Probe Alerts

Probe Alert June 1997

Probe Alert
June 1, 1997

If the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (AsDB) has its way over the next decade, the Mekong and its largest tributaries will be choked by a series of giant hydropower dams, and up to 60 million ethnic minority people could be forced out of the region’s highlands.

Despite mounting environmental concerns, the AsDB is promoting more than 50 large hydrodams along the Mekong and its tributaries, beginning with sites in the upper watersheds of Yunnan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the next three years, it plans to spend more than $300 million on dam construction and long-distance transmission grids and another $300 million over the next decade on its highland resettlement scheme. The AsDB has already financed the construction of several “trial-run” dams in Laos that have impoverished local communities. It is also spending millions more on feasibility studies and rubber-stamp environmental assessments that seriously downplay the environmental and economic damages these projects have on local communities and the region’s farming and fishing economies.

More than just a financier, the AsDB has also become a broker for Western donors and companies vying for dam building contracts in the region. It has set up an exclusive forum where political leaders from the six Mekong countries meet regularly with aid donors and hydropower consultants to decide, without national or local scrutiny, which projects and studies the AsDB should fund.

A top priority for the AsDB is hydro development along the Mekong’s largest tributary, the Sekong, that flows from the Lao-Vietnamese highlands down through northern Cambodia. The AsDB is financing plans for up to 26 hydro-exporting dams that would flood hundreds of square kilometres of riverine valley forests and open up the watershed — over twenty thousand square kilometres of forest — to military-run logging. The Sekong’s valleys, plateaus, and mountains are home to many ethnic communities, including Yae, Bahnar, Krung, Jarai, Brou, Tampuan, Nya Heun, each with their own distinct culture, language and systems of managing their resources.

Not only are Sekong residents threatened by dam construction but the AsDB blames them for forest destruction and advocates their resettlement out of the highlands in the name of conservation and “poverty alleviation.” In the words of Noritada Morita, the Japanese director of the AsDB’s program department, “We may need to reduce the population of people in mountain areas and bring them to normal life . . . but don’t call it resettlement. It is just migration.”

Despite the political risks, Mekong citizens are questioning the AsDB-led agenda. Top Cambodian fisheries official, Tough Seang Tana, has asked teh AsDB: “with all the problems that have happened around the world, why are you pushing [dams] here? If someone can prove to me that the costs of losing our fish, of ecological destruction, of the debt all this will bring, is all less than the benefits, then I will be the first to applaud. . . . But if not, then I won’t believe.”

Send a postcard, save the forests!

The Vu Quang Ox, or saola as local people call it, lives in the forested Annamite mountains bordering Lao PDR and Vietnam. The saola‘s habitat is threatened by aid-financed hydro development. If you would like a set of postcards featuring the saola to send to your elected representatives, friends and family, simply e-mail (noting in the body of the message that you would like to receive the saola postcards) and we will send them to you free of charge.Use them to send a message to Leonard Good, Canada’s representative to the World Bank!

Probe International’s Reading List

Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations by Catherine Caufield, traces the history of the World Bank, from its humble beginnings as a post-World War II institution created primarily to finance infrastructure in war-torn Europe, to its current professed position as eradicator of Third World poverty. Using clear and compelling examples of projects the Bank has funded over its 51-year history, Caufield demonstrates how miserably the Bank has failed in its mission and, in so doing, paints an alarming picture of a massive institution gone wrong.

Copies are $38.50 (plust 7% GST and $5.00 shipping and handling). To order, please e-mail (noting in the body of the message that you would like to order Masters of Illusion). Please include your name, mailing address, and credit card information. Or, call us at (416) 964-9223, ext. 228.

Canadian Companies Stake Claim to Surinam Gold Mine, Threaten Forest Community

Cambior Inc. and Golden Star Resources Ltd., the Canadian mining duo that brought environmental disaster to Guyana when the tailings dam at their Omai gold mine failed in 1995, are now staking claim to the mineral riches that lie beneath the dense rainforest of neighbouring Surinam. The Gross Rosebel concession, located in the north of this small South American country, encompasses the Maroon community of Nieuw Koffiekamp. Plans by the Canadian co-owners to develop an open pit gold mine would require the relocation of the community’s 800 residents. The community has already been relocated once to make way for a hydro dam that powers other mining operations. Although many at Nieuw Koffiekamp have stated that they are not in principle opposed to the development of the mine, they do not wish to relocate and demand that Cambior and Golden Star demonstrate that relocation is absolutely neccessary. The Maroons also insist that they be provided with all relevant information and be given sufficient time to consult with international experts, in order to confirm that coexistence with the mine is impossible. According to the community, the Surinamese government and the Canadian companies are moving too quickly with construction plans, behaving as though agreement has already been reached with the village. The Maroons are adamant that no digging take place until genuine agreement has been reached and the larger issue of Maroon land rights has been resolved. Canada’s Export Development Corporation has refused to disclose to Probe International whether it is considering supporting the Canadian companies’ investments in Surinam.

Nam Theun 2 All But Dead

The Nam Theun 2 hydro dam project is all but dead, according to sources in Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR, despite government pronouncements that construction could begin in 1998. The World Bank was expected to make a decision by June 1997 on whether or not to support the US$1.5 billion project, but this has now been pushed back to 1998. Behind the scenes, Bank and UN officials are quietly conceding what many environmental and development groups have said all along: the project, which would flood nearly 500 square kilometres of valuable land and displace thousands of minority families is, as one Bank advisor put it, “a disaster from start to finish.”

The Bank’s delay could be the last straw for Nam Theun 2 developers who have sunk more than US$30 million in the project since 1995, but cannot find private lenders to finance the project without World Bank guarantees. To make matters worse, the developers have lost their prime customer; the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand claims it can buy cheaper power from private suppliers at home and is not interested in renegotiating with Nam Theun 2 developers until at least 2004.

Vientiane insiders say the real question now is not whether the venture is sinking, but who among the shareholders — Electricite de France, Transfield of Australia, Ital-thai, Jasmine, or Phatra Thanakit — will be the first to bail out?

In its effort to win World Bank approval for the scheme, the Lao PDR government has used military helicopters to fly Bank officials and journalists from village to village in the project area, staged interviews and photo opportunities with village leaders and then, in Vientiane, hosted a series of consulations with concerned international aid and conservation organizations while local communities hung anxiously on vague promises of a better life.

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