Don’t sacrifice human rights in the name of development | Environment
For years, in the Kazakh village of Sarykamys, people would fall asleep in their beds and never wake up again. It was not the peaceful end of a long life, but a sudden end that struck people as young as 25 years old. Locals called it the “death of shift workers”.
Many of those who died worked in the Tengiz oil field, which had been developed near the village along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Environmentalists have linked the sudden deaths to the release of poisonous gases like hydrogen sulfide, as a result of drilling.
Since the development of the oilfield in 1993, 5.5% of the population of Sarykamys has died, possibly due to pollution from oilfield operations, and in the early 2000s, doctors said that 90 % of the village population had developed diseases. Official statistics, however, underestimated the number of fatalities as a result of drilling, counting only those who died on the job.
In the end, the entire population of the village was forced to relocate, with many residents apparently not receiving adequate compensation. Although the oil field was designed as a development project, backed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), for people living nearby, it has been devastating. He also illustrated the flawed development model, which organizations such as the European Union and private institutions continue to promote in many parts of Eurasia.
Our recent research on the 30 largest extractive companies in Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan revealed that at least 11 had received investments from financial institutions in Western Europe, including the EBRD. All the beneficiary companies have faced allegations of human rights violations and limited access to information.
Some accusations are particularly severe, such as those concerning the Teghout tailings dam in Armenia. The dam is in danger of collapsing and could lead to a disaster similar to the Brumadinho disaster in Brazil, in which the release of industrial waste from a ruptured dam killed 270 people and buried entire villages.
KazMunayGas, Kazakhstan’s state-owned oil company, which also has projects funded by Western European institutions, has been linked to a network of abuses, including corruption, killing of human rights defenders, torture, massive poisoning of children and destruction of the environment.
In Georgia, Armenia and Kazakhstan, we found many projects of concern and received complaints from local activists, NGOs and journalists about abuses committed by extractive projects. They told us that human rights are regularly sacrificed in the name of development. The right to drinking water, to breathable air and to the life of local communities are repeatedly violated by many of these projects.
In these countries, EU funds can be spent without liability and are not tied to the values of the bloc. And that’s a problem. Development is and should be aimed at improving people’s lives and examining how people who live near the site of these projects are affected. The EBRD and comparable institutions must begin to hold themselves accountable and commit to complying with the due diligence requirements of the Aarhus Convention, signed in 1998 to protect environmental rights. They must act quickly on complaints of abuse.
The EBRD, which is backed by the EU, is particularly to blame, given that it has invested in at least eight of the extractive companies we investigated. Its support for a project, the Amulsar gold mine managed by Lydian in Armenia, is raising real concerns.
This project planned and researched the use of cyanide to leach gold concentrate, but, as a 2018 study found, 85.7% of respondents from communities near the mine reported poor health due to their work on site or nearby. Residents have reported asthma attacks, lung disease and headaches.
The community felt that she was being ignored by the company that operated the mine. The residents were attacked and beaten by police and security guards in Lydian for speaking. In 2020, after international condemnation, the EBRD finally gave in and announced that it would end its investment in Amulsar.
While this EBRD decision is welcome, there are many other projects funded by European investors which are creating tensions and destroying the environment, especially in areas outside the EU. This fundamentally undermines the EU’s self-positioning as a socially responsible entity that values human rights, including in its business activities.
European investors, including the EU, continue to wield significant influence over companies operating on the eastern border of the bloc and beyond, placing them in a unique position to prevent and combat human rights violations . They can and should do better by following due diligence requirements and ensuring that opportunities for abuse are minimized from the start.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.