Stories by IAP on Medium
In light of recent news reports of intimidation, the International Accountability Project stands in solidarity with Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and the four conference attendees who are currently facing criminal charges for allegedly violating the ban on public assembly during the Thai Studies Conference. IAP calls on the charges to be dropped immediately and affirms the right to assembly and rights of academics to freely express their opinions without fear of persecution or censorship from the State and/or other actors. More information available here.
What would happen if the Mekong river stopped flowing tomorrow? This was the question I considered as I tried to communicate the crisis facing the Mekong to 1,500 scholars, researchers and activists who had gathered for the recent 13th Thai Studies Conference (ICTS13) and the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The two events, hosted by Chiang Mai University, brought together people from around the world who were interested in reviewing and evaluating the existing landscape of knowledge in Thai studies and Asian studies. The Mekong River, which flows from the Tibetan plateau to the southern part of China to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is central to the lives and livelihoods of millions in the region.
In recent years, the Mekong has been subject to a massive infusion of investments by public and private international development financiers to build so-called development projects such as large hydropower dams. The projects are likely cause irreversible impacts to fisheries and biodiversity. So far, decision-makers have largely failed to ensure transparency, accountability and public participation in the design and implementation of projects. If we do not act soon to support Mekong communities, millions may very well lose their rights to food, livelihood and a healthy environment.
To shed a light on this urgent problem, IAP, together with the Mekong Youth Assembly, EarthRights International and Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, organized an exhibition titled “Mekong, River of Life.” We contacted our friends, community leaders and fellow activists and asked them to share images they had taken in different parts of the Mekong, including important tributaries. The exhibition was designed to spotlight the stories of those fighting to protect livelihoods and uphold community rights along the Mekong. We received more than 200 submissions and eventually selected 22 images, organized under three main themes:
The images traced the course of the Mekong, from its source in the Tibetan plateau to the mouth of the river in Vietnam. Over the course of a week, we welcomed visitors from a diversity of backgrounds and countries. Many had never seen the Mekong before and were alarmed to learn about the current situation. People reacted differently to different parts of the exhibit. Many visitors were glad to see a representation of Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, which is also the largest lake in Southeast Asia. They shared their their memories of trips they had taken to the lake. Another group of young children asked to take home paper cutouts of fish found in the Mekong. Fish populations have depleted so drastically in recent years, that it is difficult to encounter them in person. In fact, we had to rely on images shared by local communities to create an accurate representation. Other visitors expressed concerns over plans to construct dams and make the Mekong passable to large, commercial cargo ships traveling from China to Laos. The plans would demolish rocks and islets occurring naturally along the river and permanently alter its course.
One visit in particular stood out from the rest. “Can I walk in?” asked a woman who stood hesitantly at the entrance of the exhibit. Once inside, she asked if it would be okay to touch the images. Her questions made me think about the concept of ownership and who has the rights to use and access common resources like a river. For those of us who organized the exhibit, we strongly believe the Mekong should belong to everyone and anyone should be able to interact with it as long as they don’t cause any harm.
Mueda Nawanat, Coordinator of the Mekong Youth Assembly, explained why this exhibition was important for the public to experience: “Governments and companies are trying to extract profit from the Mekong. They want to build large hydropower projects, regardless of the number of people who will be impacted. The Mekong River is a life-source for millions. Destroying livelihoods, food security and environment means killing Mekong citizens. The Mekong’s people are trying to speak out and are demanding that all stakeholders respect child rights, human rights and the rights to a healthy environment.”
At the end of the exhibit, an interactive space was set up for visitors to post their comments. The space was quickly filled up with handwritten notes and messages — “People’s faith, beliefs, and everyday practices flows with this river”, “Nobody is an outsider! Keep the river flow. It is our lives.” Many comments just said “Stop the dams!.” To quote one visitor’s reflections “The Mekong is everyone’s river and needs to be protected.”
On behalf of the organizers, IAP would like to extend our gratitude to the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development, Chiang Mai University, for the opportunity to participate in the conference. Our exhibition would not have been possible without our team of volunteers from Stateless Youth Leaders Network. We appreciate our friends and colleagues who contributed their stories to make this exhibition possible.
Entering the town of Hoima in western Uganda, it is difficult to ignore the immense transformations that have taken place in the past five years. A booming business sector has dramatically re-drawn the landscape of this once remote and agrarian town. New apartment buildings, hotels, and offices have sprung up to meet the needs of a growing population of workers and visitors. The source of Hoima’s newfound prominence is no secret. After the discovery of crude reserves of close to 6.5 billion barrels in nearby Lake Albert, Hoima has quickly become the center of oil exploration activities in Uganda.
As I drive through town, I see billboard after billboard advertising various companies and corporations engaged in the oil industry. However, I notice one unexpected theme emerging. Many of the services advertised exclusively relate to advocacy, dispute resolution and litigation — a sign that the oil-fueled boom may be negatively impacting communities.
This is perhaps inevitable. In my experience, communities and companies in the extractive sector have widely divergent interests that are bound to lead to disagreements. But it is also true that members of the public have limited access to knowledge on how to effectively hold companies to account for harmful actions. We urgently need processes to address disputes when the occur so conflicting interests may be reconciled, mediation between parties may occur or a court process may be initiated. For now, civil society organizations in Hoima are stepping up to support communities to claim their rights in the face of harm caused by companies or even the government.
Who Really Funds Projects?
Local communities are not always aware which institutions and companies are financing the projects that affect them. Even if they know the identity of financiers, very little information is publicly available for communities seeking remedy or dispute resolution when project activities cause harm. To address this information gap, International Accountability Project partnered with BIRUDO, a civil society organization working in the Albertine Region, to organize a workshop on how development projects are financed. Mr. Payolel Onencan, Executive Director of BIRUDO spoke about the urgent need to organize such a training, “We have no knowledge about how to reach out to financiers of projects, especially to prevail upon companies and governments whenever harm is caused or rights are violated. This training will be the first of its kind to enhance the capacity of BIRUDO and partners in this region to understand how financing for development projects happens.”
The two day training included 22 participants from civil society organizations in the region, including those from grassroots networks like the Albertine Land Platform and Buliisa District Environment and Natural Resource Coalition. The training was supported by the Global Greengrants Fund and the Coalition on Human Rights in Development. The objective of the training was to strengthen civil society organizations in their monitoring and management of environmental and biodiversity impacts stemming from oil and gas development activities in the in Albertine region, particularly in Buliisa, Hoima, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kagadi and Kibaale districts in Uganda.
I hosted a session on the policies and practices of international financial institutions and how communities can engage them through community-led research. Communities can also gain leverage when they engage more with companies and financiers to attain comprehensive and accessible information about projects. I spoke about initiatives like the Early Warning System, through which organizations like BIRUDO can have access to timely information about proposed projects in the Albertine Region. In order to address community concerns early on and reduce incidence of harm, the Early Warning System could also provide information on grievance mechanisms for companies and development institutions financing the project.
To complement this section, Joseph Kibugu from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre gave an introduction to business and human rights and corporate accountability. During the course of the training, I realized that many organizations were focused on getting oil companies to respond to the demands of communities and /or advocating for government action in cases where these companies were violating people’s rights. This training provided them with alternative tools, skills and tactics to achieve their objectives.
After the training, two organizations, BIRUDO and Avocats Sans Frontieres (ASF) resolved to to engage with CNOOC Limited (a major Chinese oil company), to learn about its project level grievance mechanism and work with them to popularize it in the communities where the company operates. BIRUDO also resolved to train individual organization’s staff in using the tools provided by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre such as the human rights impact assessment, investment tracker, documentation checklist and investment mapping tool to monitor infrastructure developments such as road and waste management facilities that are impacting on affected communities.
As we build a movement around advocacy in development finance, this was my opportunity to work with local organizations to re-orient ourselves and build partnerships with national and regional organizations for greater impact. This forms the first step in strengthening existing coalitions on oil and gas in the region and realizing informed interactions with companies and government. This interaction relies on reliable access to project information to guide interventions, so communities can be supported in their efforts to protect their homes and environment.
John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.
By Alexandre Andrade Sampaio
On a recent visit to the United States, the President of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, spoke at length about his plans for the city of Colón, home to the largest free-trade zone in the Americas. In addition to planned investments totaling 1.2 billion USD, President Varela is championing the expansion of the duty-free zone to eventually cover the entire city. It is unclear whose interests will be served by such projects and whether the people of Colón have had the opportunity to say anything about the creation of such plans. A recent community-led research project conducted with the assistance of International Accountability Project (IAP) and the Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (ACD) leads me to believe that the priorities and opinions of the people living in Colón have not been considered in the development of President Varela’s plans.
As I wrote in a previous post, IAP and ACD organized a workshop in Colón in October 2016 in order to exchange information with communities affected by a liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, the AES Panama project. This project is being constructed with the support of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank. Residents of Colón have very little knowledge about the project or its possible impacts. Even though the project is in its early stages, residents are already noticing adverse effects. With the support of ACD and IAP, a community-wide research project, involving a survey of 98 people, was initiated this year to better understand residents’ priorities. The results of the survey suggest serious shortcomings in the consultation process. The key findings have been condensed into an infographic:
More than 95% of respondents said they have not been consulted about the project. 82% said they did not have enough information to express an opinion about the project. But even if they did, more than 72% said they did not feel safe to express their opinions about project plans. Because this is a project financed by the International Finance Corporation, those affected negatively could submit a complaint to the independent accountability mechanism, the Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman, but unfortunately more than 93% have never heard about the mechanism and 76% have never heard about the bank’s policies to account for social and environmental risks. These numbers indicate that community engagement is not a high priority within the ‘development’ agenda of the Panamanian government. How can a government pursue the design of a project that risks, among other things, displacement, explosions and environmental degradation without the full participation of those impacted?
Neglecting the priorities and well-being of local communities is not new in Colón. Massive amounts of investment have historically been directed at city and yet, this has not translated into benefits for the local population. A majority of residents live in unsafe environments, as infrastructure continues to crumble after decades of neglect. The exception is, of course, the Free Trade Zone which is in much better shape than the rest of the city. In this context, President Varela’s plans to expand the Free Trade Zone could, at first glance, seem like a good idea. However, it should not be forgotten that residents of Colón are considered outsiders in the Free Trade Zone — they need to secure special permission to shop there. Residents are mainly utilized as a source of cheap labor. Goods are produced for the export markets and the profits only benefit businesses and investors, not local residents. While Varela affirmed that US$ 1.2 billion would be invested in Colón, the LNG project alone will cost US$ 1.1 billion. A vast majority of the money directed to Colón will be used for an activity that aims to produce gas that will be sent directly to Asia, calling into question the benefits, if any, for those actually living in Colón.
One has to wonder: has anyone really asked residents what their development priorities are or what their plans are for their families and city? Would they have prioritized an LNG plant and export center? To quote from a few respondents of the survey, the answer may be a lot more complicated than what the government claims: “No to the construction of gas plants!”; “Cancel the AES project and reforest the affected area”; “Impart information through the media and include the communities”; “Invest in wind power, which is more ecological and doesn’t cause harmful impacts”.
Any project, to be successful and merit the use of the word development, must prioritize the inclusion of impacted communities. While local and national priorities may diverge, a good faith dialogue the includes affected communities could bridge the divide. As one resident puts it, “in order to develop the project, the opinion of communities should be heard (…)”. Government and investors should be asking themselves if the residents of Colón would really benefit from an expanded Free Trade Zone or investments in extractive industries.
The findings from the community-led research project will be presented in a forthcoming report by IAP and ACD. We hope the report will be considered seriously by those planning to invest in Colón so they may listen to communities and prioritize real development in the region.
By Alexandre Andrade Sampaio
Recientemente en una visita a los Estados Unidos, el presidente de Panamá, Juan Carlos Varela, ha promovido su plan para la ciudad de Colón. La mayor zona de libre comercio de las Américas. Aparte de la inversión inicial de 1.2 billones de USD, el presidente Varela ha defendido la expansión de la zona franca, la cual a la larga se extenderá a toda la ciudad. No está claro qué intereses se satisfacen con estos proyectos, y si la gente de Colón ha tenido la oportunidad de decir algo sobre la creación de estos planes. Recientemente, una proyecto de investigación dirigido por la comunidad con la ayuda del International Accountability Project (IAP) y la Alianza para la Conservación y el Desarrollo (ACD) me hace creer que las prioridades y las opiniones de los habitantes de Colón no han sido considerados en el desarrollo de los planes del presidente Varela.
Tal y como escribí en mi post anterior, en Octubre de 2016, el IAP y la ACD organizaron en Colón unas jornadas sobre el proyecto de gas natural licuado (GNL) de AES Panamá. El objetivo de estas jornadas era intercambiar información con las comunidades afectadas por el proyecto del AES Panamá. Este proyecto ha sido construido con el apoyo de la Corporación Financiera Internacional (CFI), el brazo del sector privado del Banco Mundial. Los habitantes de Colón tienen muy poco conocimiento sobre el proyecto o su posible impacto. A pesar de que el proyecto se encuentre en su fase inicial, los habitante ya perciben sus efectos adversos. Con la finalidad de entender mejor las prioridades de los residentes, en 2016 se ha iniciado un proyecto de investigación, con el apoyo de la ACD y el IAP. Este estudio incluye el conjunto de la comunidad utilizando una encuesta que involucra a 98 personas. Los resultados de la encuesta sugieren serias deficiencias en el proceso de consulta. Los hallazgos principales se han considerado en una infografía:
Más del 98% de los encuestados afirma no haber sido consultados sobre el proyecto. El 82% indica no haber tenido suficiente información para dar una opinión sobre el proyecto. Incluso en posesión de suficiente información, más del 72% afirma no sentirse seguro para expresar su opinión sobre los planes del proyecto. Ya que este es un proyecto financiado por la Corporación Financiera Internacional, aquellos negativamente afectados podrían presentar una queja al mecanismo de rendición de cuentas, la Oficina del Asesor en Cumplimiento/ Ombudsman. Desafortunadamente, más del 93% de los encuestados no tiene conocimiento sobre el mecanismo, y el 76% nunca ha oído hablar sobre las políticas bancarias para considerar los riesgos sociales y medioambientales. Estos números indican que la participación comunitaria no tiene una prioridad alta en la agenda de ‘desarrollo’ del gobierno panameño. ¿Cómo puede un gobierno continuar con el diseño de un proyecto, con riesgos como desplazamientos, explosiones y degradación medioambiental, sin una participación plena de los afectados?
Ignorar las prioridades y el bienestar de las comunidades locales no es nuevo en Colón. Masivas cantidades de inversión se han destinado a la ciudad, y aún esto no se ha reflejado en beneficios para la población local. La mayoría de los habitantes viven en ambientes inseguros, ya que las infraestructuras se desmoronan tras décadas de desatención. Por supuesto, la excepción es la zona de libre comercio, la cual se encuentra en mucha mejor forma que el resto de la ciudad. En este contexto, el plan del presidente Varela de ampliar la zona del libre comercio podría parecer, en principio, una buena idea.
Aún así, no se debe olvidar que los habitantes de Colón son considerados personas ajenas a la zona de libre comercio. Necesitan permisos especiales para poder comprar allí. Los residentes son principalmente utilizados como mano de obra barata. Los bienes son producidos por los mercados de exportación y las ganancias benefician solo a los negocios e inversores, pero no a los residentes locales. Mientras Varela afirmaba que 1.2 billones de USD serían invertidos en Colón, solo el proyecto de GNL costará 1.1 billones de USD. La mayoría del dinero dirigido a Colón será utilizado en actividades que tienen como objetivo producir gas que será enviado directamente a Asia, poniendo en entredicho los beneficios, si hay alguno, para las personas que viven actualmente en Colón.
Uno se tiene que preguntar: ¿realmente, alguien ha preguntado a los habitantes cuales son sus prioridades de desarrollo, o qué planes tienen para sus familias y ciudad? ¿Hubieran priorizado una planta de GNL y un centro de exportación? Cuando miramos la opinión de unos pocos entrevistados en la encuesta, la respuesta parece ser mucho más complicada de lo que argumentada el gobierno: “¡No a la construcción de la planta de gas!”; “Cancelen el proyecto AES y reforesten la área afectada”; “Transmitir información a través de los medios de comunicación e incluir a las comunidades”; “Inviertan en energía eólica, la cual es más ecológica y no tiene efectos nocivos”.
Cualquier proyecto, para poder ser exitoso y merecer la utilización de la palabra desarrollo, tiene que priorizar la inclusión de las comunidades afectadas. Mientras que las prioridades locales y nacionales pueden variar, un diálogo de buena fe que incluya las comunidades afectadas posibilitaría un acercamiento entre las partes. Tal y como expresaba un residente, “para poder desarrollar el proyecto, la opinión de las comunidades debería ser escuchada (…)”. El gobierno y los inversores tendrían que preguntarse a sí mismos si los residentes de Colón realmente se beneficiarían de la expansión de la zona franca o de las inversiones en industrias extractivas.
Los hallazgos de la investigación en el conjunto de la comunidad serán presentados próximamente en un informe por el IAP y la ACD. Esperamos que el informe se tenga en cuenta por aquellos que planean invertir en Colón, de manera que escuchen a las comunidades y prioricen el desarrollo real de la región.
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), Accountability Counsel, 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.
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.