Campaigns

“A Foreseeable Disaster”: New Report on the Negative Impacts of Forced Displacement Caused by the Thilawa SEZ

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in cooperation with Japanese NGO Mekong Watch and local organization, Thilawa Social Development Group (TSDG), recently released a report titled “A Foreseeable Disaster in Burma: Forced Displacement in the Thilawa Economic Zone”. The report accuses the Myanmar authorities of violating international standards relating to relocation and resettlement, highlighting the negative impacts on communities forcibly evicted as a result of the first phase of the Thilawa SEZ project, which is being developed with the Japanese government.

PHR’s research includes testimonials from approximately half of the 68 households relocated as a result of the first phase of the SEZ project. PHR found that households were not consulted about the project, they received inadequate compensation and the resettlement process fell short of international standards.

“Instead of providing affected families with an opportunity to challenge the displacement or offered compensation, as outlined in international standards, the government issued threats to Thilawa residents,” the report said.

PHR researchers found that the relocation site does not meet the minimum standards for a refugee camp, let alone a planned community. Both the water sources and latrines were improperly constructed and water samples tested from the relocation site were found to be unfit for human consumption.

The authorities also failed to provide adequate compensation or means for alternative livelihoods, which have resulted in additional adverse consequences for health conditions and food security. Displaced families report higher levels of hunger, child malnutrition, and sickness.  The report finds, “Without intervention to improve livelihoods, the nutrition and health situation in the relocation site will continue to deteriorate.”

The report calls for transparent procedures for evictions, improved humanitarian conditions at the relocation site, and for international standards to be followed in future relocations connected to the Thilawa project.

If international standards are followed displacement . . .

Remember Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine

Ken Saro-Wiwa

On November 10, 1995, internationally renowned author and human rights and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni men were hanged in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Arrested and held for months without charges, tortured while under detention, and sentenced to death by a “Special Tribunal” convened in violation of international law.  They were executed for their peaceful efforts to defend the indigenous Ogoni people of Nigeria from human rights and environment abuses caused by oil extraction activities of Shell Nigeria. For his relentless commitment, Ken Saro-Wiwa was awarded the 1995 Goldman Environmental Prize.

To this day, despite facts that tie Shell to his murder and to the continuing abuse of the Ogoni people, Shell still denies culpability and continues to drill for oil in Nigeria.

EarthRights International stands in solidarity with activists and environmental defenders around the world in commemorating Ken Saro Wiwa on this date.

“Who will take responsibility?”: Communities Testify about Dawei SEZ at Thai Human Rights Commission

This week, communities affected by the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) testified at a public hearing at the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) about the human rights and environmental impacts of the project. At the hearing, Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local civil society network, and community representatives presented a new report, entitled “Voices From the Ground: Concerns Over the Dawei Special Economic Zone and Related Projects”. Previously, in March 2013, the DDA and the affected communities submitted a complaint to the NHRCT, shortly after which one of the commissioners visited the Dawei SEZ to bear witness to the claims.

The report found that 36 villages with as many as 43,000 residents would be directly affected by the Dawei SEZ and related projects, the majority of whom rely on land-based livelihoods, including agriculture, raising livestock and fishing. Seventy-one percent of the households surveyed randomly for the report said they expect to lose all or at least some of their land due to the project. Many have already lost their property due to land confiscation. Other land has been rendered unusable by landslides or water blockages due to SEZ construction. Only 15% of households surveyed received any compensation for their lost land, crops and homes. Furthermore, the compensation process is deeply flawed: it lacks clarity about how the compensations are calculated as well as the equity and accuracy of these calculations.

The report also documents how the affected communities have not been adequately informed about the Dawei SEZ project. Without enough information or meaningful consultation, the communities have not given their consent to the project.

Most heard of the project by word of mouth, with some only learning about it when officials came to survey their land, homes and gardens ahead of the confiscation. Less than a third . . .

Mekong River Basin Dams: The Problem with Hydropower

Hero Image: 

The Mekong River feeds millions of people in South East Asia; it provides fish to eat and nutrients for agricultural land. Alarmingly, millions of peoples’ livelihoods are currently threatened by 11 planned dams in the lower Mekong River.

Proposed and planned dams will cause significant damage to rivers, fisheries, and agriculture, reducing food supply and displacing millions of people.  ERI works with affected communities and local community groups to ensure that governments and corporations are meeting local and international standards, such as meaningfully engaging with communities, conducting thorough Environmental Impact Assessments that consider impacts across borders, and respecting communities’ rights to life, food, and livelihoods.

There are over 50,000 large dams in rivers around the world. Upstream from each of them is a floodplain or reservoir, where the bottlenecked river pours across the surrounding lands. Depending on the size of the dam, that area can be massive. The World Commission on Dams estimates that 40 to 80 million people worldwide have been displaced by hydroelectric dams.

Communities that depend on rivers for fishing and also agriculture suffer the consequences. Fish population declines and lands become less productive as nutrient rich sediment delivered by the river disappear.  In regions of the world where vast numbers of people depend on these methods as their sole source of food and income, dams can have widespread negative impacts on food security and local economies.

The mainstem of the Lower Mekong River, which flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, currently has no dams, while the Upper Mekong (Lancang) River in China already has seven. There are also already numerous tributary dams, with many more planned. As a result of these projects, communities face forced evictions from their homelands and the rivers, forests, soil, fish and plants with which their lives and identities are deeply entangled. Construction of the planned dams is likely to spell ecological disaster, threatening the livelihoods and integrity of the communities who depend on these resources. 

In 2010, a Strategic Environmental Assessment commissioned by the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission recommended a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong so that further study could be conducted.

Xayaburi (Laos)

The Xayaburi Dam in Laos is the first of eleven planned hydropower projects on the still-undammed Lower Mekong River mainstream. The dam is expected to impede fish migration, harming fishing communities Laos as well as neighboring Cambodia and Thailand, and will likely hasten the extinction of species found only in the Mekong, such as the critical endangered Mekong giant catfish.

The dam will also likely block the flow of nutrient-rich sediment to Vietnam’s ecologically fragile Mekong Delta, which supports a thriving rice farming industry and offshore fishery.

Almost all the electricity produced by the dam is planned to go to Thailand, according to a 2011 Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) signed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and approved by Thai government agencies. Without the PPA, the Xayaburi Dam is not economically viable, yet independent studies have found that EGAT has grossly overestimated the amount of electricity Thailand needs, and that it has not studied potentially cheaper or more environmentally sustainable electricity generating options. EGAT itself even recently publicly acknowledged that it does not need the electricity generated by the project.  EGAT has not conducted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) in Thailand for the Xayaburi Dam, nor has it conducted adequate public consultations.

ERI has challenged the participation of Austrian engineering giant Andritz AG, which is supplying key operating technology for the Xayaburi project. On April 19, 2014, ERI and other civil society groups filed a complaint against Andritz under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, arguing that Andritz’s involvement violates international standards on ethical corporate conduct. The complaint asks Andritz, which supplies key operating technology, to conduct impact assessments, work with the project developer and the Government of Laos to prevent and mitigate impacts, adopt policies to prevent harm in future projects, and help to provide an effective remedy for populations affected by the Dam.  

ERI has also supported a lawsuit filed in the Thai Administrative Court challenging the PPA and EGAT’s failure to consider environmental impacts in Thailand. The lawsuit, filed by the Community Resource Centre on behalf of Thai communities in August 2012, was initially dismissed by the court but reinstated by the Supreme Administrative Court in a landmark victory in June 2014. On October 15, 2014, the communities filed for an injunction to suspend the PPA.

Don Sahong (Laos)

The Malaysian company Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) is in the process of building the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in Lao PDR, less than two kilometers upstream from the border with Cambodia.  The dam will entirely block the main channel of the Mekong River that provides year-round fish passage through the Khone Falls area. 

Fish are the essential source of protein for most Mekong communities – communities that already live precariously.  For example, in Stung Treng province, an area of Cambodia where Don Sahong will have a severe impact, 45% of children are already malnourished. 

Mega First has not given communities any information on how – or whether – it intends to address concerns about fish populations.  Whether mitigation is even possible, Mega First has offered little data to demonstrate that their proposed mitigation measures will work.  This creates an unacceptable risk to fish populations, which are the basis of the lives and livelihoods of upstream and downstream Mekong communities. 

On October 20, 2014, a coalition of local, regional and international NGOs, filed a complaint with SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, requesting investigation of the economic and social impacts of project.  The complaint also asks SUHAKAM to ensure that the Malaysian project developer, Mega First, complies with international human rights standards, including the obligation to meaningfully engage with and inform affected communities.

Lower Sesan 2 (Cambodia)

Preliminary construction is underway on the Lower Sesan 2 Dam (LS2) on the Sesan River, one of the Mekong’s main tributaries in Cambodia. The dam is being developed by a group of Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese companies, and will block both the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two major tributaries of the Mekong, and flood a vast area. 

Scientific studies have predicted disastrous consequences if the LS2 dam is built. Around 5000 people will have to resettle, many of them members of indigenous and minority ethnic groups, including the Phnong, Kavet, Pov and Lao. A 2009 study commissioned by the Rivers Coalition of Cambodia (RCC) found that, as a result of the LS2 dam, approximately 80,000 people in the Sesan and Srepok basins will lose a large portion of their fish catch. Almost 10% of fish will disappear across the entire Mekong Basin due to lost access to breeding grounds, and significant changes to water and sediment flows will damage the productivity of riverbank farming.    

On October 16, 2014, ERI joined a group of 17 civil society organizations from Cambodia and the Mekong region in issuing a statement demanding that the project developers and the Cambodian Government conduct a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and release information on the alleged redesign of the dam. The action supports recent community statements in which affected villagers refused to relocate and demanded opportunities for communities to participate in decision-making on the project.

The statement follows on from letters sent in May 2014, by ERI together with a group of 15 civil society organizations (CSOs) and lawyers from Cambodia and the region, to the Chinese government and the corporate stakeholders developing the Lower Sesan II Hydropower Dam in Stung Treng Province, Cambodia. The letters warned of the severe environmental and social impacts of the project and called for greater accountability by all stakeholders.  

World Rivers Day: The Humanitarian and Economic Arguments for a New Model of Hydropower

Young men pulling fish traps on the Mekong River in Cambodia.

At first glance, hydroelectric dams seem like a relatively benign source of renewable energy. They don’t churn out dangerous plumes of smog or house radioactive materials that threaten to turn whole regions into uninhabitable wastelands. They don’t inject poisonous chemicals into the water table, and besides, it’s water, so it must be clean, right?

For the better part of the last century, dams have been heralded as modern day wonders of engineering. They exemplify mankind’s ability to harness the natural world, and are sources of national pride and a signature of a country’s progress. While it is true that these dams are technological marvels and an efficient way to produce energy, that is only half of the story. While dams may not have the reputation for failing in the sudden and catastrophic ways that nuclear reactors or offshore oil rigs do, they can and do often have similar catastrophic consequences.

Boats on the Salween River in Thailand Boats on the Salween River in Thailand

According to International Rivers, there are over 40,000 large dams dotting rivers all over the globe. Upstream from each of these is a floodplain or reservoir, where the bottlenecked river pours across the surrounding lands. Depending on the size of the dam, that area can be massive. In some cases, the size and scope of the flooding can mimic a natural disaster; the floodplain of China’s Three Gorges Dam, for instance, was so large that it displaced an estimated 1.5 million people. The World Commission on Dams estimates that the number of people displaced by hydroelectric dams worldwide falls somewhere between 40-80 million.

These numbers are truly astonishing, but they still say . . .

Resettled Farmers from Thilawa SEZ Travel to Tokyo to Demand Right to Land Compensation

This week, recently displaced villagers from the Thilawa Special Economic Zone near Yangon, Myanmar, did something that they were unable to do the first time the government confiscated their land nearly twenty years ago: they complained.  Surrounded by a flurry of reporters, village representatives traveled to Tokyo to complain to JICA, the Japanese government agency financing the Myanmar Government’s plans for Thilawa, requesting due process, bette

Program Area: 

Coke's report on responsible business practices in Myanmar sets standard for transparency on both successes and failures

I’ve just finished reading the report Coca-Cola submitted last week to the State Department on its business practices in Myanmar (Burma), and I have to say I’m impressed with how seriously this company seems to have taken the Responsible Business Reporting Requirements.  Those who have read prior ERI commentary on the Myanmar responsible business reports, which are mandatory for U.S. companies making large investments in Myanmar, will know that the Coke report is a welcome change of pace from the reports submitted by other investors. 

What makes the Coke report unique is the level of transparency it provides – both into the company’s successes and its failure in responsible business conduct – meaning that communities, investors, and the U.S. Government alike have a reasonable basis to engage with Coke and trouble-shoot human rights issues that may arise in the course of its operations.  Now, I can’t vouch for the truth of anything that’s disclosed here – though I have no specific reason to doubt the report, I have no idea if Coke and its local partner are actually being as careful and thorough about their human rights, environmental, and labor performance as they say here.  But the level of detail about the due diligence processes they’ve gone through, the concerns they’ve identified, and the steps they’ve taken to ensure that they and their partners are mitigating serious risks is exactly the kind of transparency needed to build trust between a company like Coca-Cola and the communities its operations will affect.

Of course, there are a couple of places in the report where Coke may be hiding the ball.  For example, the report explains that there’s a wastewater treatment issue that is in the process of being resolved.  But it never explains exactly what is happening to that wastewater . . .

Stand against Corporate Power with EarthRights International

The Power of Law and the Power of People. 

This is the motto that has guided us at EarthRights for almost 20 years, ever since a duo of American law students joined forces with me, a young human rights activist from Myanmar, and took a US oil company to court for terrible human rights abuses…and won.

As a supporter and friend of EarthRights, we know you stand with us in the belief that the law can be a powerful instrument for change, and a critical weapon in the fight for social and environmental justice. 

But what happens when the law – and those that wield its power – are more concerned with protecting corporate interests and profits than people? When big business has more rights than individual citizens? 

Unfortunately, this year more than ever, these questions have become increasingly real for us and for the communities and partners we work with all over the world.

In Myanmar, recent reforms have won the government praise and the lifting of international sanctions after decades of oppression. Big businesses are now clamoring to invest in new factories, mines, energy projects, and industrial plantations, but they’ve shown little concern for the people who happen to be in the way. 

Whole communities are being forced off their lands and left without a way to make a living. Further, there has been an alarming spate of arrests and prosecutions of activists who stand up for these communities and their land rights. Naw Ohn Hla, one such activist, was recently sentenced to two years hard labor simply for organizing a community protest against the publicly unpopular Leptadaung copper mine.

In the new Myanmar, those who dare to challenge business interests are today’s “prisoners of conscience.”

As an appeasement to western governments, Naw Ohn Hla was just released along . . .

U.S. Government’s Myanmar Reporting Requirements FAQs are a welcome (but inadequate) step forward

The U.S. State Department finally released a document providing answers to FAQs about the Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements for new investments in Myanmar, in which it directs investors to consult ERI’s Detailed Guidance on Reporting.  The FAQs are partially a response to the first round of company reports, which were filed in July, and which we criticized as inadequate both on our website and in a coalition letter to the Administration.  Let’s see if the U.S Government agrees that those company reports were as deficient as we suggested.

1. “Passive investors” and the responsibility to respect human rights

One of our biggest concerns with the first company reports was that a number of investment firms excused their lack of human rights and other due diligence policies by explaining that they were merely “passive investors” rather than active participants.  The FAQs appear to respond to this concern, noting that all investors must report regardless of the type of investment or whether they actually have operations in Myanmar, and that companies should answer each question carefully in light of the intended purposes of the Reporting Requirements. 

As the FAQs explain, “Because the human rights impacts of U.S. investment in Burma may be direct or indirect,” and because a company “may have significant influence over the activities of other entities in its supply chain,” it can be important even for investors with only a financial link to Myanmar to apply due diligence policies to their investments.  Note in particular that the U.S. Government does not limit its reporting expectations to companies that an investor actually controls, but rather includes those over which it may exercise significant influence by virtue of a business relationship.

2. Identifying Myanmar business partners

Another area of concern that ERI raised based on the initial company reports . . .

Myanmar Groups Send Letter to Obama on Reporting Requirements

EarthRights International helped to draft and signed a letter to President Obama this week, urging him to ensure that U.S. companies investing in Myanmar make complete and forthcoming disclosures under the Responsible Investment Reporting Requirements.  As we noted last month, the first five reports that were submitted have serious weaknesses that make them less useful for civil society groups and others who want to help businesses avoid human rights impacts arising out of their operations in Myanmar.  Most concerning are the absence of disclosures of local partners and contractors, and the decision of a set of investment funds to disclaim any responsibility for due diligence into their investments in a company owned by a Myanmar national and operating in Myanmar with interests in plantation agriculture, simply because the investors classify their investment is “passive.” The lack of due diligence and disclosures for passive investment are clearly against the spirit of the U.S. Reporting Requirements and do not follow best practices including those found in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which the U.S. Government has agreed to and is bound to follow.

EarthRights is asking the President to clarify that companies are expected to report on due diligence, regardless of the passive or hands-on nature of their investment, identify their Myanmar partners, and attach copies of or carefully summarize their relevant policies.  We also ask the government to clarify how it is tracking the Reporting Requirements disclosures to ensure that all covered companies are disclosing fully and in a timely manner.