Lisa Moore & Stephen Crocker, eds. Muskrat Falls: How a Mega Dam Became a Predatory Formation. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Memorial University Press, 2021.
Muskrat Falls tells the story of how a massive hydroelectric project turned into a menacing threat to the people living around it, and the wider public being made to pay for it. The dam itself, on the Churchill River in Labrador, 1,000 miles away from most of the homes it will heat on the island of Newfoundland, has created a long-term threat of methylmercury poisoning, catastrophic flooding, and threats to a way of life for Indigenous communities downstream.
The bad economics of the project are so crushing that now, after having spent almost $13 billion on energy security, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador must seek revenue from another source, or assistance from the federal government to subsidize electrical rates and protect citizens from its own Frankenstein-like creation. The project’s public debt and cost overruns have justified austerity budgets that have downloaded its costs onto those least able to pay.
“As big hydro plays an increasingly larger role in Canada’s plans to transition to a carbon net zero future, Muskrat Falls offers important lessons on the limits and dangers of big dams, the threats they pose to Indigenous communities, and the predatory forms of finance through which they often come to life.”
In his foreword to the book, Warren Cariou explains that as big hydro plays an increasingly larger role in Canada’s plans to transition to a carbon net zero future, Muskrat Falls offers important lessons on the limits and dangers of big dams, the threats they pose to Indigenous communities, and the predatory forms of finance through which they often come to life. Half of all existing hydro-power capacity in Canada is located on land covered by Indigenous land claims agreements, and almost all potential future capacity is located within 100 kilometres of Indigenous populations.
Top Left: Muskrats Falls. “Muskrat Falls, Labrador” by emmaatlarge is licensed under Creative Commons. Top Right (2): Muskrat Falls Dam. Credit: Nalcor. Bottom: “Canada’s Premiers tour Muskrat Falls” by GovNL Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Like many others—such as the Site C dam in British Columbia, the Chalillo dam in Belize, and the Narmada dam in India—this dam has come into existence against a long and sustained protest movement that made known the project’s social and environmental costs.
Muskrat Falls’ environmental problems entered public consciousness through media-rich Indigenous protests on the ground in Labrador, where the Falls were being turned into a construction site. From 2016 on, a movement of Land and Water Protectors intensified and spread across the province and the country following the publication, in June of 2016, of new evidence by scientists at Harvard which showed that the flooding of the dam’s reservoir threatened to poison the food chain of Indigenous and settler communities downstream from the project with dangerously high levels of methylmercury.
Land and Water Protectors in Labrador found support in a loose coalition of people across the province concerned also about the financial mismanagement of the project’s escalating costs, its threats to domestic energy security, and the future of alternative energy. The #MakeMuskratRight movement gave rise to some of the most powerful and visible forms of protest and social critique the province has ever seen, uniting Labrador and the island portion of the province in new and important ways.
In May 2017, Beatrice Hunter, an Inuk grandmother and Labrador Land Protector was arrested outside the gates of the Muskrat Falls site. She was charged with disobeying a court order to cease protesting at the construction site. Brought before a judge, she refused to promise not to appear there again. She was then taken from the court and flown a thousand miles from her home to be held in a men’s medium/maximum security prison in St. John’s, Newfoundland. From interviews in her cell at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, Beatrice Hunter made clear that she did not recognize the laws under which she was being held. She was doing nothing wrong and knew that she was not acting alone in protecting the river. She explained that she was doing what any responsible grandmother would do: protecting the livelihood of her grandchildren and people because neither Nalcor, the corporation constructing the dam, nor the provincial or federal government could be trusted to do so.
Nalcor’s complaint against Beatrice Hunter was that her presence at the site was interfering in their operations, a damage that could be measured in the increased price consumers on the island would have to pay for electricity.
Images of Beatrice Hunter in prison in St. John’s and of violent arrests at the Muskrat Falls site revealed Muskrat Falls dam to be much more than a financial or technical enterprise. It made clear that, underlying all of the calculations and forecasting of electrical pricing and markets, was a disturbing ‘biopolitical’ equation which supposed that degrees of exposure to harm for the people living along the Churchill River in Labrador could be measured against cost per unit of electricity for homes one thousand miles away on the island of Newfoundland.
As the Muskrat Falls project faced increasing financial trouble, it remained on stream as a reliable investment for lenders at TD Securities and Goldman Sachs precisely because of its ability not to recognize the threats to physical safety of people living on the Churchill River or to the financial and energy security of the people of the province as a whole.
Our book documents some of this wave of resistance, showing how completion of the dam was never uncontested and depended from the start on the ability of a distributed network, or following Saskia Sassen, a ‘predatory formation’ of state, industry, and financial power to turn the public electrical utility into a private investment vehicle and the environment around Muskrat Falls into an unwanted hydroelectric machine.
Contributors address the refusal to use new scientific methods and data, the suppression of protest movements and journalism, the arrest and prosecution of Indigenous protestors, the use of government monopoly power to suppress alternative energy and the financial ripple effect of unmanageable public debt and austerity budgets to pay for the misguided project.
Co-editor Lisa Moore, in her essay in the volume, reflects on her participation in protests about Muskrat Falls and asks how artists and activists might represent the unrepresentable scale and concatenation of problems generated by a project like this. “What kinds of images might capture how things feel on the ground? How do we represent the rage and grieving that the Muskrat Falls dam has caused?” she asks.
“We have tried to provide a rich, multidimensional case study of how a disastrous mega project like this visits itself on a place.”
The book contains scholarly essays and cultural criticism but also original artwork, photography, and fiction that address the dam’s social and environmental impact. We have tried to provide a rich, multidimensional case study of how a disastrous mega project like this visits itself on a place. Contributors also place the dam in the wider Canadian, and indeed global context of what Daniel Macfarlane has called “hydraulic imperialism,” the regulation of Indigenous lives and hydrological resources to facilitate the development of dams, rail lines, waterways, and pipelines that often directly threaten Indigenous lives.
For these reasons, we believe the book tells a story that will interest many others around the world whose lives have become entangled in equally menacing projects in which ‘infrastructural security’ and public access to energy, water, health, or transpiration is placed at risk. All around the world now, as the social welfare state is being replaced by the “competitive” market-oriented state, governments are shedding their obligations to secure basic infrastructure and living conditions. Profits of banks and lending institutions are often made through work of undoing consumer protections and opening up state-protected revenues to collect interest on debt. Our book documents in fine detail the ways that this is shift in political economy toward extractive forms of accumulation is producing a corresponding insecurity in public and collective life.
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- New Book – Muskrat Falls: How a Mega Dam Became a Predatory Formation - February 17, 2022