Cornell International Law Journal


Forced displacement, Dams, Resettlement, Reparations, Indigenous populations


Hydroelectric dams produce electricity, provide flood control, and improve agricultural irrigation. But the building and operation of these dams frequently involve forced displacement of local communities. Displacement often has an outsized impact on indigenous persons, who are disproportionately poor, repressed, and politically marginalized. One can limit these adverse effects in various ways: (1) taking seriously the ethics of dam-induced development, (2) rooting out corruption, (3) paying compensation at or near the beginning of dam projects, (4) using land-for-land exchanges, (5) disbursing resettlement funds as needed until displaced persons are firmly established in their new locations, and (6) having entities that loan money to foreign governments for power dams insist that a percentage of the loan be sequestered to cover compensation and resettlement costs.

This sextet of sensible measures must, however, be applied to highly different countries and indigenous persons. This application will be unsuccessful unless these measures fit the local situations on the ground. This Article shows how one can succeed in two quite different countries- China and Guatemala-in which past efforts have proved inadequate.

Maya Achi displaced by the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala are an "indigenous people" under any traditional definition. Ethnic minorities displaced by dams in China are not traditional indigenous peoples because historical narratives of outsider conquest and colonization do not apply to them. They are, however, indigenous ethnic minorities. The Han Chinese supermajority dominates, represses, and discriminates against them. China ought to treat them in basically the same way that other countries ought to treat their indigenous peoples.