With the World Bank officially launching a review of its environmental and social safeguard policies, it’s about time we take a closer look at the World Bank’s actions in relation to those policies, specifically in regards to the Bank’s tendency to finance development projects that undermine or otherwise extinguish Indigenous Peoples rights.
To start things off, let’s go back to 1975, when the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) started funding the Chixoy Dam in Guatemala. For ten years straight, the World Bank and the IDB gave millions of dollars to successive military regimes in Guatemala despite the glaring risks to the Maya who lived in the vicinity of the Rio Negro in the department of Baja Verapaz.
On February 12th, 1982 those risks became gruesome reality. In an effort to make way for the dam, the military carried out a brutal massacre of Maya villagers. A second massacre followed four weeks later, on March 13th. Then, a third massacre was carried out on May 14th. A fourth massacre took place four months later, on September 18th.
The infamous Chixoy dam massacres would have never happened if the World Bank and the IDB refused to give the military regimes the funds they needed for the dam. Unfortunately, they didn’t care about risks, only the potential gains–and there were plenty of gains to go around. Guatemala paid their debt to both banks in full, plus interest.
Let’s look at something a little more current: Right now, the government of Ethiopia is working to re-settle some 1.5 million people across the country. This “Villagization” programme is supposed to be a voluntary process that offers everyone increased access to basic services like education and improved food security. In exchange for this particular brand of improved living, people just have to leave their home and relocate to a newly built settlement.
That’s the theory anyways. The Anuak Peoples, who’ve lived in the Gambella region of Ethiopia for at least 40,000 years, are being forced to take part in the process. The Anuak say they are being dispossessed of their lands and forced onto the new village sites where there is little access to food or land to cultivate. They also report a daunting list of abuses that are being carried out by the military including beatings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in military custody, rape and extra-judicial killing.
That’s what’s happening on the ground. If we pull back the curtain so-to-speak, we find that this settlement project is being funded by the World Bank through the Protection of Basic Services Project (PBS).
To date, PBS has provided US$1.4 billion in grants and loans to the Government of Ethiopia for–wink wink, nudge nudge–improving access to basic services. In reality, they are funding the outright theft of the Anuaks fertile land and the destruction of their culture and way of life.
This is despite the World Bank’s safeguard policy on Indigenous Peoples, which states:
“For all projects that are proposed for Bank financing and affect Indigenous Peoples, the Bank requires the borrower to engage in a process of free, prior, and informed consultation. The Bank provides project financing only where free, prior, and informed consultation results in broad community support to the project by the affected Indigenous Peoples. Such Bank-financed projects include measures to (a) avoid potentially adverse effects on the Indigenous Peoples’ communities; or (b) when avoidance is not feasible, minimize, mitigate, or compensate for such effects. Bank-financed projects are also designed to ensure that the Indigenous Peoples receive social and economic benefits that are culturally appropriate and gender and intergenerationally inclusive.”
We could spend all day looking at other examples of the World Bank financing human rights abuses. Consider the Gibe III dam also in Ethiopia, Rio Tinto’s soon-to-be-funded Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in Mongolia and Maple Energy’s oil drilling in Peru. There’s more projects in Uganda, India, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chad, Mexico and Uganda.
And let’s not forget that the World Bank is a major driving force behind that crazy little scam called REDD. As the Indigenous Environmental Network and numerous other NGOs have continuously pointed out, REDD projects frequently jeopardize Indigenous Peoples and forest dependent communities all for the sake of perpetrating a fraud that protects polluters and justifies even more development.
So where do all these safeguard policies fit in? Well, as evidenced by the “villagization” project in Ethiopia, they don’t. Even with the ‘limited’ scope of the current set of policies–a problem to which the World Bank readily admits—they are constantly disregarded in order for the World Bank to finance projects that violate human rights and indigenous rights.
On that note, it’s worth pointing out that, technically speaking, the safeguard policies aren’t even designed to protect these rights. They’re all about helping the World Bank in their so-called mission to “eradicate poverty” through economic development.
That brings us to the road ahead. Even though the World Bank is undertaking a review of the safeguard policies, no amount of ink or fresh paper will change what’s happening on the ground. Even if I wrote the policies on my own, the World Bank is not going to suddenly stop financing companies and governments that are carrying out crimes against Indigenous Peoples.
It’s up to us to hold the World Bank accountable. It’s not an easy task, but nor is it an impossible one. Back in the 1980s, the World Bank was getting ready to finance the Belo Monte Dam project in Brazil. Fortunately, the UN specialized agency was forced to walk away thanks to the resilient efforts of the Indigenous Peoples of the Xingu River region and a well-organized world-wide solidarity campaign.