A meeting held in Chennai last Thursday highlighted the threats that big dams pose to tribal peoples throughout India, including the Kadar of Kerala state. If Kerala builds a large dam on the Chalakudy (or Chalakkudy) River, it will evidently harm a Kadar village located near the planned site of the dam.

A statement issued by the group Chalakudy Puzha Samarakshana Samiti (Chalakudy River Protection Council), which is spearheading the defense of the river valley, indicates that the government of the state of Kerala is planning to go ahead with the 163 megawatt Athirapilly hydropower development project despite widespread opposition. It will involve the construction of a 23 meter high, 31 meter wide dam on the river. It would be located 400 meters upstream of a popular tourist spot known as the Vazhachal Falls. The state electricity board has been promoting the project since the 1970s.

The statement decries the inaccuracy of official government releases that depict the Kadar settlement as being four km from the dam site. It indicates that the Vazhachal Kadar settlement is located only 300 meters downstream from the site, and the village includes a tribal school and a forest headquarters.

An important environmental group in India is also opposing the dam project. Sanctuary Cub, an outgrowth of a popular magazine Sanctuary Asia, has issued a statement with some good background information on the issue. It points out that there are already six dams on the river, and this seventh one would destroy critical elephant corridors plus the habitat of four different species of hornbills—the Great Indian, Malabar Pied, Malabar Grey, and the Common Grey. This forest, according to the group, is one of the few places where four of the huge birds live. The environmental group also expresses concern for the Kadar, and it urges people to express their concerns directly to the government of India.

Numerous additional documents can be found on the Web about the Kadar and their fate if the Chalakudy River dam is built. A statement by the Friends of River Narmada, for instance, summarizes a meeting in 2002 where the depths of local opposition to the Chalakudy dam were clearly expressed.

A lengthy document prepared in 2003 by Amitha Bachan, “Riparian Vegetation Along the Middle and Lower Zones of the Chalakkudy River, Kerala, India,” provides an interesting update about the Kadar settlements in the valley, as well as a wealth of ecological information about the forest habitat along the river. According to the author, the Vazhachal Kadar settlement that is closest to the dam consisted, three years ago, of 55 families that included 160 people—71 males and 89 females.

The author provides up-to-date data about the subsistence activities of the Kadar, who still avoid agricultural activities, and prefer to live as they always have in the forest along the river. A large part of their diet is provided by fishing, and many of them derive much of their income from the sale of non-wood forest products, such as honey, beeswax, and plant products. However, the deterioration of the forest habitat, due to a variety of causes, threatens their economic livelihood and the survival of their communities.

Bachan writes that the Kadar are becoming increasingly dependent on local markets for their food, and that some young people are turning away from the periodic foraging and gathering trips into the forests. Other youngsters, however, continue to enjoy the nomadic lifestyle. The author, summarizing the lives of the Kadar, writes that “the most interesting part of their life is [their] knowledge and faith in the totality of the system. This has led them to take the minimum from the surroundings. Their collectiveness and lack of individual possessive mentalities help them live in harmony.”

While this report, over 100 pages long, was clearly not prepared as an anti-dam document, its description of the complex human and biological systems along the river can serve the information needs of anyone wanting to preserve whatever integrity remains in the area.

Evidently the environmentalists and the human rights activists in India that oppose these massive development projects are finding common cause in their fights to preserve both the “tribal societies” and the health of the natural environment. An article last weekend in The Hindu, a leading Indian newspaper, about the meeting in Chennai Thursday emphasized the opposition of environmental activists to what they describe as “State-sponsored violence” against tribal societies. The paper charged that “the government was insensitive to the concerns of the local communities,” and it reported on acts of violence by government agencies against protesters who oppose massive development projects.