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Environmentalist 'Davids' Oppose Goliath Dam Projects

'Green' groups target projects that displace thousands of people and hurt the ecology

In a city of global bankers noted for "business as usual," environmental activist Peter Bosshard speaks for a new breed of Swiss committed to "green" values - concerted public action to preserve Earth's natural resources.

Mr. Bosshard shares leadership of a Zurich-based public-interest group, the Berne Declaration, which claims 16,000 members. The group shares information with similar nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) worldwide.

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Since assuming his post in the Berne Declaration, Bosshard has rocked the Swiss boat on issues involving commercial ties with Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The Berne Declaration has been strikingly effective in briefing Swiss citizens on massive dam projects funded by Swiss banks and engineered by hydroelectric firms such as the Swedish-Swiss giant Asea Brown Boveri Ltd.

ABB's Swedish chairman and CEO Percy Barnevik insists that ABB bears a responsibility to the third world to "[transfer] to them the experiences of our own industrialization as well as efficient and clean technology."

But the Bosshard network, critical of the dam projects, sees things differently. It has focused its protest efforts on three huge dam projects: the Narmada Dam in India; the Bakun Dam in Sarawak, Malayasia; and the Three Gorges project in China.

In each case, Bosshard says, well-reasoned NGO protests forced the World Bank to back off plans to fund the project. Crucial to the NGO's case: a likely catastrophic impact on either nature, humanity, or both.

In India's Narmada Valley, the proposed dam would have displaced, seized land from, or cost the jobs of 320,000 people in Guijarat State. The World Bank pullout has prompted India to refocus on smaller, less volatile dam projects.

Malaysia's Bakun Dam project would uproot 9,400 people. Bosshard rates Bakun's potential threat to the partially jungle environment as "among the top 10 trouble spots worldwide." Malaysia seeks to offset the loss of World Bank funds through private capital.

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China's gigantic Three Gorges project dwarfs all others. It would force the displacement of some 1.3 million people from a 600-km stretch along the Yangtze River valley. The project area alone is four times larger than the state of California. Environmental critics regard the project as a planned disaster masked by extreme nationalistic pride.

Doubts sown by the NGOs about skewed impact studies by corrupt engineers and officials have found their mark.

"Now nobody in government defends these projects anymore," Bosshard says. "But they'll still argue ... that 'If we don't build them, somebody else will.' "

ABB won the consortium leader role for the $5 billion Malaysia job this year and vies with many competitors for the much larger China project. Bejiing is expected to name its prime contractor later this year.

The Berne Declaration hopes both projects can still be stopped. The NGO has lobbied the Swiss government not to grant any firm an export-risk guarantee in bidding for the Three Gorges project, an 18,000-megawatt job priced at $30 billion to $50 billion.

Bosshard toured China several years ago and had a first-hand look at the fertile valley of the Yangtze, the world's third-longest river. His visit coincided with Premier Li Peng's approval of the Three Gorges Dam project.

After speaking with some of the project's critics, Bosshard became convinced that, besides the environmental damage the dam would cause, "many millions of people" would be endangered by the dam due to seismic activity in a region highly sensitive to earthquakes.

But a Chinese public works minister publicly dismissed any possibility of project engineering error "because it would indicate a flaw in socialism, and that is scientifically impossible."

"It's just that sort of 'Aprs moi le dluge' thinking that worries us," Bosshard says.

Working with other key NGOs, Bosshard's group now monitors the Chinese project, condemns it before Swiss politicians, and leaflets for public support.

The Swiss will join other international activists at the First International Conference of People Affected by Large Dams, meeting Mar. 11-14 in Curitiba, Brazil, to discuss strategy on the China project, other large dams, and "destructive river infrastructure projects" worldwide.

Other critical projects condemned by groups like the Berne Declaration include the Yacyret Dam on the Paran River at the Argentine-Paraguay border, the Kafin Zarkin Dam in Nigeria's Bauchi State, and the Manantali Dam in Mali's Senegal River Basin. Swiss environmentalists also label as "hot spots" Turkey's Greater Anatolia project (irrigating the Euphrates River before it enters Syria), Pakistan's Tarblea Reservoir, and eastern Canada's "GRAND Canal" plan for the northern James Bay.

But in democratic countries (from which China and Three Gorges project must clearly be exempted), Bosshard and his Swiss activists say the NGOs have slain a Goliath. Dam critic Patrick McCully agrees.

"The international dam industry," he concludes, "appears to be entering a recession from which it may never escape."

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