13 November 2009

Should Social Impact Assessments be Mandatory?

During our third unit, we had the opportunity to spend time and get to know many of the residents of the protest village, which neighbors the Rasi Salai dam. In our exchange with the villagers, they discussed how the dam not only caused widespread environmental destruction and social dislocation, but also failed to serve its main purpose of irrigation (the dam was built in a reservoir that sits on top of a huge salt dome, creating water too salty for irrigation). In addition, the construction process of the dam was very deceiving due to the fact that the government claimed it was installing a rubber weir instead of a concrete dam. In doing this, the Royal Irrigation Departement (RID) was not required to perform an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) prior to the construction of the project. As a result, the fish resources in Mun River were depleted and the wetlands, which the villagers relied on for other various natural resources, were flooded and ruined.

All of these topics that we discussed with the people living in the protest village left me feeling very troubled. I say this because the families whose livelihoods were destroyed as a direct result of this project seem to have been intentionally tricked in order to serve the government’s needs.

This leads me to believe that in order to avoid failed development projects in the future, such as the Rasi Salai dam, SIAs should become a mandatory part of the development process. SIAs are critical because any development intervention will inevitably have many potential social ramifications to local residents. In order for SIAs to be carried out in most efficient manner, it is imperative that the decision-makers responsible for implementing development projects, such as dams, understand the consequences of their decisions before they act. Moreover, once all the ramifications have been clearly outlined, the decision-makers must provide the people who will potentially be affected by the project the opportunity to participate throughout the entire process. Groups affected by the proposed actions should include those who live nearby; those who will be directly affected by the development intervention; and those who will be forced to relocate once the project is put into effect.

In order to overcome these difficulties, I have outlined some key points involved in implementing a high-quality SIA.

1) Research must be conducted on the ecology and livelihood of the people in the surrounding area prior to the construction of a dam. One of the main reasons Rasi Salai was such a failure is because the government not only ignored the environmental impacts of the dam, but even more significantly did not consider the potential negative social impacts of the dam.

2) Once this research is conducted, the dam company must inform all potentially affected groups in order to come up with a public plan. All of the research must be shared with them. The main goal of this step is to implement a public involvement program that will be utilized throughout the entire SIA process.

3) All of the probable social impacts pertaining to the project must be identified and communicated to the potentially affected groups of people.

4) Lastly, the project should be monitored from start to finish, ensuring that the stipulations of the SIA are truly being carried out.

I truly believe that if all of these steps are taken into account for development interventions in the future, it will help agencies and private companies tremendously in fulfilling their business obligations without destroying the livelihoods and resources of the traditional cultures, such as the case of the Rasi Salai dam.

Andy Miller
University of Colorado at Boulder


Anonymous said...

Andy I really enjoyed your post. It struck deep when we were in Rasi and Pak Mun and it means even more now that we have just got back from Nanongbong and witnessed how poorly composed EIAs have also affected their lives. In theory it seems like the EIAs have the potential to do so much good, that if done properly that a dam or a mine will not be built if it is found to negatively impact the environment or surrounding communities. Yet dams and mines are continually built, just like the new copper mine that is being planned in Loei. They are fighting hard so that an EIA will not even be completed, this seems like the best way to fight such problems. But this reminds me of a conversation I had with Jenny. It seems like it would be best if these mines could be conducted in a mutually beneficial way, because there is as of yet still a demand for resources and we cannot just halt the mining of minerals. A proper EIA and a safely contained and run mine in a community that is fully aware seems like the best answer albeit a little idealistic.

Tommy Russo
Fairfield U.

Brodie said...

I think these 4 key points are a good idea but I don’t know how well they would work and how much affect they would have. You said “any development intervention will inevitably have many potential social ramifications to local residents.” What if the government or the multinational corporation doesn’t care and simply ignores this social ramifications? This reason wouldn’t be because they are cruel-hearted; but rather they would be forced to by outside forces. What if the president of the government is demanding that the dam be built on schedule? A through SIA would cause delays and some projects would never be completed. Or if the shareholders are demanding more profit from a company’s board of directors; how do you think the multinational corporation will act? A corporation’s interest is their shareholder’s interest. If a board of director doesn’t listen to their shareholders; they will be voted out of their position by proxy voting during the next corporation’s annual meeting.
On the topic of Rasi Sali; I’m sure people working in the government were aware of the social problems that would form from the dam. The problems might have been considered and then ignored.

--Brodie Henry
Champlain College

Anne said...

I love the idea of a people’s SIA or EIA, where those most directly affected have the most say in large scale development projects. And ideally this notion of authorship over such a project would be born of said collaboration between the state and peoples affected. Yet from what I’ve seen and felt in our recent exchanges with government offices, the attentiveness needed to assure that such consultations and monitoring really did take place seems insubstantial, and responsibility is readily diffused and delegated to some other governing body. In Thailand today, is the government responsive enough to the plight of its poor to implement such a strategy at the risk of lost profits on its development schemes?

I certainly hope that the Thai government works towards these EIA/SIA objectives that you laid out, because this does seem to be the best way to merge interests. In the meantime, there can’t be enough said for the social push-back movements in Rasi Salai and Pak Mun which have fought for so hard for so long to demand that level of accountability from their government.

-Anne West
University of Michigan

Jennifer said...

I think this is so true. In every unit we have seen that an incomplete assessment of the costs of a project and a lack of public participation is a key part of the problem. The question resulting from this is then -how can we make sure that SIAs are done correctly? It’s easy to say that it should be done, but getting the government to follow through is much harder. When most of the time it is just these small villages getting beaten down by these development projects, most people in the country don’t even notice and thus there isn’t a huge push for the government to do these pre- assessments.

It is so important for the villagers to stand up and protest to get the word out there, but it is unfortunate that usually these protests happen after the project has already happened, due to the lack of information provided to villagers. So what then will make the government care to look into these things prior to starting a project? SIAs are costly and take a lot of time, but can also save a lot of money in the long run by preventing problems which are costly to fix. I think that with the fact that SIAs need to be done in mind, now we need to start focusing on what incentives the government has to do them.

Jennifer McGinnis
Western Michigan University

Dan said...

In the Thai Constitution it states multiple times that the government is responsible for involving everyone who is affected by development projects in the planning process. However, as I noticed with the mines and the dams, the private companies working with government agencies seem to install these projects by avoiding public involvement in the region. No one can be held accountable for the lack of public involvement because there are so many parties involved (numerous government agencies, multiple university professors, and the private companies). Clearly, the Thai government needs to install a more strict and specific way to monitor these projects and involve the local villagers. Some sort of SIA and EIA process ideally would be installed that each private company is required to complete including the villagers in the process.

Liz said...

Oh man, I don’t know. I’ve been trying to read the stipulations for EIA’s set out by the Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act, but it’s tough.
(http://www.pcd.go.th/info_serv/en_reg_envi_32.html if you’re interested).

Many of my personal observations match yours, Andy, and it seems to me that a lot of the problems with impact assessments stem from the fact that the company who wants to implement a project pays for the researchers to do the EIA or SIA, and in some instances such as the gold mine, for monitoring as well. Our recent exchanges have made the government agencies to which these reports are sent do little more than receive reports.

Although it may not be fair to require someone other than the company who will profit from the building of a dam or mine or hotel pay for the impact assessments, maybe it is a way to make the reports more unbiased. If a government bureau that was unconnected to the government office approving or rejecting the proposal paid for the impact assessment or assigned two independent assessors to the project, maybe there would be less influence bias. Even just adding some requirement for peer review and community review would strengthen the validity of the reports.

In addition, I’ve been wondering about the role of EIA’s and SIA’s in the United States. This is (shamefully), from the Wikipedia page about EIA’s:

“Contrary to a widespread misconception, NEPA does not prohibit the federal government or its licensees/permittees from harming the environment, nor does it specify any penalty if the EA or EIS turns out to be inaccurate, intentionally or otherwise.”

The process, and the problems, do not seem too different. So is part of the problem that there is less government participation and accountability in Thailand? Or that there is less knowledge about the potential impacts of projects—less access to information and spreading of awareness. Or are we in the same situation? Gas fields in New Mexico, coal mines in Appalachia, maybe it’s the same can of worms.