A tsunami of development projects is sweeping across the planet. It’s in the form of new roads, dams, mines, housing estates, and assorted other infrastructure projects.
The governments enabling these developments are all telling us not to worry; that each project undergoes a rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to ensure the environment is safe; that we can have economic development and a healthy environment too.
But the sad fact is, those assessments are increasingly not worth the paper they’re printed on.
All around the world there is a growing catalogue of cases where EIAs are giving green lights to developments that should never see the light of day — projects that are destroying irreplaceable habitat or wiping out the last representatives of endangered species.
The Joke is On Us
One EIA gave the thumbs up on a housing project being carved out of Panama’s tropical forest because it reported only 12 common bird species present in the area. This suggested the development could not threaten anything rare.
But a bird expert did his own survey of the same area and and identified 121 bird species in just two hours. And this included several rare and threatened species.
Another EIA for a 900-kilometre-long highway slicing through the heart of Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest concluded that the project would cause no net increase in deforestation. Yet independent analyses suggest this project will provoke forest losses of 5 million to 39 million hectares by 2050 — an area approaching the size of Switzerland.
The approval of a hydropower project in North Sumatra was based on an EIA that was so utterly rife with inaccuracies and misrepresentations that ALERT experts and other top scientists wrote directly to Indonesian President Joko Widodo, decrying its blatant distortions.
Today, this hydropower project is bulldozing ahead, cutting across the scarce remaining habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan—the rarest great ape species in the world.
Keeping the Developer Honest
The frontline of environmental protection in most countries is the EIA. It’s usually a legal requirement placed on a developer to measure the impact on nature of their proposed development.
If that impact includes anything the government has pledged to protect, such as a threatened species, then the development is halted or redesigned to avoid the impact.
Or that’s the idea, anyway. The only problem is that the EIAs are increasingly not stopping bad projects. And there are many reasons why.
Good Assessment is Challenging
To begin with, a rigorous assessment takes time, effort, and resources. For example, detecting threatened species where the proposed development will occur — one of the main things EIAs are supposed to do — is technically challenging and expensive.
Limiting the EIA effort to ‘quick and dirty’ assessments saves money and also helps avoid detecting rare ‘red-light’ species that might block the development.
Then there’s the scope of the assessment. The impacts of any development are rarely confined to its planned ‘footprint’.
Large mining projects in the Amazon, for example, have caused sharply increased deforestation up to 70 kilometers outside of mine sites. This is because the mines require new forest roads and those, in turn, promote illegal land encroachment and forest loss.
Furthermore, EIAs often fail to consider longer-term impacts of developments. Few EIAs in Malaysia, for example, consider the chronic increases in poaching, habitat fragmentation, and other human pressures that occur when a new road slices into a forest.
And the environmental changes from roads extend well beyond the road itself.
In the Amazon, roads create broad ‘deforestation halos’ — with 95 percent of all deforestation occurring within 5.5 kilometers of a legal or illegal road.
Developers often underestimate the spatial impacts of planned projects. EIAs for large hydro-dams in Brazilian Amazonia, for example, have consistently underestimated the size of the area that will drowned under reservoirs — by 65 percent, on average.
So why don’t EIA assessors simply ‘try’ harder, do the job properly, and extend their assessment to incorporate all impacts related to the development?
In short, vested interests. Most governments require EIAs be funded by the developer itself. That gives the developer a lot of control and influence — and the last thing the developer wants is an EIA that stops it dead in its tracks.
EIAs are often carried out by consultants that are supposed to be independent but are actually paid for by the developer. And assessors who conduct stringent EIAs may be blacklisted by other developers in the future.
On occasion, one even sees EIA consultants defending and promoting the project in public — which is like the judge in a murder trial testifying for the defense.
In northern Queensland, experts were stunned to see an EIA consultant publicly defending a major resort development, known as ‘Kur-World’, that he was being paid to be objectively assessing.
How do developers get away with such poor outcomes? The answer is inadequate governance. Governments responsible for ensuring the integrity of the EIA process are failing to ensure it actually happens at the level required.
Governments have vested interests, too. Development is usually equated with economic growth and jobs, and politicians can turn these benefits into votes.
Add to that bribery and corruption, which is rife in many developing countries, and it’s easy to see how developers often gain an unhealthy hold over political and governance processes, including the EIA.
Prepare for the Tsunami
Assessing such impacts in way that prevents or greatly limits their environmental impacts is technically do-able; the science is available.
A greater challenge, however, is demanding appropriate transparency, accountability, and compliance around our assessment efforts.
Without those ingredients, we are hopelessly unprepared for the development tsunami.
EIAs will often let ill-advised projects advance with only minor tweaks, such as fish-ladders for dams, or underpasses for major road projects — which will allow a few animals to traverse the project but still massively diminish animal movement and survival.
Yes, we need EIAs — but much better EIAs than we are presently getting. Most EIAs are full of holes, and so we need to stare at them with a very hard eye.