Should Public Participation Be Omitted in Developing Countries?

by Aurore Aghasarkissian

Since the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was established in 1969, developed countries were able to make advancements and ameliorate the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process. However, it is only recently that the developing world started following their example.

It is true that EIA legislations are already established in some developing countries; in other parts of the underdeveloped world EIA practices are still limited.  Poverty, limited public involvement, being unaware of environmental management and sustainable development as well as weak law enforcement, are some of the challenges developing countries are facing when dealing with environmental impact assessment (UNEP, 2004).

Since most of the developing world adopted EIA more recently, a big number of development projects were conducted either without an EIA or with an EIA as a precondition from donors and multilateral development agencies (Kosomu, Mkandawire, Utembe & Mapoma, 2013).

Public participation is a crucial part of the EIA process. In theory, public involvement should commence during the scoping phase and be present throughout the whole EIA process.

In practice however, in underdeveloped countries, it often only appears in the review and decision stage of the process. Most of the time, the public is excluded or not acknowledged in the decision-making process, even though they are the ones who know their land, their social and economical states the best.

And on the rare occasions when the public was consulted, the opinion of the local community was not taken into consideration (Ahmad & Wood, 2002). Similarly in China, according to Zhang et al. (2012), public participation is limited and the Chinese public has a slight impact on the final decision made. The same occurs in Bahrain (Naser, 2012), in South America and South East Asia. (Tang, Tang and Lo, 2005).

Furthermore, proponents rarely respond to the various issues raised by the local community, the public feels like its inputs are unnecessary and unimportant thus loosing interest in public participation and EIA as well. (Betey and Godfred, 20013). Also, when the opinion of the public is taken into consideration, it is often forgotten that certain social groups, such as women, the youth, the indigenous people, etc. are marginalized and their voices are not heard.

For the public to feel that its input is valued, public participation should be applied impeccably. It does not suffice to educate the people about sustainable development and environmental management, or to brief them about the project at hand.

Maybe the answer is not conducting public involvement until proper and appropriate implementation can be achieved. What is worse, not conducting public participation at all or consulting the community but not respecting the feedback enough to integrate it in the decision making process?

References:

Betey, C., & Godfred, E. (2013). Environmental Impact Assessment and Sustainable Development in Africa: A Critical Review.

Kosamu, I., Mkandawire, A., Utembe, W., & Mapoma, H. (2013). Public Participation in Malawi’s Environmental Impact Assessment Process.

United Nations Environmental Program. Studies of EIA practice in Developing Countries.

Tang, S., Tang, C. & Lo, C. (2005). Public Participation and Environmental Impact Assessment in Mainlad China and Taiwan: Political foundation of Environmental Management. The Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1, January 2005, pp. 1-32.

Zhang, Y., Lui, X., Yu, Y., Li, Y., & Long, Y. (2012). Challenge of Public Participation in China’s EIA practice.

Hadi, S. Public Participation in Indonesian EIA. UNEP EIA Resource Manual.

Abaza, H., Bisset, R. & Sadler, B. (2004). Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic Environmental Assessment: Toward an Integrated Approach. UNEP.

Wood, C. (2003). Environmental Impact Assessment in Developing Countries: An Overview.

Naser, A. (2012). Evaluation of the Environmental Impact Assessment System in Bahrain.

Ahmad, B., Wood, C. (2002). A Comparative Evaluation of the EIA Systems in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia.