Witness advocay against forced eviction


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If the construction of a dam will completely flood villages and farmland, what rights do the local communities have to influence the project? What information is factored into the decision to demolish a shantytown to make way for luxury condominiums?

Most development projects, at face value, seem aimed at improving the lives of people: a new dam will generate more electricity to power industry; a new sports complex for a major event like the World Cup will bring in new revenue and evoke national pride; a new shopping mall will create new businesses and therefore more jobs.

The reality for communities living at or near a project – be it a dam, a sports complex, or a shopping mall – is often quite different.  A project being developed on their land, on their homes, is often about the destruction of communities, the disruption of lives, and the impoverishment of people.

WITNESS has worked on development-induced displacement over the past few years, most notably with our partner CEMIRIDE in Kenya; the Video Advocacy Workshop with IAP where 15 activists in 9 Asian countries were trained to produce advocacy videos on development-induced displacement; with our partner LICADHO in Cambodia; and with our former partners NAKAMATA in the Philippines and Burma Issues in Burma.

The Greater Good for Whom?

A forced eviction in the name of development reflects the tension between the development objectives of the local community and what a few determine to be for the greater public interest. The high price paid by local communities – losing their homes, lands, and livelihoods – is positioned against the purported benefits of the project to the broader society.  How are the project benefits actually measured and who decides which project is in the broader public interest?

Each year an estimated 15 million people across the globe are forcibly uprooted from their homes, farmlands, fishing areas, forests to make way for dam reservoirs, irrigation projects, mines, plantations, highways, and tourist resorts. Urban slums are bulldozed to make way for luxury condominiums, sporting facilities and shopping centers.

Forced eviction tends to go hand-in-hand with the use or threat of violence. Under-represented and communities living in poverty are affected most dramatically and each project underscores the discrimination rooted in the existing financial, legal and political systems.

Forced evictions are involuntary, despite enticements often used to encourage “voluntary resettlement.” They regularly do not uphold obligations to fairly compensate, resettle and rehabilitate people and the physical and social infrastructures that once made them a community.

Human rights abuses often continue after a forced eviction. A community may not be formally resettled and often find themselves in living without adequate housing and without access to water, work, schools and hospitals. A forced eviction exacerbates poverty, social unrest, environmental degradation and loss of cultural identity. Its affects remain long after the last home is torn down.


Communities in every corner of the globe have long struggled to keep their land and homes or, if the project is being built, to receive just compensation and rehabilitation. Too often governments proposing a project do not effectively consult communities at risk of displacement and therefore activism frequently occurs after a project receives approval and funding. In the past three decades, communities and activists have campaigned for international guidelines and safeguards on development-induced displacement. Many major development banks and more than 60 private banks lending funds to governments and corporations for large-scale projects have adopted at least minimum safeguards to prevent human rights abuses associated with forced evictions.

Despite these guidelines and safeguards, the UN in 2010 reported that forced evictions are on the rise. Routinely, implemented projects do not follow the financial institution’s own safeguard policies and investors and governments often ignore obligations to avoid or at least minimize displacement. Domestic laws protecting the rights of persons forcibly evicted vary greatly from country to country and, in practice, there is often little recourse domestically for communities challenging a forced eviction.


Any large-scale ‘development’ project involves a network of local and global entities. Therefore, to confront the human rights abuses which can arise, campaigns must equally be networked – involving local, national and international partners.

In order to best tackle this issue, WITNESS and the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) are working together to incorporate video advocacy into local and global campaigns on forced evictions across the HIC global network.  As a first step, HIC and WITNESS will co-organize an intensive video advocacy training for grassroots HIC members in Mexico and Brazil. The cooperation will continue into other geographic areas with an emphasis on selecting the campaigns which can have the most impact locally and internationally by using video advocacy.