Participation as Formality

I’ve written about power on this blog, but not much about participation. Well, here’s a start, although not a particularly encouraging one.

I’ve been doing some research on the so-called development “megaprojects” that are of primary concern to the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations in the northwestern Colombian region of Urabá. This is an incredibly interesting region, not least because it is where Central America meets South America, where there is easy access to both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and where the land is ideally suited to the production of any number of cash crops. All this is rather unfortunate for the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that live in the area, as they are frequently under extreme pressure to give up their land to developers, narcotraffickers, or others with economic interests.

Another important piece of background is that legally, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities must be included in a process of prior consultation before projects can be implemented that will affect their livelihoods. This is mandated by Colombia’s Law 70 of 1993 (PDF, English translation) as well as ILO Convention 169 and other international laws to which Colombia is a signatory.

One of the megaprojects that may have extensive negative effects for the Urabá communities is a proposed electrical transmission infrastructure linking Colombia to Panama. Colombia generates excess electrical capacity and stands to gain economically if it had an efficient way to sell this capacity to Central American countries. The proposed electrical connection project, which would require the creation of almost 400 miles of power lines at an estimated cost of up to $221 million, has already garnered multiple IADB grants, including about $1 million earmarked for an environmental impact assessment. (It’s unclear to me whether this EIA has yet been completed.)

The project is to be implemented by something called Interconexión Eléctrica Colombia-Panama S.A. (ICP), a binational entity composed of Colombia’s largest electrical transmission company, ISA, and Panama’s only transmission company, ETESA. A visit to ICP’s website shows a reasonably complete site that isn’t quite ready for prime time, but is clearly open for public consumption.

Here’s what caught my eye: in the FAQ section, which has yet to be translated into English, is this utter gem.

¿Cuál es la relación de ICP con las Comarcas Indígenas?

Desde el inicio del proyecto, y a través de personal de ICP, de ETESA y de ISA, se ha establecido una relación de información sobre el proyecto con las comunidades del Corredor Energético entre Colombia y Panamá. Entre estas comunidades se encuentras las comarcas Indígenas XXXXXXX, XXXXXXX y XXXXX con quienes se han establecido mecanismos de información bidireccionales sobre el proyecto.

Here’s my rough translation:

What is the relation between ICP and the indigenous comarcas? [“comarca” is a Panamanian term for an indigenous administrative unit]

Since the beginning of the project, ICP, ETESA and ISA staff have established a relationship of information about the project with the communities of the “Energy Corridor” between Colombia and Panama. These communities include the indigenous comarcas XXXXXXX, XXXXXXX and XXXXX, with whom [we] have established mechanisms for bidirectional information sharing about the project.

There are several amazing things here. First is that ICP refers to this region as an “Energy Corridor,” which is a pretty single-minded characterization if there ever was one. Second is the language of “relationship of information,” “bidirectional information” and so on – let’s be clear, providing information does not constitute consultation. But most obvious, and most incredible, is the fact that ICP hasn’t even bothered to figure out, or post, what the names of the relevant communities are!

If there are any lingering doubts about whether this is a real, inclusive consultation process, the Colombian Constitutional Court demolished them in a ruling earlier this year. In Sentencia T-129/2011, the court takes such offense to this sham consultation, and others that have been occurring around Colombia, that it goes a step beyond existing law to demand that the prior consultation process actually be a prior informed consent process. I’ll explore the transition in Colombian jurisprudence from consultation to consent in a future post – the text of T-129 is fascinating in this regard.

For now, though, I’ll leave you to re-read that paragraph above, in which the true extent to which developmentalist entities care about the indigenous communities they displace or otherwise harm is laid bare.

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