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Guinea: Human Rights Watch interviews activist on displacement caused by Souapiti dam project

“Interview: Displaced and Destitute as Guinea Advances Dam Project with Help from China”, 16 April 2020

The Souapiti dam, Guinea’s largest hydropower project so far, has the potential to significantly improve access to electricity in a country in desperate need of reliable energy. But the 450-megawatt dam, part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), comes at a substantial cost to local communities. Thousands of villagers will lose agricultural land to flooding and, with it, access to food and income. Birgit Schwarz speaks with Guinean activist Mariama Barry about her work on Human Rights Watch’s new report and the need for Chinese investors to better protect the social and environmental rights of those affected by infrastructure projects…

The vast majority of people who are being resettled are farmers whose families have exploited the land in the area for generations. Most are extremely poor. Having left their homes and with much of their land flooded or no longer accessible, many are struggling to feed their families…

... According to the Guinean government, the dam’s reservoir will ultimately displace an estimated 16,000 people from 101 villages and flood 253 square kilometers of land…

… Resettled families do not receive legal title to their new land, only a document recording the host community’s consent to grant them land. Given the scarcity of land and the size of the area that is to be flooded this might well lead to future conflicts…

None of the displaced communities we talked to had been compensated for the loss of their land, only for the crops and trees growing on it. The Souapiti Agency argues that because the land was customarily owned, people are not entitled to compensation, a position that violates international standards. The Souapiti Agency has not provided displaced residents with replacement farmland either…

People have written numerous letters to local as well as national authorities, but largely to no avail. The Souapiti Agency admits that during the initial process of displacement there were no formal complaints mechanisms in place, nor did people have access to independent legal advice. Recently, some efforts have been made by the dam management to find out from the communities what their grievances and needs might be. But not enough tangible efforts have been made to address the original problems with the resettlement…

The dam is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)… the dam is being constructed by a Chinese company – China International Water & Electric Corporation (CWE), a subsidiary of the world’s second largest dam builder, state-owned China Three Gorges Corporation – and is financed by China’s state-owned Export-Import Bank (Eximbank).

Because of the criticisms of the environmental and social impact of some BRI projects, it’s really important that Chinese companies and banks involved in these projects in Africa do their utmost to respect human rights standards…

… given the human rights, social, and environmental impact of the different hydropower projects planned in Guinea, the government should assess whether all the planned dams are needed and sensible. Where dams are being built, the government needs to ensure that national and international norms and standards are being respected during the resettlement process. Also, the compensation displaced people receive ought to be fair and transparent, and those who have been resettled should be given sufficient land to restore their livelihoods and be granted legal ownership of the land they are allocated. And lastly, it is vital that the government take the concerns of those affected seriously. If the grievances of those who are being displaced are ignored, large-scale infrastructure projects will make already impoverished communities even poorer.

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