Probe Alerts

Probe Alert June 1999

Probe Alert
June 1, 1999

Villagers occupy World Bank dam site to demand compensation

Earlier this year, more than 3,000 villagers set up camp at the Pak Mun dam site in northeast Thailand to demand compensation from the Thai government and the World Bank for damages to their fisheries, health, and livelihoods.

A Nordic-style fish ladder was built at the Pak Mun dam in response to the public outcry over damage to fish habitat. Designed to help Arctic salmon through hydro dams, the ladder failed to save the Mun river fishery because local migratory fish species don’t jump and couldn’t get past the dam to upstream feeding and spawning grounds. 

Built by Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT) and financed by the World Bank, the Pak Mun dam wiped out fish stocks, upon which six thousand families depended for their food and income. The dam displaced 1,700 households, seven times more than EGAT and the World Bank initially budgeted for, and now generates barely enough electricity for one Bangkok shopping mall.

In their decade-long struggle to defend their fisheries and livelihoods, villagers have been ignored, intimidated, beaten, then partially compensated by the government, and finally, left with a string of broken promises, empty nets, and a reservoir infested with disease-transmitting flukes and snails. The villagers, joined by academics, students, environmental groups, and other “dam-hit” communities from across Thailand, are determined to keep protesting until their demands for full compensation are met.

In 1994, after years of public protest, the government was forced to concede that the dam had destroyed livelihoods along the Mun River — a major tributary of the Mekong River — and that people were entitled to compensation. While some compensation has been paid, villagers say it is inadequate. About 3,000 households received the cash equivalent of one year’s fishing income plus $2,400 deposited into rural cooperatives for job training programs. Another 3,000 affected fishing families have not received any compensation.

The World Bank, meanwhile, is intent on denying responsibility and is discrediting the villagers’ claims. An offensive report by the World Bank’s operations evaluation department stated that displaced villagers complain too much and that outstanding claims for fisheries compensation are probably fraudulent. “There is such a culture of complaint,” wrote author Warren Van Wicklin III, “of trying to win sympathy for even greater compensation claims and assistance, that it is difficult to get affected people to be balanced about their resettlement experience.” There is “no conclusive evidence of any impact by Pak Mun dam on the fish population, fish catch levels, or change in the composition of species in the reservoir.”

Village leaders, such as Lamduan Saelathong, are outraged by such claims. “Development is supposed to make people better off,” says Saelathong, “not destroy our lives. . . . If there are so many fish . . . why does no one fish in the reservoir? Why do people not have enough fish to eat? Why does the fish in the market come from the Mekong? Nowadays we eat fish from a can. If this family has so much money, why are all my children working in Bangkok? I can tell you they would like to live here, but they cannot without money and without fish.”

In a letter to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, the Pak Mun villagers and more than 20 citizens groups denounced the Bank’s Van Wicklin report as “wrong, dishonest, and offensive,” and demanded that the World Bank take financial responsibility for compensation at Pak Mun. The letter was signed by nearly 30 Thai citizens groups, including Wildlife Fund Thailand, which is under the royal patronage of Her Majesty the Queen, academics, university students, environmental groups, and the national Assembly of the Poor, which represents thousands of dam-affected people from all over Thailand.

Probe International’s Reading List


POWER STRUGGLE: The Impacts of Hydro-Develpment in Laos

A report by International Rivers Network, March 1999

This new report exposes problems with hydro development in Laos such as poor economic viability, forced resettlement, out-of-control logging, inadequate compensation for affected people, and unmitigated environmental damage.

  • 68 pages, photos, maps, US$15 + $3.50 for mailing
  • Order from International Rivers Network
    1847 Berkeley Way
    Berkeley, CA 94703, USA
    Fax: 510 848 1008; e-mail:

News Briefs

Narmada Valley, India After a four-year hiatus, the Supreme Court of India has allowed construction of the half-built Sardar Sarovar dam to proceed, threatening to flood thousands of tribal families off their land this monsoon season. Since the Court’s decision, the Narmada Valley Authority has raised the dam height by eight metres and ordered 2,500 families living in the reservoir area to leave their homes. The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the dam’s final height next month. According to Narmada Bachao Andolan, the group representing displaced people, those families ordered to leave this year have nowhere to go because the government has failed to find any suitable land for resettlement. Of the several thousand families already displaced, some have returned to their condemned villages because they couldn’t survive on the barren plots of land at the resettlement sites. As the Narmada waters rise this year, the people of the valley are determined to stay put in their villages and have invited people throughout India and the world to join them in their fight for survival. The World Bank financed the Sardar Sarovar dam until 1993 when it was forced by public opposition to withdraw.

Jubilee 2000 Champions Odious Debt Law ÔøΩ Jubilee 2000, the groundswell ecumenical movement to cancel Third World debts, has adopted the international legal doctrine of odious debts that Probe International first publicized in its seminal book Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption, and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy. This little-known but powerful international legal doctrine stipulates that a debt created not in the interests of the state (for example, one incurred to repress the population that fights against it or to serve manifestly personal interests of corrupt leaders) “is odious for the population of all the State” and is “a ‘personal’ debt of the power that has incurred it.” Consequently, the debt falls with the fall of the power. Ground zero in the debt cancellation campaign is South Africa. South African groups first contacted Probe International two years ago and have since been campaigning to have the debts of the apartheid regime declared odious. When the G8 leaders meet in Cologne, Germany this year, the Jubilee 2000 campaign will deliver an estimated 7 million signatures to them. The Canadian government has offered to write off the debts of numerous dictatorial regimes that Canada has financed over the past several decades. But, Probe International argues, the Canadian government is only feigning compassion for the world’s poor; it is in fact glad for an excuse to clean up the shaky finances of its own institutions, such as the Export Development Corporation, whose loans to dictators went into default. While the long-suffering people of these Third World countries should not be obliged to pay back these imprudent Canadian agencies, neither should these agencies be allowed to continue to operate, says Probe International.

Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption, and the Third World’s
Environmental Legacy

by Patricia Adams

In this compelling account of the Third World’s debt catastrophe, Patricia Adams offers a way of both resolving the debt crisis justly and furthering democracy and accountability in the Third World.Invoking the doctrine of odious debts, which stipulates that debts contracted by a despotic regime are not an obligation for the nation but fall with the fall of that regime, Adams analyzes the parts played by the different participants. Among the lenders are the World Bank, the IMF, export credit agencies, and the commercial banks, and among the borrowers are not only governments and state enterprises, but also the military and above all greedy and despotic leaders. The story is one of recklessness and corruption.

Published in 1991
Softcover $15.95 (plus 7%GST and $3.00 postage and handling)
Hardcover $24.95 (plus 7%GST and $3.00 postage and handling)


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