How an indigenous activist has fought to shut down funding for an 800 foot dam in Ethiopia

Image by the New York Times

By Rachel Nuwer / The New York Times

At a casual glance, Lake Turkana in northern Kenya may not seem a fount of milk and honey. The temperature around the lake hovers around 100 degrees, and tourists are warned not to approach the water because of the crocodiles and vipers lurking among the volcanic rocks.

Yet Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake, is regarded by many anthropologists as the cradle of humankind. Today it serves a vital purpose for local indigenous communities that depend on its waters for fish and other resources; in 1997, citing its rich biodiversity, Unesco listed it as a World Heritage site.

Ikal Angelei, 31, one of the six winners of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, grew up playing on Lake Turkana’s dusty shores, chatting with old fishermen who sold their daily catch to her family and others. When she graduated from high school, she moved to the capital to study at the University of Nairobi, traveling later to the United States to earn a master’s degree in public policy and political science at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

Then she returned home and began working on community outreach for a group called the Turkana Basin Institute.

That’s when she learned about a proposed dam.

The chairman of the institute, Richard Leakey, approached her with a document outlining the plan for the dam, on the Omo River in Ethiopia — one of Lake Turkana’s lifelines. “He said to me, this is your people, your lake, your problem,” Ms. Angelei said in an interview. His words stirred her, she said, and she began researching the dam project in her spare time.

If completed, the Gibe 3 Dam() would be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa and provide increased electrical power to Kenya and Ethiopia. But in a region more desperate for food than electricity, the dam would take a significant toll on water levels and thus on fisheries, potentially worsening relations between disparate communities that are already enmeshed in resource-based conflicts.

“At first, I thought, it can’t be real,” Ms. Angelei said. “I couldn’t imagine the area without the lake.” Reflecting on her father’s own anti-dam activism in the late 1980s, she began making phone calls, sending e-mails, and broadcasting appeals from a local radio station.

Day by day, her campaign gained resonance as more and more people from divided and marginalized local communities shared their stories with her. In 2009 she founded a grass-roots organization, Friends of Lake Turkana, to provide a unified voice for the peoples of the lake.

Together they demanded that the Kenyan government and investors in the dam halt the $60 billion project. To Ms. Angelei’s surprise, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank all withdrew their financing. Last year the Kenyan Parliament mandated that the government commission an independent environment assessment from Ethiopia.

“The feeling that the actual construction had lost its funding was amazing — it gives me hope that we can go on,” Ms. Angelei said.

The struggle is not quite over. China, the last big investor, is still pushing for construction. Ms. Angelei believes that ultimately governments will have to step up to put the Gibe 3 Dam to rest. “China may have green policies they’re trying to implement, but as long as there’s not a format for holding Chinese companies and banks accountable, then the policies do not work,” she said.

Taxpayers in Western countries could help by holding their governments responsible for backing flawed development projects, she added.

Although she has frequently been discouraged, Ms. Angelei said, witnessing the struggles of local families and women helped her keep her goal in sight. Often she was approached by strangers who could offer her little more than blessings and encouragement, she said: “It was seeing the look in people’s eyes that kept me going.”

For her efforts to protect her community, Ms. Angelei was awarded the Goldman Prize in the African regional category; each year, the prize is also awarded to a recipient in Asia, Europe, an island nation, North America and South or Central America. Each honoree receives an award of $150,000. (The program was initiated in 1990 by Richard and Rhoda Goldman, civic leaders and philanthropists in San Francisco.)

“These are people who normally go unrecognized but do so much of the work,” said Lorrae Rominger, the deputy director of the prize program. “Hopefully, when they go back to their country, people will look, listen, stop and want to know more about what they’re doing,” she said of the recipients.

As a young woman living in an an area where violence is out of check, Ms. Angelei stood out for “taking this risk upon herself and making such a big difference,” Ms. Rominger said.

Ms. Angelei said that struggling to make a difference is not easy but that not trying means becoming part of the problem. Her father often cited the adage that “it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” she said. “Even if you don’t win, at least you’re opening the platform for others after you.”

From The New York Times: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/to-fight-a-dam-rather-than-live-on-your-knees/

Categories: Dams, Indigenous People, Resistance, Rivers

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