Brief recommendations for strengthening public participation and the EIA process

by Jigme Choki, Bhutan, ELP 2015
Written on July 26, 2015.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is defined as ‘the process of identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social, and other relevant effects of development proposals prior to major decisions being taken and commitments made’ by the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA & IEA 1999, p. 2). Figure 1 illustrates different stages in the EIA process. EIA is used as a policy instrument to improve environmental outcomes and allow for democratic participation in decision-making. EIA is regarded as an effective planning and management tool (Toro et al. 2010, p. 247). The introduction of EIA as a policy instrument for decision-making as a part of development process in many countries has been increasingly recognised worldwide (Saeed et al. 2012, p. 1909; Cooper & Elliott 2000, p. 363).

A basic principle of EIA is that it should be participative. Public participation has been considered an essential and integral component of EIA since its inception (Saeed et al. 2012, p. 1909; Nadeem & Fischer 2011, p. 36; Portman 2009, p. 332; Stewart & Sinclair 2007, p. 161; Hartley and Wood, 2005, p. 319; Petts 2003, p. 273; Palerm 2000, p. 581). Public participation leads to better environmental and social outcomes of the project. The theory of deliberative democracy considers that EIA provides a forum for deliberative decision-making where individuals and groups can engage in a meaningful exchange of views and information (Macintosh 2010, p. 403). The EIA process should provide appropriate opportunities to inform and involve the interested and affected public, and their inputs and concerns should be addressed explicitly in the documentation of impacts and decision-making about development projects (IAIA & IEA 1999, p. 3).

Best-practice public participation is defined as consisting of two components: 1) legal provisions; and 2) actors’ attitudes and capacities towards participation (Palerm, 2000). However, most of the time the public is not aware of the legislation and their right to participate in the EIA process. Public participation in EIA is often ineffective due to barriers, which can be grouped into three subheadings: i) Lack of accessibility, ii) Lack of information, and iii) Lack of transparency. Some of the recommendations for strengthening public participation and EIA process at large for better decision-making are:

1. Ensure appropriate awareness on both legislation pertaining to EIA and on environmental issues of the proposed project. As per Kruopiene et al. (2009), the success of EIA has been rooted in legal regulation of public participation in the EIA. However, the general perception is that public participation in EIAs is conducted only because they are obligated either by the government legislation or donor agencies. For public participation to be effective, there has to be improved awareness on the legislation and environmental issues of the proposed project. It requires continuous effort to ensure that the process is effective and worthwhile. Public participation needs to be strengthened by promoting stakeholders' awareness about potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of mega development projects (Panigrahi & Amirapu, 2012). The Regulatory authority should educate the general public on why they should participate in the decision-making process. The public should be convinced that their views and suggestions will be considered and will influence the decision-making of the proposed project (Yang, 2008).

2. Ensure accessibility. An inappropriate venue of a public hearing is considered an impediment to public participation (Nadeem & Fischer, 2011). The venue for public consultation should be accessible especially those by directly affected communities. The suitability of consultation timing is another factor to consider getting the right attendance of the participants. Other aspects, like financial and transport provisions, should be considered by the proponents to facilitate the participation of the public.

3. Ensure proper information dissemination. According to Petts (1995) (in Yang 2008), the credibility of public participation increases by making the project officers accessible to the public. There should be increased access to information through sharing information with local communities at the early stage of identifying projects and encouraging public comments on the draft EIA. The project proponents should ensure that public consultation is in the local language to improve communication.

4. Ensure transparency. It is important to build the trust between all the stakeholders by sharing the documents of consultation and how their concerns were incorporated in the assessment reports and in the final decision of the proposed project. Creating a transparent procedure helps to build trust between the public, and project proponents and decision-makers and thus facilitates smooth operation of projects. However, as Momtaz (2002) claims, to ensure effective community participation in the EIAs conducted by consulting firms are a contentious issue.

Image iconchoki_2.png
Figure 1. Stages in the EIA process
Source: UNEP EIA Training Resource Manual

Literature Cited

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