Communities: we want to see our own development priorities realized
By Elias Jika
“Before the coming in of the project plans, floods eroded the bridge in our village. The government brought equipment to reconstruct the bridge, but the dam project has stopped the bridge’s reconstruction.” These are the words of one of the survey respondents who participated in the community-led research on the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project in Malawi.
Even though it is still in its development stage, the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project — being developed on the Shire river by the Government of Malawi through the Department of Energy — is already devastating the lives of the communities surrounded by the proposed project area. The rights of surrounding communities are being adversely impacted, including the right to development, the right to education, the right to effective remedy, the right to mental health and the right to adequate food. The development of the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project has even indirectly impacted the right to life — at least two people have died while crossing the dangerous Shire river using makeshift boats after plans for the reconstruction of their bridge were halted by the development of the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project.
“Our school used to be attended by pupils from Chikira village and Chaswanthaka village across the [Shire] river. Since the bridge was destroyed by a storm and plans for reconstruction were stopped by the development of the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project, the number of pupils has decreased drastically from about 800 to only 350. The Government of Malawi is violating the right to education of our children by developing this project without our meaningful consultation,” shared the headmaster of the school that has also been marked as one of the impacted infrastructures.
These revelations are part of the work of the Early Warning System initiative. The Early Warning System ensures that local communities, and the organizations that support them, have verified information about projects being proposed at major development finance institutions and clear strategies for advocacy — ideally before funding is decided. The Early Warning System exchanges information, advice, tools and resources with communities, the local organizations supporting them to inform development actors. The information exchanged includes accessible information about projects at development finance institutions, including the roles of any private actors, and critical data from community-led research efforts. The initiative includes the first web-based tool to centralize information on development projects proposed by 15 development finance institutions, is updated daily and currently holds more than 20,000 projects proposed since 2016.
In May 2020 after the World Bank had disclosed on their website their interest to finance the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project, the Early Warning System database automatically collected the information. After analyzing the project information, an accessible summary was produced to inform the project affected communities. One of IAP partners in Malawi, the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) shared the project information with the affected communities. Through that engagement, CHRR understood that the affected communities needed further support to protect their rights and advocate for their own development priorities that were being hampered by the development of the dam project. Using the community-led research methodology, CHRR supported the affected communities to adapt the community-led research template to document their experiences, knowledge and recommendations to ensure that the project does not violate their rights and benefits the people being impacted. The Community Action Guide on Community-Led Research is part of the Community Action Guides used by community organizers to start or strengthen local campaigns.
The Mpatamanga Hydropower Project proposes the construction, operation and maintenance of a 350-megawatt hydroelectric power plant and regulating dam. The World Bank is considering a 350 million USD funding of the total 1.07 billion USD estimated project cost. In addition, the Government of Malawi and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) entered into an interim cooperation agreement that enabled the IFC to pursue early-stage development activities before a formal agreement was signed. According to bank documents, the IFC provided an investment in the form of: (a) up to 3.5 million USD through its InfraVentures facility and, (b) up to 4 million USD in its capacity as the implementing partner of the Global Infrastructure Facility for the development of the project.
Development of the Mpatamanga Hydropower project started in 2013, while community engagement for the development of an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) happened in 2015 through 2016. Since then, the affected communities would not hear from the project developers again until August 2020, this time for new ESIA studies and resettlement action plan preparations. Affected communities reported that they did not clearly understand if the recent ESIA studies were meant to replace the initial studies, or complement them.
Between October 2020 and March 2021, CHRR with the support of the International Accountability Project (IAP) facilitated a community-led research process with the communities affected by the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project. The affected communities reside in Chaswanthaka and Chikira villages in Blantyre district and Kambalame village in Neno district.
The findings of the community-led research include:
- Lack of meaningful consultation of the affected communities on the project plans and design;
- Failure by the project developers to provide the affected communities with adequate and timely project information;
- Affected communities’ lack of access to effective grievance redress mechanisms; and
- Irregularities with the resettlement planning process
Some of the challenges that the affected communities have faced in their engagement with the project developers are accessing project information to inform their meaningful engagement, and lack of meaningful consultation in the project planning processes. One of the project affected persons notes:
“I would like for the implementing agency to come clear and give us the right information because we were told about 5 years ago that we should not make permanent structures on our lands, but up to now nothing has commenced and we are not farming like we used to.”
“The government has not held any meeting in my community to give us any information about the project,” shared another project affected person.
The community-led research led to a report that CHRR and IAP are currently using to engage with the Government of Malawi, the IFC and the World Bank to ensure that the violations that the development of the project is causing can be addressed. In August 2021, it was revealed that the Government of Malawi had been, and actually the IFC and World Bank supported them to engage the affected communities for the development of the ESIA and RAP while there was no stakeholder engagement plan in place. The IFC and World Bank safeguard policies require that the client must develop a stakeholder engagement plan, as stated by the IFC Safeguard Policies, “the IFC client must develop and implement a Stakeholder Engagement Plan that is scaled to the project risks and impacts and development stage and tailored to the characteristics and interests of the Affected Communities.”
The Government of Malawi is just now in the process of developing a stakeholder engagement plan after receiving recommendations from CHRR. Notwithstanding, it’s surprising to learn that in the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project draft ESIA of February 2021, the Government of Malawi claimed that they had developed a stakeholder engagement plan that was used in the engagement of the affected communities.
IAP’s work has demonstrated time and again that the right to information is not merely a checkbox, but rather the foundation to development. Our analysis and advocacy so far has demonstrated that access to information policies and practices at development finance institutions lack the people-centered focus that is so central to fulfilling the right to development. This can be evidenced by the IFC and World Bank’s engagement on the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project. We continue to recommend development banks to prioritize affected communities in their project planning by meaningfully consulting them and ensuring they get involved from the design phase of the project. True development can be realized only if communities can see their own development priorities realized.
“Through our experience supporting marginalized groups, we can attest that most rural communities in Malawi are not aware of their rights and the role they are supposed to play, when it comes to development projects being implemented in their communities. This is also the case with the communities impacted by the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project. Community members have the right to have access to relevant information, to help them make informed decisions regarding their livelihood and they are supposed to take part in the design, implementation and monitoring of the development projects. That is what CHRR is trying to ensure that the project proponents and financiers exercise in fulfilling their rights,” — Lydia Mkandawire, CHRR
Elias Jika is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project (IAP) and is based in Malawi.