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"Development" With Blinders at the World Bank

"The soldiers would say, 'Tell me about this sugarcane.' If we do not say something good, they beat us. They have truncheons, guns, and stun devices. They come every day."

These are the words of a Mursi man, an indigenous pastoralist in southern Ethiopia, describing how he and his community are being forced to move from the Lower Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia to make way for 245,000 hectares of state-run irrigated sugar plantations.

The World Bank's board of executive directors today agreed to fund transmission lines from southern Ethiopia to Kenya. Disappointingly, it seems that the board did not hold central this Mursi man's fate before proceeding to fund these transmission lines.

The controversial Gibe III hydroelectric dam, which is expected to more than double Ethiopia's power generation when it comes into operation in 2014, is going to irrigate and probably power the sugar plantations. Gibe III is to be a significant power source for the World Bank's project as well.

While the bank has evaluated the environmental impact of the transmission line itself and the need for resettlement along the line, it has not assessed the impact of the source of the power for that line. Nor has the bank assessed the cumulative effect of the government's plans to use some of that electricity to supply state-run sugar plantations that are to be irrigated from Gibe III.

While electricity is much needed in Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya, Gibe III's power comes with serious social and environmental costs, which extend from the dam site in the Omo River Valley all the way downstream to Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, in northern Kenya. The Independent Experts at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization assert that these costs have not been properly assessed, let alone mitigated.

The Ethiopian government has ignored the rights of indigenous peoples in constructing the Gibe III dam and in developing the large-scale sugar plantations. The government has not consulted the eight distinct indigenous groups who live in the vicinity, let alone respected their right as indigenous people to consent before being relocated so that their land can be used to develop these sugar plantations. Instead, local government and security forces have carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions, used unlawful force, and begun clearing huge swathes of land. More forced evictions in the Omo Valley are threatened in the near future.

Despite these flagrant abuses, the bank has determined that its policies to protect the rights of indigenous peoples do not apply to the transmission line project, as indigenous peoples do not reside in the area directly along the transmission line in Ethiopia.

But the World Bank's Inspection Panel, its independent complaints mechanism, has determined in past cases that the bank violates its own policies when it narrowly considers the impact of bank-funded projects, without considering associated facilities and supply areas.

The Gibe III dam, with its related irrigation projects, is just one example of the Ethiopian government highlighting development goals while hiding human rights abuses. The government has also claimed that forcibly relocating indigenous peoples into new "villages" realizes development goals as it makes it easier to provide them with basic services like education and health care. But the services in resettlement sites are completely inadequate, leaving communities far worse than they were before.

Dr. Kim has the opportunity to set a new tone at the Word Bank by sending a firm message that the bank will not condone development by force, directly or indirectly. Kim should require his staff to assess the true environmental and social impacts of this project, which include the cumulative effect of the source of the power and other related projects like the irrigated sugar plantations, in addition to the transmission line.

Despite today's board decision, Kim should only allow this project to go forward after that assessment is completed. To ignore the full impacts of this project would mean that he is closing his eyes to the indigenous peoples in southern Ethiopia and people elsewhere whose rights are being sacrificed in the name of development.

Jessica Evans is the senior advocate/researcher for international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on twitter at evans_jessica.

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