Week 9: Changing Landscapes- Dams, Degradation and Displacement

Jessica Slade- 110232060

For the purposes of this week’s blog post, I have read the work of Allen F. Isaacman and Barbara S. Isaacman, in the book entitled “Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965-2007.’ In this work we learn of the Zambezi river in Mozambique, Africa, and the role of the Portuguese in creating one of the worlds most impressive dams in the 1970’s. To see how the effects of this project played out both throughout history and over social landscapes, it will prove to be beneficial to respond to chapters 3-7 of this work.


Chapter 3 entitled, Harnessing the River: High Modernism and Building the Dam, 1965–75speaks specifically initial stages of the project and the implications felt by the local community. Here we learn about the planning and management structures, and how they play out in the local context. Like others have mentioned, learning that, “‘local Africans communities were forced to abandon their homes in the Songo highlands to make way for the construction of a segregated town for white workers recruited from abroad,” poses a real sense of confliction when it comes to the benefits of the project (Isaacman, 2013, pg. 57). In the initial pages of this work we learn about the dam and how it is supposed to be an economic stronghold that will improve the lives of Africans who are involved- but here we see the harsh reality that the short-term pains are often associated with a shift in the place of the local- both in the hierarchical sense, and through physically shifting land rights. In reading this work were you surprised to learn about the level of displacement felt by the basin-based communities? Do you think that this a common event in many major water-related development projects? Prior to reading the long-term effects of this project, did you think that the theoretical set-up of the dam could have positively impacted the communities- or was the project faulty from the start?

Chapter 4, Displaced People: Forced Eviction and Life in the Protected Villages, 1970–75,” seeks to assess the second phase of the project, specifically in the time five year time period noted in the title. Here we read about the officials of the project and how they framed the process to locals who were forced off of their land and into protected villages. In response to the forced move, many locals were compensated with a specific new plot of land that was ready for cultivation upon their arrival. We often see this ‘remedy’ or reward for forced migration, but do you think this was a fair trade for the local people? Was the redistribution and collective outside action in the assessment of land used for the greater benefit of the most amount of people, or did people unnecessarily have their livelihoods impacted to support a ‘few’?

In Chapter 5, “The Lower Zambezi: Remaking Nature, Transforming the Landscape, 1975–2007”we read about the last major segment of the project and how the completion and all of its implications have affected both local peoples and Mozambique’s place in the world. Issacman writes, “While researchers studying similar mega-dam projects have documented the devastating eviction of millions of rural poor from their homelands, the radical transformation of physical landscapes around dams, and the inundation of treasured cultural sites, they have often ignored the less visible, but often more deleterious, consequences for downriver communities,” (Issacman, 2013, pg. 122). Here we learn of a major gap in the research that does not give enough attention to downriver communities. Why is important to recognize the effects thata major project like this can have on downriver communities? Can you think of examples from other nature and development classes where these groups of people are included? What does your answer to the previous question prove about Issacman’s opinion- are you backing up the existing literature that states downriver communities are underrepresented in the world of academia, or is there something to be said about the knowledge that you have?

In Chapter 6, Displaced Energy” we learn about the now seen effects of the project, which have had little benefit in the overall improvement of and quality of life for families who were displaced and then later relocated to construct and complete the dam. Issacman argues here that “Rather than promoting national economic development or sustainable livelihoods for the people living adjacent to the river, the dam instead robbed Mozambique of precious energy,” (Issacman, 2013, pg. 151). In this chapter we learn of howthe river and its dam is being used to unequally distribute the wealth that could have been felt by the local people in country. The energy has been rerouted and ‘displaced’ in a way that directly benefits South Africa while leaving the counter effects of deprivation to be felt by the local population. If the foreign investment was not used in this project and the building of the dam never occurred, what do you speculate would be the current fait of the people in the Cahora Bassa area? Do think it is fair to exploit the vulnerable place of a state in order to control its natural resources? Where else are we seeing this happening? What about foreign investment at home- do we see similar things happening in Northern Canada with the collective action towards the ownership of oil and land based rights, forcing Indigenous peoples off their land?

The work ends with Chapter 7 “Legacies” which seeks to explain the current state of Mozambique today. Issacman writes, “Almost fifty years after its completion, the Cahora Bassa Dam continues to impoverish the more than half a million residents of the lower Zambezi valley and to devastate the region’s local ecosystems and wildlife,”(Issacman, 2013, pg. 167). After reading this work we now have a clear picture as to the reality of the situation in Mozambique in relation to the dam and its Portuguese ownership. In conclusion, Issacman raised some important ideas about the extent of displacement and the cultural, political and historical implications of natural resource ownership.


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