In an earlier blog post my colleague Sam Gregory introduced our new focus on gender-based violence. Our second focus area is what is known as development-induced displacement, or the forced eviction of people and communities in the name of development.

Most development projects, at face value, seem aimed at improving the lives people: a new dam will generate more electricity to power industry; a new sports complex, for a major event like the World Cup, will bring in new revenue and evoke national pride; or a new shopping mall will create new businesses and therefore more jobs.

The reality of forced evictions for the communities living at or near a project – be it a dam, a sports complex, or a shopping mall – may be quite different.  A project being developed on their land, on their homes, is often about the destruction of communities, the disruption of lives, and the impoverishment of people.

WITNESS already has worked on forced evictions in the name of development in several countries over the past 10 years – we’re excited to use this expertise to broaden our work globally. Our partner in Cambodia, LICADHO, has worked tirelessly for years on the rights of communities facing forced eviction. LICADHO produced this video about a community affected by HIV/AIDS resisting forced eviction:



LICADHO, WITNESS, Human Rights Watch and others mounted a global signatory campaign resulting in worldwide support against forced evictions in the Cambodia, including public denouncements from several donor countries, the UN and the World Bank.

The Greater Good for Whom?
A forced eviction in the name of development reflects the tension between the development objectives of the local community and the nation as a whole. The high price paid by local communities – losing their homes, lands, and livelihoods – is measured against the purported benefits of the project to the broader society.  How are the project benefits measured and who decides which project is in the broader public interest?

Each year an estimated 15 million people across the globe are forcibly uprooted from their homes, farmlands, fishing areas, forests to make way for dam reservoirs, irrigation projects, mines, plantations, highways, sanctuaries and tourist resorts. Urban slums are bulldozed to make way for condominiums, sporting facilities and shopping centers.

Forced eviction tends to go hand-in-hand with the use or threat of violence and the undemocratic imposition of projects and systematic failure to present alternatives. It exacerbates poverty, social unrest, environmental degradation, and loss of cultural identity. Under-represented and communities living in poverty are affected most dramatically and each project underscores the discrimination rooted in the financial, legal and political systems. (The Guardian published an article last Sunday on the Indian government’s forced evictions in the name of the international Commonwealth Games.)

Development-induced displacement is involuntary, despite enticements often used to encourage “voluntary resettlement.” The displacement often does not uphold obligations to fairly compensate, resettle and rehabilitate displaced people and the physical and social infrastructures that made them a community.

WITNESS partner in Kenya, CEMIRIDE,  co-produced the video “Rightful Place,” detailing the struggle of the Endorois community to regain their land after being forcibly evicted from it in 1974. After a 2009 ruling by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was endorsed by the African Union in February 2010, the Kenyan government is now legally obliged to compensate the Endorois community and restitute their lands – a landmark victory for the Endorois and for indigenous peoples’ rights across Africa and beyond.

Making Voices of the Displaced Heard

Video has a powerful role to play in capturing this reality – of life as it is, as it should not be, and as it could be – past, present and hopeful visions of the future. The voices of people affected by development-induced displacement, and the solutions they demand, need to be heard in the debates about choices, remedies and accountability. We hope to support multiple uses of video: from evidentiary submissions to community organizing to solidarity activism to real-time reporting, showing what is happening in the moment. As much as organizing at a local level is community-based, we see multiple opportunities for more online, mobile and networked approaches to using video, particularly in the urban areas affected by forced displacement. 

We have seen these possibilities in our work to-date. One of the collaborations we are most proud of has been with the International Accountability Project (IAP), supporting their Video Advocacy Workshop on Development-Induced Displacement in Asia; and we have similarly valued the learning in our work with LICADHO in Cambodia, CEMIRIDE in Kenya, Burma Issues in Burma. Our work supporting excluded groups in settings as diverse as Yemen, the Philippines and Honduras will also be valuable as we work to ensure the amplification of voices of groups marginalized by inequitable development processes.

We also appreciate the opportunities here to connect with emerging human rights norms and mechanisms, particularly in relation to businesses in order to strengthen accountability. In an increasingly globalized world, the human rights obligations of non-state actors, of international financial institutions (IFIs) and of bilateral development agencies, among other funding and financial entities, are critical to address.

We know we also will complement strong networks at national and regional levels, and within human rights, environmental, and social movements which include existing allies such as IAP, Tactical Tech and Amnesty International. By focusing on development-induced displacement we see a tremendous opportunity to contribute our expertise to advocacy efforts at a local, national, regional and international level that are being led by courageous human rights advocates and social movements.

Contributions to this post were made by Sam Gregory and Priscila Néri.

3 thoughts on “Forced Evictions in the Name of Development

  1. Excellent article, well done

    Development-induced displacement is the forcing of communities and individuals out of their homes, often also their homelands, for the purposes of economic development. It is a subset of forced migration. It has been historically associated with the construction of dams for hydroelectric power and irrigation purposes but also appears due to many other activities, such as mining and the creation of military installations, airports, industrial plants, weapon testing grounds, railways, road developments, urbanization, conservation projects, forestry, etc. Development-induced displacement is a social problem affecting multiple levels of human organization, from tribal and village communities to well-developed urban areas.

    According to Bogumil Terminski (2012) at least fifteen million people each year are forced to leave their homes following big development projects (dams, irrigation projects, highways, urbanization, mining, conservation of nature, etc.). Anthony Oliver-Smith (2009) and Michael M. Cernea (2006) are also estimating that current scale of DIDR amounts to 15 million people per year.

    Development-induced displacement or the forced migration in the name of development is affecting more and more people as countries move from developing to developed nations. The people that face such migration are often helpless, suppressed by the power and laws of nations.

    The lack of rehabilitation policies for migrants means that they are often compensated only monetarily – without proper mechanisms for addressing their grievances or political support to improve their livelihoods.

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