Probe International is a division of the Energy Probe Research Foundation, Canada’s best known and respected environmental and energy policy NGO. Created in 1980, the independently funded Energy Probe Research Foundation has led the environmental debate in issues, such as energy, forestry, water, mining, and agriculture and become known for its insightful and provocative analysis of the legal, financial and regulatory regimes that promote environmental destruction. Our foundation’s 20 staff members are regular contributors to the world’s leading newspapers and broadcast media, and appear as witnesses before regulatory and legislative bodies. Our books are translated into half a dozen languages and adopted by university courses around the world. We believe that there is no greater guarantee of justice than the free flow of information.
Probe International was created to address the environmental damage the Canadian government and corporations were causing in other countries. We discovered that for four decades, our foreign aid and export credit agencies had been pumping vast amounts of money into cash-strapped developing nations with little accountability, financing dictators against their people, spawning corruption, and building ill-conceived aid projects that left an environmental mess. These “loans” left local peoples destitute and saddled with debts that were neither repayable nor legitimate. Probe International investigated these projects, exposed waste and corruption and wasn’t afraid to name names. The idea that aid could undermine the democratic process, fund projects that destroyed the environment and keep poor people poor was previously unheard of.
Probe International and a handful of like-minded environmental groups and indigenous rights groups thus changed the debate over Third World development. The cause of Third World poverty and environmental degradation isn’t lack of money, we said, but the absence of democratic tools and rule of law. It still is.
Since our inception, we have worked in partnership with organizations in developing countries to give power to the people to control the decisions that affect their environments, their economies and, ultimately, their own development.
Here are the highlights of progress we’ve made, step by step.
1982 – Probe International and a handful of environmental and indigenous rights groups establish a worldwide network of citizens groups, now numbering in the thousands, to gather and exchange information to stop environmental wrong-doing in the Third World.
1983 – Two hydroelectric projects in Haiti that threaten to throw thousands of small farmers off their land to provide electricity for some 250 multinational corporations are stopped after Probe International protests to the financier, the Inter-American Development Bank.
1984 – In the Name of Progress: The Underside of Foreign Aid (Doubleday) is written, documenting how foreign aid often violates human rights, causes environmental harm and poverty, and undermines the very tools of development—democracy and rule of law. In the Name of Progress becomes required reading in university courses across the country.
1985 – Due to the efforts of Probe International and a small worldwide network of citizens groups, the World Bank and the other multilateral development banks begin, for the first time in their 40 year history, to be called to account by taxpayers in industrialized countries for destroying the environment with their projects. The first project under international scrutiny is Brazil’s POLONORESTE (Northwest Brazil Integrated Development Program). The project cleared the Amazon through burning, causing what is likely the most extensive and rapid human-induced change on Earth. The damage was so extensive that it was visible from space.
1986 – Probe International blows the whistle on the Canadian financing (in the form of famine relief) of Ethiopia’s corrupt resettlement project that forced the relocation of close to 800,000 northern Ethiopians to slave camp conditions in the south-west. The international outrage over the project, which killed 50,000 to 100,000 Ethiopians, forces the Ethiopian government to suspend the project.
1987 – The World Bank cuts its financing of Indonesia’s ill-conceived transmigration project, which would destroy over eight million acres of tropical forest and the homeland of indigenous peoples in Kalimantan and Irian Jaya, after Probe International and citizen groups from around the world support a campaign by Indonesian environmentalists and human rights groups to stop the destruction.
1988 – Following protests by Probe International, groups in other rich countries and Brazil itself, the World Bank withdraws a $500 million loan to Brazil’s power sector, thwarting construction of dozens of hydro dams that would have flooded an area of the Amazonian rainforest the size of the United Kingdom.
1990 – Probe International publishes Damming the Three Gorges: What Dam Builders Don’t Want You to Know (Earthscan), a blockbuster critique of the official feasibility study for the Three Gorges dam paid for by Canadian taxpayers and carried out by Canadian engineers. This marks the first time a feasibility study for a major development project has ever been publicly disclosed, giving citizens an important insight into the compromised analysis that have justified billions of dollars of loans to Third World for four decades. The feasibility study is so flawed that Probe International files formal complaints against the engineering firms for professional misconduct, negligence and incompetence.
1991 – Probe International revolutionizes the international financial infrastructure with Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy (Earthscan), by resurrecting the legal Doctrine of Odious Debts. The doctrine says that sovereign loans not spent in the interests of the populous but used corruptly or to arm governments against their people are not legally enforceable. Citizens’ rights groups throughout the Third World take up the Odious Debts charge in what will become the world’s largest grassroots movement to challenge the Third World’s debts.
1992 – Probe International and the Grand Council of the Crees of Quebec launch a joint prosecution against Canadian dam builders for the Three Gorges dam and the James Bay dam before the International Water Tribunal in Amsterdam, which rules in their favour for a halt to both projects.
1992 – Probe International warns the oil industry and Canadian government that commodifying carbon as a solution to global warming will lead to the takeover of precious forests, farms, and food used by the Third World’s poor, causing not only environmental harm but more desperate poverty and hunger.
1993 – Probe International and environmentalists from India, the U.S. and Europe rally public support for the highly critical independent review of the World Bank’s involvement in the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam and irrigation projects in India that will displace and impoverish 240,000 people. The bank is forced to withdraw its support from this ill-conceived scheme.
1993 – Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy is translated into Spanish and published, Deudas Odiosas: Un Legado De Insensatez Economica Y Saqueo Ambiental, by Argentinian publisher Planeta Tierra, making it available throughout Latin America.
1994 – Probe International teams up with Dai Qing, China’s most famous female investigative journalist, to translate and publish an expanded version of her extraordinary 1989 critique of the Three Gorges dam, Yangtze! Yangtze!. The book convinced the State Council to postpone the dam for five years, but landed Dai Qing in jail after Tiananmen Square for having contributed to the turmoil. The English version of Yangtze! Yangtze! gives the world, for the first time ever, the uncensored views of Chinese scientists, environmentalists, and concerned scholars and becomes an instant classic.
1995 – Probe International exposes—in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal—that the World Bank has amassed the world’s riskiest loan portfolio, only secure because of political guarantees from rich country members.
1996 – Probe International and U.S. environmental groups convince the U.S. Export-Import Bank that it should not subsidize American companies working on the Three Gorges dam project as it would be in direct violation of American environmental laws.
1997 – After years of opposition from Probe International and environmental groups from Malaysia and around the world, the Malaysian government cancels the uneconomic Bakun hydro dam that would have flooded 70,000 hectares of tropical forest and displaced thousands of people.
1998 – Probe International launches Three Gorges Probe—the world’s first and only English and Chinese language Internet news service covering the Three Gorges dam. Three Gorges Probe bypasses the Chinese government censors who have kept Chinese citizens ignorant about the devastation the dam will cause. Probe International also translates and publishes Dai Qing’s second monumental collection of expert criticisms of the Three Gorges dam and China’s dam building history called The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and Its People (M.E. Sharpe).
1999 – The 26-million-strong worldwide Jubilee ecumenical movement embraces the Doctrine of Odious Debts, based on Probe International’s seminal work, Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy, in its campaign to cancel the Third World’s debts by the new millennium. They are supported by former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which declared that the apartheid debts should be investigated for “odiousness.” Desmond Tutu’s successor, Archbishop Ndungane of Cape Town adds his voice to the growing grassroots movement with his own worldwide campaign to investigate and cancel the Third World’s odious debts.
2001 – A Probe International exposé given before the Canadian Parliamentary Committees points out a loophole in proposed legislation that would give Canada’s Export Development Canada corporation virtual immunity from judicial review if they caused environmental harm in overseas projects. The legislation will also give EDC the right to silence any critic with a $10,000 fine or six months in jail. Members of the Canadian Senator attempt to stop passage of bill, but fail.
2001 – Patricia Adams, author of Odious Debts: Loose Lending, Corruption and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy addresses NGOs at a conference in Indonesia, arguing that the country has enough evidence to launch an odious debt arbitral process against the World Bank’s past loans. She delivers the same message in an audience with Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, and in 2002, Odious Debts is published in Bahasa Indonesian, entitled Utang Najis: Obral Utang, Korupsi dan Kerusakan Lingkungan di Dunia (Indonesian version published by the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development).
2002 – Probe International works with Mayan archeologists, Belize Zoo director Sharon Matola, Belizean NGOs, and the U.S. Natural Resources Defence council to stop Canadian company, Fortis, from building a dam that is uneconomic and based on a flawed geological assessment. The dam will sever the Meso-American Biological corridor and destroy Central America’s last remaining habitat for the Scarlet macaw, Morelet’s crocodile, the Central American river otter and jaguar. Despite all the effort, the dam is built in 2005.
2003 – Canadian engineering giant, Acres International (who Probe had earlier exposed for their flawed work on Three Gorges) is convicted of paying bribes to win contracts in Lesotho’s $12 billion dam-building scheme. Probe International follows every twist and turn in the four-year court battle, exposing suspected, but never-before-known details of corruption in the dam building industry—including behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Canadian government to save Acres from the World Bank’s new anti-corruption rules. Probe International launches a public letter writing campaign to World Bank President James Wolfensohn and secures Acres’ debarment from World Bank contracts in 2004.
2004 – Probe International advises Iraqi jurists and civil society to challenge the assumption of Saddam Hussein’s odious debts. This leads to a groundswell movement in Iraq for an investigation and arbitration of the claims against the Iraqi people, and to a resolution by the Iraqi National Assembly denouncing responsibility for those debts. It also implicates the creditors—mostly western governments—for financing the dictator against his people. Worldwide public support, press recognition, policy think tank endorsement, and even the IMF acquiescence to the inherent justice of the principles of odious debts leads to the largest debt write-off in modern history, with 80% of the Iraqi debts being cancelled.
2005 – Probe International and Dai Qing launch the first annual Environmental English Language Training program for Chinese environmental volunteers, press, and lawyers to learn applied English, and intern with North American environmental organizations. The program inspires the unprecedented exchange of ideas and intellectual ferment among environmentalists inside and outside China, helping to find solutions for China’s monumental environmental problems.
2005 – Probe International releases report by a leading Canadian forensic accounting firm showing that Export Development Canada’s financial statements keep taxpayers in the dark when the crown corporation extends a sovereign loan for political reasons. Probe International protests on behalf of Third World taxpayers who are forced to repay state debts that served a political interest rather than the public’s interest.
2005 – Probe International translates and publishes The Story of the Dahe Dam by respected Chinese sociologist Ying Xing. It is a detailed account of the years-long struggle for redress pursued by thousands of people affected by the construction of the Dahe dam on a tributary of the Yangtze. Thirty years later, many are being moved again for the Three Gorges project. Described by China’s most respected female journalist, Dai Qing, as an “excellent book that describes the ruin caused by one small dam,” the original Chinese version of the book was banned in China in 2002, soon after its publication. Probe International makes it available online, in both Chinese and English.
2006 – Probe International addresses committee of the European Union arguing that export credit agencies are moral hazard machines, serve no legitimate economic purpose and should be shut down.
2007 – Probe International works with grassroots groups throughout the Mekong region to defend their rights to say no to proposed dams. Probe International also champions a movement for “regulated flow” in which Mekong riparian citizens who depend on the fish stocks, and flood waters for fertilization and irrigation, are given rights to restore the natural flow of tributaries on dammed rivers in order to revive their former livelihoods.
2007 – The popularity of the Probe International-fueled odious debts movement prompt legal scholars worldwide to explore the principles of public international and private domestic law, expanding and establishing the principles espoused by the doctrine of odious debts. The Norwegian government takes the first official step and declares mea culpa when it cancels its own odious loans to half a dozen Third World countries; the UN Development Program publishes a scholarly paper endorsing the concept.
2008 – Probe International and Dai Qing work with a team of Chinese journalists, economists, cartographers, and hydrologists to publish an independent audit of the Three Gorges dam, and a pathbreaking independent report on Beijing’s water crisis and how the Olympics will exacerbate it. Oral histories gathered from the Yangtze river valley and the Beijing watershed are also published by Probe International, giving voice to the people who have been denied a voice for decades.
2009 – Probe International releases shocking photos of the Canadian-owned Chalillo Dam releasing sediment-laden, mercury-contaminated water that threatens the downstream ecology and fish of Belize’s Macal River, and demands compensation by Newfoundland-based Fortis International for the harm caused. In Chile, Probe International reveals that Canada’s Pension Plan has invested in Chile’s electric transmission company, Transelec, making every working Canadian a possible party to a scheme to bring power from environmentally-threatening, glacial-fed dams over fiords, around volcanoes, and through seismic zones in Chile’s environmentally fragile Patagonia region.
2010 – After Haiti’s devastating earthquake kills tens of thousands of people in the capital city of Port au Prince, Probe International’s Patricia Adams focuses public attention on the best way to help Haiti: to break free of the perpetual foreign aid on which its people have come to depend. Haiti—known as the “Republic of NGOs” because it relies on a shadow government of NGOs to provide more of its social services—is to establish the rule of law, sound judicial and electoral systems, transparent government, constitutional democracies, public security, and freedom of speech, all necessary conditions for development.
2011 – Probe International releases studies showing the Three Gorges dam has increased seismic activity 30-fold since it began to operate and that the mighty Yangtze will run dry as Three Gorges and other mammoth dams store water to generate power and deprive tens of millions of people downstream of their life-giving water.
2011 – Probe International’s Patricia Adams cracks open the flawed economics behind carbon credits and explains that because carbon is an intangible commodity without value to the seller or the purchaser, carbon markets are highly prone to fraud and, as forensic auditors say, the perfect commodity for organized crime.
2012 – More than 130 large dams being built in western China could trigger disaster—earthquakes, even tsunamis—due to their construction in seismic hazard zones, a new report by Probe International finds. The report triggers its own tsunami of press coverage inside and outside of China, bringing this all-important public safety issue to light.
2012 – Probe International and Chinese environmentalists and scientists document that 20 years after China’s Three Gorges Dam was built, their predictions have tragically come true: The dam has caused the near extinction of Yangtze fish species, triggered a 30-fold increase in seismic activity and eroded the riverbed so extensively that downstream wetlands are now draining into the East China Sea, destroying water supplies and fisheries for millions of people.
2013 – After years of Probe International’s research documenting how foreign aid causes environmental harm, spawns corruption, and thwarts democracy, Canada shuts its bilateral aid agency, CIDA, and subsumes a shrunken aid program into the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
2014 – Probe International studies by China’s eminent geologist Fan Xiao links China’s devastating earthquakes, including the May 2008 quake that kills 90,000, to a rash of dam-building operations in the seismically active south-western region of the country.
2014 – Russia backs down on threats to enforce payment from Ukraine of a US$3 billion Eurobond bought by the government of Vladimir Putin after Ukraine’s national news agency, Ukrinform, interviews Probe International’s Patricia Adams about odious debts. Under the Doctrine of Odious Debts, rediscovered by Adams in Odious Debts, Loose Lending, Corruption, and the Third World’s Environmental Legacy, Ukraine has no obligation to repay money borrowed by a despotic government.
2014 – When Probe International’s colleagues at the Beijing-based Transition Institute are jailed for publishing books and giving lectures at universities, Probe publishes reports of their disappearance and translates heartfelt and compelling letters from family members. After many months in jail, they are released.
2015 – In the lead-up to the Paris Climate Summit, Probe International issues a report that reveals the Chinese government intends to fuel economic growth with cleaner fossil fuels that will help clean up smog, but produce more CO2.