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close this bookThe Courier N 150 - March - April 1995 - Dossier: Refugees - Country Reports: The Bahamas, Guyana (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
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View the documentInternational instruments concerning refugees.

Development-induced displacement

by Dr Chris McDowell

In January, Oxford University's Refugee Studies Programme (RSP) hosted the first international conference devoted to the topic of development-induced displacement, expropriation and resettlement. Delegates drawn from 28 countries included developing world senior government officials, academics, NGOs and representatives of groups resisting displacement or campaigning for public awareness and improved resettlement practice and policy. The eviction of people because of national development and donor priorities is a major global issue and one that demands political and intellectual attention. Development-caused displacement. except for a few high-profile projects. has been largely hidden from international attention, and its true scale is unknown

According to the World Bank's latest review of resettlement and development, between 90 and 100 million people have been involuntarily resettled over the past decade. In India alone some 23 million have been displaced since 1950. Hydroelectric dam projects, each year, lead to the involuntary relocation of between 1 2 and 2.1 million people. In Africa, dams on the Volta (Ghana), Aswan (Egypt). Zambezi (Zambia and Zimbabwe) and Bandama (Cd'lvoire) rivers have caused the forcible relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, mainly farmers and herders, but also townspeople. In China. water conservancy projects since the 1950s have created over 10 million displacees. But it is not just dams that create displacement. Unknown additional relocation continues as a result of forestry, mining and parks development. Iand-use conversion, the construction of transport corridors, urban growth, politically mandated relocation and resettlement caused by structural adjustment reforms. The scale of the phenomenon is enormous, the consequences for those displaced can be devastating and the expected advantages to the nation which are used to justify the displacement are not always realised


The most significant consequence of forced displacement for those imimediately affected, and many more affected 'downstream', is impoverishment. At the Oxford conference three questions hung heavy in the air why do impoverishment and social disintegration occur; how can impoverishment be prevented; and is displacement always necessary?

Nine consistently repeated forms of impoverishment are recognised: unemployment , landlessness, marginalisation, food insecurity, loss of access to common property, erosion of health status, social disarticulation and cultural stress. As papers presented at the conference graphically revealed, these forms of impoverishment tend to come as an inclusive package and with differing degrees of intensity.

Two speakers, A. Barabas and M. BartoLomfound that none of the groups relocated to make way for the Chinantecos and Cerro de Oro Dams in Mexico managed to have their basic demands fulfilled. The indemnification lands were of a very inferior quality to those lost, and the credit system resulted in general indebtedness, until it was cancelled. The production projects, they argue, failed, and those relocated went back to growing maize for self-consumption, but with a lower yield, or migrated once more. Infrastructure works for the new towns were carried out after resettlement, and in such a temporary way that some of them (notably irrigation and drinking water) soon stopped working, or became inadequate or useless (as in the case of housing), while other facilities (such as electricity and latrines) were never installed. The intrafamilial and intergenerational conflict which erupted over the possession of land 'destroyed the traditional joint residence, production and consumption patterns of domestic groups, and forced young people of both sexes to leave their familial and communal spheres, bringing about their uprooting and the loss of cultural and ethnic ties'.

In the Philippines 13 000 people were relocated when the town of Pantabangan was submerged to provide a reservoir for the Pantabangan Dam constructed in 1971. S. Tamondong described how relocation was undertaken prematurely to lands that were politically convenient but ill-suited for the purpose. Topsoil was removed and the apportioned land was inappropriate for cultivation, resulting in a shifting of the town's economy from farming to contract labour. This proved to be short-term and led to a sudden rise in unemployment, forcing people back onto the land, where environmentally unsustainable practices brought about a further decline in land quality Twenty years on, Tamondong says, 'the mountains are almost bald from heavy deforestation... none of the project housing or personal loans have been repaid... none of the allocated farm lots are productive... [and] most of the people who remain are elderly... the younger. productive members of their families are elsewhere in the job market,'

In the absence of a clear national policy and of a political will to avoid or minimise displacement and mitigate impoverishment, governments bidding to generate sustainable social and economic development will be increasingly confronted with internal and international opposition. Governments which have not adequately dealt with the development of displaced people have failed to realise the full potential of their infrastructure projects to generate employment and promote social integration

Solutions for the future

As the conference recognised, the goal for the future must be to turn this social process of impoverishment on its head, to anticipate the risks of displacement and counter them. Displacement creating development is going to continue because developing societies, particularly those with a rapidly expanding population, have to balance benefits of safe water supplies, irrigation, effective transport systems, or urban growth with the costs and pains of resettlement. But rehabilitation and the re-establishment of livelihoods must follow displacement. Inadequate and ill-conceived planning and defective implementation of projects have been most marked where people's basic entitlements have been disregarded from the very inception of a project right through to its completion The effect of excluding those affected from the participation process, and ignoring the social, cultural, economic and political costs of displacement, has been to intensify social conflict and make the process of rehabilitation more difficult.

Social conflict and political struggle often turn around organised resistance to resettlement. and. in the absence of any legal avenues to defend interests, it is inevitable. But resistance struggles are not characterised by blind and deaf confrontation between the powerful and the powerless. Dialogues are emerging and project designers are recognising that affected people and NGOs representing their interests are extremely effective in contributing to resettlement planning. And recent resistance campaigns have succeeded in extracting major improvements in 'packages' given to resettlers. The World Bank has now proposed a series of policies to protect those displaced and ensure their entitlements. it is hoped that high standards of protection and entitlement enacted in a legal framework will be extended to all displacement inducing projects.

To avoid conflict, and make the most of the gains of development, it is essential that donor organisations and donor governments, managing authorities (which will increasingly mean private companies and consortia) and developing world governments recognise the need for development initiatives that increase employment, reduce poverty and promote social integration A top priority of national governments should be to find non-displacing alternatives to displacement-inducing and environmentally damaging projects. If displacement is unavoidable, action should be taken to ensure that affected people are not only fully compensated and able to purchase replacement land and other assets, but, at the very least, that they should be able to regain their earlier living standard. This means that adequate financial resources must be built into the project budget, with flexibility in the management of that budget to ensure that money finds its way, in time, to those who need it.

Affected people, including potential host communities, should be informed and participate fully in the de termination of their future At the very least, national governments should incorporate the emerging international standards into national policies and domestic legislation for mitigating the negative impacts of involuntary displacement The policy and legal framework must go beyond 'eminent domain' and protect the social, economic and cultural rights of people displaced and affected by development projects. It is essential that suitable training facilities are created to conduct research and train government employees and others responsible for population displacement.


Cernea. M 'Understanding and Preventing lmpoverishment from Displacement: Reflections on the State of Knowledge', paper presented at DIDI Conference, Wadham College, Oxford, 3-7 January 1995.

Tamondong, S. 'State Power as a Medium of Impoverishment The Case of Pantabangan Resettlement in the Philippines', paper presented at DIDI Conference

Barabas, A. and BartoLomM., 'Mediation or Self-Management: Large Dams, Social Movements and Ethnicity', paper presented at DIDI Conference.