The State, the Community and Environmental Impact Assessment: Thailand's Enhancement and Conservation of Environmental Quality Act

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I. INTRODUCTION

Environmental protection and management is one of the few public policy domains where the state is still acknowledged as having a legitimate and important role to play. It is also a public decision-making arena where vigorous citizen or citizen group participation still occurs, either directly as an invited participant at the table or indirectly through the media.

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) is one of the more widely publicized participatory planning instruments for environmental protection and management in high consumption countries (HCCs). It is also the one tool in the environmental policy kit that has been systematically "transferred" to low consumption countries (LCCs) through the various delivery mechanisms of overseas development assistance (ODA) in the last five years.(1)

The integration of environmental protection objectives in the legal and public administration system of most LCCs is rather recent. The institutionalization process however has begun and is likely to continue. This has arisen from a combination of internal and external pressures.

Among the external forces is the requirement increasingly imposed by multilateral and bilateral aid agencies for pre-project EIA as an additional precondition for funding. The push for institutionalizing EIA was further reinforced at the recent United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. Principle 17 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted by world leaders in June 14, 1992 states:

Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impacts on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.

The pressure on the part of bilateral and multilateral aid agencies is in part a reflection of the power of organized environmental groups in the donor countries.

A piece of legislation, Bill C-13, recently passed in Canada's Parliament reflects this trend. It would require Canadian ODA projects to be subjected to an environmental impact screening in the planning stage and, where warranted, submitted to a mediation or review panel. The assessment of ODA projects however is to be undertaken "in accordance with the principles and practice of international law." The legislation provides for the use of alternate impact assessment procedures "in recognition of the foreign nature" of the project, provided that the procedure "meets the basic goals and objectives of Canadian environmental policies." One of the objectives defined in the legislation is to promote public participation.

In an earlier paper I have argued that the EIA model being introduced in LCCs is inappropriate not only on technical and financial, but also on cultural and political grounds (Yap 1988). The argument was made that the information gathering and processing in EIA makes excessive demands on human and financial resources, that the assessment framework is culturally biased, the mode of public participation is too confrontational and, as observed by some analysts such as Parenteau (1988), the process has become increasingly technocratic.

It was furthered argued that EIA, like any other social instrument, is shaped by the culture in which it evolves. Introducing the model developed and used in HCCs into countries with fundamentally different political and cultural traditions is akin to "forcing a square peg into a round hole." If EIA is to become an effective instrument for anticipatory environmental management in LCCs, both the framework and the methodology must be adapted to the local context. "It is the peg that should be rounded, not the hole that should be squared" (Yap 1990).

One of Canada's important development partners in Southeast Asia is Thailand. Thailand is also among the fastest growing economies in the region and therefore of considerable interest to international development agencies and environmental organizations. …