Total and Chevron Fuel Human Rights Abuse in Burma

“We can no longer do farming around our village because we don’t have existing land [anymore],” said one villager whose land was confiscated by Total and Chevron’s security forces. - ©  ERI© ERI

EarthRights International (ERI) released two reports today linking oil giants Total and Chevron to forced labor, killings, high-level corruption and authoritarianism in military-ruled Burma (Myanmar). For the first time, ERI reveals that the military regime is hiding multi-billion dollar revenues from natural gas sales in two offshore banks in Singapore.

Based primarily on over two years of research, the first report, entitled Total Impact: The Human Rights, Environmental, and Financial Impacts of Total and Chevron’s Yadana Gas Project in Military-Ruled Burma (Myanmar) explains that Total and Chevron’s Yadana gas project has generated US$4.83 billion dollars for the Burmese regime. The 110-page report explains how the regime would have excluded at least US$4.80 billion dollars of that revenue from the country’s national budget.

As a result of this revenue, Total and Chevron are a “leading external factor contributing to the regime’s intransigence” and a primary reason why international and domestic pressure on the SPDC has to date been ineffective, according to ERI.

“Total and Chevron claim abuses have stopped in connection to their project but it’s simply untrue,” said ERI Program Coordinator Naing Htoo, another principal author of the reports and coordinator of ERI’s investigations in Burma. “Forced labor, killings and other abuses are being committed by Total and Chevron’s security forces while the companies mislead and lie to the international community about their impacts.”

Focusing on the many misrepresentations of the Yadana Project is another new report from ERI, entitled Getting it Wrong: Flawed “Corporate Social Responsibility” and Misrepresentations Surrounding Total and Chevron’s Yadana Gas Pipeline in Military-Ruled Burma (Myanmar). Based on seven years of research, this 84-page report describes Total and Chevron’s public relations endeavors, including impact assessments commissioned by the companies since 2002. ERI presents evidence proving that Total lied to the public when it claimed that the International Labour Organization (ILO) certified that the company eradicated forced labor in its project area. The ILO made no such statements and has publicly disavowed the claim as untrue and inaccurate.

You can read more and find the two reports at: http://www.earthrights.org/content/view/693/114/

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Rickshaws under threat in Dhaka

A Rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

A Rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

A recent parliamentary decision in Bangladesh further extends the rickshaw ban across many parts of Dhaka. This anti-people initiative was taken apparently on the basis of some prejudices against fuel free transportation, rickshaw in particular, without any regard to proper scientific investigation.

It is hoped that authorities will eventually see the importance of fuel-free transport. Given the small modal share of automobiles and the many problems they cause, there should be no provision for creating more auto-only roads within urban areas, and all existing auto-only roads should be converted into mixed-use roads by properly integrating public transit with other modes.

Lessons can be learned from the Mirpur Road Demonstration project before proceeding with transport planning, where fuel free transport (rickshaws and rickshaw vans) were banned. This case showed a very different direction from that of current transport initiatives in Dhaka. The answer lies in the “After Project” report of a government-mandated study into the project, which showed a number of key congestion indices with respect to before and after scenarios including:

No travel time gain for fuel-dependent vehicles was achieved due to the rickshaw ban. Bus travel has worsened following the rickshaw ban; passenger travels by bus has become slower than by rickshaw. An increase in congestion due to taxi operators reluctant to take short trips, causing significant increases in waiting times for passengers. The economic impact of the fuel-free transport ban has been devastating; figures show losses as high as Tk 1.52 billion (€10 milliard) per year in the area. Overall, the banning of fuel-free transport has deteriorated accessibility of the majority of road users by cutting access to side roads, destroying the continuity of the transport system, and hampering door-to-door mobility of passengers. In government sponsored studies the overall net impact of rickshaw ban was disproportionately in the negative side.

It may be mentioned here that after failure of the rickshaw ban in the demonstration project of the Mirpur Road, the World Bank has set the standard of extending further bans on the condition that: “Any future support from the World Bank would be possible only if it can be demonstrated that aggregate positive impacts of NMT-free conversion on transport users and transport providers outweigh the aggregate negative impact”. We hope it will set the minimum standard for all decision makers and transport professionals in Bangladesh prior to embarking on any potentially regressive transport policy.

Yet policies continue to give car owners absolute priority, while ignoring the fundamental principle of any transport project appraisal, that is, that net user benefits of any transport intervention must exceed net loss. The double standard of providing absolute priority to a tiny minority of car owners, while at the same time restricting environmentally friendly and efficient rickshaws, not only has no scientific basis as far as congestion management is concerned, also infringes on the fundamental rights of the vulnerable rickshaw drivers to earn a living by legal means. Moreover, such ban will increase sufferings of the most vulnerable road users, such as, women, children and disables by depriving them from having their most suitable means of transport.

A mother and a child on a rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

A mother and a child on a rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

As people’s representatives, we hope to uphold the fundamental principal of social justice and transport policy appraisal on the basis of economic efficiency and social equity and revoke further ban on rickshaws and reintroduce them where they were previously banned without further delay.

Mahabubul Bari

International Expert on Transportation Infrastructure

Ministry of Infrastructure , Republic of Rwanda

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Real People’s Transport

Dehli ©Faizan Jawed

Bicyclist in New Delhi attempting to cross a junction - ©Faizan Jawed

Tata Motor’s wonder car, the Nano was launched recently in India and popular media touts it as the people’s car – as people’s transport. It remains a fact that this car will be unaffordable for a majority of people in India. This is not another Nano bashing piece but an article where I bring to notice the affordable “people’s transport” in Indian cities – bicycles – and why we must build infrastructure for promoting their use.

Bicycling is not new in India. It is commonplace to hear the older generation reminisce about how everyone had a bicycle – right from the high court judge to university students. Mobility on the bicycle did not pose great challenges and there was little danger posed by motor vehicles, as they were few in number. Importantly, it was not considered as below one’s position to use a cycle. India’s motor vehicle use has grown steeply since the 1980s and with a turn to neo-liberalism in India, markets have been flooded with various types of cars. Availability of cheap motorized two-wheelers such as motorbikes and scooters also resulted in a shift to motorized modes by the relatively poorer populace. Still, motorized modes of transport remain unaffordable to majority of Indians and this majority either walks, uses public transport or bicycles. To many, even public transport is unaffordable, which renders them completely non-motorized. These commuters have no other option but to walk or use bicycles, as the majority of people using are bound by economic constraints. Although bicycle use in Indian cities has been declining over the years due to hostile infrastructure, it remains high compared to international standards. In mega cities, bicycle use touches about 13% of trips. In smaller and medium cities, the share of trips on bicycle reaches up to 25-30%. Compare this with the 1% bicycle use in the UK capital London, or many US cities.

Mumbai ©Faizan Jawed

New Dehli - ©Faizan Jawed

Bicycle is akin to a private car because of it being a private mode of travel that can provide door-to-door transport. However, there are numerous benefits of using bicycles over cars. Bicycles cost little; a large majority can afford them. Bicycles take up little space while on the street or while parked. Bicycles produce no pollution, are easy to maintain and move at a pace that is quick enough (about 14-18 km/hr), yet is a speed at which the rider can enjoy the surroundings. Bicycles treat every rider the same – everyone has to make similar effort to pedal his or her bicycle – therefore a bicycle does not discriminate rich from poor; riders are equals when on the streets. They also have health benefits and much more.

With a large part of the population using bicycles and with their numerous benefits, why don’t we see any prioritisation and encouragement for bicycle use? State policy in India has been skewed in favour of the wealthy car-owning minority than the silent captive majority. All new infrastructures that were built in Indian cities since decades were for the car. It did not make any provisions for other road users. This definitely went well with the interests of the car manufacturers and oil companies. Empirical evidence from several cities around the world suggests that cities cannot solve their traffic problems by building wider highways for cars. Urban highways lead to larger traffic jams because of a phenomenon known as ‘traffic induction’. This can be experienced in our mega cities today, with endless traffic jams and some of the worst air quality standards. Add to this a developing country with large income disparities – the haves and the have-nots, and one gets a society perfectly classified on the basis of wealth. Those who can afford cars are in them, with the air conditioner and the stereo on, and the ones who cannot afford them are out – either in over packed public transport buses or trains, sweating and getting a 360-degree massage; on bicycles or walking, risking life while on the street.

Mumbai ©Faizan Jawed

New Dehli - ©Faizan Jawed

Transport planning can help improve the quality of life for everyone. Research has proven that dedicated bicycle infrastructure eases traffic congestion and reduces road accidents, while providing a non-polluting, affordable-by-all transportation system. Dedicated bicycle infrastructure comprises separate facilities for bicyclists including segregated non-motorized transport lanes, bicycle parking stands, signage, traffic signals for bicycles and much more. However, not all streets need to have segregated lanes; in the inner streets that are less motorized, with the help of traffic calming interventions like speed breakers and roundabouts, a low enough speed (20-30km/h) can be ensured for motor vehicles; then bicycles can be mixed in ordinary traffic. With lower speeds of all vehicles, the streets will become liveable – children will be able to play outside without fear of being run over and neighbourhoods can be peaceful again. Efforts are under way in several Indian cities to develop non-motorized transport inclusive cities. Projects are under way in New Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, Nanded, Bangalore relating to building infrastructure for non-motorized transport. A 6 km bicycle lane has been built in New Delhi along a Bus Rapid Transit corridor in Chirag Delhi. Many cyclists are happy and say that they feel safe in the cycling facility, however they complain about two-wheelers and cars encroaching the cycling lane. Therefore, stricter enforcement and more public awareness about the rights of cyclists and non-motorized transport users is the key to ensuring appropriate use of bicycle lanes.

Famous quantum physicist Freeman Dyson said, “The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple.” It is time that we realize the great potential that the bicycle has to better everyone’s quality of life and start prioritising it!

Faizan Jawed, India

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Carfree Days: A Glimpse of the Future

Dhaka

Dhaka by Debra Efroymson

While sitting in a van with colleagues from the more lucrative part of my job (the part that doesn’t involve urban planning or transport), stuck in typical Dhaka traffic one day, a man who to my knowledge has never worked on urban issues explained to a visiting American how wonderful the city is when there are hartals, or political strikes. “It’s great,” he gushed, “there are almost no cars. It takes far less time to get around by (cycle) rickshaw than it does on other days by car. Other than the tear gas and violence, it’s perfect.”

He could have added that the streets are quieter, and if the hartal lasts two or three days, the air becomes surprisingly clean and fresh, despite a population of about 12 million people. He could have added how sociable the city becomes, with groups of children cycling down the middle of the streets, and groups of adults walking together to work or to a shop.

In some ways hartals are not a fair example of what the city could be like carfree. After all, many offices and shops stay closed, so there are far fewer people moving about. And of course the violence, and the suffering of those who live day-to-day and who cannot earn money during hartals adds a grim aspect. On the other hand, how many other opportunities does one have to experience one’s city car-lite or carfree? And if rickshaws can be faster than cars, why are they attacked as slow-moving transport while cars are not just allowed but encouraged?

When moving about Dhaka, I can’t help but notice how small the city seems when traveling by rickshaw or bicycle as opposed to car. Sitting in a car stuck in traffic, the city seems huge and unfriendly, destinations widely spaced, and no form of transport viable except the car. But when there is a hartal, or early in the morning when traffic is light, the city magically shrinks in size; faraway destinations become readily accessible without the use of an engine. This is only partly because the trip can be faster when non-motorized. Realisation slowly dawns on me: if traveling were pleasurable it wouldn’t matter if it did sometimes require more time, as one could then mix leisure and recreation with transport, rather than travel being solely for the sake of arriving somewhere else.

But if I mentioned to the colleague who waxed rhapsodic about hartals that one could achieve a similar, but more peaceful, effect by getting rid of the cars, he would react with disbelief. On a hartal, sure, rickshaws are great, but for day-to-day life cars are essential, despite only a tiny minority of the population having access to them. Cars are inevitable, as much so or more than political unrest; one can’t ban them, any more than governments have succeeded in banning hartals.

Children playing soccer in the streets of Dhaka

In the streets of Dhaka by Debra Efroymson

I have often tried to argue that what is unimaginable is not a city without cars, but the existing cities that we live in, cities where the most dangerous daily activity for most residents is crossing the streets, where it is commonly accepted that dogs, children and others will be killed on a regular basis in the streets, where movement and parking of cars is considered a priority over the active play and independent movement of children and the socialising and mobility of the elderly.

How odd!

I was recently in New York City, where having walked about 40 blocks, my feet needed a rest just as I reached Times Square. I found an empty lounge chair and took a seat. Tourists were asking each other what was going on: “I just asked, they said nothing, they’re just sitting here.” No, not a staged event, just a piece of the street given over to a public use other than being stuck in traffic.

NYC June09 (32)

Time Square by Debra Efroymson

It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I sat for a long time, enjoying the lively yet quiet scene. It was a bit like a hartal in Dhaka, where the few cars are relegated to the margins and people reclaim the centre stage.

That big sign with the word “hope” on it might have said it all, but I would have chosen a different verb. We aren’t going to get there only by hoping…though those glimpses into the future may well give us the hope and courage to do what is necessary to make these extraordinary occasions into the blissfully mundane.

–Debra Efroymson

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