Information delayed is information denied — Fisherfolk Communities in Northern Sri Lanka Independently Investigate Impacts of Proposed Harbor Project

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It has been close to a year since local fishing communities in Sri Lanka first learned about a proposed development project that could threaten their livelihoods and environment. The Northern Province Sustainable Fisheries Development Project, proposed by the Asian Development Bank, could decimate the traditional fishing economy and further impoverish the lives of children and families only a decade after the end of the civil war. Communities first heard about this project, not from the government or project planners, but from the Sri Lanka Nature Group and the International Accountability Project, civil society organizations working with the Early Warning System. These organizations, together with Accountability Counsel, facilitated a training for communities in 2018 to discuss how they can hold the Asian Development Bank accountable to its own social and environmental safeguards and transparency requirements.

Over 1,000 community members on Mannar Island in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka have been meeting and organizing in response to the proposed project. According to local communities, the project is not based on community priorities and has been designed without meaningful public consultations.

In recent months, communities have repeatedly requested the Government of Sri Lanka and the ADB to make project information more available and accessible to local communities. Despite numerous requests by both communities and civil society and despite the many promises made by various government agencies, project documents are still not available in Tamil — the language spoken by affected communities.

Community-led research uncovers failures in consultation and ensuring access to information

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Community members attend a workshop organized by SLNG, Accountability Counsel and International Accountability Project

The International Accountability Project and Sri Lanka Nature Group (SLNG) assisted communities in Mannar district in conducting research to understand and document what communities knew about the project. The research collected testimonies about the project, its financing, and the community’s experience with the consultation process, as well as their understanding of entitlements under the project.

Between June and September 2018, a research team of 20 people comprising community members in Mannar and SLNG staff, carried out a community-wide survey and held focus group discussions with over 400 community members. The survey focused on communities’ access to information, their opportunities for accessible public participation and consultation, the perceived human rights and environmental risks associated with the project and the degree to which the project incorporated any of the community’s development priorities.

The results of the community-led research process in Mannar suggests that the Asian Development Bank failed to uphold its Public Communications Policy and comply with the Safeguard Policy Statement. The bank’s obligations on information disclosure and meaningful consultation are set out, in part, in the bank’s current Access to Information Policy, which came into effect on January 1, 2019 and superseded the Public Communications Policy. In preparation for this project, officials failed to uphold key elements of the Public Communications Policy which required ADB to “provide information in a timely, clear, and relevant manner. Information shall be given to affected people early enough for them to provide meaningful inputs into project design and implementation. ADB shall not selectively disclose information” (para. 30).

Similarly, the new principles-based Access to Information Policy recognizes the obligation of the bank to provide timely and accessible information to project-affected people and other stakeholders:

Yet, the experience of communities in Northern Sri Lanka would suggest that the ADB has failed to implement several key principles necessary to facilitate community inputs — for instance, Principle 1 (Timely and appropriate disclosure), Principle 4 (Proactive disclosure), Principle 5 (Sharing of information and ideas) and Principle 6 (Providing information to project-affected people and other stakeholders)

From the research, 99% of respondents indicated that they were not consulted during project planning and 94% of respondents reported that they did not have the information needed to be able to provide informed opinions and ideas about the project plans. “The project information should be provided to everyone in our local language.” stated one respondent.

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Excerpt of an infographic in Tamil summarizing research findings. See the full infographic. (An English version of the infographic is also available)

In addition, 98% of respondents reported that they did not receive information about either the consultation or project complaint processes. Respondents reiterated that the project financier and executing agencies should, “consult the community before commencing a project.” Failing to ensure communities receive clear and timely information about proposed projects creates numerous barriers for participation. For example, 97% of respondents reported that they did not have an opportunity to propose ideas for specific development projects for their community. Close to 90% responded that their ideas were not incorporated in the project plans. Importantly, 95% of respondents indicated that their idea of development is different from their government’s idea of development.

One participant recommended, “Respect the community by planning the project with the community.” These findings suggest that the ADB has failed to provide clear, timely and appropriate disclosure, preventing communities from meaningfully engaging with the project. As per its own policies, “people may equally seek, receive, and convey information and ideas about ADB operations.” The experience of Mannar community experienced otherwise.

Asian Development Bank postpones Board Date for the project but communities continue to face barriers to participation

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Based on the preliminary findings of the research and community’s demands, a brief statement was sent to the Board of Directors of the Asian Development Bank. The statement proposed that the bank postpone their vote to decide funding on the project until communities have received adequate information and have been properly consulted by project officers and the government. The statement also urged the bank and executing agencies to take into account the concerns, recommendations and demands by local communities and incorporate community development priorities into project plans. The statement further recommended that the Asian Development Bank and Government of Sri Lanka ensure a safe space for people to meaningfully participate throughout the process, free from any form of intimidation or coercion.

Following advocacy supported by SLNG, IAP and NGO Forum on ADB, the Asian Development Bank agreed to postpone the formal vote on the project. The ADB’s Board of Directors requested the Resident Mission in Sri Lanka to develop a road map for further community consultations, to provide the Board with periodic updates on the process, and to commit not to move forward on construction until there is broader community support.

Despite these initial promises, communities continued to face serious obstacles to participation. In December 2018, SLNG representatives were invited to meet with the responsible government agencies and ADB staff in Colombo to present details of the community-led research and findings. The government officials promised to provide project information in Tamil and to conduct consultation meeting at the communities on December 19. When SLNG representatives traveled to observe the meeting, they discovered that the meeting had already taken place 5 days previously. The meeting had been organized separately with a small number of government-organized groups, without the knowledge of the Mannar District Fisherman’s Cooperative Federation or SLNG. In another worrying development, local communities have reported instances of intimidation in recent weeks by project management, government officials and ADB consultants. Community members report feeling pressured not criticize the project, with the implication that the government may stop providing support to fisherfolks if they continue to voice their concerns.

In light of this coercion, communities are now demanding an immediate suspension of the project until all project documents are made available in Tamil and there is a clear plan to ensure that project activities will be designed with communities. We stand with communities in urging the Asian Development Bank to heed the leadership and advice of local communities

Tom Weerachat works as IAP’s Program Coordinator, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tom is a community trainer, a teacher, a traveler, and a Mekong activist.

The Early Warning System ensures local communities and the civil society that support them, have verified information about projects likely to cause human and environmental rights abuses. Learn more: ews.rightsindevelopment.org

For more information about this project and further materials, please read:

Fisherfolk Communities in Northern Sri Lanka Organize to Protect Livelihoods From Proposed Asian Development Bank Project

Preliminary Findings from Community-led Research on the Northern Province Sustainable Fisheries Development Project, Sri Lanka

International Accountability Project’s Global Community Action Guide on Community-led Research

International Accountability Project works to defend the rights, land and livelihoods of people threatened by destructive development projects.

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