Concerns Unaddressed, Communities in Malawi Continue Campaign on the Salima Solar Project

I first learned of the Salima Solar Project in September 2018, when local media reported that the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM), the state-owned power utility company, had signed MOUs with two private companies. Looking for any potential involvement by international finance institutions, I immediately searched for the project in the Early Warning System database and then online, but I could not find any documented involvement by them yet.

Image for post
Image for post

As a concerned Malawian citizen and a human rights activist who has witnessed the kind of adverse impacts development projects might have on the surrounding communities, I further researched the practices and any human and environmental rights violations of JCM Matswani Solar Limited, JCM Power Corporation Limited and all other associated companies reportedly involved. Since the Early Warning System software, Nyali, tracks the activities of development finance institutions very closely, in January 2019 I saw that the Netherlands Development Finance Company (FMO) disclosed proposed funding and then later in February 2019 that the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), a member of the World Bank Group, also was proposing support to the project.

I shared the project information collected through the Early Warning System with local partners in Malawi, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), so they could distribute it to the surrounding communities in Salima District.

“We want the company to commit to the respect and protection of human rights, by ensuring that it does not exacerbate or contribute to human rights violations through its activities and that it minimizes avoidable suffering, especially among marginalized and excluded groups.” — Michael Kaiyatsa, CHRR

Image for post
Image for post

Over the past few years, Malawians have been experiencing prolonged power cuts. Our households have lost power for as long as 9 hours a day. In an attempt to fix this situation, the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM) signed three power purchase agreements in September 2018, including two with an independent power producer, JCM Matswani Solar Limited, which will be responsible for producing 60MW and 20MW of solar power in Salima and Dedza districts respectively. Given the serious power shortages, the Solar Project in Salima was expected to be a welcome development. However, even as the project intends to increase energy capacity, it could also pose many adverse impacts to surrounding communities, especially if project planners fail to consider the views and concerns of those closest to the project site.

The Salima Solar Project involves the construction and operation of a 60 MW solar photovoltaic plant in Salima District, Malawi. The project includes the construction of transformers, associated cabling, access roads, a maintenance area, storage, temporary hostels and offices. The project will require 225 hectares of land, which has already resulted in the acquisition of land and relocation of people living near the project site. JCM Power Corporation, a private company, is responsible for developing, constructing and operating the project. The company has reportedly been buying land from affected communities since 2016.

The project promises many positive impacts, such as improving the country’s electricity capacity and generating employment. Nonetheless, the project site is located on existing farmlands, which means land will be acquired and people relocated away from their homes and farmlands. Site clearing began in December 2018 and construction is expected to be completed by October 2019. One individual has been relocated to make way for the project, but additional relocations are expected.

All development projects can have negative impacts on the people and the environment surrounding the project area. Solar and other clean energy projects can also be destructive in their own right, when one looks at the impacts they have on the affected communities. For instance, the Salima Solar project has already resulted in the acquisition of land and will result in the resettlement of project affected persons. Land acquisition can lead to a change in how the land is used, which can negatively affect agrarian activities and food supply. It can also precipitate conflicts if the resettlement area does not provide for the continuation of livelihood activities like livestock grazing. The Salima Solar Project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report states that the communities will not be allowed access to graze their animals in the area of land acquired for the transmission lines. Resettlement can also lead to a restriction on community’s access to food, markets, water sources and other basic services like schools, and health centres. Social conflicts may also arise stemming from poor consultation and participation of affected communities in the project process as was the case with the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya and the Kayerekera Mine in Malawi.

In March 2019, CHRR held meetings with project affected communities to exchange information about the project and understand any concerns the communities may have.

During the meetings, communities raised the following concerns:

  • The one individual had been relocated and others are facing relocation. The relocation site is a short distance away from the solar plant, and the community fears potential safety risks, for instance, that their children could be electrocuted;
  • Communities were reportedly not fully informed about the project and its impacts on their lives, livelihoods and environment;
  • Formally, the project had received support from the Salima District Executive Committee (a technical body comprising heads of government departments, NGOs and other development partners) which provides advice to the Salima District Council. However, the community reported that no proper consultations with stakeholders, including affected communities, were conducted.

Based on the concerns and recommendations from communities, in March, CHRR and IAP submitted a letter to MIGA detailing community recommendations and requested the bank to postpone making a decision, at least until community concerns are fully documented and made available to the Board. The letter noted the need for communities to fully document and share with the bank their concerns to inform the decision of the Board.

Postponing the vote would enable communities to:

  1. Collect and share community concerns and recommendations with MIGA and the FMO. Affected communities will be documenting their concerns through a community-led research process.
  2. Become informed on how to settle land disputes in light of the new legislation — The Customary Land Act, 2016 — governing community rights to purchase, possess and use land for settlement and cultivation.
  3. Develop a memorandum of understanding between affected communities and JCM Matswani Solar Corporation Limited, facilitated by CHRR, to encourage positive participation in the project.

This letter was also shared with JCM Power Corporation Limited and, with the support of Both ENDS, to the FMO. Since at this stage FMO had already approved financing of the project, we prioritized to engage MIGA with the community recommendations to influence financing decision of the bank. The letter was also shared with FMO as a first step of engagement with the bank to address any human rights violations their client could cause.

MIGA originally noted that a decision on formally supporting the project would be made on April 17, 2019. However, after IAP’s communications with the bank, MIGA staff revealed that the decision date would be postponed by a month, less time than would be needed to conduct the community-led research.

Despite communities sending a letter outlining their concerns and recommendations, on May 17, 2019, the Board of Directors approved a $59 million guarantee for the Salima Solar Project.

Even though the project has received support from MIGA and FMO, the pursuit to prevent their rights violations has just begun for the communities.

With one community meeting conducted so far, further actions are planned. The communities are conducting a community-led research project with IAP training materials and are participating in training meetings with the support of Both ENDS, CHRR and IAP.

The community-led research is aimed at documenting community concerns and recommendations to be shared with FMO, MIGA, Government of Malawi and JCM Power Corporation. The training is aimed at equipping the communities with project information and knowledge for them to be able to readily engage with the project implementation company in the implementation of the Salima Solar Project, as well as information about the financiers, FMO and MIGA, and their accountability mechanisms — the Independent Complaints Mechanism and the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman respectively.

CHRR is currently supporting communities to document their concerns and in the next few weeks, we will be supporting the communities to convey those concerns to those responsible for the project. We will also be advocating the company to respond to those concerns and ensure that the project does not violate their rights or cause environmental harm. — Michael Kaiyatsa, CHRR

Image for post
Image for post

The results and findings of the community-led research will reinforce advocacy with all the necessary actors and stakeholders. With MIGA, the community-led research findings will inform the bank’s monitoring of the project’s implementation as well as any potential human rights violations that might happen. Through the training on MIGA and FMO’s accountability mechanisms, the communities, if it’s in their interest, might file complaints with these bodies to ensure human rights violations are investigated and addressed. With JCM Power Corporation Limited, the research and training will enable the community to engage with the company in addressing the concerns and violations, including on issues that might have been overlooked by the company and are yet to be documented and addressed. With the Government of Malawi, the community-led research results will inform the government to take the necessary steps in ensuring the protection of the rights of the communities.

Elias Jika is the Program Coordinator for Southern Africa and the Middle East and North Africa regions at the International Accountability Project. He coordinates regional outreach on development projects as part of the Early Warning System initiative.

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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store