One Person, One Vote

by Monti Aguirre
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Voice of Communities in Development Decisions

In defense of their lands and lives, throughout Latin America communities affected by dams and mines are banding together to organize their own local referenda to record their voices on critical development decisions.

After the Guatemalan government began promoting the Xalala Dam as a national priority, community members began organizing meetings to learn about the project, talk about its impacts and ultimately record their vote on whether they approved or disapproved of the project. Women and men, young and old, began to meet in local plazas under ardent suns and thatched, wall-less communal meeting rooms. They spoke of what was at stake if the dam was built – how they would lose their rivers, lands, ancient burial grounds, crops, hunting grounds and sense of community. They told the sad story over and over of how the Chixoy Dam drastically changed the lives of their Maya-Achi relatives.

As Maya people have done for centuries, "They spoke to each other, thought and meditated; got together and sought agreement in thoughts and words" (Popol Vuh) and in April of 2007 held the "Community Consultation in Good Faith."

Across Latin America a slew of large and small dams are planned for the rivers of the region - lined up for construction almost as if dams were being manufactured in a factory. These projects are planned and implemented by governments and companies with little or no meaningful participation by the communities that are most likely to be affected.

Consultation with communities is usually a requirement for project approval, yet is often deeply flawed. People often lack timely access to project information. Some affected people may be bribed or deceived into signing agreements endorsing the project. Those who speak out against dams and mines are subject to violence, repression or death.

Democratizing development

Community members, young and old, recorded their votes on whether Guatemala’s Xalala Dam should proceed.
Community members, young and old, recorded their votes on whether Guatemala’s Xalala Dam should proceed.
Commission on Community Consultation
Rather than participating in flawed development processes, communities across Latin America are organizing local referenda to record their votes on dams, mines and other large development projects. These referenda, often called consultations, also involve detailed discussions so community members can understand the likely impacts of these projects on their lives.

"We got together early on the day of the popular consultation," said Victor Caal, a local teacher, who served as a facilitator during the popular consultation around the Xalala Dam in the Ixcán region of Guatemala. "The elderly, women, men and children all came. Several national and international observers were present." Of the 21,000 voters in the referendum, 90% voted "no" to the dam. While the Guatemalan government refuses to recognize the vote, the demonstrated local opposition discouraged companies from bidding on the Xalalá Dam last November.

"Maya communities have ancestrally held popular consultations," said Carlos Loarca, a Guatemalan lawyer who has been studying popular consultations. "Their decisions are legitimized through sharing of information, dialogue and consensus, which human rights legal instruments call free, prior and informed consent."

Free, prior and informed consent is increasingly recognized as the international norm for the development of resource extraction projects such as dams and mines on indigenous lands. The right was included in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but continues to be violated by governments around the world. Popular consultations are being used to demonstrate the lack of free, prior and informed consent amongst a community. But whether the results of these consultations are binding or not is another question.

"Many democratic countries have laws that allow municipal, state and national referenda. The results of these votes may or may not be binding, depending on the issue that is the subject of the vote, and the laws of the country where the vote is held," said Lewis Gordon from the Environmental Defender Law Center. "The popular consultation is typically a referendum on matters of local concern. But only in recent years have these local votes been used to gauge popular sentiment on issues such as dams, mines and oil exploration."

Success in Argentina and Costa Rica

One of the most successful efforts resulting from a plebiscite campaign took place in 1996 around construction of the Paraná Medio Dam in the Entre Ríos Province in Argentina. The project spurred heated debates in the Provincial Senate between environmentalists and dam proponents, which resulted in a request by two radical senators for a plebiscite. The request was voted on, passed and sent to the executive branch to authorize it, where it was blocked. River defenders did not get a plebiscite, but after defeating many obstacles obtained full victory in September 1997, when their efforts resulted in Argentina's first ever anti-dam law. The law, which is still standing, forbids new dam projects from being constructed on the Paraná and Uruguay rivers in the entire province of Entre Ríos. The middle Paraná River supports the livelihoods of more than 30,000 people and indirectly benefits more than 100,000 people.

Community members, environmentalists, church leaders and indigenous peoples organized a municipal referendum against dams on the Pacuare River in Costa Rica in 2005. Of the 10,000 people who voted, 97% opposed the dams. The national electoral tribunal decided the results of the vote would stand for two years. In the meantime, communities are still organizing and informing others of the benefits of preserving the river for ecotourism and local use.

In order to make community consultation binding, "national laws have to be changed, or the courts need to decide that the results of local referenda on issues of local and national interest are binding," said Gordon.

The people from Tambogrande held the first local vote on mining in Peru in 2002, making use of a municipal law that allows local referenda to vote on issues of local importance. Of all eligible voters who participated, 98% voted against the proposed mining project. "We ask that our decisions are respected, and if the communities say no, well, ‘no' means ‘no'," said a woman from the Tambogrande community. The national government and the mining company Manhattan refused to accept the results. Later, the project was stopped when the company was unable to meet government requirements. The company recognized that the demonstrated opposition was an obstacle.

"Popular consultation is democracy at its finest, and the best way to demonstrate community sentiment regarding mines and dam projects is by voting in free and fair elections," says attorney Brant McGee, a consultant with the Environmental Defender Law Center. "These referenda represent a new, accurate, and democratic measurement that can help in the evaluation of whether a community has provided the free, prior, and informed consent to proposed development as required under international law."

Growing trend

Popular consultations on dams and mines are now taking place in many countries. In Guatemala alone, more than 500,000 people have participated in 35 community consultations on mining, oil and dam projects. In 2005, the Municipality of Río Hondo, Guatemala, held a popular consultation on three dams proposed on the Colorado River near the headwaters of the Sierras de las Minas mountain range. The vote, proposed by the Mayor and Municipal Council and conducted by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, overwhelmingly rejected the dams due to their potential environmental impacts, and irregularities in the environmental impact study. The vote was recognized by the Guatemalan government.

In Peru, a popular consultation took place to decide on the Rio Blanco copper and molybdenum mining project in three communities high in the foothills of the Andes. Although the voters rejected the mine, the Majaz Company (now Río Blanco) continued exploration, and with help from the police has violently repressed opposition to the mine.

We have yet to see the final impact community consultations and referenda will have in the defense of rivers and the livelihoods of local people. These consultations challenge current development practices, and propose mechanisms for the direct participation of communities in the development process.

"The idea of referenda as a means of fulfilling the right to free, prior and informed consent will become better known as a successful political and legal means to fight unwanted development," says McGee.

Using local referenda to record the voices of local communities is a powerful democratic tool to not only challenge unwanted development projects but also empower local communities to determine their own path of development.