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PI Policy: The problem with environmental impact assessments

January 6, 2008

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are now standard practice for dam builders. Probe International’s Grainne Ryder and Patricia Adams explain how this seemingly positive development actually undermines citizen rights and harms the environment.

Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are now standard practice for dam builders. China, the world’s largest dam builder, has enacted laws requiring dam projects undergo EIAs.

This may seem a positive development in an otherwise secretive and unaccountable decision-making culture that persists in the global dam-building industry and with “development” projects generally.

Yet EIAs are inherently unfair because they legitimize the right of project proponents to threaten others. They are also inherently anti-democratic because they undermine the right of citizens to say no to development that harms their interests and the environment upon which they depend.

In the absence of laws that give citizens – as individuals and communities –
the right to defend their resources and environment from expropriation, contamination, and degradation, environmental impact assessments have proven to be worse than second best.

Implicit in the EIAs, which governments and aid agencies now require, is the right of state agencies to make the final decision to proceed with a project. Under these circumstances, EIAs become a cruel exercise in futility for affected communities, misled into believing their views and values will influence the EIA and the ultimate decision to proceed with a project or not. Worse, the participation of citizens in the EIA process – entered into in good faith – will be used by proponents to legitimize the decision-making process which is inherently unjust.

In the EIA process, the preeminent rights of citizens to determine how their environment is treated, and to freely determine their economic, social and cultural development, are undermined and diminished to become just one of many “stakeholder” interests. Those citizens invariably lose to the indeterminable interest of the “greater good” and the unverifiable and unduly optimistic claims of proponents (experience shows that EIAs have promoted preposterous proposals for mitigating environmental damages and compensating for lost livelihoods).

Proponents quite accurately view EIAs as mere administrative hoops to jump through and will claim, once they have complied with national EIA legislation, that they have met the requirements for final approval from the government.

At best, citizen participation in EIAs may lead to project modifications or a change of location either to reduce expected impacts or to appease certain victims. Rarely does an EIA persuade proponents that the costs to local people are unacceptably high. Cynically, EIAs provide developers with the information they need to identify the costs and risks that threaten project viability, and then to externalize those costs onto others. In this way, EIAs are typically manipulated to justify projects that would otherwise not be financially viable.

When it comes to evaluating and challenging the false assumptions, overestimated benefits, and underestimated costs of multi-million dollar feasibility studies and EIAs, few citizens in the world, least of all the poor, have the resources and time necessary to do so.

There is a better way. Here is what’s needed:

1)    Laws to protect the basic rights of citizens as individuals and communities – for example, land, forest, fisheries, and water rights.

2)    Referenda by communities affected by projects to consider the proposals, arguments, EIAs, promises, compensation packages, guarantees etc. of proponents and to vote on them.

Under such a regime, the onus would be on developers to win approval from local communities to proceed with a project that affects those communities.

Under the current regime, the onus is on the potential victims to defend themselves from developers that are backed by the government, politicians, and regulators. But, sound development requires the opposite: citizens directly affected by projects – with the most information and the most interest in making wise and truly sustainable decisions – must have the right to say no to the proposed project (to modify it, or to invest in an alternative project altogether).

International and national NGOs must not lose sight of the fact that without informed local consent and the expression of the will of the people who are affected by a project, EIAs are illegitimate and anti-democratic.

Developers with good projects – that truly create more benefits than costs for all concerned – should have no trouble winning public approval in an open, transparent, and informed debate, in which all manner of evidence, including EIAs, are scrutinized.

To strengthen citizens’ rights to decide the fate of the resources and environment upon which they depend, referenda can be held whereby affected people can vote for or against a specific development project. Referendums can be organized either using established legal procedures (in the context of parliamentary democracies) or informal procedures in which transparency and due process is verifiably credible.

In many places, demanding that traditional land rights be recognized or proposing a referendum on a specific development project puts local people at risk of imprisonment or even assassination. Under such circumstances, where local people are so clearly threatened, international financiers and aid agencies should not provide financing.

Ultimately, development must be guided by the free, prior, and informed consent of those whose rights are directly affected by the proposed project. EIAs and other stakeholder negotiations, no matter how well intentioned, are no substitute for laws to uphold the rights of citizens.

As Indian environmentalist Medha Patkar told the UN-backed World Commission on Dams in 2000: “Communities, especially those who live on and seek livelihood from their natural resource base, such as forest produce gatherers, farmers or fisherpeople, should have the first right to planning, development and management of those resources.” This requires that governments recognize the preeminent right of citizens to say no to development that harms their interests.

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