Founding place of Fontibón, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Tequendamia - Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) describes itself as a champion of integrity and transparency, working with its Latin American and the Caribbean member countries to strengthen governance and rule of law at local and national levels. As a public institution committed to sustainable development, it has endorsed the principle that “environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens.” However, as the residents of Fontibón, a neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia, recently learned, the bank does not universally apply these standards to its own activities. Fontibón residents are suffering serious harm from an airport expansion project financed by the bank, yet the bank insists on keeping those families in the dark regarding its knowledge and monitoring of that harm.
El Dorado International Airport is bombarding densely-populated neighborhoods on the margins of the airport, including Fontibón, with extreme noise pollution. The impacts on those communities are profound. Studies have found that at least a third of Fontibón residents suffer chronic insomnia and that reports of hearing damage are higher in areas with greater exposure to the noise. Children are particularly vulnerable, with studies in Bogotá (and internationally) finding a relationship between long-term exposure to aircraft noise and developmental delays. When the bank funded the expansion of this airport, it utterly failed to take appropriate steps to protect these residents. It contributed to a dramatic rise in the number of flights using the airport, without ensuring that effective, modern noise mitigation systems were in place.
The Fontibón community filed a formal complaint to the bank’s accountability office, known as MICI. MICI conducted an investigation and wrote a report that reads like a laundry list of the bank’s failures to recognize the human cost of the airport expansion project, in violation of its own environmental and social protections. However, in a move that gravely undermined this critical accountability function, the bank insisted that critical details of that investigation be withheld from publication.
MICI is subject to the bank’s access-to-information rules. And due to a huge loophole in those rules, the bank was able to insist that entire paragraphs of MICI’s analysis – more than 20 percent of the report – are simply blacked out. The IDB financed a private company in the airport deal and its access to information policy exempts from disclosure almost all information about such private sector investments.
This exception extends far beyond the kind of information that typically attracts claims of commercial sensitivity. MICI was investigating and reporting on the project’s environmental and social impacts. It had access to highly relevant documents about the evaluation and monitoring of those impacts that affected communities – who live every day with extreme noise pollution affecting their sleep, their concentration, and their children’s ability to learn – were not allowed to see.
As lawyers for communities affected by internationally financed projects, we have seen first-hand how difficult it is for communities to secure an equal voice at the table with multilateral development banks and the companies they finance. But these parties will never be on equal footing as long as one side holds all the cards and stacks the deck.
Avianca at El Dorado Airport, Bogota. Reg Natarajan from Vancouver, Canada, CC BY 2.0.
Fontibón residents hope that their case will be a catalyst for much-needed changes. Fortunately, the IDB’s recently-consolidated private sector arm – the Inter-American Investment Corporation – is set to review its own information disclosure policy. Together with partners in this field, we encourage them to:
- Establish a genuine presumption of disclosure of project information. Any exceptions should be limited, legitimate, and should not prevent the disclosure of information about the project’s environmental and social risks.
- - Enable meaningful community consultation and participation in project risk management by proactively disclosing all environmental and social impact assessments, management plans and monitoring reports, in full, as soon as they are available, and with sufficient time for consultation before relevant decisions are taken.
- - Require that environmental and social risk information is disclosed in the primary language of affected communities.
Communities are entitled to participate in decisions that affect their lives and to stand up for themselves in the face of injustice. And they have the right to access the information they need to do so. As a public, development institution, the IDB should provide that information and live up to the standards of integrity, transparency and good governance that it purports to champion.