Bank violates indigenous rights

1 February 2008

The World Bank-funded Nam Theun 2 (NT2) dam in Lao PDR is under scrutiny once again from NGOs, UN representatives and ‘international experts’ for its violation of human and indigenous peoples’ rights, and its failure to achieve the development and environment goals it has promised (see Update 56, 45).

NT2 is expected to sell more than 90 per cent of generated electricity to Thailand. The Bank has put up $130 million. The reservoir is slated to be filled by late 2008 and the first electricity generated by 2009.

A September report by the NT2 power company’s panel of ‘international experts’ finds that restoring peoples’ livelihoods could take nine years or “possibly more”, warns of “significant impoverishment” in hundreds of affected villages, and says more donor aid is needed. The report has since become the subject of a public spat between Canadian NGO Probe International, and the World Bank and other project representatives.

restoring livelihoods could take nine years or "possibly more"

In a December letter to the editor of Thai newspaper, The Nation, Probe’s Grainne Ryder refers to numerous social and environmental inadequacies of the project and argues that project revenues should go directly to villagers suffering losses caused by the dam’s operations. In an indignant response, Peter Stephens, Bank communications officer, claimed that Probe has misrepresented the experts’ report, and states that the project will generate $2 billion over 25 years for poverty reduction and that it is “progressively overcoming challenges”. The Bank has also announced that it will be publishing a book about the challenges of NT2, optimistically entitled Doing dams right, due out later this year.

In a November report to the human rights council, UN special rapporteur on human rights and indigenous peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen states that forced relocation or resettlement due to the construction of mega projects in the name of “national development” is one of the most “serious threats to indigenous peoples’ survival in Asia”. He gives the NT2 dam as an example of this in light of its displacement of as many as 6,200 indigenous people. He also refers to reports from Lao PDR of the lack of recognition given to indigenous peoples’ rights to their communal lands, and incidents of arbitrary arrest, fake criminal charges, threats and intimidation made against members of indigenous or tribal peoples.

A second report by the special rapporteur cites examples of how national poverty reduction strategies have failed to meet the priorities of indigenous peoples by failing to recognise their collective rights to land and resources. He asserts that “multilateral donors are also key players in human rights based development and hence also duty bearers in respect of policies and programmes on behalf of indigenous peoples”. The report provides a comprehensive definition of the term ‘free prior and informed consent’, and states that the application of this principle in development programmes and projects on behalf of indigenous peoples “is a basic prerequisite for ensuring respect for the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination”.

The World Bank is sorely lacking on the application of this principle: during the revision of its social and environmental lending standards the International Finance Corporation replaced the term with “free prior and informed consultation leading to broad community support”, amidst much criticism (see Update 56). The UN report recommends that donors and international agencies “should refrain from supporting programmes and projects which either directly or indirectly, are or could be conducive to the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples in the countries receiving development aid.”