We Need Prior, Informed Consent! Listen to Community Voices

By Julia Matiello Cassini and Alexandre Andrade Sampaio

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Tocopilla, Chile, where traditional fishing communities face impacts from desalination plants that threaten their socio-environmental rights. Credit Maíra Institute.

“Together, as 265 families, we want to send a strong, effective and radical demand to companies, foreign banks and all those who want to listen to say “Stop!” — Stop the financing and destruction of our coast. Our coast is being destroyed, millimeter by millimeter, and we are left without food, without anything to give our children. We go out into the sea and find nothing — only iron, desalination plants, and construction equipment. We do not even find a mollusk. There is no food left. They have taken everything from us.”

These are words of Herminia Ester Fernández Alcaino, leader of the Secretariat of the Los Patos Trade Union and a seaweed harvester. Ester’s group belongs to the Tocopilla Asopesca Guild Association SA, part of 8 unions operating in the region of Tocopilla, Chile, and consists of 265 families working in the coastal area as traditional artisanal fisherfolk. The fisherfolk of the region derive their subsistence from the collection and sale of seaweed, shellfish, octopus, and other marine life. According to Ester, since the installation of desalination plants — one financed by the private arm of the Inter-American Development Bank Group (IDB Invest) — there has been a change in the seawater, the marine life that constitutes their subsistence has become scarce. This has left the great majority of fisherfolk without work and without food. For Ester, a mother of three children, including one diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, the lack of food has worsened an already difficult situation. Such impacts could have been avoided if the companies and funders had listened to the many concerns and recommendations put forth by Ester and her colleagues.

Instead, Ester and her community were not even warned in advance about the plans that would have such a significant impact on their livelihoods. She reports that one day they went to the coast, where they worked daily and found a sign saying “Private Property” on land they had been able to access for decades. “The Inter-American Development Bank says it is funding this project, this giant plant — but in reality, it is funding a major disaster. That’s what is being financed. The large corporations and these enormous investments, which occur without informing the people affected, are displacing us.” Ester’s testimony is confirmed by a community questionnaire conducted with the assistance of the civil society organizations International Accountability Project (IAP), Sustentarse and Instituto Maíra.

The artisanal fisherfolk in Tocopilla identify as descendants of the Chango indigenous peoples. They believe that the preservation of the coast of Tocopilla is essential for their cultural, social and physical survival. They also maintain that they have a duty to this land — the duty of protection and maintenance. They care about the environment in which they live and believe they would not exist without it. However, according to Ester, “The Bank put this desalination plant to take water from our sea and to return it carelessly, contaminating every mollusk, fish, and creature that inhabits our coast (…) We have to take care of our planet. These industries and companies do not care about the environment.”

Ester’s experience is not uncommon. From traditional artisanal fishing communities in Chile and Sri Lanka, indigenous communities in Kenya and Nepal, agricultural communities in Malawi, to favelas in São José dos Campos, Brazil, IAP, and our partners have observed that time and again, communities are excluded or prevented from participating in the decisions that shape their homes and livelihoods.

In Brazil, IAP and our partners had the opportunity to hold a conversation with Cosme Vitor, a community leader from São José dos Campos, a member of the Jubilee South Brazil Network and the Favelas Association. Cosme defends poor residents in the central areas of the city to make sure their rights are respected when large investments are being considered.

One of the communities Cosme works with has confronted two projects funded by the Inter-American Development Bank Group. According to Cosme, it was not in the interest of the government to keep poor people in the central area of the city. Therefore, this community was resettled far away to make way for the construction of “Via Cambuí”, considered by public authorities to be “the greatest road work in the city.” Cosme counters that this is a gentrification project that prioritizes luxury condominiums and large corporations, not the people. The bank offered a loan of approximately 83 million USD to finance the project, with a total cost of 178 million USD.

Cosme notes that the place where the community was displaced was so far away that the representatives of the bank had to travel there by helicopter. The government used the argument that the area where the communities lived was dangerous, and so they needed to be displaced. Cosme adds that “No documents were shown and communities were not called to meetings. Even after submitting a complaint to the MICI [Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism — a quasi-judicial body of the IDB Group that handles complaints and grievances], we were not heard and no action was taken.” This is one of the reasons why IAP, along with other partner organizations and movements, has been playing a decisive role in the process of reforming the access to information policy of IDB Invest, the private sector arm of the Inter-American Development Bank.

In May 2018, the IDB Invest published a draft Access to Information Policy and announced a series of public consultations. As community reports demonstrate, it is important that participation in such a process is welcomed and guaranteed. Many communities in vulnerable situations do not often have access to the internet or transportation, making it difficult to see documentation published online or participate in meetings.

The right to know is a human right and forms the basis for the fulfillment of any and all other rights. This right goes beyond the disclosure of documents. It must also include commitments to make sure communities are equipped with the information they need to be able to engage in development processes. Communities living on the ground have expertise that can help prevent or minimize potential environmental and social impacts of projects and policies. Moreover, these communities have the right to be consulted before any decision is taken.

The draft policy proposes reducing the period of disclosure for high-risk projects from 120 days to 60 days. This would mean that people potentially affected by high-risk projects would have just 60 days to learn about the investment, understand project documentation (often written in a technical manner and not translated into local languages), organize among themselves and then send a response before the Board decides whether or not to invest in the project. Such tight deadlines do not center communities, but instead, prioritize business interests.

In a formal submission to IDB Invest, IAP and over 30 partner organizations submitted our recommendations and analysis of how the bank can improve upon its existing policies. We urge IDB Invest to integrate the principles of access to information that today form the basis of international standards universally recognized by experts in the field, namely [1] maximum disclosure, [2]obligation to publish, [3]processes to facilitate access, [4]open meetings and [5]reduced costs.

IDB Invest should also take into account the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, adopted in Escazú (Costa Rica) on March 4, 2018, and which has already gathered 16 signatories. The agreement aims to combat inequalities and guarantee the rights of all people to a healthy environment and sustainable development, with a special focus on groups that are vulnerable. For these and other reasons, the bank must respect and effectively comply with international and regional standards of access to information.

“We are not ignorant. We don’t need the projects explained to us so we can understand them. We are asking banks and companies to engage with us, to learn if we agree with their proposals and to ask for our opinion — in advance! And not after the project has already been started“, Herminia Ester Fernandéz Alcaino.

Julia Matiello Cassini is an intern at the International Accountability Project and focuses on development policy in the Americas and the Early Warning System.

Alexandre Andrade Sampaio is Policy and Program Coordinator for the International Accountability Project for Latin America and the Caribbean.

IAP thanks Herminia Ester and Vitor Cosme for their testimonies and leadership. IAP also thanks partners Asopesca Tocopilla SA, Instituto Maíra and Sustanarse for their contributions.

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

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