Grassroots Protests Against Chinese Dams in Africa
On a day when people took to the streets in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, dam-affected people organized protests against destructive dams at the Chinese embassies in Kenya and Sudan. Among them was our friend Ikal Angelei. Her efforts illustrate the changing face of international grassroots struggles.
Ikal lives on the shores of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake in Northern Kenya. Like 500,000 other indigenous people, Ikal’s family is threatened by the construction of the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia. If built, the dam would destroy the fragile ecosystem of the Lower Omo Valley and the Lake Turkana region.
In 2007, Ikal and other activists founded Friends of Lake Turkana, a grassroots movement of the region’s people. They educated and mobilized the communities that would be affected by the Gibe III Dam. They took the Kenyan government to court for complicity in the destructive project. And they managed to fend off funding from the World Bank and other financiers for the dam over several years.
In July 2010, the campaign to save the Omo River and Lake Turkana took an unexpected turn. China’s largest bank – ICBC – decided to extend a loan of $500 million for a Chinese equipment contract for the Gibe III Dam. Friends of Lake Turkana immediately sent a letter to ICBC and met with the Chinese embassy in Nairobi, appealing to Chinese institutions to stay out of the destructive project. To no avail: ICBC never even bothered to respond.
On February 20 – World Social Justice Day – Friends of Lake Turkana took their protest to the streets, to turn up the heat on the Chinese actors. They marched to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi, where they hoped to hand over a petition to the Chinese government. Signed by 2,000 organizations and individuals, their appeal called on the government “to immediately intervene and halt Chinese support for a project that threatens to annihilate the peoples of the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana.”
The Nairobi protest caused ripple effects in another African country. When they heard about the planned action, the people fighting against the proposed Kajbar Dam in Sudan also decided to take their concerns to the Chinese embassy. Late last year, China’s Sinohydro Corporation had won a contract to build the Kajbar Dam as part of a planned dam cascade on the Nile in Northern Sudan. The Kajbar Dam would displace 10,000 people and flood scarce fertile lands. It is strongly opposed by the Nubian people of the region, who have lost much of their ancient territories to earlier dams.
On February 20, the Nubian activists presented a memorandum to the Chinese embassy in Sudan, asking Sinohydro to “withdraw from this project, and to contact directly the affected people so as to see that the people totally reject” the dam cascade on the Nile. Since funding for the dams has not yet been approved, Sinohydro and the Chinese government still have the chance to listen to the affected people’s demands.
The relations between China and Africa are a sensitive topic, and protests against destructive projects show that they are more complex than the official propaganda suggests. While the Nubian activists delivered their petition to the embassy in Khartoum, Friends of Lake Turkana did not find open ears in Nairobi. Over several months, the Kenyan government and the Chinese embassy have tried to prevent the protest against the Gibe III Dam from happening. “We have given diplomacy a lot of time,” comments Ikal Angelei, but “the one thing we cannot allow is people to suffer in the name of diplomacy.”
Regardless of their nationality, all government agencies, banks and companies must respect and uphold basic human rights and environmental standards in the projects they pursue. As Chinese banks and companies expand their presence around the globe, they will increasingly be faced with the demands and protests of project-affected people and environmental organizations. Ikal Angelei is at the forefront of this movement. If the Chinese authorities and ICBC don’t suspend their support for the Gibe III Dam, she plans to take her protest to Beijing in the spring.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard