The World Bank doesn’t require that its projects respect human rights, and has thus far refused to adopt such a requirement.
Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and Elmer Campos travelled far from their families in rural Peru to attend the Annual Meeting of the World Bank, taking place in the capital city of Lima. Their goal is to raise concerns regarding a mining company in which the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, is invested. The mining company has wrought environmental devastation in the Cajamarca region of Peru. Now it is proposing to expand gold and copper mining operations to an area across the provinces of Celendin, Hualgayoc, and Cajamarca where Máxima and Elmer live.
Local communities have rejected the mine, citing the risks to the water sources on which they depend. In response, security forces have engaged in systematic attacks on the communities. Máxima’s family is under continuous harassment to cede their home to the mining company. During a demonstration at the mine, Elmer was shot by security forces paralyzed from the waist down.
On Thursday, Máxima and Elmer entered a massive room in the newly completed Lima Convention Center. Máxima is a good foot shorter than the rest of the people in the room, and stands out in her brightly colored traditional full skirt among the sea of business suits. A large square of tables lined with microphones takes up the center of the room. Máxima and Elmer are waiting for the start of a “Roundtable” wherein civil society representatives have the opportunity to pose questions to a handful of World Bank Executive Directors. Bright lights flash World Bank logos onto large video screens, as piped-in music plays and participants take their seats, giving the air of a primetime talk show. Máxima and Elmer take a position in the far corner of the room in a back row.
The moderator announces the rules of engagement – there will be three rounds of questions, civil society members will have 30 seconds to ask a question. Elmer looks incredulous – “How am I going to ask my question in 30 seconds?”
Máxima stands before a towering mic stand in the corner. The moderator calls for the final round of questions. When the mic doesn’t work Máxima is ushered to the table to use the table mic.
“I am a victim of human rights violations by the mining company that wants to throw me off my land. They kicked me out of my home, tore down my house, killed my animals. I’m tortured by the company, with the support of the police,” she said. “For this reason I ask the World Bank, because I know that the World Bank is financing these transnational companies, to stop causing these violations of our rights. We have been severely threatened … Our brothers have been killed, they are being jailed, and because of this I want to say please stop this company so that we can live in peace.”
Then Elmer testified:
“My name is Elmer Campos Álvarez, of the department of Cajamarca. I was shot because of the Conga project in Cajamarca, by the police. They destroyed my spleen, kidney, spinal column, they left me here in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. There, because of social protest, the police keep shooting us, leaving behind dead, leaving too many orphans, spilling too much blood. And what is it that Minera Yanacocha does, without a social license … it continues contaminating, continues tricking our country that there is progress for our area, when in reality we’re the poorest region in the country. We want this project considered unviable for the threats it poses to our lakes, which we drink from, which provide water that we give to our animals or use to water our plants … we want this project to be stopped so that there is no more spilled blood or deaths.”
The room breaks into applause.
The World Bank doesn’t require that its projects respect human rights, and has thus far refused to adopt such a requirement. When human rights issues are brought to the Bank, they’re often met with a series of stock responses.
First, is the argument that the Bank is a community of 188 countries with very different opinions regarding human rights, and they have to find a consensus among those countries. Second, is the argument that the Bank is a big institution and it’s not always aware of what’s happening on the ground with its investments, but that if there are problems, surely civil society will let them know. In answer to why the World Bank is financing projects involving human rights violations, staff and management retort that it’s better that the World Bank be involved rather than another investor, namely China. And finally, there’s the red herring argument that to take a position on human rights would mean that the Bank couldn’t engage in certain countries or types of projects, and it’s best that the Bank be engaged so that they have leverage to improve the situation.
When it comes to human rights, the World Bank, an institution that delivers an average of US$30 billion in assistance each year, plays ignorant, innocent and impotent: ignorant of the human rights risks of its operating environments and project partners and ignorant of the human rights impacts of its investments; innocent of any responsibility for those human rights impacts; and impotent to do anything better.
What gets lost in the Bank’s flimsy justifications are two fundamental questions: What should be the role of a publicly run and publicly financed “development” institution? And where is the evidence that the Bank’s “risky” investments actually contribute to the wellbeing of poor communities?
Despite its own analytical evidence to the contrary, the World Bank still operates under the assumption that economic growth equals development. As Elmer stated, “The Yanacocha mine has been in our province for over 20 years, but has only left us in greater poverty.”
On Friday, inside the Bank, directors and finance ministers celebrated Peru’s economic growth as a development model for the region. Outside the massive complex of buildings, an armored protection belt of fences, barricades and police separated the official proceedings from the traffic and noise of the city of Lima.
In a plaza in the city center, over a thousand indigenous groups, trade unions, students, feminist groups, environmentalists and human rights activists set off for a 2.5 kilometer march to the World Bank complex to highlight the true impacts of World Bank and International Monetary Fund and to “Expose the Myth of the Peruvian Miracle.”
Chants of “We have gold, silver, and copper, but still we’re poor” and “World Bank, National Poverty” were accompanied by a cacophony of drums, whistles and blowhorns. After winding its way through city streets for nearly three hours, the march reached the security perimeter outside the Bank meetings. Three lines of police in full riot gear, face masks, and shields, kept the masses far away from the Bank complex, out of sight and mind from the officials gathered inside to debate the latest twists and turns of GDPs and commodity markets.
Outside, civil society’s demands are simple.
“I ask them to have some conscience, a little humanity, and to invest in development,” says Máxima. “Not to invest in disaster … and more poverty.”