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New World Bank Policies Imperil Environment and Land Defenders

Just five months since the murder of Honduran environmental defender Berta Caceres, the Bank is passing new safeguards that do more harm than good.

The World Bank approved Thursday its new “Environmental and Social Framework” which civil society groups say weakens human rights protections and will likely endanger the very communities the safeguards are intended to protect.

At issue are a series of contradictions which strengthens the oversight authority of the very governments that are pushing the mammoth development projects typically opposed by poor, Indigenous and working class communities. The likely result, critics say, will be more conflicts and more corpses, doubling down, as it were, on 2015, a year which the environmental NGO Global Witness says was the deadliest recorded year for environmental defenders, with an average of three slayings per week, worldwide.

This year already saw the March 3 high-profile assassination of Berta Caceres an Indigenous rights and land defender from Honduras who tirelessly campaigned against a widely unpopular dam project once funded by the Bank’s financial lending arm, underscoring yet again the violence often associated with international development projects.

In fact, World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim was widely criticized after he gave a talk on April 6 at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City suggesting that incidents like Caceres’ death, which caused condemnation and mourning around the world, are the cost of doing business.

Kim said that “you cannot do the kind of work we are trying to do and not have some of these incidents happen,” prompting a letter from 313 organizations and 31 individuals condemning the remarks.

In the same speech Kim also said, “I think our commitment is to hear the voices of the Berta Caceres’s of the world, we have to.”

But activists are skeptical, to say the least.

“Our concerns have not been adequately addressed,” said Prabindra Shakya, human rights program coordinator of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, or AIPP.

The AIPP is one of scores of civil society organizations and Indigenous and community representatives — the Berta Caceres’s of the world — who participated in the World Bank’s four year review and consultation process as it drafted its environmental and social framework. Many of their recommendations fell on deaf ears.

“The result of this review is a more convoluted, difficult to implement and in places contradictory set of standards,” said Helen Tugendhat, a policy advisor at the Forest Peoples Programme.

For instance, Tugendhat explained that according to the new framework World Bank borrowers, in this case mostly countries, will be solely responsible for conducting the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for projects, which determines whether a project will have “adverse or significant impacts” on Indigenous communities, a prerequisite for triggering whether free, prior and informed consent will be sought by affected Indigenous communities.

“Affected communities have the right to participate in such assessments under international law and in many national laws too,” said Tugendhat. “Failing to ensure such participation risks violating borrower governments’ legal obligations.”

This at the same shifts the burden of responsibility away from the Bank and allows borrowers, regardless of their track record of corruption or human rights violations, to bulldoze their way through projects without community consent, participation, or oversight.

“This is inviting abuse, given the bank’s track record of lending to some of the most repressive governments in the world,” said David Pred, managing director of Inclusive Development International, a human rights organization.

With regards to labor rights, the watchdog group the Bank Information Center pointed out that the new framework “includes provisions related to child labor and forced labor, but lacks reference to core ILO conventions.”

This underscores again how these “new standards move away from a rules-based system, rooted in a commitment to doing no harm, to a more aspirational and flexible set of standards,” as Pred pointed out.

The World Bank is proving once again that business comes first and that human rights are an afterthought.

“The underlying agenda was clearly to make the bank more competitive by reducing its environmental and social requirements prior to project approval,” added Pred.

The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact’s Shakya said that this lack of clear and tangible protections will put land and environmental defenders “at risk and fuel further conflicts” in countries that will “trample” on human, labor, and environmental rights, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Peru, and Honduras.

Pred said: “The result of all this is a significantly increased risk that hundreds of thousands of people who will be forced from their homes, land and livelihoods to make way for World Bank-backed development will be impoverished, inequality will be exacerbated and human rights defenders will be endangered.”

The Berta Caceres’s of the world spoke up, as World Bank President Kim implored, but their pleas were largely ignored.

Shakya said that “it is high time that the World Bank and other multilateral development banks no longer enjoy impunity for the destruction they often finance.”

But in the World Bank’s 72 years, impunity is the status quo. We can only hope moving forward that community leaders who stand up to unfair and unsustainable development don’t meet the same fate of the slain Honduran community leader and Goldman Environmental Prize winner Caceres.

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