase individual land and thereby favoured personal or
political interests. Their participation in the movement eventually waned and the
people directly aﬀected by the dam construction replaced them –from ‘environmentalism
of the outsiders’to ‘environmentalism of the aﬀected families’.
On one hand, social mobilisation has often been weakened when several of these
‘outside support agents’started to get involved in the Hidrosogamoso project, in particular
when deploying strategies of ‘inclusion’and oﬃcial state ‘recognition’politics in the zone.
These call for ‘people’s participation’but generally in the hydropower plant’s interests; and
they end up denying the variety of locally constructed rights and rules. This way, they con-
tribute to imposing oﬃcial norms and institutions, and control ‘intangible’and ‘inconve-
nient’customary norms and organisational forms. Further, this oﬃcial/company
recognition also declared all ‘un-recognised’local stakeholders and norms, those that
are not in the interest of the state and market’s drive for control, as illegal. In practice,
the legal instruments have been used to favour the hydroelectric project (Roa-Avendaño
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1017
and Duarte-Abadía 2012). O n the other hand, the zone’s historical context and socio-pol-
itical dynamics –the conﬂicting geopolitical interests, the armed conﬂict, and the recent
settlement by nomadic communities ﬂeeing the war –complicated to organise the
aﬀected people into a movement that can negotiate an agreement with the government
and/or the company. In any case, the state authorities have failed to enforce the rights of
people aﬀected by the hydroelectric project. This alliance between the political and econ-
omic powers has made it diﬃcult to even voice the grievances and organise societal
Currently, the core of Sogamoso’s Living Rivers Movement are women whose liveli-
hoods were based on the ﬂowing river. Their last struggle has focused on re-building
their collective memory as a way of resistance and forging rooted cultural identity. They
seek to be recognised as victims of development, since the megaproject has caused
them a forced displacement (see Moreno, 2019). This movement is currently expanding
its struggle, in solidarity with other movements of people aﬀected by extractive projects
and coordinating with many communities and socio-environmental networks upstream
and nationwide. This involves Ríos Vivos Santander, Ríos Vivos Antioquia, Ríos Vivos
Caldas and Ríos Vivos Huila, covering ﬁve administrative regions of Colombia where
new large-scale hydropower projects are being pursued. At national scale they work as
a horizontal organisation, there are some leaders or spokesmen for the ﬁve regions and
there are ‘local coordinators’who represent diﬀerent sectors. All of them act as what
they call ‘collective voices’, transmitting the outcomes, concerns and proposals of the
aﬀected community and encouraging alternative collective plans and processes. Interna-
tionally, they are allied with the Movement of People Aﬀected by Dams in Brazil (MAB) and
the earlier mentioned REDLAR. However, some leaders of the communities and local
inhabitants have criticised this international mobilisation, arguing that such high-scale
actions do not contribute to the local struggle. They are still facing the harm done by
the dam construction and have to struggle to gain compensations and ﬁnd alternative
ways to recover control of their territory. In contrast, other leaders of this social movement
consider international alliances crucially important. Now they were able to show their pro-
blems to the international community and obtain funds to develop their own projects,
oriented at expanding their visibility and gaining political leadership. National NGO, as
CENSAT Agua Viva, help to promote this international interaction, but focus in particular
on strengthening solidarity among the people aﬀected by large dams and extractive
industries. One of the reasons why Ríos Vivos /Living Rivers is expanding their alliances
is to respond to the Government’s new plan to construct 13 new dams on the Sogamoso
River, or as one of the leaders says: ‘Now is the time for resistance. We are keeping an
environmental record to register all the data on what has happened to us, because
they are planning another 13 more. The clash ahead will be terrible’.
This case shows how the social movement ‘Ríos Vivos’in Sogamoso generates new alli-
ances at the national level to strength their ﬁght against future dam construction. They
also seek to scale up their struggle to the international level in order to make visible
the socio-environmental injustices inﬂicted upon them. At the same time, Schlosberg’s
(2004)warning about the risk of globalising and universalising environmental justice
claims, at the expense of localised claims and diversities, is very much relevant in the
region. Rios Vivos must seek to expand and strengthen their solidarity alliances at national
and international levels and also respond to the urgency of local livelihoods needs and the
1018 E. SHAH ET AL.
everyday management of water and territory. While some members step aside of this
global networking process, considering that struggles must focus on just local livelihoods
and on-the-ground daily needs, many see the interaction with other dam-aﬀected move-
ments and international networks as crucial to engage in a co-learning process, which
helps them getting to know alternative ways to confront the territorial transformations.
Their translocal mobilisation has made it possible to make the voices of aﬀected people
heard in the international spheres that support the defense of human rights and environ-
mental protection, such as Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International, and MAB. Despite
earlier disappointments with national and global ‘outside support agents’, these experi-
ences have taught them how to ﬁght their battles and who to actively involve and or
not, rather than simply and passively ‘being involved’by supralocal outsiders.
The anti-dam movement in Spain
Spain’s history in the last century is deeply impacted by its national dreams to convert the
‘dry and backward country’into a ‘modern, advanced nation’through the implementation
of mega-dams and large hydraulic works. Fundamental to understand the roots of this
utopian-ﬂavoured water control project is the socio-political and intellectual-ideological
movement of ‘regenerationism’that started in the late nineteenth-century Spain
(Maurice and Serrano 1977; Ortí 1984). After losing its last colonies in the 1880s, which
was termed as the ‘Colonial Disaster’, Spain’s self-image shifted from being a global
empire to a degenerated nation in deep economic, cultural and political crisis. This
resulted in the quest for a new national identity and political/economic modernisation.
As regenerationist leader Joaquin Costa argued, it was urgent to colonise the country
inwardly instead of taking distant lands, incorporating all Spain’s regions and people
into modernity through ‘hydraulic solidarity’among the water rich and water poor
areas (Costa 2011). The new discourse envisioned ending oligarchy and elitism and
empowering peasants; it exalted traditional small-farmer led irrigation, decentralising
water governance to river basin confederations, and promoted the expansion of large-
scale irrigation and waterworks (Boelens and Post Uiterweer 2013; Swyngedouw 2015;
Swyngedouw and Boelens 2018).
Once in power, during the ﬁrst decades of the twentieth century, regenerationist poli-
ticians dramatically failed to materialise their hydraulic dreams, blaming not only the con-
servative oligarchy but also the ‘stubborn, backward peasantry’unable to grasp the
enlightened regenerationist future. Somehow, however, Costa had already foreseen that
convincing all classes about the beneﬁts of utopian hydraulism would encounter pro-
blems; he, therefore, argued for the need of an enlightened dictator to enforce hydraulic
solidarity (Costa 1967, 86). Progressive, regenerationist dreams could, indeed, become
reality only by silencing the voices of protest (Duarte-Abadía and Boelens 2019).
Major hydraulic infrastructure development in Spain started in the rule of dictator
Francisco Franco. In his ﬁrst –Autarchy –period, the regime doubled the number of
large dams in Spain from around 80 in 1935 to some 180 in 1955. However, the
hydraulic mission of the ruling period of Franco was materialised during the second
period, in a large boost in dam construction: from 180 to 730 dams in 1975. The total
storage capacity of the reservoirs increased in that period from 8000 to 37,000 mm
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1019
The dams formed part of the big hydrological plan of Franco that meant to connect all
rivers of Spain and to redistribute the water throughout the country in order to optimise its
productive use, including generation of hydropower. While he promised irrigation water to
the small producers, in reality much of the water thus dammed was allocated to cities and
big land owners, while the electricity was provided to the industrial sector (Swyngedouw
and Boelens 2018). The construction contracts were awarded to a handful of powerful con-
struction companies and the forced labour of political prisoners was used in the construc-
tion of dams (Lafuente 2002; Acosta Bono et al. 2004; Camprubí 2013). During the
dictatorship of Franco protests were not allowed, so the aﬀected people who lost their
land, homes and livelihoods could do nothing but accept the impoverished housing
and living in resettlement villages (see e.g. Huber et al. 2017). After the restauration of
democracy in 1975, the hydraulic mission of the Spanish government continued
(Genovés et al. 2008). Many projects for new dams and water transfer envisioned by
Franco remained in force. And also the political repression of social protests continued.
This hydro-dream culminated into a new National Hydrological Plan (PHN) in 1993,
which was initiated by the government and led by the right-wing political party Partido
Popular. This plan envisioned the building of ten more dams and the major water transfer
canal from the Ebro river in the North to the agro-export zones around Murcia in the South
of Spain. This plan generated much debate, while the national coalition of the anti-dam
movement was in the making.
Similar to the case of Sardar Sarovar Project on the river Narmada as discussed, the
urban intelligentsia and civil society organisations played a crucial role in creating and
shaping the anti-dam movement in Spain. The anti-dam protest in Spain was started in
the 1990s by a group of researchers from the University of Zaragoza after their visit of
the aﬀected villages in the Pyrenees of Aragon. They enjoyed strong support from the
abandoned, ‘forgotten’rural communities. The researchers recorded the testimonies of
the displaced people and studied the impact on biodiversity but also earthquake risks
of dam construction (Gómez-Fuentes 2012). The dramatic stories of the villagers
aﬀected by dams, such as the Yesa dam inundating three villages displacing 1500 inhabi-
tants, motivated the researchers to broaden their geographical focus and start research on
dam victims in other parts of Spain. Researchers of the University of Zaragoza were the
main drivers in this initial phase of the anti-dam movement, such as Javier Martínez Gil
(hydro-geographer), Pedro Arrojo (economist) and Antonio Casas (geographer). They
were soon accompanied by activists from environmental NGOs. This initial ﬁeld investi-
gation team grew into a movement when researchers of other Spanish universities and
local environmental organisations joined the research team. In 1995 Greenpeace Spain
and the environmental umbrella group CODA (Coordinator of Environmental Defense
Organisations) initiated the formation of COAGRET (Coordinadora de Afectados por
GRandes Embalses y Trasvases –Coordinator of Those Aﬀected by Large Dams and
From initially recording the testimonies of the aﬀected villagers the movement shifted
its attention to opposing the 1993 National Hydrological Plan proposed by the Spanish
government. In 1997 Javier Martinez Gil published his book ‘The New Water Culture in
Spain’, this marked the start of a broader social movement involving many aspects of
water infrastructure, water quality and water value (Martínez Gil, 1997). Based on the prin-
ciples laid out in Martínez’book, in 1998 the NGO ‘Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua’
1020 E. SHAH ET AL.
(FNCA) [New Water Culture Foundation] was founded. The FNCA was coordinated from the
University of Zaragoza, but had a wide membership of local water activist platforms and
individual academics and environmentalists in Spain and Portugal. The vision of FNCA
stressed the ‘cultural, emotional, aesthetic and recreational value of rivers’(FNCA 2019,
The anti-dam movement in Spain not only became very active, mobilised a large
number of people at the national level, and succeeded in stopping a large water transfer
project, but also made several global alliances; it was inspired by other such movements in
India and Turkey and, later, the ﬁnal report of the WCD (2000) (personal communication
FNCA 2019). In its turn, the FNCA actions and experiences motivated new hydro-ecological
sister networks and anti-dam alliances in other parts of the world, particularly in Latin
America. The FNCA was initiator of many researches and publications (e.g. ‘Fluviofelicidad’
by Martínez Gil (2010), approximately translated as: ‘The happiness of the ﬂowing river’).
FNCA also organised an online ‘water policy observatory’and many local activities and
conferences on the new thinking on water use and its ecological values. This initiative
grew into a large social movement when FNCA organised massive street protests
against the Ebro transfer in Zaragoza which was attended by 250,000 protesters in the
year 2000; similar protests in Madrid (200,000 protesters in 2001), in Brussels (15,000
demonstrators in 2001) and in Barcelona (150,000 campaigners in 2002) were also organ-
ised. These protests resulted in abandoning the plan for the Ebro transfer. This marked a
major success for the movement. Not surprisingly, the movement was challenged by the
national rightwing Popular Party, and by large export farmers from the South (Murcia) who
would have become the beneﬁciaries of water transfer from the Ebro to southern Spain.
But not every protest was successful. The protest against the Itoiz dam did not result in
stopping the dam although the protestors won the court case and the government was
instructed to reduce the height of the dam (see Barcena and Ibarra 2001). The govern-
ment, however, did not follow the ruling and the construction of the dam was continued
despite an attempt by a group of eight eco-saboteurs to stall the construction by dama-
ging the structure. They protested against the impact on the ecosystem but also against
the enormous overcapacity of the reservoir compared to the need for water in Pamplona.
Most anti-dam protests in Spain are neither just ‘red’or ‘green’but –depending on the
case and socio-environmental impacts –tend to focus on a dynamic mix of ‘red-green’,
including other issues, ranging from corruption, high water prices, privatisation, etc. The
saboteurs were sentenced to jail for 5 years. Although the dam was ﬁnished in 2010,
the protests related to the dam continued. The protestors also raised the voice against cor-
ruption during the construction, seismic risks and the high water price that favoured large
plantation owners and forced smallholders to abandon their land. Several government
oﬃcials were later given long sentences (from 11 and 31 years) for corruption related to
the construction of the dam and the irrigation canals. Despite these achievements of
the movement, however, Franco’s hydraulic policy was left unchallenged during the
democratic transition because of its image of productivity and neutrality supposedly pro-
ducing unquestionable beneﬁts under the leadership of cultured experts.
But recently, cracks have appeared in the hydraulic expertocracy: local (valley-based)
activists, farmers, and water management professionals have raised organised voice
against mega-hydraulism. Many such local level protest coalitions have managed to
bring the river ‘back to life’. They are backed by the struggle at national level of the
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1021
New Water Culture and are based on organised information and debate meetings in the
valleys and have strategically used the European Framework Directive which states that all
European rivers must have ecological ﬂows. The dynamic conversation between the ‘red’
and the ‘green’concerns is much apparent in the history of anti-large dam mobilisation in
For example, the communities from the valleys of the Río Grande, a tributary of the Gua-
dalhorce inthe South of Spain set up a diverse grassroots alliance to stop the plans for a dam
that would divert the water from their river to the city of Malaga for tourism and industry
development (see Poma and Gravante 2015; Duarte-Abadía, Boelens, and du Pre 2019). In
2003, this grassroots alliance created the Cerro Blanco Anti-Dam Platform, which got
support from the local ecological activists’organisation, the Jara Association. This ‘green’
NGO that had studied and educated on local ecology for many years, together with the irri-
gator communities that were mainly concerned with losing their livelihood sources, success-
fully protested against the dam. However, the government later revived the project quietly.
In 2006, the Cerro Blanco project was approved by the Ministry of Environment by con-
veniently re-naming it as ‘an azud’(the local Arab name for a small dam) while planning
pipelines to divert most of the water from the Río Grande to the city. This time, the
‘green’Jara Association provided the leadership and organised large social mobilisation
against the plan. It included many actors such as local school teachers, local businesses,
NGOs, and local politicians, and together they formed the network Coordinator in Defence
of the Rio Grande River. The platform organised a multitude of creative activities, starting dis-
cussions at the local feria village-market events, activities for children, Rio Grande environ-
mental education leaﬂets and books for school children and the broader public. Jara also
mobilised the valley’s communities to protest on the streets of Malaga, showing the
urban dwellers that their protest was not a NIMBY action but was profoundly related to
the endangered continuity and dignity of social and environmental life in the valley.
The success of this movement lied in balancing the ‘red’and ‘green’concerns while at
the same time making several local, national and global alliances during the course of its
development. The Coordinator created links to the supportive networks at increasingly
broader scales. First, it networked with many local foundations and initiatives, for
example, the Andalucian branch of the New Water Culture, and later also with its national
alliance Greenpeace. The platform also strategically used the contents and representatives
of the European Framework Directive to defend the cause of living rivers and ecological
ﬂows. At the same time, JARA had to navigate carefully among the activist organisations
because involving foundations that were seen as ‘too radical’by the local villagers or ‘too
environmentalist’by the farmers could weaken the local platform’s coherence and force.
Confronted with the large multi-actor and multi-scalar opposition network, the govern-
ment had to withdraw the plans, and instead it made an alternative design taking the
water from a downstream weir –this would leave the river untouched. Meanwhile, the
Coordinator continued to enlarge its alliance also with local, national and international aca-
demic partners in order to carry out social and ecological studies that may defend (and
‘scientiﬁcally express’) the importance of the Rio Grande living ﬂow regime for the conser-
vation of valley’secological environment and social communities (see Duarte-Abadía,
Boelens, and du Pre 2019). In the following years, these academic and societal network
partners, in a multi-scalar ‘red-green’alliance, proved to be extremely important whenever
1022 E. SHAH ET AL.
(as in 2009 and 2017) the government revived the construction plans of the dam on the
Rio Grande river. The challenge is not yet over.
To sum up, we would like to highlight three important factors for the important success
of the anti-large dam movement in Spain: the role of urban intelligentsia, the movement
based on the balance of ‘red’and ‘green’concerns, and the active formation of the local,
national and global alliances as the basis of the movement’s mobilisation.
Lesotho Highlands Water Project
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) with an original planned costs of 8 billion US
$ envisioned the construction of multiple dams in the highlands of Lesotho, intercon-
nected through tunnels, with the principle aim to supply water to the Vaal River system
in South Africa. The project commenced in 1986 following the signing of a Treaty
between two countries, but ideas for the project date back to at least the early 1950s.
An agreement was only reached after the 1986 coup d’etat in Lesotho that brought to
power a military dictatorship that was more inclined to collaborate with the South
African Apartheid regime (Meissner and Turton 2003). Despite radical political changes
in both countries in later years the LHWP remains associated to this highly undemocratic
period (Thabane 2000, 634).
The transferred water is to serve South Africa’s Gauteng province, the economic centre
of the country where some 37% of its GDP is generated by predominantly mining and
other industries; the province is also home to a large urban population, including Johan-
nesburg. Because of this economic value, ‘the Vaal River is one of the most strategic natural
resource assets of South Africa’(Meissner 2005, 192). Against this water-scarce economic
boom area, Lesotho stands out as a water abundant area with a very poor economy, not as
a coincidence but as a result of ‘structural economic integration or political subordination’
(Ferguson 1994, 177). There is a speciﬁc historical context to this situation in the present. In
1865–1868 and later in 1880–1881, the Basotho tribe escaping the war withdrew to the
‘defensive mountain strongholds’(Thabane 2000, 637), now known as Lesotho. In the
process, they lost a lot of fertile land to what is now South Africa. Although this happened
more than a century ago, in the negotiation over the LHWP in the late 1960s, Lesotho
demanded that South Africa handed back this lost territory (Meissner 2005, 200). The
LHWP is one of the largest water infrastructure projects in Africa. The main dams con-
structed in the ﬁrst phase of the LHWP are the Katse Dam (completed 1996, phase 1A)
and the Mohale Dam (completed 2003, phase 1B). Besides the water delivery to South
Africa the ﬁrst phase of LHWP also included hydropower generation for domestic use.
From within Lesotho there has been little resistance against the idea of the project as
such, and responses have mostly focused on the impact and on the way compensation to
the aﬀected people was dealt with in practice. Only international NGOs involved in global
debates on large dams, such as Environmental Defense and International Rivers Network,
seem to have questioned whether the construction of the dams was needed and justiﬁed.
The international resistance against the project went partly in parallel to the development
of the WCD guidelines (1998–2000). Directly aﬀected communities, church groups, local
NGOs and international NGOs formed alliances and collaborated in their response to
the negative eﬀects with the church-based local NGO Transformation Resource Centre
(TRC) playing a central role (see Meissner 2005). Their arguments focussed almost solely
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1023
on the social eﬀects, while the environmental impacts of the dams have largely remained
secondary, even for the international environmental organisations involved in the alliance.
This is for instance exempliﬁed by their ‘lessons learned’document which in its summary
lists 24 lessons, none of which relates explicitly to environmental issues (Thamae and Pot-
There are several reasons for the low levels of organised and visible resistance. The most
important being the fact that the aﬀected people are low in numbers, they lack organisation
and are unfamiliar with dam development processes and lack know-how to interact with the
processes. Both dams were constructed in very poor, remote areas with low population
density and relatively low total number of aﬀected people (as compared to other large
dams elsewhere in the world). For the Katse Dam 71 households were displaced while for
the Mohale dam 425 households were resettled (Devitt and Hitchcock 2010). Braun
(2008) gives a detailed account of a resettled woman from the project area who gave tes-
timony to a hearing for the WCD, in which she narrated the injustices that she and fellow
resettled people experienced in terms of broken promises and the loss of home, dignity
and community. Her struggles illustrate how their marginalised positions and limited knowl-
edge of the ‘language of the project developers and ﬁnancers’(both literal and ﬁgurative)
works against them. The aﬀected community got divided over several locations making it
even more diﬃcult to organise (Thabane 2000; Devitt and Hitchcock 2010).
The reasons for the absence of organised social resistance could also be the fact that
the project included various procedures to deal with environmental and social concerns
based on lessons learnt from other dam projects internationally. And in the process, envir-
onmentalists and social experts were co-opted into the dam development process by
giving them a role in the ‘Panel of Environmental Experts’that reviewed risks and moni-
tored progress relating to the social and environmental risks management. The Panel
was formed based on the World Bank’s requirements stipulating such measures. The re-
location and compensation process was converted into a consultancy assignment
which was implemented by a team of rather critical anthropologists (see Devitt and Hitch-
cock 2010). While they adequately informed people about the project and facilitated them
to express their dissatisfaction, they at the same time used the trust that they had gained
to organise these communities to make them give consent for the resettlement in com-
pliance with their consultancy assignment. One of their strategies was the organisation
of elected local committees with whom they could work, while they made an agreement
with these committees and traditional community leaders that they would select ‘young
and educated people from the aﬀected villages’(Devitt and Hitchcock 2010, 79) to serve as
‘Community Liaison Assistants’, being paid by the consultants. While these bright young-
sters played a crucial role in organising the communities for eﬀective participation, they
also became dependent on and loyal to the consultants and their project.
Another important reasons for the lack of social resistance was the matter of timing. By
the time the aﬀected communities were informed about the dam construction it was too
late and as a result the communities were not suﬃciently organised and their opinions got
divided on how to respond to the resettlement announcements (Thabane 2000). The
aﬀected communities responded with anger once they were well-informed (long into
the development process) and in response they wrote letters to the King, to the Prime Min-
ister and the chief executive of the LHDA demanding their attention, however, the com-
munity’s plea was met with no response. The people then had no other option but to
1024 E. SHAH ET AL.
move as directed by the consultants responsible for the resettlement programme (Devitt
and Hitchcock 2010, 80). People also accepted the oﬀers based on the promises made,
many of which were not kept (Thamae and Pottinger 2006).
Eventually when people did mobilise themselves to take actions into a diﬀerent direc-
tion from what was politically instigated, both traditional authorities and politicians
reverted to intimidation, after which local communities reverted to obedience, but at
the cost of trust in their leaders and the whole dam development process (Devitt and
Hitchcock 2010, 82). The global alliances against large dams largely limited their involve-
ment in the case to contesting issues aﬀecting the struggle at global level. For instance,
International Rivers Network contested Kader Asmal becoming the chairman of the
WCD, as he was known as a supporter of the LHWP in his former position as South
African minister of water. Another such eﬀort was a public hearing by the WCD in Cape
Town which was informed by the aﬀected communities. In the course of the project
the social and environmental policies of the World Bank regarding large dams and reset-
tlement processes were reﬁned in accordance with WCD guidelines. Through the panel of
social and environmental experts hired within the project it became easier to bring con-
cerns to the attention of project management and donors. Some of these experiences with
the process and their (limited) inﬂuence over project implementation have been pub-
lished, both independently (Devitt and Hitchcock 2010) and as a contribution to the inter-
national alliance’sreﬂection document (Thamae and Pottinger 2006) demonstrating their
alignment in trying to inﬂuence the project. The Save the Narmada Movement also joined
the alliance of interest groups that campaigned against the LHWP (Meissner 2005),
however, these eﬀorts had no noticeable impact.
To sum up, in the case of LHWP the organised local resistance has remained rather
insigniﬁcant in inﬂuencing the project as a whole; it focused predominantly on proper pro-
cesses of resettlement and compensation. The absence of urban intelligentsia or civil
society organisations playing the role of ‘broker’or a catalyst is rather glaring, in fact
these actors were successfully co-opted in the development process. Although the alli-
ances with global anti-dam movements were formed, particularly in the process of inﬂuen-
cing the WCD guidelines and their implementation in later phases of the project, these
remained rather peripheral in either forming an eﬀective mobilisation or even inﬂuencing
the project. It is important to note that the environmental or ‘green’concerns have played
only a minor role in the opposition to the LHWP, and are strongly overshadowed by the
social or ‘red’concerns.
Discussion and conclusions
In this concluding discussion, we draw parallels between the four cases and show that in
all cases the dams were part of the process of nation-building and their construction pro-
cesses mark the alliance between regional, national and international political, private and
ﬁnancial powers. The dams form part of the expansionist and extractive development pro-
cesses that aim to gain economic, political and cultural-discursive control over territory
and resources. From the point of impact and consequences, the dams largely aﬀected
the already marginal communities and this way they mark internal colonisation. The
large dam on the Narmada river displaced a substantial tribal population; Hidrosogamoso
displaced and impacted the livelihood of war-displaced migrant communities, local
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1025
ﬁshermen, artisans, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers; in Spain, the explosion of dam
projects displaced numerous poor smallholders; and the Lesotho Highland project
aﬀected a relatively sparsely inhabited area displacing poor communities. One can
argue that the underlying fundamental political-economic forces and processes that
create dams and displacement share common regimes of expert knowledge and legitimis-
ing discourses and languages (see also, Kaika 2006; Nixon 2009,2011; Hommes, Boelens,
and Maat 2016; Menga and Swyngedouw 2018; Shah, Boelens, and Bruins 2019). And
hence, large dams are indeed a global socio-environmental issue of justice in relation to
these universalistic threats.
The local protests against the dams, however, were organised around a veritable com-
bination of the ‘red’and ‘green’concerns. Most of them were mainly focused on the issues
of compensation, and resettlements, and environmental damages caused by the large
dams, however, they also included other issues such as –ﬁghting corruption, opposing
industrialisation, defending identity, claiming control over resources, preservation of eco-
systems, increased prices, contesting privatisation, and about having a voice in decision-
In terms of the character of local and global alliances shaping the social resistance
against large dams, we think that the combination of the particular, historically contin-
gent local issues and contexts played a far more crucial role for the dissent to develop
and be expressed. In the cases of the SSP on the river Narmada and anti-dam culture in
Spain, it was only on the bedrock of historically contingent local conditions that the
international alliances were created, which eventually played an inﬂuential role both
at the local and global level. We think that Harvey’s point that ‘diverse oppositional strat-
egies and struggles rooted in particular places’, i.e. ‘militant particularism’must be
united in a wider, universalistic, global politics to be eﬀective, needs to be critically
modiﬁed. We think that in our case studies the ‘militant particularism’found the pro-
ductive alliance with the global partners only when certain ground conditions were
locally available. The historically and culturally contingent local conditions, therefore,
played a far more crucial role for the movement to emerge in the ﬁrst place. We at
the same time want to emphasise that our case studies show that the local anti-dam
movements were inspired by a diverse set of issues and they also found certain alliance
with global partners that beneﬁtted the organisational context of the movement and
also made them globally visible, however, such global alliances did not necessarily
beneﬁt the struggles locally. The question of justice is an integral part of issues
around which the social resistance was organised. Our case studies prima facie
suggest that even when a signiﬁcant part of the population, negatively aﬀected by
the dam, belonged to the marginal section of society, the outcome of the protest move-
ments based on cross-class, multi-sectoral, and local-international alliances did not
always and necessarily improve substantial livelihood and property issues at the
ground level for the aﬀected population.
Furthermore, we think that the role of ‘urban intelligentsia’or ‘movement brokers’in
the anti-dam protest movements requires reﬂection (see also, e.g. Baud and Rutten
2004; Ahlers, Zwarteveen, and Bakker 2017). The role of urban intelligentsia was catalytic
in shaping the movement against the SSP in India and the anti-large dam ‘new water
culture’movement in Spain. Their involvement in the respective contexts broadened
the scope of the movement, provided a vision and ideology, including the organisational
1026 E. SHAH ET AL.
know-how, and a powerful political voice to the cause of protest. The initial protests
against the SSP, prior to the involvement of the urban activists, collapsed precisely
because such vision and organisational skills were not available. However, the alliance
with the international NGOs shifted the focus of the movement from rehabilitation and
resettlement to environmental sustainability. This made the movement internationally
visible and made World Bank withdraw out of the project, but had little impact on chan-
ging the fate of the aﬀected people as the dam was nevertheless built. Speciﬁcally for the
case of the SSP, the alliance with the international environmental NGOs privileged the
‘green’component at the cost of the ‘red’. In a similar vein, the anti-dam protest in
Spain was started in the 1990s by a group of researchers from the University of Zaragoza
after their visit of the aﬀected villages in the Pyrenees of Aragon. They were inspired by the
international anti-dam movement, and were focussed on both ‘red’and ‘green’issues. The
national anti-dam movement used past cases to show the negative eﬀects. This did not
always directly help the already aﬀected people, but helped create an overall climate of
critical thinking that questioned the dam building subsequently. Over a decade this move-
ment grew into massive street protests against national (mega-infrastructure-based) water
policies that eventually shaped the new water culture movement in Spain.
The absence of a well-organised and well-informed activists/intelligentsia-supported
network had much drastic impact on the emergence of the protest movement in two
other cases. In Colombia, in the case of the Hidrosogamoso dam, some of the urban
and middle class interests sided with the private company hired to design and implement
the dam. The absence of an overarching vision and organisation, the presence of parami-
litary terror, the migrant status of peasant settlers, and the lack of a intelligentsia/activists
network providing critical support during the ﬁrst (dam design and construction) phase,
could be counted as an important reason for the weak self-organisation of the aﬀected
people and the fact that these people were also easily divided in terms of their interests.
Eventually, the NGOs fought the dam at national level and helped to organise local pro-
tests, but the eﬀective local leadership for the protests only emerged after the dam had
been built. In Lesotho the aﬀected communities were not organised and not aware of
the eﬀects of the dam. The WCD guidelines, developed on the global stage, in parallel
to the project, both helped to co-shape the LHWP procedures and be a reference point
for opposition. The struggles of the movement and those on the panel of (international)
social and environmental experts, hired by the project, often aligned, which made it poss-
ible to put pressure from both sides, however, in eﬀect the experts worked to protect the
interests of their employers rather than the aﬀected people.
In conclusion, we want to emphasise three points. First, the issue of environmental
justice raised by the large dams is indeed global in terms of its discursive importance
and the widespread socio-territorial transformations it generates. However, how it trans-
lates in organised protests and how the protests eventually develop depends signiﬁcantly
upon the speciﬁc local context and histories, more than the global alliances. Second, not all
protests movements addressed the ‘red’and ‘green’concerns equally, and ﬁnding the
balance between the issues of social justice and achieving environmental sustainability
was a struggle in the making of the movements. Third, the urban intelligentsia played a
signiﬁcantly important catalytic role in creating and shaping the local-global protest,
their absence or them rather partnering with dam-developers, especially in Lesotho and
Colombian cases, limited the mobilisation against the large dams. In the end, we want
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1027
to emphasise that detailed histories of social responses to large dams, including the anti-
dam movements, are needed to understand the way the local and global are mutually
constitutive in the making (or not) of the political struggle and how these struggles
have been eﬀective in building networks among actors that have addressed both local
issues and created transnational solidarity.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the authors.
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Esha Shah is Assistant Professor at the Department of Water Resources Management of Wageningen
University, The Netherlands. She has worked with University of Sussex and Maastricht University and
held a position of fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, India and at the Nantes
Institute of Advanced Studies, France. Her work concerns history and anthropology of water technol-
ogies, debates on GMOs, and farmers’suicides in India. Currently, she is working on the way human
subjectivity relates to modes of rationality and has published a monograph on the history of subjec-
tivity and objectivity in genetic science (Routledge, 2018).
Jeroen Vos is assistant professor at the department of Water Resources Management of Wagenin-
gen University, the Netherlands. As water policy advisor he worked for a decade in Bolivia and Peru
THE JOURNAL OF PEASANT STUDIES 1031
with diﬀerent international development organizations. He is author and editor of several books on
water management in Latin America and co-editor (together with Boelens and Perreault) of ‘Water
Justice’with Cambridge University Press. His current research interests are the dynamics and dis-
courses of water use by agribusinesses in Latin America and its eﬀects on water users’communities.
He has published several articles on virtual water trade and water stewardship certiﬁcation.
Gert Jan Veldwisch is Associate Professor with the Water Resources Management Group of the
Department of Environmental Sciences at Wageningen University. His research focuses on the prac-
tices, policies and politics of agricultural water management, speciﬁcally this includes the study of
farmer-led irrigation development, water grabbing, waste water use in agriculture, agrarian
change, and issues around water justice. Currently he works mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Rutgerd Boelens is Professor Water Governance and Social Justice at Wageningen University; Pro-
fessor Political Ecology of Water with CEDLA, University of Amsterdam; and Visiting Professor Catho-
lic University of Peru and Central University of Ecuador. He directs the international Justicia Hídrica/
Water Justice alliance (www.justiciahidrica.org). Research areas include: political ecology, water
rights, legal pluralism, cultural politics, governmentality, and social mobilization. Among his books:
‘Water Justice’(with Perreault & Vos, Cambridge University Press, 2018), ‘Water, Power and Identity.
The Cultural Politics of Water in the Andes’(Routledge, 2015) and ‘Out of the Mainstream: Water
Rights, Politics and Identity’(with Getches & Guevara-Gil, Earthscan, 2010).
Bibiana Duarte-Abadía is a PhD Researcher at the Centre for Latin American Research and Docu-
mentation (CEDLA), University of Amsterdam. She is graduated as an ecologist from Pontiﬁcia Uni-
versidad Javeriana in Bogotá with a Masters in International Land and Water Management at
Wageningen University. She has worked on research projects related to hydrosocial territories trans-
formations in Colombia, Mexico, and Spain, speciﬁcally in ﬂuvial and highland territories. She is a
member of the international Justicia Hídrica/Water Justice alliance. Her articles and publications
are focused on the political ecology of water, social movements, ethnoecology, extractive industry,
dams, hydropower, and mining sector.
1032 E. SHAH ET AL.