Bioenergy, Hydropower

Native People Choose Renewables Over Big Hydro

A chief of the indigenous Pimicikamak people, speaking before the Tenth Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) last week, claimed that a hydro-electric project in northern Manitoba, Canada, has devastated the lives of his people.

Winnipeg, Manitoba – July 31, 2003 [] “Hydro is breaking our hearts,” said Chief John Miswagon. The Pimicikamak Cree Nation would like to see Canada abandon further expansion of hydroelectric projects and instead concentrate on the development of renewable energy options. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) hosted the Tenth Assembly of the LWF from July 21-31, under the theme “For the Healing of the World,” where the chief was invited to state the case of his people. LWF cited Canada as the world’s largest producer of hydroelectricity and claimed that many Canadians may brag about this as a major achievement until they consider the resulting devastation caused by the industrial complexes to the environment and to the lives of the indigenous people. At the assembly, the Churchill Nelson Rivers’ Manitoba Hydro Project was targeted. Built in early 1970s by the Manitoba Hydro and the Government of Manitoba to generate electricity for domestic use and for export to the U.S. Midwest, the hydro project reportedly generates more than US$680 million per year, with 36 percent of it coming from sales to U.S. utility companies. The Canadian Federal Royal Commission on Aboriginal People’s reported that the project has subsequently become well known for its “massive scale and detrimental effect on the northern Manitoba environment and the Aboriginal people who live there.” The report further stated that reserve territories occupied by the indigenous people had been “either flooded or affected by dramatic changes to levels in surrounding lakes and rivers,” and traditional land-use areas have been “damaged or rendered inaccessible.” Miswagon, the chief of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation of about 6,500 people, claimed that the project has denied his people food, water, shelter and medicine. “Shorelines have been washed away and forests have been swallowed up by rising levels of water,” he said. The hydroelectric system includes dams, generating stations, river diversions, flooded forests, reservoirs and transmission lines. According to Miswagon, as lakes and rivers are flooded, emptied or used, the industrial water regime destroys the boreal shoreline ecosystem, which the chief claims is the most productive and most sensitive part of the boreal environment, upon which all the rest depends. About 1,000 square miles of boreal forest have been flooded and destroyed, according to a report on the State of the Manitoba Environment published in 1991. The Pimicikamak, once a healthy society with a sustainable traditional economy, now has catastrophic unemployment, mass poverty, despair and one of the highest suicide rates in North America, according to community leaders. “The environmental degradation has gone hand in hand with water pollution, which has made the rivers and the lakes uninhabitable for fish,” the chief said. “In 1960 there were 30 fresh water lakes in the area,” he said. “Today, there are only 12.” Women’s Chief Eugenie Mercredi stood by Miswagon’s side at the presentation with Chief Miswagon. Her eyes filled with tears as she presented samples of visibly unsafe polluted water from rivers and lakes, from which, she said, her people drink. The two chiefs acknowledged that Canada has laws to protect the interests and rights of indigenous populations, but maintained that some companies “violate these laws and get away with it.” “However,” said Miswagon, “Manitoba Hydro has offered to monitor the state of the environment and to become involved in conservation efforts.” He appealed to “the whole world” to work together to restore and preserve the environment. “We may never be able to make it right,” he said, “but, certainly, we can make it better.” The Pimicikamak are asking for stronger support for conservation and methods to promote energy efficiency. They urge the development of cleaner and safer energy options, such as wind, solar and biomass. The Pimicikamak Cree Nation wants to see a cleanup of the environmental and social mess they claim was created by hydroelectric energy generation. They want the social impacts of the hydro project (shoreline erosion, mercury poisoning, greenhouse gases, loss of forests to erosion and water fluctuations) to be addressed. They hope to prevent development of further harmful hydroelectric projects. They also want to broaden respect for indigenous peoples working to protect their environments. JustEnergy, a project of Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficienct Economy, reported that earlier this month, a number of First Nations aboriginals representing the majority of community Elders and residents from Nelson House, South Indian Lake, and displaced residents of South Indian Lake picketed the headquarters of Manitoba Hydro in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The demonstrators unified to protest against Manitoba Hydro and the Government of Manitoba for pushing further hydro development in northern Manitoba without adequate independent expert environmental and socio-economic impact studies being completed. The Cree Nations said that new dams are currently being proposed to increase export sales. They argued their people have very little political capital in their country because they say the entire political system feeds off the profits, creating a system of dependence for all branches of government; and there exists little desire to share the current revenue with the Cree Nations impacted. The demonstrators maintained that proposed future hydro projects in Canada, such as those planned for Wuskwatim and Conawapa, would create more widespread flooding, environmental damage and misery for the people living in those communities. Cree Nations spokespersons claimed promises of jobs and prosperity with previous hydro development have not been kept and that communities in those areas struggle with unemployment rates ranging from 80 to 95 percent with their land, health and traditional way of life severely impacted.