Innovative Public Participatory GIS Methodologies Adopted to Deal with the Social Impact Assessment Process Challenges: A Sri Lankan Experience

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The Kalu Ganga (Black River) reservoir development is a national irrigation development project in Sri Lanka. The development will impact communities and local environments for the project site is located in a very sensitive area in terms of its culture and physical environment. Because of the lack of communication and the effect of the top-down decision process on local communities, the project has been halted. Traditionally, GIS technology captures one official version, promoting an agency and "expert" data-driven representation (Harris et al. 1996). However, the recent development of critical approaches to GIS and social issues has raised a number of important concerns among scholars (Mark 1993, Harvey and Chrisman 1998, Harris and Weiner 1996, 1998), and exploring the potential role of PPGIS applications in social and environmental research is an important component of this research. PPGIS is a familiar initiative in many disciplines for participatory decision making with regard to national planning and development proposals. Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is a vital element in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which helps minimize impacts on local communities caused by development projects and proposed mitigation measures. Since the official recognition in the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 of the potential negative impacts of large-scale project developments on the environment, a formal EIA process has been developed and adopted in most countries. Both concepts require professional involvement with participatory approaches and innovative methods to identify societal concerns over development proposals. Currently, PPGIS application in SIA is not fully integrated, and developing these innovative approaches is vital in incorporating the voice of the local community inhabitants who will be greatly impacted by changes to their environment and lifestyles. This paper presents challenges encountered in the process of conducting SIA in the Kalu Ganga reservoir project (1) in the Matale District in Sri Lanka.

Development projects and programs in Sri Lanka have adopted SIA as part of the decision-making procedure in recent years. Although this assessment tool is widely applied in large-scale development proposals, Sri Lankan SIA studies have historically been based on expert opinions and technical applications and have been limited with regards to public participation. In the past, Sri Lanka's use of SIA has excluded intuitive and participatory analysis, relying solely on experts' application to mitigate impacts. According to IAIA (2003), "public participation is defined as the involvement of individuals and groups that are positively or negatively affected by, or that are interested in, a proposed project, program and policy that is subject to a decision-making process." As Burdge (2002) stated, SIA brings more public participation, and helps communities, government and private-sector organizations to comprehend and anticipate the possible social consequences on human populations and communities of proposed development projects. Accordingly, if performed properly, SIA has great potential to help all stakeholders plan for social change resulting from a proposed action (IAIA 2003). Although public opinions are collected using a variety of field research methods (such as questionnaire surveys, key-informants interviews, focus-groups interviews, etc.), it has been revealed that, for the most part, in the Sri Lankan experience local voices have been undermined. This exclusionary practice is especially true in the final decision-making process. Top-down technical solutions that protect government and agency interests without factoring in local concerns have been imposed on impacted communities. Despite criticism by the scientific community and liberal media, hierarchical and expert-driven planning dominates the decision-making process with little more than a nod to community participation. …