Bank environmental commitment under fire

11 September 2006

versión en español

Despite the Bank’s patchy track record on sustainability and current involvement in disastrous foresty, dam and genetically modified agriculture projects, President Wolfowitz announced in June that the Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development department (ESSD) is to be disbanded and merged with the Bank’s infrastructure and energy units.

The move has created uproar amongst civil society and Bank staff. Surrendering the structural independence of a department dealing with the environmental and social dimensions of development- including indigenous peoples, resettlement, and biodiversity- and merging it with a body working on infrastructure such as roads, ports, hydro-electric dams and oil pipelines risks sending a signal that the Bank is not serious about protecting ecosystems and livelihoods. The new department called the Sustainable Development Network will be led by the current head of the infrastructure department, Kathy Sierra, and a new position will be created for a “world class environmental expert”. ESSD was established following some of the sharpest conflicts between the Bank and civil society over the disastrous environmental and social consequences of projects as the Sardar Sarovar dam project in India, the Chixoy dam in Guatemala and the Bulyanhulu gold mine in Tanzania.

drastically improve the investment climate in biotechnology for cash and food crops

Forestry lessons learned?

The Bank has given a humble acknowledgement to a highly critical Inspection Panel review of its Forest Concession Management and Control Pilot Project in Cambodia (see Updates 46, 51), which found the five-year project had broken six internal safeguard policies and ignored the views of forest-dependent communities and failed to take on the Bank’s key objective of poverty reduction. Bank management has produced a remedial action plan committing to continued engagement in Cambodia’s forest sector, with an assurance that future Bank forest projects will increase local participation and better address environmental concerns “Many poor communities depend on access to forest products for their livelihoods. This is too critical an issue for the World Bank to simply walk away,” said Ian Porter, Country Director for Cambodia.

Response has been cautious so far. UK-based NGO Global Witness pointed out that the remedial action plan gives no guarantees as to what the Bank will actually do or when it might do it: “President Wolfowitz should task the Inspection Panel with monitoring progress to ensure the Bank management does go on from here to play a constructive role.” In addition wider questions of debt, accountability and the Bank’s approach both to forest management and combating corruption remain unanswered. “The Bank must now demonstrate that lessons from Cambodia are being applied across Bank forest sector interventions globally”. This imperative is underscored by a recent Inspection Panel investigation into the Bank’s forestry work in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has highlighted similar failings in project design and implementation (see Update 49, 50).

Harmonising diversity

The World Bank is set to secure funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for two projects, one in West Africa and the other in Latin America, that biodiversity groups fear will aggressively drive genetically modified (GM) crops into the heart of peasant agriculture and threaten food sovereignty. A joint report the African Centre for Biosafety, the ETC Group, GRAIN, and Red por una América Latina Libre de Transgénicos states that the projects are driven by the agenda of the World Bank and US government to harmonise regulations for GM crops across regions in order to override national processes that are susceptible to local opposition.

The cotton project in West Africa uses field trials to develop a single uniform model for risk assessment and regulation that can be adopted across West Africa. The project focuses on WAEMU- a grouping of 8 West African states whose secretariat has the power to impose the ‘fast track adoption’ of compulsory ‘enabling’ legislation on its members, unlike ECOWAS which covers all 15 West African countries but lacks the same authority. “If WAEMU is able to harmonise national bio-safety legislations and later to enforce a decision taken in one country in the other countries, it will drastically improve the investment climate in biotechnology for cash and food crops in the WAEMU area,” states the project proposal.

The five countries involved in the Latin America project – Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru- are collectively considered among the most important centres of agricultural biodiversity in the world. The project focuses on cassava, cotton, maize, potato and rice, which millions of people in Latin America depend upon for food, medicine, livelihoods and cultural identity. The NGO report challenges the project’s stated aim to “strengthen the capacity of participating countries to implement the Biosafety Protocol”- an agreement dealing with transboundary trade in GM organisms- given that the project focuses mainly on local food crops that are rarely traded across borders in the region. “The project’s introduction of GM varieties of these crops will inevitably contaminate traditional varieties and pave the way for the destruction of the seed and food systems that indigenous and peasant communities have developed over millennia. “

“Criminal silence” on Pakistan drainage project

In August serious flooding occurred in the Indus river basin in Pakistan as a result of a series of breaches in the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) following heavy rains in Sindh province. The Bank-funded LBOD, part of Pakistan’s National Drainage Programme (NDP), was completed in 1997. This flooding is the latest in a legacy of damage which includes land degradation, forest destruction, ground water salinisation and destruction of fishing and agricultural livelihoods. It has resulted in mass urban migration and unemployment.

A letter from the Sindhu Bachao Tarla (Save Indus Struggle) to John Wall, the World Bank’s country director for Pakistan has accused the Bank of a “criminal silence”. It pointed to the Bank’s complicity in the recent devastation and expressed serious discontent over the delayed release of an Inspection Panel report. Those affected by the LBOD project filed a claim to the Inspection Panel in September 2004. A year since the panel visited the area a report has still not been made public. A second letter to the Inspection panel details how disasters related to the project have expanded and that the request does not cover the areas currently affected by the LBOD and NDP drains.

In the meantime protests have been held by those affected by the current World Bank-funded Taunsa Barrage Rehabilitation and Modernisation Project (TBRMP), a successor to Pakistan’s NDP. During the visit of a World Bank delegation in May a rally was held to demand an immediate halt to the project and for the provision of appropriate compensation to affected people. In July a Peoples Tribunal on Indus was organised by Sindhu Bachao Tarla at which witnesses highlighted the failure of the World Bank to comply with its own safeguards on disclosure and consultation with project affected peoples. In defence the project director Muhammad Akhtar included claims that comprehensive surveys are being carried out to ensure that all those affected would receive adequate compensation. The World Bank representative present, Usman Qamar, promised that the Bank would do whatever was possible to ensure a comprehensive consultation process.