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Safeguarding the Role of Displaced Communities in Decisions about Relocations

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Consultation, Consent, Participation: Words Matter

Central to any discussion about planned relocations is the notion that communities to be affected should be involved in the process. In legal terms, this is frequently referred to as ‘consent.’

But rather than thinking about community engagement as an ‘either-or,’ ‘black-white’ phenomenon, it might be more useful to think of community participation as a continuum; what we have elsewhere called a ‘participation spectrum.’ ‘Consultation’ refers broadly to the process of soliciting and listening to the opinions and perceptions of affected populations. ‘Participation’ implies a deeper engagement that may include control over decision making. Both form part of a process in which key stakeholders influence and share control over initiatives and decisions that affect them. In the context of working with internally displaced persons (IDPs), we came up with the following spectrum, from least to most engagement.

  • Passive participation or information sharing in which the affected population is informed, but not heard (e.g. dissemination of documents or public briefings by officials).

  • Information transfer – affected populations supply information in response to questions but do not make decisions and do not influence the process. (This often takes the form of field visits and interviews.)

  • Consultation – affected populations are asked to offer their opinions, suggestions, and perspectives but are not involved in decision-making or implementation of projects (and there is no guarantee that their views will influence the process.) Consultations can take multiple forms, including focus group discussions and interviews.

  • Collaboration – the affected population is directly involved in needs analysis and project implementation. They may also contribute to agency-led projects which are part of the relocation process with labor and other skills. (e.g. supplying labor for the construction of their new houses in an agency-sponsored project – although providing labor alone does not constitute participation.)

  • Decision making and control of resources – the affected populations are involved in relocation assessment, planning, evaluation and decision making. (This may involve, for example, a working group or joint-committee of agency and local leadership.)

  • Local initiative and control – the affected populations take the initiative; the project is conceived and run by the community, potentially with the support of the government or outside agencies.

When it comes to planned relocations, there are certainly cases at both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, there are cases where communities are simply informed that they will have to be relocated – either in support of a greater public good or because the government has determined that their lives are at risk. On the other hand, Robin Bronen has written about a community-led initiative is in Alaska, where the Newtok Traditional Council has developed a detailed relocation plan with both short and long-term objectives and projects and adopted a set of guiding principles to underpin the relocation process.[1]

  • Remain a distinct, unique community—our own community.

  • Stay focused on our vision by taking small steps forward each day.

  • Make decisions openly and as a community and look to elders for guidance.

  • Build a healthy future for our youth.

  • Our voice comes first—we have first and final say in making decisions and defining priorities.

  • Share with and learn from our partners.

  • No matter how long it takes, we will work together to provide support to our people in both Mertarvik and Newtok.

Development should:

  • Reflect our cultural traditions.

  • Nurture our spiritual and physical wellbeing.

  • Respect and enhance the environment.

  • Be designed with local input from start to finish.

  • Be affordable for our people.

  • Hire community members first.

  • Use what we have first and use available funds wisely.

  • Look for projects that build on our talents and strengthen our economy.[2]

As we have seen in the case of IDPs in humanitarian situations, even when there is a will to engage with the affected communities on decisions affecting their lives, there are difficulties. If it isn’t their initiative, how can communities be involved in the assessment of the need for relocation? Do they take the government’s word? Are there provisions for the communities themselves to carry out their own assessment? Who represents the affected communities? If it is traditional leaders or elected representatives, are there any provisions for regular communication between the representative and the community represented? For relocations, is a majority decision significant to bind the whole community? What if there are minority interests that oppose the decision? Is everyone bound to such a decision? What if people change their mind? How can communities be involved in monitoring implementation of the resettlement plan? What if the government assesses the situation as positive and the communities reach a different conclusion? How can communities be supported to participate actively without causing inordinate delays?

Are the same mechanisms relevant across the board? For example, it may be that communities affected by the effects of sea-level rise (which generally occur over years or decades) can take the time to develop inclusive participatory processes – even if they take years. Communities which need to be relocated because of the effects of a sudden-onset disaster may find themselves in a very different position. While consultation/participation are still required in these cases, I would argue, it may be that an expedited process is needed. And (this is unpopular) there may be cases where consultative mechanisms are inappropriate because the risk is too acute for affected communities (e.g. a landslide liable to wipe out a village with the next heavy rainfall)?

Resolving issues around consultation, participation and consent are crucial to relocation decisions; they are also likely to reflect the trust people have in their governmental institutions and there have been many cases where communities were told they were being relocated to protect them from harm while in fact, the real reasons were economic or political.

[1] Robin Bronen, ‘Climate-Induced Community Relocations: Creating an Adaptive Governance Framework based in Human Rights Doctrine’ (2011) 35 NYU Review of Law and Social Change 357, 388.

[2] Agnew Beck, Strategic Management Plan Newtok to Mertarvik (Anchorage, 2012), cited in Bronen, above n 23, 229.