Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that we all have a right to an “adequate standard of living.” We could assume this includes the right to a clean environment although, in 1948 when the committee wrote the UDHR, they did not specifically include it as a right. In the past two decades, there has been a growing concern worldwide for the deterioration of ecosystems and the impact on human life and culture. In 1992, the United Nations held the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where world leaders and environmentalists drafted Agenda 21, a declaration which states that long term economic progress must be linked to environmental protection. The Preamble states, “We must fulfill basic human needs, improve living standards for all and better protect and manage ecosystems. No nation can secure its future alone; but together we can: in a global partnership for sustainable development.”
One of the worst examples of using land for economic profit without consideration of environmental or cultural impact is the United States’ historical and continual misuse and destruction of Native American territories. This issue of The Explorer addresses the negative impact of economic and industrial development on the environment and Native American cultures. This is not a historical human rights issue occurring in a foreign land; it is as local and immediate as the nuclear waste site at Prairie Island, the controversy over fishing rights on Mil Lacs Lake, and the energy we buy from NSP and Manitoba Hydro Plant which exploits the lands of the Cree Nation territories in the province of Manitoba. We can no longer remain uninformed and ignorant of the human rights abuses occurring in Minnesota to native people. We encourage you to check out the suggested web sites, books, and community newspapers listed in this month’s Explorer. And keep an eye out for our upcoming curriculum packet that will provide you with lesson plans and classrooms activities designed to educate yourself and your students on environmental and indigenous rights.
We don’t often think about human rights and the environment together. But for several groups of indigenous people whose traditional lands border rivers, these two issues are intrinsically linked.
Their way of life depends on natural waterways such as rivers, but their community and environment is being disrupted severely by hydroelectric plants. Despite international boundaries, the plight of one group of indigenous people actually impacts us here in Minnesota.
While hydroelectricity generally is regarded as a “clean” energy alternative, it can have a severe environmental impact if improperly managed. Damming rivers can increase the strength and flow of water, which is used to turn hydroelectric generators to create energy. But this process can flood neighboring lands as well as increase mercury levels and other pollutants in river water.
One group severely affected by hydroelectric plants is the Cross Lake First Nation, one of five Bands of Cree Indians in Manitoba, Canada. In the 1970s, Manitoba Hydro constructed a hydroelectric plant on Cree land. After numerous protests, Manitoba Hydro agreed to sign the Northern Flood Agreement (NFA), a treaty signed in 1977 between the Canadian government, Manitoba Hydro, and the five Cree Bands. Today, the Cross Lake Band are protesting Manitoba Hydro because it has failed to live up to its part of the treaty for the past twenty years. Instead, Cross Lake argues, the company has ignored tribal leadership and made cash offers to other Cree Bands to drop lawsuits to enforce the treaty. The Cross Lake situation has a significant impact on Minnesota because local utility companies, including Northern States Power and Minnesota Power, are major exporters of Manitoba hydroelectricity.
The Pehuenche Indians of Chile face a similar situation. The Pehuenche, the last group of Mapuche Indians who continue to practice their traditional lifestyle, live along the Biobio River in Chile. According to the International Rivers Network, over one million people use this river for drinking, agricultural, commercial, and recreational needs. Despite the horrendous environmental and social impact, the Chilean utility corporation Endesa has decided to build six hydroelectric dams along the Biobio. “Ralco,” the largest of the six dams, is being constructed at the upper Biobio. This dam will displace more than 600 people, including the Pehuenche, as well as flood much of the river valley, destroying the surrounding forest and its wildlife.
Many of these projects are needless developments. For example, although Minnesota utilities account for 10% of Manitoba Hydro’s exports, this power actually makes up very little of the state’s total power consumption. Thus, Minnesotans would be barely affected if local utilities quit buying energy from Manitoba Hydro.
While hydroelectricity can provide cheap energy for many people, it can have potentially disastrous effects on indigenous people who depend on waterways to maintain their traditional way of life. We should not base our convenience on others’ hardships, particularly when there are other inexpensive energy alternatives available.
An educator and youth worker, Susan Nicolai of Minnesota spent last fall at Youth for Population Information and Communication (YPIC) in Kumasi, Ghana. This organization works to involve youth in achieving their rights, especially those related to health and reproduction. One of her projects in Ghana included a study, conducted by young people, in children’s rights and the life of Ghanaian youth.
Akwaaba-- welcome to Ghana. These words greeted me nearly everywhere I went during my three month stay in Kumasi, the historical capital of the Ashanti people. The Ashantis are a traditionally welcoming people. They believe that any visitor may have been sent by the gods. While I was only sent as a Fellow by Partners in Human Rights Education, I nevertheless experienced the warmest of greetings during my entire stay.
I was hosted by a non-governmental organization called Youth for Population Information and Communication (YPIC). Started by a group of young college students ten years ago under the premise that youth have the ability to positively contribute to their own development, it has grown over time from being a volunteer organization to employing more than twenty staff members at project sites throughout the nation. Currently, its work is with out-of-school youth in the field of reproductive health, with some select projects centered around children’s rights.
My work at the organization was to encompass a range of tasks, from designing the text for a sixty page base-line survey report on the region’s adolescent reproductive health, to conducting a four-week participatory action research project on children’s rights, to arranging American penpals for over thirty of the young people with whom I worked. The tasks were varied and interesting, but so much remains to be done. My contribution made just the tiniest dent toward combating the challenges facing the Ghanaian youth. What challenges are those? An economic base with a minimum wage of $1 a day, with many making less than this. A political environment where corruption is the accepted norm, which filters down as bribery in all sectors. A culture where obedience of the child is so ingrained that exploitation-- financially, physically, and sexually-- is pervasive. And an education system that is overwhelmed and underresourced, enabling approximately half of all eligible children to be enrolled at any given time. These problems are not completely foreign to us in the United States. The severity of the situation in Ghana, however, is much more pronounced.
In my time in Ghana, I saw all these issues-- manifested in a variety of ways-- affecting the people. Over and over I saw a lack of hope, a behavior that reinforced the powerlessness of each individual. But rarely did I see this attitude among the young. They had not yet learned, through experience, that their efforts to better themselves and their community would likely bring little results. So I saw the young people making what efforts they could. In the end, almost every time, they saw little results. But little results add up and can become big. The work I saw young people doing at YPIC was becoming big. It was changing the way members of the most at-risk population-- street youth-- behaved relating to their sexuality. It was helping other young people claim the power to make their own life decisions.
What I will remember most about my time in Ghana is not the dirt or the heat, not the food (which I didn’t enjoy so much), not even the difficulty of transportation. I will instead remember the akwaaba of the people, a welcome that was extended to me often in spite of my own trials and always in spite of theirs.
Information for this article was provided by the web pages of William Lit (http://www.san-marino.k12.ca.us/~summer1/hydro/hydroelectricity.html), the International Rivers Network, and Hydro-Quebec (http://www.hydroqc.ca/performance_envir/en/qe_hydroelectricite_text.html). Additional information was also provided by the South and Meso American Indian Rights Center and the Cross Lake First Nation.