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Participation with a punch: Community referenda on dam projects and the right to free, prior, and informed consent to development

Brant McGee
Consultant to the Environmental Defender Law Centre and other non-government organisations; mcgee.brant@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: The 2000 Report of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) found that dams can threaten the resources that provide the basis for indigenous and other peoples'€™ culture, religion, subsistence, social and family structure -€“ and their very existence, through forced relocation -€“ and lead to ecosystem impacts harmful to agriculture, animals and fish. The WCD recommended the effective participation of potentially impacted local people in decisions regarding dam construction. The international right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) accorded to indigenous peoples promises not only the opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their lands and livelihoods but to stop unwanted development by refusing consent as well. The newly developed concept of community referenda, held in areas potentially impacted by development projects, provides an accurate measure of the position of local voters on the proposed project through a democratic process that discourages violence, promotes fair and informed debate, and provides an avenue for communities to express their consent or refusal of a specific project. The legal basis, practical and political implications, and Latin American examples of community referenda are explored as a means of implementing the critical goal of the principle of FPIC, the expression of community will and its conclusive impact on development decision-making.