Ikal Angelei, the founder of Friends of Lake Turkana in Kenya, receives the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco today. The award will honor an activist who is defending the interests of 500,000 poor indigenous people against a destructive hydropower dam, and has successfully taken on many of the world’s biggest dam builders and financiers.
Ikal Angelei grew up on the shores of Lake Turkana, the world’s biggest desert lake. This lifeline of Northwestern Kenya is under threat from the giant Gibe III Dam, currently under construction on the lake’s main water source, the Omo River in Ethiopia. When she learned about this threat, Ikal founded Friends of Lake Turkana with a few friends in 2007. Working together with partners around the world, she started an international campaign to stop the mega-dam which threatens her people’s livelihoods.
Ikal and her friends carried out research on the $1.7 billion project, educated the local communities and mobilized them for creative protests. They informed international civil society groups, journalists and scientists about their struggle. They issued a complaint with the African Development Bank, which considered funding the Gibe III Dam, and the World Heritage Center, which is charged with safeguarding Lake Turkana’s universal ecological value. They mobilized national parliamentarians, and took the Kenyan government to court for failing to defend local people’s interests. (The case is still pending.)
During the past five years, no obstacle was too big and no place too far for Ikal Angelei’s determined campaign. The young activist, who had never left Kenya before launching her campaign, traveled to Dakar, Prague and Washington to crash the meetings of international financiers. She knocked at the doors of government agencies and banks from Rome to Beijing. She drummed up support for her cause at international civil society meetings from Istanbul to the small Mexican town of Temacapulin.
Ikal and her friends did not lose the ground under their feet during their high-profile campaign. In between meetings and travels, they frequently visit local communities, where they support basic needs with a school and a small maternity clinic. They educate villagers about the threat they face and the campaign they have waged. And they try to mediate the bitter conflicts between different indigenous groups over dwindling resources. These conflicts have already claimed hundreds of lives, and will escalate if the Omo River’s flow is dammed for power generation and diverted for sugar plantations.
I have had the privilege of working with Ikal Angelei throughout her campaign. Ikal has the authority of an activist who speaks from her heart, is rooted in her local community, and has put her own life on the line. Her opponents had to learn that she cannot be silenced by threats and bribe offers. So far, Ikal’s determination has only been matched by the ruthlessness of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, for whom the livelihoods of 500,000 poor people are small change. I am convinced that if she had the chance to meet him personally, Ikal would also stare down the Ethiopian strongman.
Thanks to Friends of Lake Turkana’s campaign, the African Development Bank did not fund the Gibe III Dam in spite of strong Ethiopian pressure. The World Bank and the European Investment Bank had to recognize that the scheme would violate their social and environmental safeguard policies. An Italian government financier and a big Wall Street bank also stayed out of the project. Construction of the Gibe III Project has been delayed by several years, and the dam is currently about half-completed.
So far only ICBC, a large commercial bank from China, has approved a $500 million loan for the dam’s equipment in July 2010. Ikal has held the bank to account for its destructive project in the international media, and will continue to do so. Even in China, ICBC’s decision is now being considered a case of lacking corporate social responsibility. A few weeks ago, the Chinese government directed its banks to align overseas projects with “international best practices” on social and environmental risks.
In May the World Bank, which stayed out of the Gibe III Dam the first time around, will decide whether to fund a transmission line that would export the project’s electricity with a credit of $676 million. If a project is too destructive for direct support, the Bank should not fund it through the backdoor of a transmission line either. The Goldman Prize, which is awarded today, will give Ikal Angelei another platform from which she can defend her people’s livelihoods against such destructive practices. Please join me in congratulating Ikal, and in telling funders to stay out of the Gibe III Project.
Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard and tweets at www.twitter.com/PeterBosshard.