Large dams, norms and Indigenous Peoples



Schapper A & Urban F (2021) Large dams, norms and Indigenous Peoples. Development Policy Review, 39 (S1), pp. O61-O80.

Motivation In this article, we examine the role of norms in protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples with regard to hydroelectric dams. We argue that the way large‐scale dams are built and managed—including their impacts on Indigenous Peoples—varies according to the political context of the host country. In more restrictive political contexts, norms may often be neglected or compromised. Purpose The political system and domestic legislation are crucial factors that need to be considered in more depth in research scholarship on dams. We contribute to filling this research gap by presenting a comparative analysis of the Bakun dam in Malaysia and the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia, demonstrating that norms tend to be ignored or compromised in restrictive and authoritarian political environments. Approach and Methods We compare the similarities and differences of these two dam projects systematically drawing on empirical field research comprising interviews, focus group discussions and the analysis of primary and secondary documents. Findings Our research reveals that international and private norms are often neglected in partly free or unfree political systems. Even domestic legislation can be circumvented by a strong or authoritarian state government, and this can lead to serious delays and neglect of protective standards. Policy Implications International standards are often more ambitious than national standards and their implementation in the hydropower dams industry can help to improve the social and environmental sustainability of projects. Active civil society organizations can use norms and standards to strengthen social mobilization within the country and can transmit important information outside the country to build transnational alliances. Pressure and persuasion mechanisms can lead to norm change and norm compliance by state actors.

energy justice; environment; hydroelectric dams; Indigenous Peoples; norms; social inequalities

Development Policy Review: Volume 39, Issue S1

FundersEconomic and Social Research Council
Publication date31/08/2021
Publication date online28/08/2019
Date accepted by journal01/06/2019

People (1)


Professor Andrea Schapper

Professor Andrea Schapper

Professor, Politics