How One Small Group is Giving Communities the Power to Change the Future
Representatives from Governments and Civil Society Organizations around the Mekong Region are working together to improve public participation in infrastructure development. The results, participants believe, could change the future of the region.
At first glance, the big ballroom at the Sokha Angkor Resort looked like it had been decked out for another typical NGO or government conference. The sign outside did little to dispel this impression, reading “Third Meeting of the Regional Technical Working Group (RTWG) on Environmental Impact Assessment.”
But inside, as the workshop kicked off, the atmosphere bristled with a sense of restrained excitement, borne by a shared belief that something truly important was being conceived.
“Think carefully about what you say, because history will judge you,” joked one of the participants.
Here was a gathering of some of the sharpest minds in their fields, coming together to hammer out the painstaking details to a solution to an issue that’s close to their hearts. With billions of dollars flowing into the region as China, Japan, Korea, and others invest in building the Mekong region’s much needed infrastructure, 25 representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam came together in Siem Reap, Cambodia to discuss how to buffer environmental and social systems against the unprecedented levels of investment activity transforming Southeast Asia.
The group members worked together to review a draft of the Regional Guidelines for Public Participation in EIA
Bringing them together is the Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE), an initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that advances multi-stakeholder dialogue in the Mekong region. MPE convenes civil society, government and business to ensure regional investments such as dams, industrial zones and power plants are more sustainable – and less risky for communities.
Those who follow environmental news in Southeast Asia could be forgiven for being tired of seeing the same old cycle repeated again and again when it comes to big development projects – an issue with the project blows up into protests, resulting in a media frenzy, followed by promises of change that are quietly forgotten as the news cycle fades – leaving everyone wondering what, if anything, was accomplished and whether those changes were implemented.
MPE and the RTWG are favoring a quieter, geekier, and what they believe will be a far more effective approach. Their take is that real change is not just about the glamorous stuff of headlines, but also about the meat and bones work that goes on behind the scenes – turning up at community meetings, putting in time at policy drafting stages, constantly following up with members of the community and government officials.
Barry Flaming discusses Pact’s Mekong Partnership for the Environment project, which is using an integrated, regional approach to promote responsible development across Asia’s Mekong region.
It’s perhaps fitting then that MPE is relying on a tool whose mention doesn’t make the average person’s heart race: Environmental Impact Assessments, or EIA. Few deny its importance as a tool – it’s an internationally used process, and a wave of EIA reforms are sweeping across the region. But just the same, few have a clear idea of what it actually means.
But the RTWG clearly gets it, and at the Sokha Angkor ballroom they set about shaping regional guidelines on how to best engage the public in EIA process, with the knowledge that the words they speak – and the words they agree to – could have enormous implications for the lives and livelihoods of the 230 million citizens of the five Mekong delta countries.
Effective EIA is meant to be a multi-stakeholder process that brings together all the actors involved in any given large-scale project – investors, governments, civil society, and local communities – to determine what the overall impact of that project will be and how to mitigate those impacts. It’s meant to ensure that short-term calculations about profits don’t lead to an undue amount of long-term risks and costly impacts for the environment and local communities.
The problem is, these days you’re more likely to hear about it in headlines like “Community Disputes EIA Process” or “EIA Findings Ignored.” By this point, though, the proposed projects are facing costly delays and damaging reputational risk; one of the reasons is that not enough attention was being paid to the EIA process itself and to the role of the public, in particular.
“If you’re building a dam or a mine or any other infrastructure project, it’s in everyone’s interest to have local communities and NGOs involved in the process,” says Christy Owen, who leads the MPE project. “The old way is to build despite public opposition. But the new way is to minimize environmental and social harm, conflict and delays by including communities in the process. RTWG is helping design that ‘new way’ for the region.”
A lack of attentiveness to community concerns, or a lack of interest in them, during the development process has led to costly fixes and even the downfall of many projects in their later stages. By forging ahead without community input from the planning and design phase, projects risk getting bogged down by local protests, international attention, or media scrutiny. Even more worrying is the trend that badly designed projects move forward regardless of environmental and social impacts.
MPE’s goal is to make sure projects don’t move forward in ways that pose significant, avoidable risks to people and the environment. This means making sure a systematic planning and oversight process is in place, from the outset, that has buy-in from everyone affected.
“The power of EIA is not just in its scientific methodologies,” says Owen. “The power is really in how it involves local people. EIA should be a tool to help those most affected have a say in their future. And in turn it helps companies and governments redesign for higher quality investments.”
MPE realizes that EIA in the region is largely conducted absent critical local input in part because there is a gap in local knowledge about what an EIA is for on the one hand, and a gap in project proponent knowledge about how best to engage affected communities in effective consultations.
The big question is, how to ensure public participation is effective? How to involve, in a region where there is widespread inequality, the vulnerable communities that are affected most by mega-projects? And perhaps most importantly, how to persuade governments and the private sector of the importance of public participation and, to use this process?
To answer these questions, MPE has formed the RTWG, harnessing a cross-section of deep knowledge from the region – five representatives each from five countries, from civil society, environment ministries, and investment ministries – each bringing different perspectives and expertise. Critically, governments have been actively engaged. This doesn’t often happen in civil society initiatives. And if civil society actions stall or fail, a lack of government involvement is often a major reason.
With the RTWG stage set and participants given the resources and space they need, the experts are allowed to go ahead and do the talking. And then to turn that dialog into guidelines that will ultimately result in better projects if followed.
From the outset of the third meeting, it’s clear that strong bonds have been formed among the group. In his introductory speech Dahn Serey, a director in Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, paid tribute to Myanmar’s Soe Win Hlaing, a fellow RTWG member who had passed away between the second and third meetings. “We will not be able to see him again,” he said, his voice quivering with emotion.
A somber note on which to start, but spirits were lifted by Yi Yi Thwe, the new representative from the Myanmar Investment Commission. “I am very happy to be here as a new member of the RTWG family,” she said.
These sentiments are a testament to an invisible strength in the way the RTWG has gelled over the course of the year.
“We have enough time to understand each other, to adapt to each other, and to bring in ways to innovate and change each other,” said Nguyen Ngoc Ly, a representative from the Centre for Environment and Community Research in Vietnam.
At first, participants may have been wary of each other – civil society towards the governments, one country’s representatives towards another’s. By this third meeting, barriers had broken down, relationships had developed and the fun (and ideas) had begun to flow.
During a break when participants were asked what would be the one thing they’d change if they had the power to transform the world, a participant from Thailand elicited howls of laughter when she said “My husband.”
Some of the jokes, however, carried pointed messages. One participant said she would “make Environment Ministries more powerful so the people there could actually do what they want to do” – an acknowledgment of the good intentions of those in the room, and the obstacles they face at home when they come up against colossal projects where money sets the rules.
While the obvious legacy of the RTWG will be the regional EIA guidelines being drafted, Indhira Euamonlachat identifies a hidden bonus: “What’s also important for the legacy is the network of EIA practitioners and experts that we are building, from the region and from around the world,” she said, referring to the participants as well as outside experts who had been called in from USA, Europe, Asia to act as sounding boards and share experiences.
Mam Sambath, the head of Development and Partnership in Action, a civil society representative from Cambodia, agrees. “It would be good for the working group to remain so that resource persons from each country can meet and discuss emerging problems related to the guidelines. It’s important to keep reflecting and maintaining dialogue in the future,” he stressed.
Mam Sambath, Executive Director of DPA – Cambodia shared his perspective on the work and benefit of the RTWG.
As the meeting marched on, key points of debate emerged. How prescriptive should the guidelines be? How specific? Should the exact number of meetings with community be specified, or a minimum number of meetings be recommended? The dangers of being too vague was put into sharp focus by one of the advisors: “Public participation should not mean we talked to the village headman and reached an agreement.”
Should they be aspirational and ambitious, running the risk that governments refuse to adopt the guidelines into their national laws? Or should they be pragmatic, but risk not making the guidelines inspiring enough?
No question was deemed irrelevant. The participants weighed them carefully, knowing that once the guidelines were set they would become a point of reference throughout the region, a responsibility not to be taken lightly.
After the initial rounds of discussion, the groups split up into ‘world cafes’ – smaller tables that intermixed representatives from different countries with different areas of expertise.
It was an interesting way to help some of the participants drop their guards further still. Instead of adopting the stereotypically combative stances government and civil society often take towards each other within their own countries, the mixed regional groups shared a wide range of views in collegial, cross-border teams. Members could see differing perspectives with fresh eyes.
This regional aspect of the RTWG was emphasized repeatedly by the participants – appropriately so, given the way largescale infrastructure project’s impacts increasingly cut across borders. Dams in Laos have a knock-on effect on Thai or Vietnamese communities further downstream, for instance.
“It’s going to give this group momentum because there’s five countries involved,” said Robin Coursen, an advisor from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attending the RTWG.“One of the biggest advantages is that this group can draw from the expertise of the many advisors here who have been doing this work for 40 years in other places. If they can avoid the mistakes that we’ve made and just jump in and get it done, then it will gain momentum.”
The momentum looks set to keep going, with participants eager to take back what they develop here and put it into practice back home.
“From our point of view, in Myanmar, we don’t have a national guideline yet for public participation in EIA, so we need a reference from the regional level,” said Yi Yi Thwe from the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. “This will be very useful, will be very beneficial for Myanmar as we formulate a national guideline.”
The Mekong Delta is about to undergo enormous upheaval with massive numbers of regional infrastructure and development projects planned in every one of the five countries. These changes could have serious repercussions environmentally, socially, and economically for the people who live in the impacted areas.
The goal of MPE and the RTWG is to not just to talk or to make noise. The goal is to drive consistent engagement that, in the end, leaves no doubt about its benefits to communities, governments and business. No one in Siem Reap seemed to have a doubt that the dialog was working. And certainly no one left doubting that effective, participatory EIA processes may just help the Mekong region and its citizens change the future.
The Regional Technical Working Group (RTWG) on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) intends to finalize draft Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in EIA by September, 2016. Communities, civil society, business and others are then invited to give their feedback in public consultations across the Mekong region. For more information on the RTWG and upcoming announcements about consultations, click here.
Lead photo: Burmese children laugh in their village near the planned Dawei SEZ in Pantininn, Myanmar. The controversial, multi-billion dollar Dawei special economic zone and deep sea port are expected to displace thousands of local residents from at least five villages and local farmers and fishermen are worried that the massive project will negatively affect their livelihoods. Credit: Taylor Weidman, Getty Images