Maimouna Fall has dried, processed, and sold fish caught by local fishermen in the coastal town of Bargny, Senegal for more than two decades. It’s time-consuming work, and an occupation that has been held in her family for generations. But it’s been a long time since Fall liked her job.
Since the Sendou Power Station was built in Bargny, life in the seaside town has become dangerous. For years, Fall, 58, couldn’t stop coughing. “The factories have grabbed our land. Now, I have to work just one meter from the coal plant,” she said. “Since that plant was built, we cough all the time. Breathing in the coal exhausts us.”
Located just 20 miles from the capital of Dakar, Bargny has relied on fishing for decades. Recently, it has also been the focus of faulty development projects that Fall and her coworkers fear have impacted and will impact their health and community. In 2009, the government of Senegal approved plans to build the Sendou Power Station, a coal-fired power plant, in the town of 51,000 people. After several delays, construction started in 2013, though Sendou wasn’t open very long; after years of protest from residents, the plant halted operations in July 2019, when the Senegalese government announced they would shut down Sendou to meet the environmental commitments of COP21, a United Nations climate change conference.
“The factories have grabbed our land. Now, I have to work just one meter from the coal plant.”
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.
Bargny’s troubles, however, are far from over. In 2020, the Turkish steel giant Tosyali Holding announced plans to build a mining and steel complex next to the Sendou station, following the designation of Bargny’s coast as a “special economic zone” by the Senagelese government.
Community members have been fighting supposed development projects in the town for over a decade.
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.
Herein lies the paradox of international development, with Bargny as a devastating illustration of what happens when funding is opaque and community members ignored: The Sendou plant was supposed to be good for all of Senegal, but instead ruined the lives of those closest in proximity.
While development banks should theoretically invest in and support projects that benefit local communities, that’s not always the case. “When people think of the word development, and especially a big development bank, there are always positive connotations, like it’s a necessary good or it's for the people,” said Preksha Kumar, a programs specialist at the International Accountability Project, an organization that advocates for people who are harmed or could be harmed by internationally financed development projects. “But development is tricky, and in practice local communities, more often than not, are rarely consulted about development projects that happen in their neighborhoods, communities, river systems, or anything that affects their land or livelihood. The people who actually face the impacts of development are never really considered as beneficiaries.”
The Sendou plant was supposed to be good for all of Senegal, but instead ruined the lives of those closest in proximity.
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.
Now, as the supposed recipients of development assistance, the fish processors have found themselves fighting for their health and income against the very organizations, companies, and governments that claim to save them.
While power stations, development banks, and the Turkish company have made Bargny almost unlivable for local residents, the land itself is rebelling too. “People in Bargny are losing their houses every day to the ocean,” said Sagne. According to Senegal’s National Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation, Bargny is among the areas most affected by coastal erosion, and estimates the rate of coastal erosion to be one to two meters annually. Samba says the sea in Bargny is actually rising by two to three meters every year. Now, during high tide, water enters Samba’s house. In 2018, three rooms in her house were swept away by the sea. With no other options, she has stayed where she is, watching as the ever-growing waves have stolen homes, mosques, and the town’s cemetery.
The story of coastal erosion within the context of climate change in Bargny is made even worse by the fact that the Sendou plant has rendered it impossible for residents to relocate to higher ground, and decreased the space available for drying and processing fish. Over a thousand residents, whose houses had been rendered dangerous or uninhabitable by coastal erosion, were planning to move to the land where Sendou was built, after Bargny's mayor had promised them space. And with less room for Samba and her team, it became impossible to maintain a safe distance between the power plant and the ovens used to smoke fish, rendering the women’s work dangerous to themselves, and to those who eat the fish they dry.
Because of Sendou, many women have also lost access to land where they grew millet, sorghum, groundnuts, and other vegetables for subsistence and income-generating purposes. On the land that was workable, many crops were ruined by the station’s ash. In one instance, all the okra in the area had to be thrown away after the crop turned black with coal dust. This ruined workers financially: “After three months of hoping to get enough to support yourself, the gombo [okra] has become black, it cannot be sold,” said Samba. “So you have lost all hope of getting money, and you’re in debt."
As town residents are quite literally being crowded out of their homes and places of work, many women estimate that they earn 30% to 50% less income than they did years ago. For a year, according to Samba, hundreds of fish processors lost their jobs while the Sendou plant was operating. “The work we do is what allows us to feed our children and pay their school fees,” said Rokhaya Kébé, a 54-year-old fish processor. She added that day laborers who used to find work in fish drying and processing in Bargny have also suffered as a result of the plant.
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.
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.”)
“Because of Sendou, we are always sick,” said Kébé. It’s not just the emissions, either: In early 2019, the plant released wastewater into the women’s fish processing site, resulting in massive fish harvest loss. Only three women were compensated by the plant for their losses. “With Sendou, the problems of pollution became much worse,” said Samba. “We also noted an increase in our respiratory problems during that period.” The coal-based plant, the Senegalese government argued, was still worth it, and would diversify Senegal’s electricity supply away from oil and stabilize the country’s energy production.
In 2014, LSD sent reports to the African Development Bank and other funders about issues with Sendou. In 2016, LSD and another Senagalese non-profit, Takkom Jerry, filed an official complaint with the AfDB’s Independent Review Mechanism, a unit within the bank that manages complaints by people adversely affected by a bank-financed project, as well as FMO, alleging that Sendou did not comply with the banks’ own social and environmental policies, and caused pollution and displacement among other issues.
A year later, in 2017, the board of the AfDB finally authorized further investigations. During this time, thousands of residents continued to protest. “The entire city rose up against the coal plant,” said Samba. “It was our duty to stop it.”
In 2018, the bank issued a report acknowledging the project was non-compliant with its own voluntary resettlement policy, including a lack of community consultations and due diligence to understand the impacts on local livelihoods. ("With Sendou, they held a public consultation but only a handful of people knew about it,” Samba said). The bank’s report even outlined issues that the bank’s project managers should look into and address, including proper ash management from the factory (the resulting ash had just been placed in an open-air dump), plans to reduce the intense smoke and engage an air quality monitoring system, and research to better manage the wastewater.
“The entire city rose up against the coal plant. It was our duty to stop it.”
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.”)
Rather than halt the project, even though its findings did largely match the accusations leveled by the residents of Bargny, the AfDB recommended maintaining the site of the fish processors if possible, and, if not, providing them with compensation, including setting up a “livelihoods support program” and establishing a modern fish-processing facility in a non-coastal site. Or, to put it plainly, the bank recommended plans for more development projects because the initial development project didn’t work out for the community.
LSD and the female fish processors responded to the AfDB, criticizing the lack of consultation of affected people in the action plan, arguing that the modern fish processing facility, far from the sea, was unsuitable to the very nature of their work. “It is in no way conceivable to relocate women,” they wrote, “whose activities depend exclusively on access to the sea.” Now, even though the plant is not currently operational, its looming presence in Bargny continues to take up land and space.
Allegations of corruption have also plagued the project: 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. The investigation is ongoing, and includes charges of embezzlement. “There are a lot of issues, financial issues that the bank is trying to investigate,” Sagne added. “There is a lot of corruption there, a lot of financial issues that the bank is trying to investigate,” said Sagne. “What I expect, if the investigation confirms our assumptions, is that [Louis Claude Norland Suzor] will go to jail.” (Nykomb Synergetics did not reply to multiple requests for comment.)
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.
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.)
Still, plans for the plant’s future are unclear. “The Swedish developer is trying to restart the plant,” said Sagne. “But the community is planning to fight this plant. It will never operate.”
There are also rumors in the community that Sendou might be converted into a gas-fired power plant, though there haven’t been any official announcements. “We don't want gas either because while there's less pollution than coal, there are dangers with gas. There are women working right next to the plant, so if there's an accident, these women will definitely be impacted,” said Samba. “We don't want gas, we don't want coal, we want these factories, especially this Sendou factory, to be relocated and make way for the municipality of Bargny, for the population of Bargny.”
On the future of Sendou, FMO told VICE World News the following:
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.
There also seems to be contention amongst the development banks as to what should happen with the Sendou station. VICE World News obtained an internal email sent this week about Sendou by a senior investment officer at FMO to other colleagues, where the officer said that while FMO was trying to extricate themselves from the project, AfDB did not want them to leave. In a conversation with the head of special operations at AfDB, the officer recounted that FMO asked “whether AFDB would be interested in taking over our CES loans, as FMO is pursuing an exit strategy. AFDB declined.”
The email went on to state that “AFDB derives comfort from the fact that they have a partner [development finance institution] in this difficult deal,” and that “AFDB and FMO are currently misaligned” due to the fact “FMO no longer finances coal plants” and the project’s “compliance breaches.” (As of 2019, the AfDB also reportedly does not finance coal plants.)
Despite the apparent disagreement, the operations head, the email said, “appeared to understand our position,” and said he will still inquire about the possibility of FMO’s exit.
The African Development Bank has a history of supporting extractive and paradoxical projects. Over the past decade, for example, the AfDB lent more than $1.65 billion to South African utility Eskom for its Medupi coal plant, a project that has been protested by local and international activists. The bank also planned to finance a coal-fired power plant in Kenya, on the island of Lamu, near a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but following four years of protests by environmental groups, the bank announced last November that it would not move forward with supporting the project. Concerns with the bank have been leveled at employees as well: In a long list of grievances, whistleblowers accused Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the AfDB, of abusing his office last year through nepotism and fraudulently awarded funding contracts, though he was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing by the bank board and an external review.
These issues are not unique to the AfDB, and reflect those of international development banks all over the world. When local communities complain about projects, their adversaries are powerful, and complaint structures can be incredibly opaque and burdensome. “The theme that's driving almost every conversation that I have with institutions is ‘Don't you want to know your unintended impacts and if the answer is yes, why wouldn't you want to hear from the people who are most affected,’” said Margaux Day, the policy director at Accountability Counsel, an organization that works with communities to amplify their concerns about internationally financed development projects.
When local communities complain about projects, their adversaries are powerful, and complaint structures can be incredibly opaque and burdensome.
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.”
Part of the assumption, from the side of the development bank, is that governments who propose projects to banks will do the necessary due diligence on behalf of their local populations. But community buy-in and consultation, Kumar said, is not required. “I've even seen cases where consultations are basically fabricated,” she said. “The point at which people are notified [about a development project] shouldn't be the point at which they're being told that they have to move out of their land.”
“I've even seen cases where consultations are basically fabricated.”
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.”
It’s counterproductive for these banks and governments to not seek community buy-in from the beginning.
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.
“The people who bear the most risk of a development project going wrong too often have the littlest say, in not only its design but also what to do if something does go wrong,” added Day.
The way many of these banks, as institutions, measure performance and success is also counterintuitive. “How do you measure performance and success when you’re at a development bank? Because it’s not about profit. It’s about something known as investment volume,” Fodor said. “If you're at the World Bank, and you're working in some country or region, you're told how much you're expected to invest, and your success is measured in how much you manage to invest in a given country in a given year. This is true of most of these banks.”
The African Development Bank is now trying to change its complaints handling process.
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.”
But, Amoako said, this made it so the bank could propose remedial measures without actually asking the community what the measures should be. “We have been advocating for a change in that, because how can you really ensure that the grievances are addressed if you're not talking to the people who have been affected by the grievances? Fortunately, the proposed revised procedures do provide for that sort of consultation,” said Amoako. “Now it is up to the board of the African Development Bank to accept these proposed revisions and ensure they are fully implemented.”
After the Sendou plant was shuttered, Bargny didn’t have long to celebrate its victory. Barely a year later in August 2020, Samba, the head of the fish processing cooperative, and her colleagues noticed workers conducting a topographical survey near their fish processing site. A few days later, they got a call from the local prefecture office: Tosyali, the Turkish company, would be building a steel and mining complex there, and the fish processors’ site would be reduced from four hectares to less than one.
“Tosyali will be even worse than Sendou because the site starts from the national highway and goes all the way to the ocean,” said Fadel Wade, the ecologist and resident of Bargny. He fears this will leave no room for either the fishermen, or the fish processors, to do their work—or, at least, to do it safely.
“The narrative that is given to us [by Tosyali] is that we'll keep the women there, and there's no risk,” said Sagne. “They are lying. It's not possible. They cannot be neighbors. It is dangerous.” Their concerns aren’t unfounded: Evidence has shown that steel production can significantly contribute to respiratory illnesses in nearby populations.
Georgine Kengne, who works with the Women in the African Gender and Extractive alliance, said women are particularly at risk of being harmed by the steel and mining industries in other ways as well. “Women are in charge of collecting water, farming, fetching firewood, so of course, they are particularly impacted by projects that restrict or pollute their water, and limit their access to land,” she said. Cordoning off and hiring armed security to protect land, which is the norm with extractive projects, also leads to a militarization of mining, she added, which, in turn, creates an attitude of impunity within mining companies and their employees.
“We will fight Tosyali the same way [we did Sendou]: We’ll raise awareness among the population, and seek the support of imams, community leaders and traditional spiritual guides,” said Fadel Wade. “We will mobilize everyone.”
In August 2020, LSD and the association of female fish processors lodged a complaint alleging that Tosyali violated the Guidelines of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), of which Turkey is a member state. These guidelines are one of the few avenues of recourse for communities threatened by the work of multinational corporations.
“I know the Turkish national contact point is a weak one,” said Sagne. “But in terms of strategy, it's good for us if we can delay the process by contacting the OECD.”
“They violate all our rights: the right to live in a healthy environment, the right to consent.”
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.
“It’s inconceivable to have three industrial projects—the coal plant, Tosyali, and the port—where people live.”
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.”