Hydroelectric dams violate the right to water and food sovereignty

The lack of access to safe, sufficient and affordable water is one of the concerns of the movements that fight for food sovereignty. One of the causes that prevents people from fully enjoying this right is privatization, which occurs in very different forms and levels. The hoarding and the modification of the natural water cycle results in many regions not having access to this vital resource. Hydroelectric dams are also responsible for modifying the water cycle, most of them multinational, which operate under the endorsement of governments around the world.

Organizations such as La Via Campesina[1] demands that governments guarantee the rights “to water” and “of water.” But, what does this mean? To achieve universal access to water, the rights of “water” must first be respected: its cycle and its integrity, within all its uses. Its uses include energy production. One of the many problems with hydroelectric dams is that they prevent water from returning to the land naturally and leave livestock without access to it. In addition, these projects also displace thousands of communities that, in the best of cases, are relocated to lands that do not have direct access to water currents. This is without considering that many of them are dedicated to agriculture and livestock as a way of life (EUROVIA, 2012).

According to the UN, 40% of the world’s population suffer from water scarcity and this scenario is likely to rise due to climate change. Iguazú Falls, photo by Clara Páez.

In Mexico, the Movement of People Affected by Dams and in Defense of Rivers denounces that “dams are one of the main instruments to carry out the privatization of water, electricity and energy resources” (MAPDER, 2004). According to this organization, the effects of the construction of this type of structures range from the deterioration of the basins and the obstruction of the recharge of the aquifers, to the climatic changes that are currently perceived. In addition, access to water and land food sovereignty are unfeasible.

But … what is food sovereignty? And why is it so important?

Food sovereignty is an alternative to the free-market economy and the globalization of the food system. In the words of La Via Campesina (2013), it is the “peoples’, countries’ or State Unions’ RIGHT to define their agricultural and food policy, without any dumping [2] vis-à-vis third countries”. One of the main conditions is that local farmers should be the ones to provide food for their populations. To this end, they must have access to land, seeds, financial resources and water of sufficient quality and quantity for all.

In 1996, the concept of food sovereignty was introduced into the international discussion. Under the leadership of La Via Campesina, the participants of the Civil Society Organization Forum elaborated a statement entitled “Profit for the few or food for all” (NGO Forum, 1996). They made a direct allusion to the food security agenda in which agribusiness companies monopolize the profits.

“The globalization of the world economy, along with the lack of accountability of transnational corporations and spreading patterns of overconsumption have increased world poverty. Today’s global economy is characterized by unemployment, low wages, destruction of rural economies, and bankruptcy of family farmers” (ONG Forum, 1996).

These organizations did not hesitate to identify agricultural industrialization as responsible for the destruction of the environment and for “poisoning the planet and all living beings” (sic). They argued the situation of insecurity is even more severe due to the loss of production capacity by the communities.

Local communities have the ability to produce healthy and environmentally friendly food. Agroecological gourd cultivation in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, photo by Clara Páez

Since the installation of the neoliberal model of corporate globalization, artificially low prices and continuous dumping have made the subsistence of traditional agriculture more and more unworkable. In response to this problem, La Via Campesina recommends taxing imports that are too cheap, in order to make local production sustainable. Therefore, in addition to the active participation of the people in defining agrarian policy, a greater state presence is needed to implement measures to control the domestic market.

Besides advocating freedom of food production, food sovereignty also demands that populations have the freedom to decide what to eat, to know the origin and the ways in which the food they buy was produced. In the Forum for Food Sovereignty (2007) the six fundamental pillars of this perspective were defined:

  1. People’s need for food are at the center of policies. The food is more than just a commodity.
  2. Respects the work of all food providers, and supports sustainable livelihoods.
  3. Reduces distance between food providers and consumers. Rejects dumping and inappropriate food aid. Resists dependency on remote and unaccountable corporations.
  4. Places control in the hands of local food providers, recognizes the need to inhabit and to share territories, and reject the privatization of “natural resources”.
  5. Builds on traditional knowledge, uses research to support and pass this knowledge to future generations, and rejects technologies that undermine or contaminate local food systems.
  6. Maximizes the contributions of ecosystems, improves resilience, and rejects energy intensive, monocultural, industrialized, and destructive methods.

Why doesn’t the food security perspective solve the problem?

In the 1980s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched a campaign to combat world hunger. In this context, the idea was to promote that the most efficient way to achieve food security was to encourage efficient and unrestricted markets. This would ensure the population access to safe and nutritious food in sufficient quantities to enjoy an active and healthy life (ROBLES, 2015, p.2). The first to be interested in this proposal were the large multinational food corporations. Thus, the concept of food security was linked to large-scale agricultural production, promoting monocultures. Soon, both the purchase and distribution of food at the global level were monopolized by big corporations (Uphoff, 2002; Schanbacher, 2010; in Macrae, 2016, p. 3).

According to the FAO, food security consists of access by all people at all times to the food necessary for a healthy life. This approach overlooks everything related to the origin and production methods of these food, so it leaves no place for the debate on the concentration of goods and the means of production. (Pimbert,2009, p. 43).

Food policies designed from a food security perspective are based on direct assistance and have failed to solve the problem of food insecurity. The maize altar of the Guarani Indigenous people, used during their religious rituals of healing and prayers, photo by Clara Páez.

If the problem of hunger is reduced to insufficient food, then the solution is simple, increase production. If there is poor food distribution, the answer is market liberalization and also the intensification of nutritional education, through which food habits and preferences can be molded. This would solve the problem of food insecurity, but it is a questionable proposal for two main reasons. Firstly, there are high environmental costs associated with the intensive food production system. Secondly, there is a lack of response to the demand of local peasant groups for the democratization of productive resources.

The fact that the responsibility for feeding local communities is in the hands of large multinational corporations can further aggravate food insecurity. These companies generate a dependency relationship by subsidizing and importing cheap food in poor countries, or giving it away for free as food assistance (Pimbert, 2009, p.43).

It is important that governments prioritize communities when approving and implementing infrastructure projects that modify ecosystems and put at risk the different types of life that inhabit them, including human beings. No country should continue to sustain a development model that benefits a few while risking the food security and sovereignty of the majority.

Written by Clara Lorena Páez and Laisa Massarenti Hosoya


EUROVÍA. (2012). La cuestión del agua es indisociable a la Soberanía Alimentaria. Coordinadora Europea Vía Campesina. https://www.eurovia.org/es/la-cuestion-del-agua-es-indisociable-de-la-soberania-alimentaria/

FAO. (2011). La seguridad alimentaria: información para la toma de decisiones. Guía Práctica. Programa CE-FAO. http://www.fao.org/3/al936s/al936s00.pdf

Foro por la Soberanía Alimentaria (2017). Declaration of Nyéléni. https://nyeleni.org/DOWNLOADS/Nyelni_EN.pdf

Foro por la Soberanía Alimentaria (2007). The Six Pillars of Food Sovereignty.https://foodsecurecanada.org/sites/foodsecurecanada.org/files/SixPillars_Nyeleni.pdf

MAPDER (2004). Declaración de Aguascalientes. Movimiento de Afectados por las Presas y en Defensa. https://www.fundacionhenrydunant.org/images/stories/biblioteca/derecho-a-la-alimentacion/Soberania_alimentaria_derecho_y_compromiso_de_los_pueblos_%20asociacion_nacional_de_mujeres_rurales_e_indigenas.pdf

NGO Forum. (1996). Beneficios para pocos o comida para todos. https://www.iatp.org/sites/default/files/Profit_for_Few_or_Food_for_All.htm

OMC. Glosario de términos. Dumpling.  Organización Mundial del Comercio. https://www.wto.org/spanish/thewto_s/glossary_s/dumping_s.htm

Pimbert, M. (2009). Mulheres e soberania alimentar. Revista Agriculturas: experiências em agroecologia, Rio de Janeiro, v. 6, n. 4, pp. 41 45.

Robles, W. & Veltmeyer, H. (2015). The politics of agrarian reform in Brazil: the landless rural workers movement. Palgrave MacMillan.

Schanbacher, W. D. (2010). The Politics of Food: The Global Conflict between Food Security and Food Sovereignty. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: Praeger.

Uphoff, N. (2002). “The Agricultural Development Challenges We Face.” In N. Uphoff (ed.) Agroecological Innovations: Increasing Food Production with Participatory Development. London: Earthscan.

Vía Campesina. (2013). Que es la soberanía alimentaria. https://viacampesina.org/es/que-es-la-soberania-alimentaria/

Vía Campesina. (2013). The International Peasants’ Voice. https://viacampesina.org/en/international-peasants-voice/


[1] La Via Campesina is an international movement that defends the rights of people over their territories, seeds, water and forests. Their struggles revolve around food sovereignty, supporting sustainable peasant agriculture, agrarian reform, gender and human rights issues, biodiversity, climate and environmental justice issues, among others. More information at https://viacampesina.org/en.

[2] According to the World Trade Organization, dumping is a commercial practice that consists of selling a product below its normal price, or even below its cost of production. In this way, it seeks to eliminate competing companies and finally take over the market.