- Environmental and social impact assessments as they’re implemented in development projects across Africa need a “shake-up” to ensure they’re fit for purpose, experts say.
- Georgine Kengne, from the WoMin African Alliance, says the ideal ESIA process would be one in which “the government and the mining company are not just colluding to make profits.”
- Morgan Hauptfleisch, a professor of nature conservation in Namibia, says the fundamental problem is that ESIAs and other safeguards can simply be ignored with little consequence other than fines that the companies just budget for anyway.
- Mongabay spoke with both Kengne and Hauptfleisch about ESIAs, community participation, and the underused tool that is the strategic environmental assessment (SEA).
Environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) have become an important tool for decision-makers around the world to explore and understand the impacts of proposed development projects on the wider ecosystem.
They’re supposed to measure — and ensure that mechanisms are put in place to manage — the possible negative impacts on ecosystems and affected communities. For local communities and Indigenous peoples, ESIAs should be a keystone of free, prior and informed consent. Through these assessments, local communities, scientists, environmentalists and other interested and affected parties should be able to learn what a project entails, and be given a platform to voice their concerns about risks, changes or losses it might bring.
The studies and consultation surrounding an ESIA also allow companies or investors to respond to criticism and explore alternatives, while being pushed to develop adequate mitigation measures and fair compensation schemes.
For governments, ESIAs are meant to be the entry point into a development, providing authorities with the information necessary to understand the potential costs and benefits of a project not only in terms of strategic and economic goals, but also in terms of how it will affect the lives and livelihoods of citizens and the health of the land and water it will be sited on. Without environmental and social assessments, governments can’t make truly informed decisions.
But are ESIAs fit for purpose?
Georgine Kengne, coordinator for Consent & the Right to Say No at the WoMin African Alliance, tells Mongabay that in her experience communities are frequently not aware of what is happening and mining companies try to complete a positive assessment as quickly as possible to satisfy regulatory authorities.
“While the document is there, and the respective mining company claims that the ESIA was done, it’s difficult to find someone in the community who was actually part of the process,” she says.
Morgan Hauptfleisch, a wildlife and environmental scientist and associate professor for nature conservation at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, tells Mongabay, that, “in practice, communities have to step aside when resources are discovered underground.”
“I think from that perspective, communities are often ignored, or targeted people within the communities are asked to buy into a project and then they represent the community,” he says.
Mongabay spoke with both Georgine Kengne and Morgan Hauptfleisch about the effectiveness of the current ESIA model in Africa, what the ideal ESIA would look like, and the different understandings of what constitutes “sustainable.” The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act has guidelines for both environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and public participation in them. How does this legislation compare to that of other African countries, and what should or could an environmental social impact assessment ideally be?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: Most of Africa’s legislation is very similar. South Africa was one of the earliest ones and a lot of the rest of Africa’s environmental impact assessment tools come from that. South Africa’s guidelines in turn came from where it was started in the big financing corporations like the World Bank, or the Inter-American Development Bank.
The problem lies mostly in the implementation of the legislation and in the follow-up monitoring. Even if the teeth of the laws are all in, the question is: is the EIA implemented?
It’s about the auditing, and about the government agencies going out and making sure they’re compliant because the EIA statements or documents are law. It’s about whether the environmental management plans or legal requirements are being implemented. And if there’s nobody checking on that, it doesn’t get done.
Mongabay: Who should be checking on them?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: In South Africa, you’ve got the provincial agencies that need to do that, and in Namibia the national agency. But a lot of that is also something that donor agencies should do, the World Bank for instance, if it’s a big development project in a country. They have their environmental safeguards and often it’s them that do more follow-up than the governments themselves, holding developers to account.
Georgine Kengne: There are so many instruments a government can use to make sure that the human rights of people or communities are protected. An ESIA is one of them. It’s very important to know that wherever it is done, it should go hand in hand with the constitution of the country. We need to know what are the side effects? What are the negative impacts?
And we also need to make sure that there is a process of monitoring, and that the agreement is mutually respected.
Mongabay: From your experience, what are the barriers for communities to participate in the process? Is there a gap between what the law says and how it reaches communities?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: In Namibia, we have what is called the Community-Based Natural Resource Management program, the CBNRM. I might be biased, but I believe it is one of the world’s best examples of wildlife and natural resources management, since they are totally managed, owned and utilized at community level across almost half of the country. If they can show that they protect, for example, the elephant population, then they can get benefits from that, mostly through joint-venture tourism.
Those communities have to comply with lots of requirements on how to protect their resources, so they invest a lot of their time and energy into doing that. But then the mineral prospect licenses are handed out by the government without really considering or consulting with those communities. And if you look at our EIA legislation, it is the EIA practitioners who should be raising the conservancy flag and saying that people have to be consulted properly.
But generally it seems to be an unwritten rule that, when there are resources underground, communities have to step aside. Therefore you’ve got this dilemma where communities are being made aware of how important it is to protect the resources, nature, the environment through the CBNRM but then they see their government giving out prospecting licenses which, in most cases, are going to be quite destructive to the environment, and that disillusions them.
There is a paper where we looked back at environmental impact assessments over the last 50 years, and it shows that ESIA is often used to get an endorsement, or a clearance, and they [the company] say that society therefore believes that this is a good project to go ahead with.
Georgine Kengne: Mining companies mainly operate in rural areas, where Indigenous communities are living. When they come, they speak in colonial language. So it is very clear that the community members may not participate or may not be aware of all the things they are talking about. And they may also not be aware of some of their rights. This gap exists.
And then there are the tricks the mining companies are using, as mentioned by Morgan. They make sure that certain community members are ignored or avoided and rather buy up some key personalities in the community.
The mining company needs to know that it is really very important for communities to understand. That means that all information about a project which is coming into a community needs to be given to the people in the language they understand, ideally in their mother tongue. That is one of the requirements of FPIC, the free, prior and informed consent.
Mongabay: What would the ideal ESIA process be like?
Georgine Kengne: The process needs to ensure that the government and the mining company are not just colluding to make profits, like it is happening now. Because now it is all about a capitalistic system, companies are trying to get what they want without taking care of the environment. When the community is not part of the process, it creates social conflict which will persist, as we can see in cases like in the Niger Delta, where Shell has been operating.
Or in Bomboré, in Burkina Faso, where the community was saying that they know that the [gold mining] company is coming, but they didn’t know the life span of the project. And they had not been given any information that they needed to plan this new life.
So in an ideal process the mining companies have to make sure that the communities are part of the process, and not only communities, but especially women who are traditionally the ones taking care of the water and the land. They nurture land, they know how to take care of the soil, and they are much closer to land than men, who are most of the time called to speak on behalf of the community.
Morgan Hauptfleisch: ESIA as it stands actually needs quite a shake-up.
The tool has become a checklist to enable development, and the concept of stakeholder communication, or as Georgine said, the FPIC model has been so well understood and manipulated. I think that you can get a community to agree to whatever if you do it the right way. So a really ethically regulated environmental practitioner group is what I think is important.
In South Africa, you have to register environmental assessment practitioners (EAP). And I know that there is a professional body, and they get registered with the government. The same in Botswana. I’m not sure about Cameroon, but in Namibia it’s not, so anybody can do an EIA, you don’t need to have particular qualifications, you just have to comply with what the legislation requires. That’s when you get the fly-by-nights, unethical operators that write the sweet dog reports for the companies.
I think the practitioners have to be regulated so they can [be held to] some sort of accountability, because here in Namibia [anyone] could do an EIA report. Being accountable would stop them in a way from doing just what the company wants and look at the risks more closely.
Mongabay: Does the practice of a company having to pay the consultants to do the EIA stand in the way of accountability?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: I think it’s fine if the company pays, it should be them paying for it. But the EAP, according to the law, needs to be able to stay independent. Like an engineer: if a wall collapses in someone’s house, the engineer has to hold some sort of accountability. Now an EIA often has a much bigger impact on communities than a wall collapsing.
Mongabay: South Africa’s NEMA has a clause that says an environmental impact assessment is there to ensure sustainable development. But what is sustainable development? And who defines that?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: Well, that’s the utopia … the Brundtland Report of 1987 was where the term was established. Then the Rio Convention followed from that and all the EIA goals. But I think it now means so many different things.
I don’t think any development really is sustainable with 8 billion people on Earth, if I look at it from a philosophical perspective. And it does get abused, you can say that it used to be all about sustainability and the environment and pollution and then COVID came along and suddenly sustainability meant something different, it meant hygiene.
And that was it, the world decided that. If you look at the environmental safeguards, and the debate about climate change — of which sustainability is a part — it’s not about sustainability anymore, it’s about what’s happening because of climate change.
So an EIA must go back to its most basic form of minimizing the environmental impacts of a development. I don’t think that in countries like Namibia, where you have 35-40% unemployment, anything is going to stop a development project. But an EIA must minimize the impacts of it as far as it can.
Georgine Kengne: Sometimes governments might come to the conclusion that they have to mine. But there are things they can implement, like no-go zones. And there are ways to make sure that the waste of a mining company can be treated. But that costs money which the companies don’t want to spend. There are things that can be done, but mostly they don’t do it.
What I can say is that nothing is impossible when it comes to protecting Mother Earth. And also, there are other ways; mining is not the only thing we have to do to survive, and some governments have decided against it.
We have to do the checks and balances.
Mongabay: There are different views on “sustainability.” A mining company would probably say it’s more sustainable to bring this mine into operation because we’re going to make sure that everyone has to eat for the next few years; while an Indigenous community would say we want our soil because, for us, sustainable development has a very different form.
Morgan Hauptfleisch: Yeah, and it might quite well be that, in that case, the mine is the better option.
One thing the EIA is supposed to do is minimize the impact, but then the decision-maker on the development needs to ask: Can this development take place, and still maintain, as far as possible, what communities need?
And after you’ve minimized that impact, how do you weigh up the benefits against the residual impacts or the impacts on communities, and that’s tough. We’ve got the environmental commissioner in Namibia, and you’ve got the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa, and they need to make this decision. It’s extremely subjective.
Mongabay: What role does a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) play? Or could it play?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: I think it’s something that doesn’t get used often enough.
The big issue with an ESIA is it only looks at a site. So if you have a lodge along the Kavango River, for example, and the EIA gets done for that lodge, it only looks at that specific area. But if there are 600 other lodges on the same river, nobody would look at that — that’s what the strategic environmental assessment is supposed to do. And it’s actually written into Namibia’s law that the government can trigger this for either the cumulative impacts of an area or of a sector.
In Uganda, Ghana and then in Timor-Leste in Asia, they did SEAs to see whether an oil sector is something that their environment and their government in terms of safeguards could actually handle; we did it in Namibia with the uranium sector, because there was this rush for uranium as an electricity source. The SEA was one of these fashionable things and it’s still available as a tool, but I think in the last four or five years, it’s something that has been ignored.
Mongabay: Do you feel communities are gaining momentum to know about their rights and speak up?
Georgine Kengne: We can see that the communities are resisting, they want to be part of any process affecting their lives. But it’s not a matter of creating legislation. It’s a matter of making sure that they are enforced.
The process of FPIC was distorted. I think that an ESIA shouldn’t be distorted. So if it is well done, we may get rid of some of the issues we are facing and also some of the poverty.
Mongabay: So the big question is: who can actually hold everyone accountable?
Morgan Hauptfleisch: I think that’s probably one of the biggest things at the root of this, the fact that we can break any convention we want and nothing will happen. The U.N. has become irrelevant. We can break any convention. Or we can withdraw from a convention if we like. It’s sad, but it’s the way it is.
However, South Africa has been good with that, with giving out fines, or doing investigations through the Green Scorpions [environmental compliance officials at the national, provincial and municipal levels]. But in other cases I know that companies pay fines much as we pay electricity bills. Then there is something wrong with the legislation, because companies just budget for it.
Bond, A., Pope, J., Fundingsland, M., Morrison-Saunders, A., Retief, F., & Hauptfleisch, M. (2020). Explaining the political nature of environmental impact assessment (EIA): A Neo-gramscian perspective. Journal of Cleaner Production, 244, 118694. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.118694
Banner image: Aerial view of Tendele mine. Image by Rob Symon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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