Development Projects' High Social Cost Seen

Report examines impact on indigenous populations

THE United Nations Commission on Human Rights has unanimously condemned forced evictions of people for large-scale development projects, moves often involving the resettlement of entire communities.

Meeting in Geneva last week, the commission termed such actions as a "gross violation of human rights."

The evidence against big development projects, most often in the third world, has been mounting as international charities like Oxfam, environmental organizations, and nongovernmental groups have assessed the impact on local populations.

Forced resettlement "rarely turns out well," notes a study released last week by the Panos Institute in London. "In virtually every major scheme across the world, however carefully the resettlement appeared to have been planned, the overall effect on the displaced population has been to increase hardship and suffering."

"What is delivered frequently falls short of what was promised," the report continues. "And the beneficiaries of the project are rarely those who have been resettled."

In China more than 10 million people have been displaced by 80,000 dams since 1949. A third of those resettled were so impoverished by the move that "they could not afford proper food and clothing," according to the report.

In India, of 15 million people displaced by dams, reservoirs, industry, and parks since independence 50 years ago, only 4 million have been properly resettled, according to the India Social Institute. The rest ended up flooding into the cities to work as daily wage laborers.

Funding for many of these projects comes from the World Bank, which has projects under way or on the drawing board that would displace a further 3 million people, Panos says. Poor planning, inaccurate cost estimates, and meagre resettlement packages for the people affected are three key problems.

China's Three Gorges Dam project, for example, "will take so long to build that the income from hydroelectricity will not be available for about 20 years," the report says. Western banks and lending agencies have been criticized for their large profits. Much of the foreign exchange generated by big development projects is simply used to repay the loan, Panos says. "In 1985, 81 percent of the consulting services, equipment, and materials brought with World Bank loans were from developed and OPEC countries ."

But the huge projects of the 1970s and 1980s may have had their heyday. Many development experts are coming to view small scale programs as more efficient, cost effective, and less disruptive.

In major projects, women, the poor, and the illiterate are frequently discriminated against in compensation packages, the report says.

As the Economist put it, "If land is to be taken for a development project, it is easiest to take the land from those who are poor, marginalised, and lacking in political power."

In India, one development group found that some projects were begun without giving notice to the local population. Others only notified the largely illerate rural population in writing.

When land is offered in compensation, it is rarely as fertile as the expropriated land. China claims that the farmers to be ousted in the Three Gorges Dam project will be compensated "hectare for hectare." But the land offered is unoccupied because it's not worth farming, the report says. Tribal people without legal documents for their land have sometimes found themselves without compensation altogether.

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