Participation is not the answer to development-forced displacement and resettlement

Participation continues to be heralded as undeniably positive. Participation is a way to involve people in decision making. It is imbued with ideas of democracy, people’s power, and challenging top-down governance.  Yet, in practice, rather than acting as a tool for liberation and empowerment, what is called ‘participation’ is more often a way to mask the reproduction of status quo power relations. In a new article just published, Jessica Milgroom and Priscilla Claeys take this a step further to show how participation in development-forced displacement and resettlement can actually expose people to epistemic violence and cause a surge in authoritarian practices. The focus on ‘participation’ contributes to legitimising displacement unless people in the line of fire have the right, means and support to veto the project, which rarely, if ever, occurs.

The article ‘Participation is not the answer: epistemic violence and authoritarian practices in conservation-forced displacement’ explores how the concept of participation, imposed by international policy for displacement and resettlement, unfolded in displacement negotiations in the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. Displacement is already a violent experience: to be pulled up from your land, your house destroyed, your social fabric torn– there is not much that can make this experience feel better. Participation is meant to. The idea is to let people decide about their lives in their new location. What we found, however, is that rather than alleviating the violence of the experience, participation led to amplification of epistemic violence. 

‘My daughter was crying saying, papa! Papa! Where are we going to sleep? Why are you taking our house down?’ Quote and photo credit: resident of Nanguene Alisão, 2009

In the Limpopo National Park, all the conditions were right for a participatory process in which displaced people could make decisions about their post-displacement conditions– how they wanted to live, how much land of what type they needed for their livelihoods, what kind of wells for water, the organization of their new villages, as well as other invisible, intangible factors. In fact, the negotiations started out on the right foot, but quickly the process turned messy. Park staff responsible for planning resettlement asked displaced people what they wanted in post resettlement, and when residents’ preferences did not fit in with the model of modernist development, displaced people and their needs and preferences were delegitimised, seen to be unintelligible. When the opportunity to ‘participate’ led to resistance, the scope for participation was delimited: rather than deciding about all the facets of their new lives, the negotiations were limited to details on the house, such as the size of the living room and the numbers of doors. When the resistance persisted, coercion and threats were used to force consent, backed up by World Bank representatives. Finally, when people continued to speak up for themselves and their rights as displaced people, higher level Mozambican government officials stepped in to temporarily disengage from the international policy that required participation as a condition for funding. We found that participation triggered more authoritarian practices when people used participatory spaces to contest or question their displacement. 

Residents of the village of Nanguene visited the model house in the resettlement location. ‘Participation’ was limited to negotiating details of the compensation house. Photo credit J Milgroom 2007

We are not against participation, by any means. However, we are calling attention to the fact that participation is a central part of a narrative that attempts to put a positive spin on displacement and resettlement. This research suggests that focusing on the details of how to get participation right ends up merely justifying and legitimizing displacement and perpetuating the idea that there is a way to displace and resettle people that does not ruin displaced people’s lives, erase generations of knowledge and sever relations with land and culture.   

The global energy transition towards renewables is threatening a wave of new displacements as minerals and metals are found in territories largely stewarded by Indigenous Peoples. As the international community is committing to protect 30% of the earth’ surface by 2030 in the framework of the recent Montreal Kunming Agreement, we also anticipate more conservation-forced displacements in the years to come, especially of Indigenous Peoples and other people living in rural areas. Instead of continuing to attempt to refine and improve the practices of participation and how it is implemented as the way to achieve ‘successful’ resettlement, we propose that it is time, instead, to question more seriously the practice of displacement itself. We call for a vision of conservation, and ‘development’ broadly speaking, that does not require or depend on displacement of people from their lands.