Press Responses : Monday, November 16, 1999

Agency under fire over dam

The Globe and Mail, November 16, 1999
The photos look idyllic -- a broad river, forested shorelines, thatch-roofed houses here and there along the bank.
Kimy Pernia Domico, an Embera- Katio Indian from northwestern Colombia, lived in one of the houses. He used to fish, until the fish stopped running. He still plants corn, rice, plantains and manioc.
"It will all be flooded,"Mr. Pernia, a 48-year-old father of four, says as he described the fate that awaits him and 2,800 other Indians if the new dam downstream goes into operation.
Canada's Export Development Corp. played a small role in financing the Urra hydroelectric project on the Sinu River. And today, in Ottawa, Mr. Pernia will be among those asking Canadian MPs to force the EDC to look more closely at what it supports.
He plans to tell them of Indian leaders who have been murdered after speaking out against the project, and threats from paramilitary groups whosay the land must be flooded if the area is to prosper.
He will say that a people whose main source of protein was fish now have very little fish to eat, because after the river was diverted to build the dam, the fish were no longer able to swim upstream.
"My people sent me here,"Mr. Pernia said. "They wanted a traditional leader to come here personally and make everything clear. To ask the Canadian government and people to support the indigenous people of Colombia. . .
"We want them to help us, and we want no more threats. We want the integrity of the indigenous people to be protected."
Mr. Pernia is scheduled to testify along with several Canadian activists before the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade, which is conducting hearings into the EDC.
The EDC, a Crown corporation, provides insurance to Canadian companies doing business abroad and lends money to exporters of goods and services. It had 4,200 customers and did $35-billion in business in 1998.
But it is under fire from several quarters. Some banks and private insurers say it competes unfairly and should be scaled back or privatized.
Social activists say it is too willing to overlook potential environmental damage or human-rights abuse.
"The higher the profit, the less important the environmental and social effects are," said Pamela Foster, an organizer for the Halifax Initiative,which seeks reform of global financial institutions.
The EDC guards information about individual loans and risk insurance closely, arguing that it must protect Canadian exporters' commercial interests.
But spokesman Rod Giles said the EDC follows human-rights policy set by the Foreign Affairs Department and is one of the few national export-credit agencies in the world with a staff of environmental engineers to review projects.
In April, the EDC issued an "environmental review framework" which said it would refuse to support projects likely to cause environmental damage "that cannot be justified by the anticipated positive effects of such projects."
A report to the Foreign Affairs Department by the law firm Gowling Strathy & Henderson, generally favourable to the EDC, said the policy "stops short of setting objective criteria or benchmarks."
The Urra project would flood 7,400 hectares in an area that has been the scene of conflict between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries in one of the world's longest-running civil wars.
The dam has been built. But in November, Colombia's constitutional court blocked flooding of the upstream land, saying the government should negotiate a compensation deal with the Embera-Katio.