This week, we read Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development, a book by Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman. The book considers the the Cahora Bassa dam on Mozambique’s piece of the Zambezi river. Their aim in the book is to offer a new, and perhaps a more veracious, account not only of the harmful effects of the Cahora Bassa dam on indigenous populations, but also on the general effects of such large-scale “development” projects. We learn, for example, that the Cahora Bassa dam was built in 1970, at a time when Portugal’s colonial rule in Mozambique was reaching an end. During this period, as one might expect, there was an uncertainty characterized by economic and security problems, but there was also an increased focus or shift, internationally, towards the large-scale development paradigm. This paradigm shift towards grandiose development projects serves, according to the authors, as the impetus for further exploitation of the African continent. The Cahora Bassa dam was constructed not for the benefit of Mozambicans, but for the benefit of foreign elements: the electricity generated went to South Africa; and, until 2007, much of the revenue went to Portugal. As a result, the authors argue that the dam only brought misery for Mozambique’s riparian population. Much to the authors’ chagrin, Mozambique’s government plans on building new dam(s) along the Zambezi river, following the same rhetoric and pattern as the Cahora Bassa dam.
This obviously begs the question: what exactly is development? And for whom is development done? One might assume unwittingly that any kind of development denotes an improvement from the status quo — a positive change. But, for those in riparians communities in Mozambique, the so-called development by way of hydro-electric dams, for example, is neither an improvement nor a positive change. The construction of the Cahora Bassa dam, the first of its kind along the Zambezi River, led, as we learned in the book, to the displacement of thousands of Mozambicans, many of whom still do not see the benefit from, or have any use for, the electricity generated by the dam. The only winners, it seems, are those to whom the revenue from the dam goes, or perhaps those who are already doing well enough to afford electricity.
Nevertheless, the harmful effects of such large-scale development is not tied only to Mozambique or to dams. Similar effects can be seen across the continent with the construction of railways, roads, mining operations, oil exploration, and so on. Similar modernization trends can also be seen outside Africa, most applicably with the Keystone pipeline that’s meant to pass through America and Canada. In all these examples, the characteristics remain the same: environmental degradation, displacement of locals or indigenous populations, unequal distribution of benefits, and so on. This begs two questions: first of all, are we making a mistake by conflating modernization with development, and can one exist without the other? Secondly, would an appropriate solution be one that reduces, but does not eliminate, the negative impacts of development — or are we to find alternatives to development that do not affect anyone, anywhere?