Power to the People: Blue Hearts and Big Dams

The Institute for Heritage & Sustainable Human Development (Inherit) recently organised a screening of Blue Heart: The Fight for Europe’s Last Wild Rivers hosted by the Moving Image Archive of the National Library of Scotland at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall.    The documentary focuses on controversial plans for hydropower development on the Vjosa/Aoos River, one of Europe’s last surviving free-flowing rivers, in the transboundary area of Albania and Greece.  These plans form part of a much larger push for hydropower generation in the Balkans where over 3,000 hydropower dams and diversions are being planned from Slovenia to Greece.  188 of these developments are already under construction with potentially significant negative impacts for the region’s natural environment and rural communities.

Blue Heart highlights the struggle of communities, for whom the river is their lifeblood, to resist the construction of these dams.  In so doing, it poses some deeply challenging questions about the sustainability of ‘big hydro’ in the region, transparency and accountability of governance arrangements, and the marginalising of communities’ voices in ‘development’ processes.  It’s hard not to be moved by the dignity and resilience shown by these protesting communities in the face of what appears to be an uncompromising – and sometimes violent – combination of state and corporate power.   It’s equally hard not to be cheered when they successfully resist the bulldozers coming in, as some communities have done.

As part of the same screening and by way of a prelude to Blue Heart, the Archive also showed Power for the Highlands, a short Ministry of Information film from 1943 about the potential of hydropower to economically transform the Highlands of Scotland.   As Jim Hunter noted in a tweet, it’s worth watching just to see a couple of GIs turning up in the Highlands to sing the praises of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a key component of Roosevelt’s New Deal.   Power for the Highlands is certainly also worth watching for the way it deftly weaves themes of repopulation, land ownership, community and development into its fifteen minutes, aided by a subtly subversive script co-written by Neil Gunn.  It scarcely needs adding that these issues remain highly relevant to the region’s prospects today.

 Separated though they are by the geography of time and location, both Blue Heart and Power for the Highlands nevertheless shine a light on the complexities of interpreting what constitutes ‘sustainable’ development.   In Blue Heart the prospect of intensifying hydropower production in the Balkans is portrayed as a socio-ecological disaster in the making; one posing an existential threat to human settlements through which the Vjosa/Aoos River meanders and to the biodiversity which depends on its free-flowing currents.

In contrast, the promise of hydropower coursing through Power for the Highlands carries with it the prospect of something akin to economic salvation; a ready-made solution to ‘the problem of the Highlands’ whereby ‘nature’ is conquered for the greater good of the region’s human population.   That 1940s narrative may seem a little too anthropocentrically brutalist for modern tastes.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that the then Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston’s vision of hydropower for the Highlands, and the ‘electric light’ it subsequently delivered, were pivotal in transforming the region’s fortunes in the second half of the twentieth century.

The narrative trajectories of both Blue Heart and Power for the Highlands might ostensibly be heading in opposite directions, certainly in terms of the merits or otherwise of large-scale hydropower developments.  But at their core these films share a fundamental concern about power in other guises – political, social and economic – and how it might be exercised for the common good. Now, more than ever, that feels like an issue deserving of our attention.

 

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