The Multinational Monitor


D E V E L O P M E N T   B A N K S

Indigenous People "Developed" Out of Their Lands

by Steve Billes

When is economic development not development? Eight anthropologists and policymakers took up this question on June 28 and 29 before the U.S. House of Representatives. Together, the critics challenged the policies of the World Bank and other international development banks for their effect on the people and the land of Third World countries.

The witnesses focused on indigenous people in one of the two days of hearings before the Subcommittee on International Development Institutions and Finance called by subcommittee chairman Jerry Patterson (D-California), and member Mike Lowry (D-Washington).

Indigenous peoples are often victims of development projects funded by the banks, such as construction of roads, dams, power plants, telecommunications systems, and railways, several witnesses stated. Adoption of the programs often results in the relocation of the native populations away from their traditional homelands and a fundamental disruption of their self-sustained economy and social system. Critics generally agreed that banks often ignore the potential political and human rights dimensions of development projects, which can be especially serious in countries with repressive governments.

Among the examples cited in the hearings:

  • The Bayano Dam project in Panama flooded 135 square miles of the Cuna Indian homeland, almost 80 percent of their reservation. The Cuna, relocated nearby, do not have access to the power produced by the dam.

  • In Guatemala, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funded huge infrastructure projects that served the military/industrial elite. At the same time, they funded and enthusiastically promoted-although on a much smaller scale-agricultural, consumer, and credit cooperatives among the Mayan Indian population.

    During the 1970s, this thriving cooperative movement was labeled "subversive" by the military, who assassinated national and local cooperative leaders, and massacred cooperative members in the countryside. The development banks, said Sheldon Davis of the Anthropology Resource Center, "thought they could provide assistance to both the Guatemalan military and the indigenous peasantry without creating a deep political rift in Guatemalan society."

  • In western Brazil, the World Banksponsored Polonoroeste project now under development is designed to clear and settle tropical forest areas the size of the state of California, inhabited until recently only by several tribes of Nambiquaran Indians. A Brazilian government plan to safeguard the Indians was described by one witness as "so puerile and fanciful" that it was questionable whether the government "really intended it to be taken seriously or simply believed the World Bank would not care."

  • The Philippine Chico Dam Program, a multi-dam project supported by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, forced the relocation of more than 10,000 Kalinga and Bontac tribal people and destroyed vast rice territories, their chief foodstuff. Resistance by the Kalingas and Bontacs escalated into several military confrontations with the Philippine army.

  • In Costa Rica, the World Bank and the IDB backed the construction of the Boruca Dam. With 85 percent of its power slated for an aluminum processing plant owned by Alcoa, an American multinational, the dam would have flooded a large area of the Boruca Indian Reservation. Only organized resistance from the Boruca Indians has delayed start-up of the project.

While most witnesses spoke as outsiders concerned about multilateral bank policies, anthropologist David Price offered a scathing insider's critique of World Bank policies based -on his experience as a consultant to the Polonoroeste project to settle western Brazil. First, Price stated, the World Bank brought him in as a consultant to evaluate the Brazilian government's ability to safeguard the Indians only after it had already conceded control to the Brazilian government over treatment of the Indians. Then it provided inadequate logistical support for his investigatory trip to Brazil. Finally, it restricted circulation of his final report and distorted his findings and recommendations in the official published document on the study.

"One cannot help but feel that the World Bank is much more concerned with images than with the welfare of the native minorities," Price concluded.

Congressmen Patterson and Lowry admitted to being "shocked" at the "eyeopening" revelations presented in the two days of hearings. "I think we're too damn defensive of these banks," concluded Lowry in his closing remarks. He subsequently addressed a ten-point letter to the Treasury Department asking them to respond to specific questions and to account for the multinational banks' policies and procedures protecting indigenous people, public health, and the environment. (Multinational banks, exempt from appearing before any legislative body, deal with the U.S. Congress solely through the Treasury Department.)

While none of the witnesses minced words in their criticism of the banks, many cautioned that they did not advocate the termination of these development institutions. They still expressed faith in the banks' ability to carry out socially responsible development. But such a change, they said would require the banks to open up their procedures to far more public scrutiny and cooperation with their critics. David Price said that the World Bank, for one, tends to become "hermetic and monolithic-a law unto itself. If the rest of the world could see what goes on inside the World Bank, it might conduct its business more scrupulously." Another witness agreed, and called for more cooperation from the banks and legislative changes if necessary. "We won't go away. We want more than paper changes."

Table of Contents