Guinea dam displacement destroys livelihoods as 16,000 people lose land for China-Backed Souapiti project

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The Guinean government’s failure to provide adequate land, compensation, and other forms of support to those displaced for the Souapiti hydroelectric dam has devastated the livelihoods and food security of thousands of people, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The dam is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese government’s trillion-dollar investment in infrastructure across some 70 countries, which has supported large-scale hydropower projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The 63-page report, “‘We’re Leaving Everything Behind’: The Impact of Guinea’s Souapiti Dam on Displaced Communities,” documents how resettled communities, forced off their ancestral homes and farmlands, are struggling to feed their families, restore their livelihoods, and live with dignity.

The 450-megawatt dam, which the Guinean government says will dramatically improve the country’s electricity supply, is displacing an estimated 16,000 people and flooding 253 square kilometers of land. The government moved about 50 villages in 2019 and said it planned to move dozens more during 2020.

“While Guinea is in dire need of more reliable electricity, that shouldn’t be an excuse to trample the rights of people displaced by the Souapiti dam,” said Yasmin Dagne, Africa research fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Guinea’s government needs to ensure that displaced communities have access to the land and resources they need to rebuild their lives.”

The report is based on more than 90 interviews from across 15 villages affected by the dam, as well as interviews with business and government leaders involved in the resettlement process. Human Rights Watch also used satellite imagery to analyze the flooding caused by the dam and the location of impacted villages.

Construction started in 2015 and the dam is scheduled to begin producing electricity later this year. The project is a public-private partnership between the Guinean government and China International Water & Electric Corporation (CWE), a subsidiary of state-owned China Three Gorges Corporation, which is building the dam and will jointly own and operate it. State-owned Export-Import Bank of China (China Eximbank), which has made loans exceeding over a trillion yuan (US$150 billion) to support BRI projects, is financing the project through a US$1.175 billion loan to the Guinean government.

The Energy Ministry is managing the dam’s construction, including the resettlement process, through an agency called the Project for Hydroelectric Construction of Souapiti (Projet d’Aménagement Hydroélectrique de Souapiti, Souapiti Agency). The original plan for the dam would have displaced 48,000 people, but the government decided to reduce the height of the dam, and the volume of its reservoir, to lessen the number of people to be relocated.

The displacement is still, however, the largest in Guinea’s post-independence history and is dramatically altering the social fabric of the region. “Extended families are being split apart,” said one resident. “Whenever there is something to celebrate or mourn in the family, we feel the distance.”

Souapiti’s reservoir is also flooding a vast area of agricultural land, including an estimated 42 square kilometers of crops and more than 550,000 fruit-bearing trees. Many displaced people are struggling to find adequate food for their families. “We’re fragile like eggs because of the suffering here,” said a community leader relocated in 2019. “It’s only thanks to God that we survive.”

The Souapiti Agency does not provide displaced residents with replacement farmland but said it will assist them to farm more intensively on their remaining land and find new income sources, such as fishing. Those resettled, however, have so far received no such assistance. “We’re not asking for something extraordinary. Prepare land for us to continue our activities, a pasture area for livestock farming. Respect the promises made,” said the president of Tahiré District, which encompasses several villages relocated in June 2019.

The Souapiti Agency told Human Rights Watch that it is “in the process of redoubling its efforts to invest in the restoration of livelihoods.” The Souapiti Agency also said that it provides food to displaced residents in the months after the resettlement and compensates them for the trees and crops growing on flooded land, although it has provided no payments to reflect the value of the land itself.

Residents from all the villages Human Rights Watch visited said that they had complained to the Souapiti Agency or local government officials about problems with the resettlement process, but that they had received no response or one that did not address their concerns. The Souapiti Agency told Human Rights Watch that it had “delayed” implementing a formal grievance policy, and only did so in September 2019, after more than fifty villages had been moved.

The flawed resettlement process for the Souapiti dam is also evidence of the need for Chinese companies, banks, and regulators to ensure that BRI projects and other Chinese overseas investments respect human rights. CWE, in an email to Human Rights Watch, said that the resettlement is the responsibility of the Guinean government, but that as a shareholder in Souapiti the company “participates in the reinstallation and plays a role of supervisor.” China Eximbank did not respond to a letter from Human Rights Watch.

To address the profound problems in the resettlement process, the Souapiti Agency, with support from CWE, should work closely with displaced communities to ensure that they receive the land, compensation, training, credit, and other assistance they require to restore their livelihoods and income. In the meantime, the agency should ensure every family in displaced communities has access to adequate food.

The Souapiti Agency and CWE should also work with other government agencies to develop a plan for delivering continuous and sufficient clean water, sanitation, and health care services to displaced people, especially important now because of the threat of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“Chinese state companies and banks involved in the BRI can’t pass on responsibility for negative human rights impacts to national governments,” said Jim Wormington, Senior Africa Researcher for the Environment and Natural Resources. “They should work closely with national authorities to ensure that communities benefit from, and are not the victims of, large-scale infrastructure developments.”

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