Resilient Communities in Malawi Secure Improvements, But Complaints Remain Unaddressed by Company and Government
“The chiefs and government officials forced us to sell our land. We were told that if we did not comply, our land would be taken for free because the government can do as it pleases.”
“On the day we received the compensation for our land, officials from the Ministry of Lands, our traditional leader and even the police officers present on the site demanded that we give them part of our compensation. For those of us that did not comply, our traditional leader would later on visit our homes and demand his “share” of our compensation.”
These are some of the claims and complaints that have come from the community members impacted by the Salima Solar Project in Malawi from a community meeting organized by IAP’s partners, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) in June 2023.
Between 2016 and 2018, the Ministry of Lands facilitated an involuntary resettlement process where the community’s land was acquired for a private company, JCM Power, to build a solar power plant. In 2019, CHRR and IAP started supporting the affected communities who reported that the involuntary resettlement process was non-transparent and implemented without their meaningful involvement. To add to this, the community has faced intimidation, manipulation, and coercion so they could be silenced from speaking up.
Discussions with the project company, JCM Power, and the financiers, the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO) and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), over the project and the involuntary resettlement process have been challenging, but with CHRR and IAP’s support, the community has achieved key victories in several areas. These include the improvement of communication and engagement between the affected community and the project company, improvement in the implementation of the company-led Livelihood Restoration Program (LRP), and improvement in the company’s project-level Grievance Redress Mechanism (GRM) and its handling of complaints. From here, the community continues to fight to secure its remaining collective demands.
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 was reported to require 225 hectares of land, which resulted in the acquisition of land and relocation of people living near the project site. JCM Power Corporation, a Canadian private company, is responsible for developing, constructing, and operating the project. The project has received two separate financing from FMO, the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank: USD 12.51 million in March 2019 and USD 4.4O million in August 2020. The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) also provided a guarantee of USD 58.58 million approved in May 2019.
Why Did It Take So Long Just for the Financiers and the Project Company To Listen to the Affected Communities?
The Beginning of the Advocacy Journey
The advocacy journey for the communities impacted by the Salima Solar Project has been a taxing and long one for them. Their first attempt to be heard and address the concerns regarding the project was targeted at MIGA in April 2019. Per the request of the affected communities and in advance of MIGA’s decision, CHRR and IAP wrote the Board of Directors of MIGA asking the Board to postpone their decision to provide a financial guarantee to the project until the affected communities had fully documented their concerns and complaints regarding the project. At the time, the Board decision date was 17 April 2019, however on 17 May 2019 we learned the Board neglected the affected communities’ requests and approved a $58.58 million guarantee to the Salima Solar Project.
The Community-Led Research Creates Campaign Platform
Despite the heartbreaking outcome, the affected communities did not give up but continued to fight. In October 2019, CHRR and IAP assisted them in co-design and administering a community-led research process to assess the communities’ knowledge of and experience in the Salima Solar Project, including consultation and access to information, their concerns as to how this project had affected and would affect their lives, and their recommendations for mitigating any existing or potential environmental and social harms.
The community-led research revealed that the affected communities:
- had not been provided with adequate information about the project;
- had not been adequately consulted;
- had been resettled from their land using a flawed resettlement process
- had not received information about either the FMO or MIGA’s grievance redress mechanisms;
In addition, the community-led research showed:
- the company’s project-level grievance redress mechanism was flawed and ineffective in addressing their complaints;
- the involuntary resettlement process was non-transparent and highly flawed;
- the affected communities had lost their livelihoods due to the involuntary resettlement;
- there were unhealthy and unsafe working conditions at the project site; and
- and there were allegations of gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment (SEAH).
One of the most prominent complaints was surrounding the involuntary resettlement process, which infringed on their rights to access information, meaningful consultation, and involvement in the process.
When the affected communities were first approached in 2016 by the Ministry of Lands and informed that their land would be taken from them for a private company to construct a solar power plant, some of them denied parting with their land. The affected persons have reported that their chiefs and the Ministry of Lands officials used intimidation and manipulation tactics to coerce them into complying with the involuntary resettlement process. As a result, the affected communities lost their livelihoods.
Of the survey respondents, 26% reported that their lives had been made worse since the Project came to their community, while an additional 5% reported that they believed the quality of their lives would further worsen. The involuntary resettlement restricted the community’s access to their land for growing crops and grazing livestock. Additionally, some community members who had been previously employed by fellow villagers to do contract work on their farms have since lost their jobs.
“The involuntary resettlement process was non-transparent throughout the whole process. For starters, I did not understand how the Ministry of Lands measured my land. Secondly, I did not understand how they decided the compensation amount. Last but not least, our compensation money would not be verified by counting it on the day we received the compensation — the money would be given to us in a cash bundle — the amount was not counted or confirmed. Some of us would get home, count the money, and find out that it was less than what was indicated on the ticket.”
- Community Member of Salima District
The affected communities with the support of CHRR and IAP used the community-led research findings as the basis for their advocacy.
In early 2020, the affected communities made their second attempt to be heard and have their concerns addressed. The community-led research report was shared with JCM Power in the hopes of opening up a channel for discussions that would see the community concerns addressed. In their response, however, JCM Power in simple terms viewed the affected communities’ concerns and complaints as lies.
The affected communities then made their third attempt to be heard; they shared the research findings with FMO and MIGA. Unfortunately, this did not open a channel for discussions either as the financiers would refer to JCM Power to validate the concerns and complaints, which would invalidate the claims. After much resilience and pressure through other advocacy spaces and by providing more evidence of the concerns and complaints made, FMO and MIGA finally agreed to sit down and listen to the concerns of the affected communities.
The Facilitated Dialogue Process with the Company
From January 2021 Both ENDS, CHRR, and IAP have represented the affected communities in discussions with FMO and MIGA to come up with a strategy that would address the community complaints. It was agreed among us that an independent facilitator would host a discussion between the affected communities and JCM Power, a process we called facilitated dialogue. The one objective was for all parties to discuss and address the community complaints and grievances — which at this point had expanded beyond what was recorded in the initial community-led research report to include more reports of labor and employment abuses, unfair dismissal of workers, and reprisals against affected communities.
CHRR and IAP supported the affected communities through the facilitated dialogue:
- providing timely feedback and updates on the discussions so they could be informed of the progress of the discussions;
- providing information on upcoming meetings and discussions to ensure their readiness; training them on how to engage with the project company and how to prepare themselves for the discussions;
- monitoring all the facilitated dialogue discussions to ensure that they would happen fairly and the community voices would not be silenced throughout the process;
- and continuing to discuss with FMO and MIGA to improve on any shortfalls that would be identified throughout the process.
The facilitated dialogue process officially commenced in August 2021 with the first independent facilitator’s visit to the community and continued until July 2022 with the last visit to the community. There were officially two sets of facilitated dialogue discussions which both ran for four consecutive days in March and in June 2022. Preceding them was a series of meetings between the independent facilitator and different community groups which acquainted the independent facilitator with the different groups.
Concerns With the Independent Facilitated Dialogue
As civil society organizations, our experience with the independent facilitated dialogue process was incredibly frustrating. The affected communities were also discontented with the process. Summarized below are some of the issues we experienced.
- Planning of the Facilitated Dialogue with the Company
The selection process for the independent facilitator was agreed to be done based on a list of criteria, which included that there would be options for candidates to choose from. However, FMO and MIGA presented one candidate who met only one of the criteria: their previous experience in a similar role.
2. Planning of the Facilitator’s First and Second Visits
When the independent facilitator started performing their role, they were not independent between the two parties but rather would plan meeting agendas, organize the meetings, and schedule visits with JCM Power. Communication had not even been given to CHRR and IAP that meetings had been planned until two days before the first meeting.
After writing FMO and MIGA expressing our concerns with how the first visit was planned, there were minimal improvements in the second visit. JCM Power and the independent facilitator again scheduled the second visit and meetings without consulting IAP and CHRR. The only minor improvement was that JCM Power communicated with CHRR through a phone call sharing the planned dates for the visit and asked CHRR if they wanted to be part of the meetings.
3. Convening of the Discussions Between JCM Power And the Project Affected Persons
Up to this point, despite numerous recommendations for the independent facilitator to separately consult the affected communities about the dialogue process, the independent facilitator continued to convene the meetings without their consultation. The consultations would have answered any questions the affected communities had regarding the process and managed their expectations.
4. Follow Through And Report Back
After the second visit, which we believe was the only meaningful series of discussions held, the independent facilitator compiled their report. In it, they concluded that their work had been finished without getting the affected communities’ reactions to the report. After CHRR took the report to the affected communities, their feedback was that the independent facilitator’s work had just started. They highlighted some issues that needed follow-up discussions, and some areas of topics that had not been touched on yet, including GBV and SEAH complaints. At the request of the affected communities, the independent facilitator made a third visit to follow up on the issues. The independent facilitator also privately heard from three girls (two of whom were underaged) who were victims of GBV. Just when the affected communities thought this had opened up another channel to discuss these issues, the independent facilitator reviewed their report and still concluded their work was done without following up on the GBV issues. The independent facilitator sent the same report back to the community, but only through JCM Power, which did the translation of the report and the actual community report back.
Outcomes of the Independent Facilitated Dialogue with the Company
While the shortcomings of the facilitated dialogue were many, it did manage to facilitate some improvements in the implementation of the Livelihood Restoration Program (LRP), which was still underway by JCM Power. JCM Power had contracted a local institution to implement the LRP. The affected communities were dissatisfied with the contractor’s implementation of the LRP, primarily because they were not involved in the decision-making or consulted in the implementation of the activities. This led to the LRP’s failure to yield positive results for the communities. In response to our concerns, JCM Power terminated their contract with the institution, drafted a new program, and started to implement it by themselves taking into account the shortcomings of the previous contractor. The affected communities have been viewing the LRP as their final hope to have their livelihoods restored.
The facilitated dialogue process also brought to light the shortcomings of the company’s project-level grievance redress mechanism. With the recommendations from the community-led research report, JCM Power has been making improvements. JCM Power facilitated a process where the affected communities voted for a new grievance redress committee, which then would be trained to better perform their duties. However, many of the other recommendations for improving the grievance redress mechanism have yet to be implemented.
The Fight Still Goes On
Since they started their advocacy journey in 2019, many of the human rights violations that the affected communities have been raising have not been adequately addressed. These include unfair employment opportunities, unfair dismissal of workers, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and reprisals against community members speaking up against the project. The complainants have fought and exhausted a lot of their energy. However, one of the complaints that the affected communities want to see addressed is the unfair involuntary resettlement process. Since the facilitated dialogue process failed to address this, CHRR and IAP are engaging JCM Power and other stakeholders to address the land acquisition complaints. This process commenced in August 2023 and is being handled through JCM Power’s project-level grievance mechanism.
As the community-led research findings highlighted, one of the complaints with the involuntary resettlement process is that it was implemented without adequate information. Communities receiving accessible and early access to information is key to implementing projects that deliver on their own development priorities and not cause harm. A key factor to addressing the myriad of complaints from the involuntary resettlement process is therefore for communities to understand the process that was used by the Ministry of Lands between 2016 and 2019 to acquire their land for the Salima Solar Project. CHRR and IAP are therefore pressuring the Ministry of Lands to hold information-sharing sessions with the affected communities.
With JCM Power currently implementing the Livelihood Restoration Program, they and the financiers of the project may assume their obligation to the community is soon coming to an end. However, the fight for the affected communities will not stop until their lives are restored, and all the human and environmental rights violations the project has caused are addressed.
Read more about this community-led response: Concerns Unaddressed, Communities in Malawi Continue Campaign on the Salima Solar Project.
Elias Jika is the Program Coordinator for Southern Africa and 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.