Environmental Assessments Are Development Tools, and Not Sweetheart Reports

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BYLINE: Jan Glazewski

The recent flurry of articles and letters on the environmental impact assessment process (EIA) in this newspaper is to be welcomed. Hopefully, it will at the very least let us stand back and give some thought to the underlying purpose of EIAs and the optimal means to implement the process effectively.

A concerning and readily discernible trend in the recent past is that the EIA process is perceived as a hurdle or obstacle that stands in the way of much needed and legitimate development, whether initiated by the private sector or by (semi) government enterprises. At worst, the notion is that EIA needs to be given short shrift.

Given the socio-economic climate in the country, we need to go back to basics as regards the purpose behind EIA and the process of carrying out environmental assessment. To remind ourselves: the underlying purpose of environmental assessment (or integrated environmental management) is to identify, anticipate, assess and manage the potential impact of policies, plans, programmes and projects (the 4Ps) on the environment of development proposals prior to carrying them out.

Part of this involves addressing the socio-economic consequences of development proposals. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (March 28) said we were sitting on a powder keg, and if the gap between rich and poor was not narrowed quickly we might as well kiss reconciliation goodbye.

EIA should take cognisance of the three interdependent pillars of sustainable development, namely environmental conservation, economic development and the social equity consequences - in particular the alleviation of poverty - in the development process to which the archbishop refers.

This is the case with all development proposals, at whatever stage in the planning process, whether they be football stadiums, golf estates, breaking of new ground for agriculture or mining ventures.

MPs are now debating fundamental amendments to the legal regime around the environmental management of mining activities. In doing so, are they taking cognisance of the recent alarming reports from highly reputable social responsibility and church groups about the negative social, livelihood and health effects of mining on poorer communities?

More specifically, the purpose of EIA is to assist decision-makers to take holistic long-term decisions that support the concept of sustainable development, including the socio-economic consequences of development proposals. As such, the process is anticipatory and inclusive of public opinion, particularly that of interested and potentially affected parties.

It is thus a decision-making tool which, among other things, guides officials as to what mitigatory or compensatory measures to impose as conditions when granting environmental authorisations.

I do not share the rosy picture painted by Joanne Yawitch ("New bill strengthens environmental controls", March 27). First, she refers to the need for alternative tools to the traditional EIA process. …