The World Bank, the Haitian government, and international mining company representatives walk into a hotel lobby to discuss the future of mining in Haiti. Guess who isn't invited? Everyone else in Haiti.
This isn't a joke, but the premise of a crucial consultation offered to the public of an impoverished country that is poised to receive major foreign investment in a sector not known for its commitment to environmental or human rights standards. A two-hour gathering was held in a luxury hotel last June in the capital of Port-au-Prince to assess a 100-page document written in French legalese. The document was a draft mining law stipulating how the Haitian government expects to deal with companies that want to begin extracting the estimated $20 billion worth of gold and minerals that is believed to lie in the mountains to the north.
This investor-friendly mining bill, which President Michel Martelly could unilaterally pass into law now that the Haitian Parliament's mandate expired on Monday, would replace a decades-old convention that has stymied foreign exploration of the country's untapped mineral deposits. The document is consistent with the Martelly administration's slogan, "Haiti is open for business," welcoming an influx of foreign capital that would bring much-needed tax revenues and new jobs to the struggling country — but at the risk of significant social and environmental cost.
The draft mining law was written with assistance from the World Bank, which supports the Haitian operations of Canadian mining company Eurasian Minerals through its private-sector investment arm, the International Finance Cooperation. The World Bank became involved in redrafting the Haitian mining convention in 2013, and has worked in close consultation with North American mining companies that have already secured mining permits in Haiti.
The view from a farm in northwest Haiti, where mining companies have been exploring for mineral deposits. (Photo by Ellie Happel)
A group called the Accountability Counsel that is affiliated with the New York University School of Law's Global Justice Clinic posted a copy of the bill to its website in July. The group advocates on behalf of a coalition of Haitian civil society organizations that submitted a formal complaint last week to the World Bank's Inspection Panel, which describes itself as an "independent complaints mechanism for people and communities who believe that they have been, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a World Bank-funded project." The complaint represents the joint concerns of citizens "who have experienced harm and fear future harm as a result of the World Bank's involvement in the mining sector in Haiti."
In an effort to streamline the infusion of foreign investment, the draft contains a number of provisions that Haitians are concerned will further marginalize communities most affected by mining activity in the north. For example, the proposed law would formalize a 10-year confidentiality period for any "reports, documents and data pertaining to… work undertaken within the context of a mining title," including geological discoveries or topographical information gleaned in the course of mining operations.
Communities are particularly alarmed that the draft law makes it easier for the government to expropriate land to enable mining installations if they are deemed to be in the "public interest." As the complaint notes, the bill "does not make clear whether landowners and land users have the right to refuse to allow mining companies to enter onto and use their land."
'The idea that a place that doesn't have a functioning regulatory state would be capable at this stage of really regulating and monitoring such an inherently dangerous industry seems facially questionable.'
Opponents also argue that the bill's provisions fall short of World Bank environmental safeguards that weigh a project's benefits against its degradation of natural habitat. According to the draft law, the country's Environment Ministry will have 180 days to evaluate a company's environmental assessment of a given project in its application for a mining permit. Six months might seem like a reasonable amount of time, but complainants point to the inefficiency of Haitian governmental bureaucracy getting in the way of timely assessments. They fear that the cap will compromise the ministry's authority and inhibit critical oversight of environmental concerns.
A statement of "no objection" will be assumed after the period lapses, allowing mining activities to proceed regardless of any potential dangers. The coalition's complaint bemoans the lack of clarity surrounding the Environment Ministry's authority, and questions the adequacy of the rehabilitation measures outlined in the bill.
World Bank operational policies require a discussion with "project-affected groups and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) about the project's environmental aspects." They should be provided relevant material in a timely manner, in a form and language that is "understandable and accessible." Between 90 to 95 percent of Haitians speak only Creole, so French-language documents are useless as far as engaging with the general public. Most of the affected communities, which are largely made up of subsistence farmers, also don't have email addresses or access to the internet. The public's lack of awareness makes plain that the World Bank's requirements haven't been met.
"We were told nothing, absolutely nothing," Nixon Boumba, an organizer from the Mouvman Demokratik Popilè (MODEP), told VICE News. MODEP is one of six civil society organizations that compose the Kolektif Jistis Min an Ayiti (Haiti Mining Justice Collective) and co-signed the complaint. The collective's overriding concern is the lack of public consultation in the drafting of the law.
Boumba attended the Port-au-Prince consultation meeting in June. Invitations were sent out by email, in French, and Boumba noted that the hotel hosting the event was inaccessible by public transportation. The meeting was well attended by representatives from mining companies, the Bureau of Mines and Energy, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Boumba counted just seven civilians, himself included. A 45-minute delay gave them little time to react to the 100-page document written in what Boumba described as "legal jargon."
"If you're going to consult people, you have to consult them on something they can understand," he said.
'We are confident that an Inspection Panel investigation will lead to changes in the World Bank's approach to its activities in Haiti to remedy these violations, address the underlying concerns, and prevent potential future violations.'
Predolus Predolis, a local farmer who lives in the Baie-de-Henne commune in northwest Haiti, worked with a company that arrived in 2011 to explore the area for minerals. He was paid $5 a day to dig holes for four weeks over the summer, and told VICE News that he regularly attempted to engage with the company to learn more.
"I asked officials lots of questions about why they were there," said Predolis, who is 41 and also teaches at a local school. "Eventually it was clear that they didn't come to build anything with the people."
"The problem is that the company came and didn't share any information or communicate with landowners," he added. "They just began taking samples of everybody's land." Predolis recalled that community members initially expressed excitement at the job prospects and wealth the project might bring. "Now that people in my area have learned about the impact of mining, we aren't going to allow the company to come back."
That won't be up to them, however, but to the country's flailing government — whose capacity to monitor the activities of mining companies is uncertain at best.
"This is an industry that even extremely well-developed regulatory states like those in the US have had problems with," Meg Satterthwaite, a lawyer and professor at New York University who assisted the collective in drafting its complaint, told VICE News. "The idea that a place that doesn't have a functioning regulatory state would be capable at this stage of really regulating and monitoring such an inherently dangerous industry seems facially questionable."
The collective hopes that its various worries and doubts about the government's ability to adequately monitor the mining sector will prompt the World Bank's Inspection Panel to investigate violations of policy in the shaping of the bill.
"We are confident that an Inspection Panel investigation will lead to changes in the World Bank's approach to its activities in Haiti to remedy these violations, address the underlying concerns, and prevent potential future violations," the complaint says. "The World Bank should halt work on the Draft Mining Law and any other support for the development of the Haitian mining sector, and request that the Haitian government suspend passage of the law until the Government returns to an inclusive, democratic decision-making process."
In response to a VICE News request for comment, Dilek Barlas, the executive secretary of the Inspection Panel to whom the complaint was addressed, noted that her office is "conducting our due diligence to determine the admissibility" of the complaint. She confirmed that she had read it, but declined to offer further comment. The World Bank has 21 working days to submit an initial response, and will subsequently decide whether or not the issues raised by the complaint should be investigated.
Additional reporting by Sarah Francoise
Follow Claire Ward on Twitter: @thementalward