Contemporary political ecologies of hydropower: Insights from Bolivia and Brazil

Ed Atkins*, Jessica Hope

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
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Twenty years after the World Commission on Dams published an oft-cited critique of hydroelectric projects across the globe, the energy infrastructure is experiencing a renaissance. Dams, however, remain a highly contested energy source. In this article, we use two iterations of political ecology to challenge and complicate contemporary framings of hydropower as ‘sustainable’. Focusing on political ecology’s grounded, empirical reading of broader environmental and epistemological claims, we identify two different ways that insights from political ecology can reveal the contemporary relevance of the local scale in critiquing global hydropower infrastructure and claims to a global transition. Drawing from recent fieldwork in Bolivia and Brazil, we adopt frames of ‘plurality’ and the ‘production of space’ to analyze how local-scale dynamics of dam building challenge contemporary hegemonies of sustainability. With the ‘green-ness’ of contemporary hydropower based on a narrow, CO2-centric definition, these insights complicate, challenge and broaden this definition by illuminating how the impacts of this energy infrastructure and power networks contradict claims of ‘sustainability’ and widen the relevance of respective projects’ impacts, in terms of socio-natures and ontologies. We argue that these hydropower projects limit the generative capacity of the local scale, in terms of place-based politics and socio-natures, and remake land- and waterscapes in the image of state and transnational extractive regimes. Together, our analysis opens up new trajectories for political ecology, to question the socio-environmental politics generated and enabled by the reworked environments of green energy production.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)246-265
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Political Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Vingt ans après que la Commission mondiale des barrages (WCD) a publié sa critique des barrages hydroélectriques à travers le monde, les barrages pour l'approvisionnement en énergie ont connu une renaissance. Les barrages restent cependant une source d'énergie très contestée. Dans cet article, nous utilisons deux itérations de l'écologie politique pour remettre en question et compliquer les cadres contemporains de l'hydroélectricité en tant que «durable». Nous développons une approche empirique fondée sur l'écologie politique, liée à des revendications environnementales et épistémologiques plus larges, afin d'identifier deux façons différentes d'utiliser la pertinence de l'échelle locale pour critiquer l'infrastructure hydroélectrique mondiale et ses prétentions à faire partie des programmes mondiaux de décarbonisation. Nous nous inspirons de récents travaux de terrain en Bolivie et au Brésil, en utilisant des arguments sur la «pluralité» et la «production d'espace» pour analyser comment la dynamique à l'échelle locale de la construction de barrages remet en question les définitions dominantes de «l'hydroélectricité durable». Les références environnementales de l'hydroélectricité reposent sur une définition étroite et centrée sur le CO2. Nos idées compliquent, remettent 1 Dr. Ed Atkins is a Lecturer at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, UK. Email: ed.atkins "at" Dr. Jessica Hope is a Lecturer in Sustainable Development at the School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK. Email: jch31 "at" Acknowledgements: This research was supported by an ESRC Doctoral Studentship (Atkins, grant no: 1325180), RGS Environment and Sustainability Grant (Hope) and Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellowship at the University of Bristol (Hope). We extend our gratitude to the reviewers and Casey Walsh for their comments and assistance throughout this process.

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  • energy transitions
  • hydropower
  • Brazil
  • Bolivia
  • extractivism
  • sustainability
  • political ecology
  • plurality
  • uneven development


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