Critics also offered other reasons the station was shut down: “The plant stopped operating because it doesn’t have funding, and they have technical issues,” said Aly Sagne, the director of Lumière Synergie pour le Developpement (LSD), a Senagalese NGO that monitors the activities of international development banks in West Africa, and one of the individuals who first alerted residents in Bargny to plans for the Sendou station.
“The factories have grabbed our land. Now, I have to work just one meter from the coal plant.”
The complex came as a surprise to residents, and likely means trouble for the fishing community. “We’ll have less than one hectare to work, which is a quarter of what we have now, and what we need,” said Fatou Samba, who leads the town’s association of female fish processors. Samba and her coworkers will not be able to find other jobs easily; the steel complex is forecasted to create 500 jobs, less than half the number of jobs that fish processing currently provides for Bargny’s women.Disputes over lands and livelihoods are not new for Bargny. Community members have been fighting supposed development projects in the town for over a decade, starting with the power station. In 2009, the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO), the West African Development Bank, and the Banking Company of West Africa financed the over $200 million Sendou station, signaling that the plant would ultimately contribute to the country’s development; officials hoped that Sendou would provide a tenth of Senegal’s electricity by 2052. Instead of power, the plant has led to heartache and health issues for Bargny’s residents, and the project, led by Swedish company Nykomb Synergetics, is now facing a corruption investigation.
Community members have been fighting supposed development projects in the town for over a decade.
This rings true for the people of Bargny. “This plant has only had negative impacts. It has brought nothing to the population,” said Cheikh Fadel Wade, an ecologist and resident of Bargny. “We process food products next to a factory emitting toxins into the air: It makes no sense,” said Fall. The community ended up taking its grievances to the development banks themselves, and have already begun fighting the steel complex as well.
The Sendou plant was supposed to be good for all of Senegal, but instead ruined the lives of those closest in proximity.
Women who work near the Sendou plant have pointed to an increased incidence of diseases due to Sendou’s emissions, including asthma, chronic allergic conjunctivitis, and rhinitis. They attributed these issues to pollution from the coal plant’s operations, as well as emissions from Sococim, a nearby French-owned cement factory. (In a statement to VICE World News, the Vicat Group, who owns Sococim, said “Sococim Industries has never been the subject of any complaint or reproach for the past 20 years. There is no evidence that the health concerns encountered by the community of Bargny have a link with our activity.”)
Women who work near the Sendou plant have pointed to an increased incidence of diseases due to Sendou’s emissions, including asthma, chronic allergic conjunctivitis, and rhinitis.
However, the report said that the bank should “disengage itself from monitoring land disputes caused by coastal erosion,” because, it said, “coastal erosion is not caused or affected by the project and it should be addressed by the government at the national and local levels.” (FMO, one of the other international funders, published a similar report that largely removed culpability. On the relocation issue, it wrote, “It must be noted that the project acquired the land in full compliance with Senegalese law, and the three individuals who had invested assets within the footprint of the project were duly compensated … resettlement due to [coastal erosion] is beyond the responsibility of the project company.”)
“The entire city rose up against the coal plant. It was our duty to stop it.”
In response to requests for comment sent by VICE World News, FMO said, “Since FMO invested in the Sendou power plant in 2012, the project has proved to be one of the most challenging ones in our portfolio. We encountered many problems and should have also done things differently ourselves. These setbacks have taught us valuable lessons that have changed the way we work today.” While the organization maintained that the initial goal in Sendou was good, FMO has since adopted a no-coal investment policy, and the bank says it has changed other aspects of its policy following Sendou as well, including updating its sustainability policy and statements regarding “human rights, land governance, and gender.”“Sendou is a project that shows that despite our diligence and care, things should have been done differently,” FMO told VICE World News. “The key Environmental & Social (E&S) items, especially community engagement, should have been considered more carefully during the due diligence phase in 2009 and thereafter.”In an emailed statement to VICE World News, the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) at the African Development Bank said that their “report made a number of recommendations to Bank management to bring the Bank back into compliance with its policies and procedures.” As an independent accountability mechanism of the bank, the IRM reports directly to the bank’s board, and is independent of bank management. (AfDB bank management did not reply to multiple requests for comment, nor did the Banking Company of West Africa. The West African Development Bank emailed VICE World News a three-year-old audit of the Sendou station.)
In 2019, the AfDB and the other financiers of Sendou opened an investigation into Nykomb’s head, Louis Claude Norland Suzor, following allegations of fraud.
At this moment, the project’s future is unclear. The power plant has not been operating since July 2019. If Compagnie d’Electricité du Sénégal SA (CES) attracts new investors, it is essential that these have experience in the energy sector and with dealing with social and environmental issues. These issues need to be addressed as soon as possible and should have the same priority as the plant’s refurbishment. The drinking water impacts, marine impacts, transport and ambient air quality monitoring will need to be in place. But above all the economic displacement impacts on fish-drying women and the compensation by the Government of Senegal to communities regarding disputed land titles have to be addressed. Despite our efforts, we have not yet been successful at achieving the above-mentioned points.
In her own work, Kumar from the International Accountability Project has seen a myriad of local communities go up against development banks. To even complain about these projects, or have access to people who can help complain and stop about these projects, Kumar said, “you have to have an internet connection. You have to be fluent in English, you have to have a pretty good understanding of technical documentation, and the complex processes of international institutions,” which makes it even more difficult for communities impacted to speak out. “It's not democratic at all,” Kumar added. “It's top down. And it's very hard to get information about what's going to actually happen to you … many of these decision makers are located in D.C., or regional capitals. The decision is taking place on their behalf.”
When local communities complain about projects, their adversaries are powerful, and complaint structures can be incredibly opaque and burdensome.
Kumar and her colleagues try to bridge that communication gap between communities and banks, and through their Early Warning System project, they get in touch with communities after learning about planned development bank projects. Her team has managed to help communities get projects delayed, and, in some cases, even dropped; the European Investment Bank pulled almost $200 million dollars from the Akiira geothermal power project in Kenya after the local community raised concerns about the impact on their lives and the environment. Still, Kumar said, banks frequently claim powerlessness when it comes to their clients, and cite the need to defer to national governments. While fashioning themselves as apolitical institutions, human rights get thrown to the wayside. “We come up against that issue often, like you're violating someone's rights, and they say, well human rights are not relevant,” Kumar added. “So there’s definitely a bit of tension there. The institutions have improved in their responsiveness and openness to human rights language, but they’re still conservative in that way.”
“I've even seen cases where consultations are basically fabricated.”
But ultimately, according to development experts, it’s counterproductive for these banks and governments to not seek community buy-in from the beginning. “There are studies that show that when people are able to express themselves and participate in developing a project, and so basically getting the community engaged, your development objectives are reached much better. In a way, it’s not even rocket science,” said Mark Fodor, a campaign coordinator at the Coalition for Human Rights in Development, another organization that works to ensure development projects are community-led.
It’s counterproductive for these banks and governments to not seek community buy-in from the beginning.
For the African Development Bank, an external review last year found the bank often failed to inform communities about the existence of the complaints process, and didn’t clarify its resettlement or environmental policies with its clients (in Sendou’s case, the Swedish company Nykomb Synergetics). Those that complain, like in Bargny, are also not given the opportunity to comment on the action plans developed by the AfDB’s management to address destructive findings in their development financing—so even though community members in Bargny disagreed with aspects of the bank’s report on the Sendou plant, they were never given an opportunity by the bank to speak out. The African Development Bank is now trying to change its complaints handling process. Stephanie Amoako, a senior policy associate at Accountability Counsel who began reviewing and evaluating the African Development Bank’s accountability mechanism in late 2020 after the bank initiated an independent review, does have some hope that a better system is on the horizon. “We have seen some proposed changes so far that are really positive. There have been barriers removed to accessing the mechanism,” she said. “One of the key changes that has been proposed is that when you go through a compliance review process, the management of the institution, in this case the African Development Bank, is tasked with developing an action plan to address the areas of noncompliance and propose a way forward.”
The African Development Bank is now trying to change its complaints handling process.
The complaint asserted that Tosyali failed to carry out an environmental and social impact assessment, submit a resettlement plan, and consult with the impacted community. If true, this violates not only OECD guidelines, but also the mining directive of the Economic Community of West African States. The directive states that when mining companies want to operate in a community, they must consult the community and obtain their consent before starting any project. If this is not done, the community can take the case not only to the ECOWAS, but also to their national ministry of mining and to local authorities.“They violate all our rights: the right to live in a healthy environment, the right to consent,” said Fall, of both Sendou and Tosyali. “They have the obligation to inform the population but nobody knew what was happening.” Representatives of Tosyali are currently in the process of negotiating with the community, but Sagne said residents have already faced harassment. Police officers and top ranking public officials frequently attend meetings about Tosyali to intimidate the local community, according to Samba. (Tosyali has not responded to multiple requests for comment.)But with both those projects, LSD and the community of Bargny escalated their grievances beyond local and national governments, suspecting that neither would be helpful. “They don't care about the environment, they don't care about the rights of local people,” said Sagne of Senegal’s government. “They have their political agenda … Two years ago, [a government official] told us if the [plant] would kill thousands of people, they don’t mind, they don’t care.”“For 10 years we were against the coal plant. And the state didn't lift a finger to help the population,” Samba said. This is true of many international bank-funded development projects. “Government priorities don’t always align with the priorities of local communities,” said Kumar. “[The government] isn’t going to pay for the consequences of that project. They’re not going to drink that water, they may not have to send their kids to school in an entirely new place. They may not be breathing air that is getting polluted. So there’s a real difference between the people making the decision and the people who are paying the price.”Of course, the government tells a different story. With electricity shortages and power cuts becoming commonplace, energy supply emerged as an important election issue in both the 2012 and 2016 presidential election campaigns. Since 2012, Senegal has pursued an ambitious development program, the Plan Senegal Emergent (Emerging Senegal Plan, or “PSE”) that prioritizes a structural transformation of the economy, diversifying away from agriculture to construction, telecommunications, chemical industries, tourism, and trade, all industries that require a reliable energy supply. This is how the Sendou plant came to be: The government decided to build a “modern, state-of-the-art coal power plant” to provide at least 30% of the country’s electricity needs.Attracting foreign investment is also key to the government’s vision of economic development. In 2017, the government passed legislation to create Special Economic Zones that offer investors tax benefits. The steel plant will be part of the “Tosyali Economic Zone,” a significant part of which consists of land titles, which will very likely impact the homes of local populations as well as jobs. This zone not only gives Tosyali tax exemptions and rights to build on community land, but also easy access to Bargny’s (not yet completed) port for exports and imports. (The government of Senegal did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)The steel complex is only the first phase of installing factories in this new special economic zone. As one Senegalese newspaper put it, Bargny is now “a neighborhood nestled between the ocean, the mineral port, the special economic zone and the coal-fired power station … an environmental bomb.”“A special economic zone cannot be in an area where people live,” said Fadel Wade. “It’s inconceivable to have three industrial projects—the coal plant, Tosyali, and the port—where people live.” While Tosyali and the Senegalese government claim the complex will reduce the country’s dependence on steel imports, in the short term, the plant will in fact provide a new export market for Turkey and Algeria, and the company is planning to import raw materials for the plant from these countries.
“They violate all our rights: the right to live in a healthy environment, the right to consent.”
Yet, residents of Bargny and their supporters are adamant that the new projects will not proceed. Kengne agrees, but is solemn about what will happen next. “We are aware that we are working against power, in the context of this global capitalistic model which thinks that extractivism is the only way to development,” she said. But still, she added, “This is about justice. We are not begging. This is our right.”“The inhabitants of Bargny are tired and we categorically refuse the construction of these factories because they have no use to us,” said Kébé. “Our work is more important to us than all that.”Follow Leah and Raksha on Twitter.
“It’s inconceivable to have three industrial projects—the coal plant, Tosyali, and the port—where people live.”