Mega Dams: From Greenwashing to Cultural Genocide

By: Matteo MacDermant

Electricity pulses through copper and rubber, suspended upon crisscrossed  steel, every time a power button is pressed. It is the lifeblood of modern civilization, but because it is primarily derived from burning coal or gas, it comes into the world drenched in greenhouse gas emissions. We are now on the precipice of the climate apocalypse. 

Liberal governments and corporations assure us that we can carry on business as usual as long as we transition from fossil capitalism to a new, improved, and sustainable green capitalism. Investment into massive “green” infrastructure projects will allow endless growth, profits, and consumption to continue unabated.

Yet, even when the skies around power plants are not darkened by carbon byproducts like smog and ash, there are often grave consequences to the generation of electricity. What appears to be “cleantech” is often misdirection, a sleight of hand that makes a technology appear green or renewable when its devastating effects are simply being hidden from view. This misdirection, often called greenwashing, is the story of hydroelectric mega dams.

The North American Mega Dam Resistance Tour

The Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe in what is now known as Plymouth, Massachusetts hosted five water protectors from the North American Mega Dam Resistance Alliance (NAMRA) on November 29th. NAMRA was in Plymouth protesting the colonial “Thanksgiving” holiday alongside nations from across Turtle Island and anti-colonial comrades for the fiftieth annual National Day of Mourning. They spoke to protesters through wind and rain at the Day of Mourning rally on Thursday and again in greater detail to an intimate audience at Herring Pond on Friday, about the impacts hydroelectric mega dams are having on Pimicikamak Cree territory (Manitoba) and Inuit territory (Labrador), as well as everywhere else such developments are allowed to exist. It was the final stop of the North American Mega Dam Resistance Tour, and I was lucky enough to be present.

Mega Dams and Ecosystem Collapse

My NAMRA comrades spoke of the dams as a greenwash that obscures ecological destruction and cultural genocide. 

The dams, they said, are destroying the water. Rivers, creeks, and lakes that once ran clear are now full of silt, mud, and submerged plants. Fish, muskrats, and other animals are dying. Excessive algae and aquatic weeds are crowding out and destroying the river flora. Water levels rise and fall by upwards of thirty to forty feet. The flooding and recession causes erosion. The drying kills plankton and fish. There are sometimes too many aquatic plants and weeds and at other times not enough. Where once there was self-regulation and orderly flow now there is chaos and collapse.

Waters, once clean and drinkable are contaminated with methylmercury (a neurotoxin secreted when plants are submerged). According to a recent Harvard study, Lake Melville Estuary (a saltwater tidal extension near the northeast coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland), will see methylmercury levels rise by an average of 25 – 200%, and potentially as high as fourteen-fold above natural levels due to the submersion of hundreds of square miles of forest during dam construction. Rivers and Tributaries that once supported bountiful life are now toxic.

Amy Norman spoke about how the Inuit and Métis people who live downstream from Muskrat Falls bear the brunt of these impacts because they rely heavily upon the food webs of Lake Melville Estuary and Mishta-Shipu (The Churchill River). They are therefore exposed to high levels of methylmercury when eating the fish and seals of their traditional diet. If they do continue to eat their traditional foods, they will be subjected to minamata disease, a form of mercury poisoning that causes:

  • ataxia;
  • numbness in the hands and feet; 
  • muscle weakness;
  • narrowing of the field of vision; 
  • damage to hearing and speech.

Cultural Genocide

Tommy Monias, a Pimicikamak elder, spoke of the destruction of ecosystems as the destruction of culture and the people who practice that culture. He spoke of people as conscious beings rooted in Earth and water, integral with the ecosystems of their homeland. People don’t just live on the land. They don’t just rely upon the water. People are the land and water, inseparable from nature and place. If they do not eat the traditional foods or fish and hunt in the ways of the ancestors, then they cease, in some significant ways, to be themselves. “Cultural genocide is genocide,” Tommy said. The destruction of lifeways is erasure and from erasure comes the end of a people.  

Cultures are deeply rooted in the connections between land, water, and people. Spirituality, music, dance, food, and dress all manifest from a relationship to place. Culture connects people and place. It is life giving.

Cultures are broken when people become disconnected from place. People disconnected from the land and water of their culture, cease to be part of the land and water. They cease to be part of themselves. They are robbed of their connection to Mother Earth, to life itself.  It is with this firmly in mind that Tommy said: “The dams are killing us.”

The dams sever people from their culture in two ways:

  1. Mega dams displace. They erase flooded territory from the map, permanently disconnecting people from their homelands.
  2. Ecological destruction makes it difficult or impossible to develop a cultural relationship to the now destroyed place.

Displacement

Villages, homes, forests, and wetlands were erased through the flooding in a display of brutality and indifference toward indigenous people. The flooding is proof that the settler-colonial project is incomplete. Genocide is ongoing. 

Carlton Richards, a Pimicikamak water protector, spoke of homes inundated and graves washed away by the flood waters. He grieved and asked: “Why must we bury our ancestors twice?”

The Canadian State and the corporations they serve see indigenous lives as expendable. They are willing to sacrifice them for profit and a clean energy greenwash that destroys so much in the name of “saving the environment.” But we must ask: Why is it always indigenous communities, communities of color, poor and oppressed communities, who must sacrifice? Why are those least to blame for the problem always the first to be flooded, displaced, and violated? Why in settler colonies is the end of racist mascots and the abolition of racist holidays considered more egregious than the wholesale destruction of the lives and cultures of people like Carlton and all those in the shadows of the dam? 

War criminals, slaveholders, and colonizers have their graves revered and topped with marble and granite while the graves of Pimicikamak and Inuit people are desecrated as collateral damage. As we move through this so-called green transition, it behooves us to ask: “Who is paying for the transition? Whose lives, homes, and ancestors are the price of ‘progress’?”

The Destruction of Land, Water, and Culture

The people who were not displaced are not spared the wrath of the dams. 

Water Protector Amy described how methylmercury poisoning is particularly destructive to Inuit people. “The Inuit are seal people,” she said. We are deeply connected to the seal in our food, clothing, even our oil lamps.” The dam imperils this relationship. Methylmercury is poisoning the food webs and this is particularly pronounced in sea mammals because mercury concentrations increase up the food chain. Seals  being at the top of the chain make the Inuit especially vulnerable to Minamata Disease. They risk their lives at every meal.

Carlton described how hunting, trapping, and fishing in Pimicikamak territory is harrowing. The fish, like the seal, are unsafe to eat, but fishing is even less safe. Dried out lakes, unpredictable water levels, and underwater obstacles have destroyed boats and drowned people in warmer months. Thin ice and cracks caused by falling water levels have caused drowning. Snow machines have been submerged leaving people trapped under ice. The same things occur when trapping and hunting. High waters turn the ice into slush. Low waters can make a wrong step fatal. The dams are making it impossible to practice traditional cultures.

Fighting Back

Noretta Miswaggon, a Pimicikamak council member, spoke about how dams (like pipelines) are being built without the prior and informed consent of sovereign indigenous nations. They are an invasion, an act of war upon the people living in the shadow of the dams. The struggle against these attacks is self-defense. The people are only defending their sovereign right to self-determination. They are defending their culture and Mother Earth.

Canada does not see it this way. They are denying the sovereignty of the Inuit and Pimicikamak people and using their authority to repress and dismantle resistance by any means necessary. Water protectors are being arrested, beaten, and incarcerated. The Canadian State has labeled the water protectors terrorists, saboteurs, and trouble makers, inflicting state terror to crush the will and spirit of the people.

Amy spoke of elders being sent to maximum security prisons 1000km from home, indiscriminate police assault, and instances where young Inuk women were arrested in the dark of night. Each person who spoke shared similar stories of repression, violence, and disregard for the culture and the people whose lives have been inundated by the megadams.

All of this is being done by a government that prides itself as a bastion of progressive democracy. 

No Struggles Are Far Away

The Wampanoag Tribal Headquarters was a stop on the tour because the power generated by these dams is exported to Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and New York. US states, in partnership with Canada, have cleared thousands of miles of transmission corridor to “green” their energy portfolios. So, while it may seem like this issue is far away, the power buttons are in Boston and Burlington. The end users are mostly Americans. 

The destruction of places and lives “far away” is intimately connected with daily life and struggle in American cities. Hence why it is crucial to develop an internationalist perspective. There are no far away places or far away people. There are no far away struggles. Everything is connected. I may live 2000+ miles from the dam, but electricity travels at the speed of light. Solidarity is critical to ending these atrocities.

NAMRA traveled across the US forging connections of solidarity. The fight is international and it must be waged at the dam, along the transmission corridors, and at the site where electrons flow from the outlets of American homes. Broad coalitions of native and non-native people engaging in a variety of tactics is key to overcoming the monolithic power of the US and Canadian corporate police states. This is not just “an indigenous problem.” It is everyone’s problem.

NAMRA spoke out to stir water protectors in the US to stand with them in solidarity, especially those in New York and New England who have the power to stand up against the transmission corridors and energy purchases of their respective states. People in the US have the power to deny so-called clean energy projects and declare that come at the cost of indigenous lives. Cultural genocide, flooded land, and toxic rivers are not clean. 

The talk echoed the words of people like Happy Valley Goose Bay resident Alex Saunders

“Think about what you’re buying here,” Alex said. “You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada. That’s not a good thing.” 

The transition from fossil fuels cannot come at the expense of indigenous people. Environmental injustice cannot be allowed to pass as green. It is an international struggle to ensure that it doesn’t.

Final Words

Green Capitalism and green settler-colonialism are dangerous fantasies. These systems will only ever perpetrate violence and destruction. They will continue to unleash terror upon indigenous, poor, and working class communities of color in the name of progress. Capitalist settler-colonial states like the US and Canada cannot facilitate a just transition. They do not operate from a humanist framework. They operate from a capitalist framework. They will therefore never put the needs of people above profit and growth. They were not designed to be humane, liberating, or democratic. They were designed to accumulate resources, like the water and land around the dams, and use those resources to keep the capitalist system moving full steam ahead. They will unfortunately never do anything else.

We must look directly to the people for a sustainable path and for a just transition. We the people know the way forward. We only need power and solidarity to come together and realize a future without collapsed ecosystems, without colonies and settlements, without exploitation, slavery, and violence.

Communities that stand together and fight, win. Different futures become possible when people struggle and build together. The only sustainable future is one where comfort and distance is replaced by solidarity across ethnic and racial lines, across borders, across the tendencies of radical organizations. The daily struggles of people differ based on geography, gender, race, and class position, but if there is a future at all, it will be built together, not for profit, but for the human community.

Capitalist governments and corporations will not pave the way toward an ethical and sustainable future. They will not suddenly, in the face of crisis, do the right thing. We must stand together against the dams, pipelines, and fracking projects and push forward in solidarity and common struggle toward a people-centered and Earth-centered world.

Check out NAMRA and offer solidarity. Art by Heather Campbell

The struggle of a single comrade is everyone’s struggle. 

¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!

Works Cited

Boston University. “Minamata Disease.” Sustainability @ BU. Accessed Dec 5, 2019. https://www.bu.edu/sustainability/minamata-disease/

Campbell, Heather. Methylmercury. Pen and Ink on Stone Paper, 2017. https://www.campbellart.ca/paintings?lightbox=dataItem-j80khpex.

Harvard University. “Poison in the Arctic and the human cost of ‘clean’ energy.” phys.org, September 7, 2015. Accessed Dec 5, 2019. https://phys.org/news/2015-09-poison-arctic-human-energy.html.

Miswaggon, Noretta, Rita Monias, Tommy Monias, Amy Norman, and Carleton Richards. “Megadams = Megadamage Speaking Tour.” Lecture from North American Megadam Resistance Alliance, Plymouth, MA, November 29, 2019.

North American Megadam Resistance Alliance. “Slide Presentations from 2019 Northeast U.S. Speaking Tour.” Accessed Dec 5, 2019.

http://northeastmegadamresistance.org/slide-presentations-from-2019-northeast-u-s-speaking-tour/.

North American Megadam Resistance Alliance. “Transmission Corridors.” Accessed Dec 5, 2019. http://northeastmegadamresistance.org/transmission-corridors/

VTD Editor. “The hidden costs of New England’s demand for Canadian hydropower.” VT Digger, December 1, 2019. Accessed on Dec 5, 2019. https://vtdigger.org/2019/12/01/the-hidden-costs-of-new-englands-demand-for-canadian-hydropower/.

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