by Jocelyn Soto Medallo, Ryan Schlief, Vaishnavi Varadarajan
Through its work on reinforcing community-led development campaigns around the world, the International Accountability Project (IAP) knows that the impacts of climate change are disproportionately borne by communities that lack the political and economic power in the decision-making processes affecting their lands, livelihoods, and environment. Movement-led successes have sought and achieved justice for harm caused, limited climate harming activities in some areas and encouraged more “green” activities as legitimate alternatives.
Governments design the majority of development projects, which in turn are funded in part by development banks. Civil society and communities rarely lead this process and are often not meaningfully consulted about their ideas, priorities, and visions, despite being the intended beneficiaries of development.
Communities and activists have long documented the harmful activities, especially by the mining industry and use of fossil fuels, which destroy their immediate environments and contribute to world-wide climate change.
Protecting the environment and confronting the climate crisis requires addressing the deep-seated power asymmetries between communities and the project proponents — governments, development banks, companies and investors. These power asymmetries result, among other things, in a lack of information and space for communities to meaningfully weigh in on the projects that impact their environment and lives. Many governments have taken added steps to limit access to information and freedom of assembly and association, and surveil data and technology platforms.
In the absence of measures to ensure that communities’ priorities are front and center, IAP has witnessed that purportedly “green” and “cleaner” projects — even those projects aimed at mitigating climate change — are not exempt from posing serious human and environmental rights abuses. Many of the community-led response campaigns discussed below are connected to projects promoted as safer, renewable energy alternatives.
The World Bank Group is one of the world’s largest actors in climate finance — with $26 billion USD in 2021 alone. The World Bank accounts for over half of multilateral climate finance to developing countries and over two-thirds of adaptation finance. Development banks, working with national governments, corporations and investors, have an influential role in defining the global response to the climate crisis, but across their portfolios, exacerbating it as well. While actively co-opting the language and discourse of climate justice movements, their actions often cause further harm to communities and our climate.
It is imperative to recognize climate justice as an inclusive and intersectional movement that includes marginalized groups including indigenous communities, women, youth, labor unions, farmers, fishworkers, LGBTQ+ communities and differently-abled people. To many, this interconnectivity is not a new realization, but it is a critical lens that governments, development banks, companies, and investors have yet to truly center in their response to the climate crisis.
With these realities in mind, IAP’s climate justice work has focused on supporting community-led responses related to two primary areas: 1) projects contributing to the climate crisis and 2) “green” projects causing rights abuses.
“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.”
- Lydia Mkandawire, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Malawi
Projects Contributing to the Climate Change
Despite some commitments to end fossil fuels, development banks continue to fund harmful fossil fuel industries in coal, oil and gas sectors. There is also funding for harmful extractive projects such as gold mining or mining of minerals such as lithium and nickel that are seen as needed for this particular approach to renewable energy. Such investments derail us further from achieving a just transition or fulfilling the goals of the Paris Agreement - directives which may present possible solutions for the climate crisis.
The co-administrators of the Early Warning System in Latin America and the Caribbean which include a collective of 6 organizations and a regional network of communities affected by development bank projects, have been involved in the monitoring and advocacy against lithium projects that are being planned or executed in the region. The organizations published a joint position paper about the sector and how it adversely impacts the environment and other rights of communities. In partnership with the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, they are continuing advocacy efforts to these projects while also working with communities to exchange information about potential impacts and assist them in their responses.
The global food production system and livestock sector have been recognized world over as industries that have been fueling the climate crisis. Experts have cited that animal factory farming produces nearly 16.5 % of human made greenhouse gas emissions and 32% of global methane emissions. Development finance institutions have been financing multinational meat corporations that are polluting our ecosystems and promoting animal cruelty. IAP and its partners are part of a global campaign known as Stop Financing Factory Farming. The Early Warning System plays a crucial role in this campaign to identify potentially harmful projects at an early stage, extend outreach about these projects to affected communities and reinforce their research and advocacy. The Stop Financing Factory Farming campaign works towards collectively applying pressure on development finance institutions to divest from factory farming projects which are harmful to animal welfare, human health and the climate crisis. This campaign led to a successful example in Brazil where IDB Invest — the private sector arm of the Inter-American Development Bank — suspended the funding to Marfrig, a factory farming giant that would potentially emit significant greenhouse gas emissions. The company has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon, encroachment of indigenous lands and corruption charges.
“Development banks on every continent are directly undermining the UN SDGs and Paris goals by channeling billions of public dollars into multinational meat corporations. While undermining the livelihoods of small-scale producers, this heavily polluting industrial meat system is fueling the climate crisis, destroying precious ecosystems, promoting animal cruelty and increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance and future pandemics.”
— Kari Hamerschlag and Christopher D. Cook in the Guardian
“Green” Projects that Abuse Rights
Using a combination of advisory, advocacy, and community organizing roles, IAP has been supporting community-led responses that are advocating for community-led, accessible, and equitable solutions for renewable energy. Renewable energy is the core component of just transition. However, many communities, especially indigenous and other marginalized communities, have had negative experiences with badly planned energy projects.
Since 2016, the Early Warning System has tracked over 240 projects that fund or enable hydropower. Large hydropower projects have had disastrous social and environmental consequences for communities around the world and have been widely opposed by community-led struggles for decades. Studies by environmentalists have also highlighted how hydropower projects cannot be seen as a viable “clean energy” alternative as large dams are also major emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas 28–34 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Despite their adverse impacts on rights and the health of our ecosystems, hydropower investments are a significant part of climate finance.
In Malawi, IAP and the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) are supporting communities affected by the Mpatamanga Hydropower Project. The project will result in the physical and economic displacement of the surrounding communities, restrict river access as well as alter the river flow used by the surrounding communities, among other environmental and social impacts. IAP supported the affected communities along with CHRR to conduct a community-led research. In the research, communities reported that they have not been provided with access to relevant project information; nor were they meaningfully consulted or provided with information on the project-level or independent complaint mechanisms.
In Nepal, IAP has been working with indigenous-led organisations Community Empowerment and Social Justice Network and Indigenous Women’s Legal Awareness Group (INWOLAG) along with NGO Forum on ADB to support indigenous and dalit communities affected by the Tanahu Hydropower Project. IAP and partners assisted communities affected to design and carry out their own community-led research which showed that 75% of participants had not been consulted during the planning phase of the project. The affected communities then filed multiple complaints to the independent accountability mechanisms of Asian Development Bank and European Investment Bank demanding for land for land compensation and meaningful consultations. As the project is being constructed, the community members have been continuously facing climate related risks such as increased landslides and flooding.
“We, [the] community, are not against the development rather for fair procedure. We were living happily but this hydropower project has given us so much tension that we can not concentrate on our regular lives. It’s been long, we are struggling and the government is also not favoring us. Sometimes we become low, but we will continue our struggle.”
— Til Bahadur Thapa, community member in Nepal affected by the Tanahu Hydropower Project.
Solar and Wind
While considered to be a more efficient and less polluting renewable energy, solar and wind also require huge areas of land, which can result in land grabbing and conflicts. IAP has confirmed that such projects, if not planned with affected communities’ consent and participation, can lead to human and environmental rights abuses.
In Brazil, IAP is working with Conectas and Instituto Maíra to assist the traditional Quilombola communities that are being impacted by a wind farm financed by the New Development Bank and Brazilian Development Bank. With IAP’s assistance, the communities conducted a community-led research process which shows the company involved is putting the social cohesion of these communities at risk by negotiating individually with them and disregarding the ILO Convention 169 and National Constitutional norms, resulting in physical and cultural threats. Communities have had their health impaired, decreased access to education and access to the nearest cities on which they partly rely for their livelihood.
“This goes to show that even clean energy projects — which are supposedly less harmful — can have very serious effects on the lives of communities in the region when they are developed without social participation and without concern for the impacts they can have on people’s lives”
- Julia Neiva, Coordinator of Development and Socio-Environmental Rights at Conectas Direitos Humanos, Brazil
In Malawi, IAP and the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation are supporting communities affected by Salima Solar Project, a solar photovoltaic plant in Salima District, Malawi. The project documents promise many positive impacts, such as improving the country’s electricity capacity and providing employment. Nonetheless, the project site is located on existing farmlands and the land acquisition has resulted in the physical and economic displacement of people, many of which are location-specific — for example, crop production and animal grazing. In addition, the communities have been subjected to environmental pollution due to the project company’s failure to adhere to the environmental and social management plan.
Banks such as the Asian Development Bank have a recognised waste-to-energy to be a step in the direction of a circular economy and have been investing in waste-to-energy incinerators as a sustainable, renewable energy source. However, communities impacted by these projects have been actively speaking out against the environment pollution caused by these incinerators and reinforcing that burning of waste is a false solution. Our partners Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), have highlighted that waste-to-energy incinerators are one of the most toxic and climate-polluting industries that emit 68% more greenhouse gas per unit of energy than coal plants, and have been advocating for zero-waste solutions.
In Maldives and the Philippines, IAP is working with GAIA Asia Pacific to support communities and civil society groups advocating against waste-to-energy incinerators in Male, Maldives and Cebu, Philippines. The Greater Male Waste-to-energy project in Maldives co-funded by Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is being built on an artificial island known as Thilafushi which stores waste and is the first blue bond project of the Asian Development Bank. The pollution from the fly ash and hazardous waste could impact migrant labourers working as waste pickers on the island and residents living on nearby islands.
Communities and waste pickers have been opposing the waste-to-energy plant being proposed in Cebu, Philippines due to its environment and social risks as well as lack of regulation and meaningful consultations. The Philippines also has a standing ban on incinerators yet Asian Development Bank has been promoting this project. IAP along with GAIA Asia Pacific and Philippine Earth Justice Centre (PEJC) organised a week-long training on community-led research in Cebu during June 2022, where local activists and community leaders conducted a survey to understand the local communities’ perceptions about the impacts of the waste-to-energy project being implemented.
Climate change poses a threat to humanity, most of all for already marginalized populations. A just transition must be an inclusive and intersectional movement that centers the priorities of communities who are tirelessly working towards protecting their land and natural resources by practicing and proposing sustainable solutions.
A community-led approach to a just transition is thus critical for strengthening climate resilience. Truly sustainable and community-led development cannot be achieved without adequate protections for the environment and those who safeguard it. All activities, including those labeled “green,” should support community priorities, ensure the full and effective participation of communities in decision-making processes and not cause further harm.
Jocelyn Soto Medallo is the Deputy Director of IAP; Ryan Schlief is the Executive Director of IAP; and Vaishnavi Varadarajan is the Community Organizer, South Asia for IAP.