The Institutional Condition of Contested Hydropower: The Theun Hinboun–International Rivers Collaboration
Jerome Whitington, Forum on Development Studies, 2012, 39:2, 231-256

This article describes an attempt to collaborate by a major hydropower firm in Laos with an activist NGO that had forced the company to deal with the environmental problems it had caused. The collaboration demonstrates activists’ destructuring effects on hydropower development institutions over the past three decades through a case study that can be examined in detail. Against the threat of greenwashing or other forms of sustainability communication, the  attempt to forge a way to neutrally evaluate environmental claims both was doomed to fail and simply replicated, rather than resolved, the institutional conditions of contested hydropower. I argue that activists have denaturalized expert knowledge through systematic denial of authoritative expertise, while in turn creating the condition for sustainability enclaves that can take root wherever contestation makes its mark. This view comes from attention paid to risk management and its close relation to media, including durable environmental relations that function as ‘new media’ crucial for transnational activist networks.

Keywords: Laos; hydropower; networks; new media; institutions