Monitoring Development Projects

Human Rights Dialogue 2.9 (Spring 2003): "Making Human Rights Work in a Globalizing World"

June 30, 2003

Development projects undertaken by corporations operating within the framework of the Philippines government’s national development plan are frequently at odds with the rights of the indigenous peoples. These projects encourage unfettered natural resource exploitation, ignoring the fact that indigenous peoples’ communal lands are the sources of their livelihoods and are crucial to their identities. In addition, development projects often ignore the need for improvement of social services and development of local people’s cultural and economic activities.

Numerous local and national human rights organizations have attempted to deal with these issues of development and transnational corporations. Because they are nonstate actors, corporations are difficult to hold accountable under international human rights law. Although they operate under the jurisdiction of national legal systems, they often escape censure due to their economic or political power. Corporations can threaten states with relocation or lobby governments to maintain or institute a weaker regulatory framework. Although states are the actors principally responsible for upholding human rights, the influence and impact of corporations on the realization of human rights have led many to argue for corporate accountability for human rights violations and for social responsibility to the communities that corporations affect.

The lack of corporate accountability in the Philippines has had dire consequences for the rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities. Corporate development projects and their harmful effects have increased significantly since the controversial Mining Act of 1995 passed the Philippine Congress. Critics viewed the act as the total liberalization of the country’s mining industry. The law set up Financial and Technical Assistance Agreements that grant a maximum of 81,000 ha of land for every large-scale mineral exploration. These agreements also offer a range of incentives, such as a 25–50 year land lease and water and timber rights over exploration areas. In exchange, the government demands a US$50 million capital outlay for every large-scale mining venture.

The first application granted by the Philippine government was for the Climax-Arimco mining project, which fell within the lands of the Ifugao indigenous group in the village of Didipio. Climax-Arimco, a Sydney-based mining giant, began its survey of the Didipio area in 1989. By 1997 the company had identified seventeen gold and copper prospects in Didipio Valley.

The mining project required a large underground mining operation and the removal of the local Dinkindi Hill. Climax-Arimco was granted a permit for 24,000 ha of land in Didipio. The Ifugao communities feared farmland would be destroyed and the village would be used as a catch basin for mining waste. In response, they formed a village-wide organization called The Didipio Earth Savers Movement Association (DESAMA). DESAMA was born out of the initiative of a handful of local villagers partnering with other organizations and institutions with similar concerns. In 1997, it was DESAMA which headed the campaign for a “People’s Initiative.” In the same year, Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan ng Philipinas (National Federation of Indigenous Peoples Organizations in the Philippines--KAMP) began working closely with DESAMA.

Other sectors of the community also made their opposition to Climax-Arimco’s project known, including a violent protest that led to the deployment of a company of the Philippine Army, which set up camp beside Dinkidi Hill. In an effort to quiet local protests, Climax-Arimco persuaded village officials to enter into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) stipulating that Climax-Arimco would allocate funds for education and health programs, as well as promising jobs for villagers. Although some promises, including the construction of a schoolhouse, were fulfilled, others, such as the supplying of electricity and road construction, were not. The allocation of funds also was discriminatory. The introduction of electricity to the area, for example, still only supplies the military camp, the company houses, and the homes of those who have agreed to the mining operations (mostly those that have found employment with Climax-Arimco).

The opposition gained momentum as opinions objecting to the project spread. Villagers began to draft petitions and hold community forums discussing the issues; members of the community gained confidence as they realized they were not alone in their struggle against mining corporations. In 2000, the Regional Development Council (RDC), which has the power to veto a development project in its area, was asked to intervene. The RDC decided in favor of the opposing group. Although it did not veto the project, it maintained that mining was completely at odds with the land classification of the region (a forest and water catchment area). Due to the RDC’s decision, Climax-Arimco’s share prices were halved in the year 2000.

The lack of accountability of transnational corporations such as Climax-Arimco has affected many indigenous groups in the Philippines. A recent study by KAMP documenting some of these experiences concluded that the present orientation of development projects being introduced in communities of national minorities tends to breed conflict—if not directly between the project proponents and the communities, then among the local people themselves. The main reason is that these projects—characterized as large-scale, capital-intensive, and extractive—seek to exploit and subsequently destroy the people’s main economic base. The present development blueprint of the Philippine government, which speaks of privatization, deregulation, and the liberalization of vital industries, supports this orientation and framework.

My organization, Minority Rights Group International (MRG), works with local partner organizations worldwide to promote the strengthening of international minority rights standards and their implementation in local circumstances. Fundamental to its strategy is listening to, and working with, minorities and indigenous peoples to avoid prescriptive and patronizing approaches. We have about 130 partners in some 60 countries, including KAMP, with which we work closely in addressing the issues of transnational corporations vis-à-vis indigenous communities.

KAMP recognized that almost all minority communities in the Philippines face similar predicaments, and realized the importance of starting a campaign to expose this prevailing trend, gather favorable public opinion, and develop a resounding opposition from within the affected people themselves. Without this, the problem of “aggressive” development would result in the further destruction and dislocation of national minority communities. The campaign, known as “Stop Ethnocide,” aims to monitor, assess, and advocate against the involvement of transnational corporations in development projects, and focuses on the military operations by the government that support the corporate development projects under the pretext of counter-insurgency responses. The campaign involves a variety of human rights groups, both national and international, as well as indigenous peoples’ rights advocates, student advocacy groups, members of the church, and reliable allies in the Philippine Congress.

A crucial component of this campaign includes filing legal cases in local and international courts against individuals, corporations, or institutions that violate the human rights of indigenous peoples. MRG has recently begun a legal support program for those affected, with the understanding that setting jurisprudence through international judicial mechanisms (such as complaints procedures of UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies) can have a positive impact at the national level on changes in legislation and practice.

While the legal framework is one important arena for addressing corporate accountability, Gerardo Gobrin, the National Coordinator of KAMP, argues that his organization’s work in the Philippines has proven that collective action is fundamental to making the human rights framework accessible to the people. Gobrin asserts, “People’s empowerment comes from realizing that all ongoing threats and practices that violate their human rights can be promptly and effectively addressed or resolved through their collective actions.”

Forging a wide network that contributes legal as well as technical expertise is critical to empowering communities and helping them to overcome the odds they face. Communities involved in development projects are frequently coerced by transnational corporations and often lack the material and technical assistance that is crucial to building collective development goals. When this happens, KAMP tries to restrain a company’s operations with a court order so as to give the community some breathing space in which to evaluate its position and plan its next moves. Technical assistance can include everything from resource mobilization of finance or relief goods to providing media exposure to supplying health assistance through medical missions and building support groups.

While transnational corporations are certainly not losing influence in the development process, they are beginning to realize that the days of exploitation with impunity are disappearing. According to Gobrin of KAMP, “The human rights framework, as provided by the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is broad. Specific experiences and challenges enhance this framework, by making it relevant to peoples in different situations and contexts.”