Stories by IAP on Medium
Facing the construction of a mega-dam project, communities in Tanahu, Nepal use research to reclaim their rights
We walk along unpaved and dusty roads. Groups of women cut rice crops in paddy fields while the men, wearing traditional Nepali “topis” or hats, smash stalks against threshing rocks. Water buffaloes graze in the fields. Along the main road, children in uniforms carrying small, dusty backpacks walk home from school. They cross a suspension bridge and I watch as they make their way uphill and out of sight.
The suspension bridge hangs across a clear and rapidly-flowing river. As I approach the bridge, my heart starts to pound and I cannot bring myself to look down. Instead, I walk away and sit down on the lush grass nearby, next to an elderly resident who is gazing into the river. “I helped build this bridge” he says “It was the only way people living across the river could go to town and kids to school. If this dam is built, the bridge, all these houses — everything — will be underwater.”
He is speaking about the Tanahu Hydropower Project, a massive hydropower project that is threatening the homes, livelihoods and resources of communities in Damauli, Tanahu. I was visiting the area to learn more about the proposed dam and understand what communities thought about the project.
The Tanahu Hydropower Project, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) website, involves the construction of a 140-megawatt power plant with water storage facilities and a transmission system. The project is estimated to cost approximately 550 million USD and is expected to be completed by 2020. The Asian Development Bank (ADB), European Investment Bank (EIB) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are providing funds for the project.
In its assessments, the Asian Development Bank has noted significant risks involving involuntary resettlement, the rights of indigenous peoples and impacts to the environment. According to the bank, the dam is needed to expand access to clean and sustainable energy. They state that this investment will enhance trade, productivity, job creation and quality of life for citizens, as well as bring “community development” to a rural area. This narrative sounds positive on paper but I quickly learned that the people directly impacted by the project have a very different story to share.
According to local residents in Tanahu, more than 750 households will be affected by the hydropower project. Residents are concerned about the specific impacts to their traditional lands and environment. Community members belong to different indigenous groups such as Magar, Gurung, Newar and depend on the land for their livelihoods. For indigenous communities, meaningful participation in consultation and decision making is a key pre-requisite to any development project. This has not been the case for Tanahu. As one resident noted “We don’t have any information about who exactly is funding this project. There was no public hearing.”
To address this gap in access to information, Community Empowerment, Social Justice Foundation (CEMSOJ) and Indigenous Women Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG) with support from Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and International Accountability Project, organized a training in November, 2016 to share information about the project and understand the situation of affected communities. As a group, we were committed to support communities in their efforts to engage with banks, government and the company about their needs. During the training, community members learned about relevant national laws from a senior indigenous rights lawyer. They also heard from AIPP representatives about international legal frameworks to defend indigenous peoples’ rights and relevant ADB policies. I shared a presentation about how communities in Thailand and Mekong countries have responded to ADB financed projects in the past. I also shared recent examples and strategies from community-led research supported by the International Accountability Project in Malawi in response to a similar dam project.
In one activity, I invited community representatives to draw a map of their villages and consider what would be important for the the preservation of their livelihoods and culture. They were then asked to prepare questions to ask an ADB representative, as if they would meet one in the next hour. Each group of participants came up with a long list of questions. Most asked about the lack of information available about the project and how their losses would be compensated. We then asked a community member to volunteer to act as the ADB representative. Each group had one chance to meet them and ask questions. Even in a role-playing setting, residents were nervous. Some groups used their community maps as evidence to present their questions. At the end of the activity, residents reflected on what they took away from the exercise. They concluded that communities themselves should research and prepare information about how their rights would be affected by the project.
Drawing from this activity, residents agreed to set up a community-led research group, with support from the Indigenous Women Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG) and IAP. Together we drafted a questionnaire, adapted from the one prepared by communities in Malawi. The questionnaire asked participants to share their knowledge and recommendations about how the project was disclosed and discussed with affected communities.
We then reviewed the survey questions and community representatives began interviewing each other. After the first round of interviews, we reviewed the responses and reflected on the experience. One researcher, quoting from the responses of one of his interviewees noted, “Nobody ever asked us questions like this before” Researchers are now in the process of collecting 150 surveys, traveling to villages and remote areas that are only accessible by foot. In the next phase, IAP will support community members analyze the data collected.
While conducting the community-led research, the affected communities in Tanahu have also been actively engaging with the national government and private companies. In December, 2016, a memorandum was submitted to the Minister of Energy in Nepal raising concerns about the project. Communities have demanded copies of project documents, meaningful consultations with a policy of informed consent and inclusion in relevant committees making decisions about the project. They have also traveled to Kathmandu to submit their memorandum to the Tanahu Hydropower company and the National Human Rights Commission. The government and the company have promised to respond to their demands. Communities are also contesting the government’s decisions on the scale and scope of compensation. In February this year, approximately 350 villagers rallied and assembled in front of Tanahu District Office asking the government to follow the ADB safeguards policy. More recently, the Tanahu Hydropower Limited has responded with a letter to affected communities to form a local consultation forum. Residents are planning further mobilizations as they continue to push for their demands to be heard.
It has been several months since my visit to Tanahu but I keep coming back to that memory of the bridge and the fear I had experienced trying to cross it. Flooding the bridge, and all that lies around it, would only affirm the fundamental disconnection between local people and financiers of the project. Notwithstanding the challenges, I continue to be inspired by the people in Tanahu who are collecting information and organizing each other to protect their homes and livelihoods. They are also building a different kind of bridge, one that reaches towards an idea of development that improves lives and respects rights.
Tom Weerachat works as IAP’s Program Coordinator based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom is a community trainer, a teacher, a traveler, and a Mekong activist.
It was a Saturday in September 2009, when I was in my last year in college. The clouds looked dense and it had been raining since four o’clock that morning. I had never experienced such heavy rainfall before. By the time our professor dismissed our class, the ground floor of the building had already flooded. I had to climb on the roof of the pedicab to get to the nearest train station. The flood was already waist deep at that time. Looking out the window, you could already sense the devastating impacts of Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana).
According to news reports, Typhoon Ondoy dumped 18 inches of rainfall over a 24–hour period. The raging waters and cars floating on the streets of Metro Manila and its nearby provinces, including Rizal where I lived, trapped people in their homes without access to electricity. I was finally able to reach home Monday morning, nearly two days later. This was my own personal experience of how flooding became a harsh way of life for millions of Filipinos. Through my work with the International Accountability Project (IAP), I saw more clearly the roles communities, NGOs, governments and development banks can play in improving lives.
Destructive typhoons such as Ondoy have increasingly hit the Philippines - causing floods, damage to property, displacement of people and fatalities. After 2009, the government began to conduct studies on flood risks in Metro Manila. In 2012, the government announced the completion of a “Flood Management Master Plan” that called for the development of eleven infrastructure projects around Laguna de Bay.
These projects included the Cavite — Laguna Expressway around the lake, the West Laguna Lake Shore Land Raising projects and the construction of spillways, a mega-dike, dredging works and improvements to urban drainage systems. The projects have received loans from the development finance institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Ever since Typhoon Ondoy, typhoons are becoming stronger and stronger each year. In the past 8 years, seven incredibly destructive typhoons hit the country, flooding homes and displacing people. These short intervals have left communities with no almost no time to recover. Despite the devastation of flooding and their desire for flood prevention efforts, communities have not been consistently informed or consulted about possible projects. People are equally concerned about the potential impacts of the government’s response to such calamities. Many vulnerable people will be evicted to make way for flood management projects, including informal settlers who already live in poor conditions.
This was on my mind when I went home to the Philippines for three weeks in August. I had the opportunity to witness the launch of the report, Back to Development: A Call for What Development Could Be that was compiled by International Accountability Project’s Global Advocacy Team. The report is a product of community–led research in 8 countries namely Burma, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Egypt, Mongolia, Panama and the Philippines. The team created a research process and survey to document community expertise and recommendations for development. The report provides a guide for all of us involved in development, whether as part of a local community or as staff of a development bank, to understand how development can truly be community-led.
Jessica Amon, who organized the effort to look into the flood management plans affecting Biñan City, presented and spoke about the findings of the community-led research process. The findings from the report, presented below, show how expertise from impacted communities can improve the government’s flood management projects:
The Philippines Flood Management Control projects can be in the public interest if they are built carefully with the input of communities most often affected. With support of IAP’s partner, Community Organizer Multiversity, some communities have produced comprehensive “People’s Plans” for development for their communities.
People’s Plans collect citizen-generated proposals for flood control. It is based on the idea that solutions for resettlement, basic services, and other issues should always comes first from the people. The participatory nature of the process builds a strong sense of ownership among local people for the plan that emerges. I believe People’s plans can be a model that can be mainstreamed to discover permanent and inclusive solutions in the Philippines. What we need now is a clear understanding and commitment to communities’ roles in pursuing development and being part of governance.
Annabel Perreras was the 2016 Policy Coordinator/ Smitu Kothari Fellow at International Accountability Project (IAP). In 2017, Ann returned to Manila and works for the NGO Forum on the Asian Development Bank.
No había un solo semáforo. Los caminos estaban llenos de baches. Alambrados colgaban de todas las esquinas de las calles y edificios que una vez fueron encantadores y que hoy en ruinas, amenazaban la seguridad de sus residentes.
Un líder de la comunidad me estaba mostrando el centro de Colón. En medio de tal abandono y precario nivel de vida, me costaba creer que Colón -la segunda ciudad más grande de Panamá y ubicada en una de sus provincias más ricas- se parecía a la carismática ciudad de Nueva Orleans en Estados Unidos.
Mis colegas de la organización Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (ACD) me dicen que Colón ha sido en gran medida dejado por su cuenta durante décadas, a excepción de la Zona Libre, el mayor puerto libre de las Américas, donde productos de todo el mundo se pueden encontrar a precios asequibles. En la Zona Libre, las calles están bien pavimentadas, el tráfico está coordinado y la seguridad es una prioridad. Sin embargo, a menos que tengan un permiso especial, los residentes de Colón no están autorizados a comprar allí. Además de la Zona Libre, Colón alberga las terminales atlánticas del Canal de Panamá y el Ferrocarril de Panamá.
Desde el punto de vista de un forastero, es chocante encontrar tanta pobreza donde se han hecho tantas inversiones; donde la infraestructura comercial se mantiene meticulosamente, incluso mientras los habitantes de Colón viven en condiciones precarias. Lamentablemente, la inversión privada y la riqueza no se han traducido en beneficios reales para la población de Colón. En cambio, estas inversiones ponen de relieve una tendencia a priorizar los intereses privados a expensas de la ciudad y sus habitantes.
Una nueva inversión amenaza con repetir este patrón. El proyecto AES de Gas Natural Licuado de US $1.100 millones apoya la construcción, operación y mantenimiento de infraestructura energética para gas natural licuado que será transportado desde la costa de los Estados Unidos a Colón. La Corporación Financiera Internacional (CFI), ha comprometido US $ 150 millones a la AES Corporation, la empresa encargada de implementar el proyecto.
Primero me enteré de este proyecto a través de mi trabajo con el Sistema de Alerta Temprana, una iniciativa conjunta del International Accountability Project y el Centro de Derecho Ambiental Internacional que monitorea los proyectos de desarrollo dañinos a principios del ciclo del proyecto. Después de completar un análisis preliminar de los posibles impactos a los derechos humanos, quedó claro para mí que las comunidades corrían el riesgo de experimentar impactos negativos. Las inversiones en energía de este tamaño y naturaleza implican inherentemente riesgos ambientales relacionados con la calidad del aire, el agua y la biodiversidad en la zona del proyecto. Los documentos del proyecto señalan que la vida animal y el ambiente general de la región serán significativamente alterados.
De hecho, las comunidades en los alrededores ya están presenciando estos impactos, ya que los bosques cercanos a sus casas son arrasados para dar paso a las actividades de construcción. Los trabajadores y la población, en su conjunto, pueden sufrir riesgos de incendio y explosión como resultado del procesamiento, almacenamiento y transporte de gas natural. También se espera que los ecosistemas marinos y la vegetación circundante estén amenazados por las operaciones de la planta de energía propuesta. Por ejemplo, para que la planta funcione, el agua necesitará ser drenada del mar y luego descargada a altas temperaturas. Los documentos del proyecto no explican claramente mejoras tangibles en la calidad de vida de las comunidades, una característica que debería ser central en los proyectos financiados por los bancos de desarrollo.
Al perseguir un proyecto con riesgos tan amplios, lo mínimo que las empresas o los financiadores pueden hacer es involucrar a la población afectada en consultas significativas, escuchar sus preocupaciones e incorporar sus recomendaciones. De esta manera, pueden minimizar o posiblemente evitar impactos negativos y tratar de cumplir las prioridades locales, que deberían ser el fundamento de todos los proyectos de desarrollo.
Sin embargo, en un taller organizado por Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo y el International Accountability Project en noviembre de 2016, nos enteramos de que no se había consultado sobre el proyecto, a ningún residente con quien hablamos antes de que la CFI aprobara la financiación. Seis meses más tarde, todavía no se les había informado sobre los impactos completos. La falta de compromiso y el acceso limitado a los documentos del proyecto, significaron que muchos residentes aprendieron sobre el proyecto por primera vez durante el taller. A pesar de ello, la empresa ha señalado que celebró dos consultas públicas, una en noviembre de 2015 y la otra en marzo de 2016, nadie que conocí en Colón supo de estas consultas o realmente fue consultado. Por otra parte, la CFI no ha compartido ninguna documentación de apoyo que demuestre que se celebraron esas consultas o si hubo algún seguimiento sustantivo o resultados de esas consultas.
Es difícil subestimar la importancia de consultas significativas y transparentes. Muchos de los residentes que conocí habían sido reasentados previamente por otros proyectos de desarrollo, algunos sin compensación. Tenían mucho miedo de ser reasentados de nuevo como resultado de este proyecto. Actualmente se prepara un informe dirigido por la comunidad para registrar estas preocupaciones y documentar las deficiencias en la transparencia y las consultas organizadas por la empresa.
Cabe señalar que AES Corporation se enfrenta actualmente a preguntas sobre su conducta con respecto a las consultas para un proyecto separado en Panamá. Un caso contra el Estado de Panamá ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos acusa a AES Corporation de violar los derechos de consulta de los pueblos indígenas afectados por la construcción de la presa Chan 75 en Bocas del Toro.
Mi experiencia al analizar este proyecto e interactuar con las comunidades, sugiere que la CFI no ha dado suficiente prioridad al bienestar de los afectados. Sin consultas oportunas y transparentes, organizadas en torno a las prioridades locales, es difícil creer que el proyecto cubra en última instancia las necesidades de los que viven en Colón. Las comunidades temen que al igual que las inversiones anteriores, como la Zona de Libre Comercio, las empresas y los inversionistas se beneficiarán en gran medida, mientras que los afectados seguirán en condiciones inseguras, enfrentándose a una nueva amenaza por un proyecto que afecta su salud, el medio ambiente y los hogares.
Los residentes esperan que puedan evitar este camino preparando un informe que sea tomado en consideración por aquellos que financian el proyecto. Esperamos que esto sea una oportunidad para un diálogo sostenido y efectivo, donde las preocupaciones de las comunidades sean reconocidas y priorizadas en el diseño y la implementación del proyecto.
Alexandre Andrade Sampaio es el Coordinador de Politica y Programas para el International Accountability Project basado en Brazil.
There wasn’t a single traffic light. The roads were filled with potholes. Wires hung from every street corner and once-charming buildings, now in ruins, threatened the safety of its residents.
A community leader was showing me downtown Colón. In the midst of such neglect and precarious living standards, I found it hard to believe that Colón — Panama’s second largest city and located in one of its richest provinces — is said to resemble the charismatic city of New Orleans in the United States.
My colleagues from the organization Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (ACD) tell me that Colón has largely been left to its own devices for decades, except for the Free Trade Zone, the largest free port in the Americas where products from all over the world can be found at affordable prices. In the Free Trade Zone, streets are well paved, traffic is coordinated and security is prioritized. However, unless they have a special permit, residents of Colón are not allowed to shop there. In addition to the Free Trade Zone, Colón is home to the Atlantic terminals of the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Railway.
From an outsider’s point of view, it is shocking to find so much poverty where so much investment has been made; where commercial infrastructure is meticulously maintained even as Colón residents live in precarious conditions. Unfortunately, private investments and richness have not translated to real benefits for the people of Colón. Instead, these investments highlight a tendency to prioritize private interests at the expense of the city and its inhabitants.
A new investment threatens to repeat this pattern. The US $1.1 billion AES Liquified Natural Gas project supports the construction, operation and maintenance of energy infrastructure for liquified natural gas that will be transported from the coast of the United States to Colón. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), has committed US $150 million to the AES Corporation, the company in charge of implementing the project.
I first found out about this project through my work with the Early Warning System, a joint initiative by International Accountability Project and the Center for International Environmental Law that monitors harmful development projects early in the project cycle. After completing a preliminary analysis of possible human rights impacts, it became clear to me that communities risked experiencing negative impacts. Energy investments of this size and nature inherently carry environmental risks related to the quality of air, water and biodiversity in the project area. Project documents note that animal life and the general environment of the region will be significantly altered.
In fact, communities in the surrounding area are already witnessing these impacts, as forests near their homes are razed to make way for construction activities. Workers and the population, as a whole, may face fire and explosion hazards resulting from the processing, storage and transporting of natural gas. Marine ecosystems and the surrounding vegetation are also expected to be threatened by the operations of the proposed power plant. For example, for the plant to function, water will need to be drained from the sea and then discharged at high temperatures. Project documents fail to clearly explain tangible improvements in communities’ quality of life, a characteristic that should be central to projects financed by development banks.
When pursuing a project with such comprehensive risks, the minimum that that companies or funders can do is involve the affected population in meaningful consultations, to listen to their concerns and incorporate their recommendations. In this way, they can minimize or possibly avoid negative impacts and seek to fulfill local priorities, which should be the bedrock of all development projects.
However, in a workshop organized by Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo and the International Accountability Project in November 2016, we learned that not a single resident we spoke with had been consulted about the project before the IFC approved financing. Six months later, they were still not made aware of the full impacts. Lack of engagement and limited access to project documents meant many residents learned about the project for the first time during the workshop. Even though, the company has noted that it held two public consultations, one in November 2015 and the other in March 2016, no one I met in Colón knew about these consultations or who was actually consulted. Moreover, the IFC has not shared any supporting documentation proving these consultations were held or if there had been any substantive follow up or outcomes from these consultations.
It is hard to understate the importance of meaningful and transparent consultations. Many of the residents I met had been resettled previously by other development projects, some without compensation. They were very afraid of being resettled again as a result of this project. A community-led report is currently being prepared to record these concerns and document the shortcomings in transparency and consultations organized by the company.
It should be noted that AES Corporation is currently facing questions over their conduct with regard to consultations for a separate project in Panama. A case against the State of Panama before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accuses AES Corporation of violating the consultation rights of indigenous peoples who were affected by the construction of the Chan 75 Dam in Bocas del Toro.
My experience analyzing this project and interacting with communities suggests that the IFC has not sufficiently prioritized the well being of those affected. Without timely and transparent consultations, organized around local priorities, it is difficult to believe that the project will ultimately attend the needs of those living in Colón. Communities fear that like previous investments, such as the Free Trade Zone, companies and investors will greatly benefit while those affected will remain in unsafe conditions, now confronting a new threat by a project that impacts their health, environment and households.
Residents hope they may avoid this path by preparing a report to be taken into consideration by those financing the project. We hope this may be an opportunity for sustained and effective dialogue, where communities’ concerns are acknowledged and prioritized in the design and implementation of the project.
Alexandre Andrade Sampaio is the Policy and Programs Coordinator at International Accountability Project based in Brazil.
“There are only two paths for those defending their communities against harmful development projects: one is jail, the other is death” I remembered these words, first spoken to me by Ms. Jintana Kaewkhao, a shopkeeper and community leader, while looking at the new photo exhibit ‘For Those Who Died Trying’ in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The exhibit, by Luke Duggleby, features images and messages from family members of those missing or killed for defending human rights in Thailand. Looking at the images, I couldn’t help but recall Ms Kawewkhao’s ominous message. In 2011, she was sentenced to four months in prison. Another leader of the same campaign, Mr. Charoen Wataksorn, was shot dead near his residence soon after he had provided testimony about environmental harm suffered by his community. His picture is part of the exhibit.
In Thailand, where I grew up, economic growth has long been championed with little attention paid to tensions and conflicts between investors and communities who disagree with the government’s plans for exploiting natural resources, land and the environment. I was aware people faced violence for speaking up but looking at the images in front of me, I began to realize that it wasn’t just individual cases but the system as a whole.
Each photograph in the exhibit depicted the framed image of a human rights defender carefully positioned in the spot where they were last seen alive. The images used were the same ones displayed at their funerals. 37 Thai human rights defenders have died in the last two decades and little is written about the struggle to hold perpetrators accountable, let alone how families of the deceased have been coping. At the opening of the exhibit, an audience member asked if there had been any remedy offered to the victims and their families. Pranom Somwong, from Protection International, responded that the government had done very little to support families. Mostly, community members and their friends had organized themselves to support each other. She added one lesson she had learned from working closely with impacted communities — “The best remedy is for communities to be able to carry on their struggles”
There is a social and political system in place that allows killings and enforced disappearances to happen to those who attempt to defend human rights and the environment. According to a report by Frontline Defenders, 282 human rights defenders were murdered in 25 countries in 2016 alone. Half of those killed were actively trying to protect land, indigenous and environmental rights.
We may become momentarily aware of this kind of brutality when it happens but for most of us, it’s just information - news we read or watch. In introducing the exhibit, Luke Duggleby, said he hoped the project would encourage the public to discuss the problem facing human rights defenders. He added that such problems would have to be solved by Thai society, not outsiders, and it would be important to make sure that the victims“will never be forgotten.” This exhibit attempts to bring stories that seem remote, closer to our lives and experiences. ‘For Those Who Died Trying’ is profound not only to Thai society but to all of us. We must take a moment, look back and seriously consider how to protect and support human rights defenders — ordinary people trying to protect their communities, lands and environment.
Tom Weerachat is the Program Coordinator for the Asia Pacific region at the International Accountability Project. On behalf of IAP, he is humbled to support this impactful and historical project in Chiang Mai. IAP extends its acknowledgements and gratitude to Luke Duggleby and Protection International for working to recognize those who died protecting human and environmental rights in Thailand and to the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University for arranging the showing in Chiang Mai. This exhibit has previously been shown in Geneva, Brussels, Pamplona with more events planned this year in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkla and Khon Khaen.
What are forced evictions, how do they occur and how do communities respond? Produced by WITNESS and IAP’s Executive Director,People Before Profit explains the global context in which forced evictions occur.
Now in 12 languages.
How can governments and corporations knowingly force a community from their homes? Produced by Amnesty International, WITNESS and IAP’s Executive Director, Evict Them! In 5 Easy Steps is a short satirical animation which shows why some governments resort to human rights abuses in the name of development.
Now in 11 languages.