Global Grassroots Network Emerges From "Rivers for Life" Meeting in Mexico

10/07/2010 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Southern governments, companies and banks are increasingly working together to drill for oil, build dams and develop other infrastructure projects. Southern civil society groups need to create their own transnational networks to protect the environment and human rights in such projects. At a global meeting of dam-affected people and their allies in Temacapulin, Mexico, an international grassroots network is currently taking shape through dozens of workshops, hundreds of discussions and wild parties.

According to the latest World Investment Report, investment flows among Southern countries increased from less than $4 billion in 1985 to $60 billion in 2004. In the dam building sector, Chinese companies and banks alone are currently involved in at least 262 projects in 60 countries. Brazilian, Indian, Thai and other companies are also reaching out across the world. They often disregard community rights and the environment in their operations. At the ongoing meeting in Mexico, 330 dam-affected people and NGO activists from 60 countries are rising to this new challenge of globalization. Under the motto of "Rivers for Life," they are strengthening global civil society networks through five days of workshops, skill-shares and informal discussions.

In a cozy backyard, you can watch grassroots activists share experiences and hatch plans over a meal of rice and beans. You can see Indian and Chinese activists discuss government plans to dam the Yarlong Tsangpo (or Brahmaputra) on the Tibetan Plateau and in Northeast India. A river expert from Sri Lanka seeks out a colleague from Iran to learn more about an Iranian dam building scheme in his island nation. You can listen in as indigenous activists from Kenya's Lake Turkana region strategize with Chinese colleagues about a Chinese bank loan for the Gibe 3 Dam, a project which will devastate their fragile ecosystems. Next to them, a British finance campaigner updates an indigenous activist about hedge fund investments in dams in his Indian mountain state of Sikkim. And a farmer hero from China's Yangtze Valley shares impressions with an activist from Turkish Kurdistan, both of whom have been detained for stopping destructive dams in their regions.

In more than 30 workshops, the participants are sharing experiences, learning new skills and developing strategies. Workshop participants have discussed the evolving global role of Chinese, Brazilian and Indian dam builders and financiers. They have explored emerging trends regarding international human rights law, trans-boundary rivers, greenhouse gas emissions from reservoirs and renewable energy solutions. They have also learned new skills in video advocacy, movement building and community energy solutions.

Movement building is not only a thing of the mind. In the evening, the global activists are living it up in wild parties. Last night, two Canadian women elders turned the meeting into a Conga line with a flirty dance from their Innu nation. The Conga line morphed into an instant African party when an African activist all-star band struck up their tunes. The delegates from Mexico fanned the flames with popular folk songs and free Tequila. Activists from India, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil and other countries brought the house down with their dance performances.

Throughout the meeting, the host population of Temacapulin is reminding their visitors of the very real threats by destructive dams which communities all around the world are facing. The small Mexican town, which has developed a proud local culture over the last four centuries, risks being destroyed by El Zapotillo Dam, a scheme which is supposed to supply water for polluting industries in a neighboring state. Another reservoir nearby meanwhile sits idle and unused as a monument to corrupt practices in the infrastructure sector. As I write this blog post, delegates are preparing for a symbolic direct action at the construction site of El Zapotillo Dam.

After the activists leave their charming and passionate Mexican hosts, they will remain linked to Temacapulin and each other through the invisible bonds of friendship and solidarity. Their bonds are the fabric of a growing global grassroots network, a network which can keep the destructive forces of economic globalization in check and grow the roots and shoots of a development model which respects people and the planet.