Oscar Rivas

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2006
This description of Oscar Rivas's work was prepared when Oscar Rivas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006 .


Oscar Rivas has developed sustainable management of freshwater resources to benefit surrounding communities and broader society. He has created information resources, campaign strategies, and research models which are now used across Latin America to oppose top-down mega-infrastructure projects.

The New Idea

Oscar Rivas has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to promoting a system for freshwater management that protects the rights and livelihoods of indigenous and peasant communities in Paraguay and beyond. At the core of his work, Oscar has reframed the debate over water by introducing a “continental waters” paradigm for understanding water health. Oscar believes that a well-conserved watershed is characterized not by the state of the water alone, but also by that of surrounding human and ecological communities. As such, improving water and improving communities becomes an iterative and self-reinforcing process: water issues can be used to mobilize communities and watersheds are laboratories for strategies that can inform other issues. Through his organization, Sobrevivencia, Oscar has worked on all levels of society, from the individual citizen to the largest international institution to involve relevant actors in bringing these ideas to life.Sobrevivencia has introduced participatory processes for local environmental management and for community promotion of fundamental rights surrounding water and other resource use. This work ranges from developing and disseminating the tools for sustainable local management to citizen participation in the global decision-making processes which impact water resources. In large part, the latter strategy has taken the form of citizen opposition to large-scale dam projects funded by international financial institutions (IFIs). Oscar has also built the resources necessary for local people to do this work—opening a school to train leaders and building a reference library of experiences for those in need of information. Sobrevivencia has become a reference in Paraguay and throughout South America for its work in freshwater management rooted in the assumption that water is a natural public good and that, as a result, all projects that involve rivers and watersheds must account for local social, economic and environmental factors.

The Problem

Although dams have spread and been promoted as an environmentally friendly means to meet growing energy needs, the world has instead suffered the social and environmental impacts of a 30 year boom in global dam construction. Between 1949 and the end of the 20th century the number of large dams worldwide leaped from 5,000 to 45,000 with an average of 5,700 large dams built per year during the 1970s alone. More than half of these hydroelectric dams generate less electricity than planned and financial costs overrun estimates by an average of 56 percent, a burden borne by tax payers. On the environmental front, 60 percent of the world’s rivers are fragmented by dams and at least 20 percent of the more than 9,000 species that live in freshwater have disappeared or are on the verge of extinction. Social consequences are equally devastating. Between 1986 and 1993 alone, 4 million people per year were removed from their homes because of dam construction. Mega-dams displace populations and, as environmental impacts increase, they destroy livelihoods derived from traditional subsistence activities. 
The governance mechanisms surrounding dam construction explain much of their continued popularity despite often disastrous outcomes. As national governments often do not represent the best interests of their citizens, international financial institutions bear the burden of proving that social and environment impact have been assessed and that appropriate compensation will be provided to any affected peoples. But in the case of many large infrastructure projects, the vast sums of money involved provide incentives for domestic and international actors, both public and private, to manipulate environmental and social impact assessments and to divert project funds for their own benefit. The current development discourse promoting macro-economic growth promotes major infrastructure projects as a benefit to society as a whole despite impacts on local populations. However, although the broader citizenry may benefit marginally from these projects, the poor rural dwellers who suffer severe adverse consequences have neither the information, political power, nor will to achieve the ends necessary for their own survival.  At the end of the 20th century, Paraguay witnessed the construction of such mega-projects—primarily dams and water transportation routes—which in many ways typified the pernicious nature of dam construction around the globe. The largess surrounding construction is but the first indicator of their failure; in the case of the Yacyretá, final expenditure exceeded initial projections tenfold. Corruption is partly to blame: according to Transparency International (2002), Paraguay is one of the world’s most corrupt countries and nations in Latin America. But beyond even overspending at taxpayers’ expense, the social and environmental impacts of these projects were devastating. Fields were flooded displacing 50,000 people without providing adequate housing and livelihood alternatives, and domestic and wild animals have disappeared. As originally designed, the Paraguay-Paraná waterway project would have been equally destructive, converting 3,400 kilometers of the Paraguay and Paraná Rivers into a shipping canal, threatening the largest wetlands in the world and destroying local economies in Paraguay, Bolívia, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

The Strategy

Oscar’s strategy is rooted in a model for community activity around watershed planning. This begins with capacity building for local organizations and people to manage both the decision-making process and the watershed. A template action plan allows municipal government to issue preemptory orders requiring the enforcement of all existing laws, and a new participatory diagnostic tool ensures that the social and environmental situation is understood by everyone involved. Scientists assist with the development of an eco-hydrological model of the watershed which helps set regulation and control of the area, while new legislation insures proper implementation.  While Oscar’s vision lies in pro-active watershed management, he has recognized the financiers of large development projects as an important point of leverage for reaching this vision. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Sobrevivencia worked on three highly publicized cases against IFIs for their role in dam construction, in each case working to create concrete models for IFI opposition which could be replicated by other communities. In the most publicized of these cases, the Yacyretá dam, Sobrevivencia identified a range of violations to previously established Inter-American Development Bank (IBD) and World Bank policies, eventually proving their case and in the process building a model for investigation that could be used by other harmful development projects.
The third of these cases revolved around the construction of the Paraguay-Paraná Waterway in 1997, a mega-project that was to change the course of the river and flood important areas of Brazil and Paraguay. Sobrevivencia worked with over 300 local indigenous people, specialists and politicians through itinerant seminars in two boats traveling along the 1,200 km of the Paraguay River to alert communities of the project’s implications. By building coalitions and painstakingly mobilizing affected citizens, Sobrevivencia forced financiers to recognize the negative social and environmental impacts of the project. The project was halted and Sobrevivencia’s proposed alternative solutions were implemented. This model of community mobilization to pressure national, regional and international entities has been recognized and used by other organizations, and resulted in Oscar Rivas being awarded the Goldman International Prize in 2000. Beyond the examples and models that he has set through his work on these three cases, Oscar has developed a strategic set of resources for communities in Brazil, Latin America, and worldwide to tackle the questions around community control of their own watersheds and natural resources more broadly. Sobrevivencia has worked together with other groups to favor local development over large infrastructure projects. As a result, the multi-sector World Commission on Dams was formed to assess the benefits of existing damns. This Commission was made up of 12 members (representatives of governments, the dam construction industry, environmental organizations and affected peoples’ organizations) which prepared a document based on a detailed study of eight dams on five continents; assessments of impacts of dams in China, India and Russia; review of 125 large dams in 56 countries; and 950 presentations from affected individuals, groups and sectors. This process lasted two and a half years and the results were compiled in a document titled Dams and Development, which serves as a reference for decision-making and is a key mechanism to support the work of organizations dealing with the issue of dams.  Responding to demand for a repository of shared information, Oscar has created an electronic “eco-documentation” center, which posts requests for information and outcomes of past activities in this area. After constructing this comprehensive databank,  Oscar created the Socio-Environmental Institute of the South, to develop organizational capacity to work on these issues by offering modular programs, socio-environmental seminars, focused training for teachers, environmental communicators, young environmental guides, politicians, civil society organizations, local governments, judges, prosecutors, regulators and community leaders. Because this is a global issue, program managers and professors are from different countries, including Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Holland, Bolivia, Colombia, the United States and France. Sobrevivencia also created the first Paraguayan Association of Environmental Journalists which has trained more than 5,000 individuals from around the world in socio-environmental issues.

The Person

Oscar Rivas was born in Asunción, Paraguay and his childhood was characterized by curiosity, involvement with art and interest in history, which grew with the development of his passion for Greek history. After scoring the highest marks in the entrance exam for an experimental school at age 12, Oscar was exposed to the methodology of Paulo Freire, where there are no formal classes, but rather students create their own. This approach to teaching emphasizes group study and promotes solidarity. During this period, Oscar also developed a more holistic and integrated vision of education. He often used art class to produce models and maps for geography classes. These were produced based on an in-depth study of the regions, with field visits and interviews with local people and teachers. Oscar met almost all major Paraguayan writers through carrying out interviews for literature class. With other friends, he created the Literary Academy, where students met to study authors and develop their own interpretation of what they were studying. All this occurred under the military dictatorship. In the final year of high school, Oscar became involved in a Church project in the poor communities of Asunción. This project also involved Paraguayan university students, and with them Oscar organized the first student theatre presentation, which addressed “exploitation of people—slave labor—in regions where hierba-mate (Paraguayan tea) is extracted”. When he wasn’t able to present the issue in the National Student Show, he created a parallel show, which was supported by many other students. Oscar thus began to learn about the rural areas of his country, and brought this work to indigenous and peasant communities. In 1973, Oscar decided to study architecture, because he believed that it was an area that brought together his great passions: space, art, mathematics, Greek culture, philosophy and human spirituality. He came first in the Paraguayan exam, and received a scholarship from the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Department and an invitation from the Brazilian Ministry of Education to study in any university in Brazil. Thus, at the age of 18, Oscar went to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and soon became involved in the student movement. At that time, he became involved in two great Brazilian programs: the Rondon Project and Mauá. Through these programs, he carried out work in indigenous communities, and joined other groups such as the Green Movement and the Jesuits, and participated in the recreation of the National Student Union (UNE), although he never wanted to be involved in political parties. Oscar always believed in a policy of citizens, of activism and political commitment, but not in parties. In the early 1980s, Oscar worked in a prominent architecture office, and was able to work on many projects beside Oscar Niemeyer. His financial situation was good, but he felt he had to return to Paraguay, because there was a lot to be done. When he returned to Paraguay, many of the people he knew there were under arrest, dead or disillusioned. Oscar set up an architectural firm in Asunción, began to support himself financially and in parallel, joined 30 friends to pursue archeological study of the country’s history. He spend a lot of time in the field, producing maps of archeological sites and incorporating environmental issues into this work (water, wild lands). The government under Stroessner was characterized by the “sale” of Paraguay for large hydroelectric projects, which socially and morally destroyed the country. In this period, Oscar received a proposal to work on the construction of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam and to be a member of the Central Bank in Paraguay, but he turned them down. In 1986, he created the first environmental organization in Paraguay, Sobrevivencia, to carry out socio-environmental research, activities and management. The focus of this work at the time was related to habitat, especially indigenous and peasant issues. After 4 years, with the fall of the dictatorship, Sobrevivencia was formally incorporated as a social organization and it work soon become recognized in Paraguay and abroad.Oscar was responsible for selecting five people from other environmental social organizations from the Southern Cone to participate in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, in Rio de Janeiro. Through his region-wide work, he was involved in the creation of the Brazilian Association of NGOs (ABONG) and the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Sustainable Development and the Environment (FBOMS). In 1998, Oscar decided to create POJOAJU (Guarani meaning “all together holding hands”), the first association of social organizations from different areas, to share knowledge and activities, and thus to act with greater authority within Paraguay. Oscar devoted himself to the development of this association, which currently has more than 70 social organizations from different areas. Oscar serves on the Board of Directors. Through this work, Oscar contributed to a public recognition of citizen organizations as a cohesive force, and as having a stronger role in collective causes, in calling for public policies, and in gaining formal recognition from the government, the private sector and civil society. In Paraguay, many organizations are involved in corruption and this network gave greater legitimacy to the work, and won more trust from the population. In the first World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Oscar was responsible for the incorporation of environmental rights as part of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR). Oscar played an important role in advocating for public policies to protect people suffering from the negative impacts of development mega-projects in Paraguay. From his work in defending rivers and water in the region of the Prata basin, Oscar received the Goldman Prize (in the Latin American and Caribbean region) in 2000.