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Striving for balance

A rare grass owl flees from a fire in Kyalami in 2013. As the Department of Environmental Affairs celebrated 20 years of EIAs this week, experts have revealed that it’s an ‘open secret’ that many EIAs, a mandatory tool to advance sustainable development, favour developers.
PICTURE: TYRONE MCKENDRY/GEKCO

19 May 2018 | Sheree Bega | Saturday Star

EIAs are too often tipped in favour of development, say experts

WHEN AN environmental application was lodged for a shopping centre and car dealership in Blue Hills, Kyalami, a resident pointed out a nesting pair of endangered grass owls on the property.

Neighbours had bought the property, fencing it off to protect the birds, who had nested on the site for eight years.

But even though residents and the Greater Kyalami Conservancy (Gekco) raised concerns about the potential effect of development on the owls during the public partici- pation process, the initial environ- mental assessment report did not recognise them.

A member of the conservancy then contacted the ecologist directly and informed the environmental consultant that they would meet him on site to identify the owls, recalls Kristin Kallesen, who runs Gekco, of the 2013 incident. “On the day the ecologist arrived, a massive fire sparked along the length of the property boundary and the nesting site burned in minutes. Luckily, he and a member of the conservancy were able to identify and photo- graph the owls fleeing the fire.”

The environmental report was amended to include the owls. “The fire appeared to have been deliber- ately set with an accelerant, ignited in a perfect line along the property boundary.”

For Kallesen, the blaze’s tim- ing remains a strange coincidence. “An environmental impact assess- ment (EIA) is supposed to identify and protect endangered species but sometimes identifying sensitive areas and species puts them more at risk.”

As the Department of Environ- mental Affairs (DEA) celebrated 20 years of EIAs this week, a range of experts have revealed how it’s an “open secret” that many EIAs, a mandatory tool to advance sustain- able development, too often take short cuts and favour developers.

“Environmental specialists are furthermore afraid of retribution from applicants and industries if they do not come to the conclusions in their clients’ favour,” says mining activist Mariette Liefferink. “There are cases of ‘blacklisting’ by certain applicants of specialists who have co-operated with us.”

The DEA acknowledges there are problems. “Despite the strides made towards an improved efficient and effective EIA system, there are criticisms and perceptions of inadequacy about the success of the current EIA system as a tool for environmental impact manage- ment,” it says.

For environmental lawyer Mel- issa Fourie, South Africa “needs to defend EIAs with everything we have” to ensure environmental jus- tice. They are all that stand between South Africa and “complete and utter destruction”, she believes.

Today, Fourie, the executive dir- ector for the Centre for Environ- mental Rights, a non-profit organi- sation of activist lawyers who advocate and litigate for environ- mental justice, will deliver a speech at the closing ceremony of the 38th conference of the International Association for Impact Assessment in Durban, hosted by the DEA.

“In the new post-1994 South Africa, we adopted a constitutional right to a healthy environment, and invested in a comprehensive regu- latory framework with a range of provisions dealing with the proper consideration of environmental impacts before activities are under- taken, with a comprehensive licens- ing regime designed to mitigate and manage impacts, and enforcement provisions to ensure compliance with this framework,” reads her speech.

“Yet every year, we see more challenge, more review, more ero- sion of this framework, particularly in relation to EIAs, which already largely fail to consider the impacts of development on equity and on environmental justice.

“Even worse, we allow this system to be massively under- resourced, leaving environmental regulation to fewer and fewer gov- ernment officials, often without basic support.”

Climate change and declining environmental quality require stronger, not weaker, action.

“Allowing this erosion and under-resourcing of our environ- mental regulatory system is not ‘streamlining’, it’s not ‘comprom- ise’, and it is not ‘sustainable’ development’ – it’s a deliberate betrayal of basic human rights.”

To ensure environmental justice, South Africa needs to resist the ongoing attempts to erode environ- mental laws, says Fourie.

“We not only need to defend EIAs with everything we have, but demand that EIAs step up to new challenges such as cumulative impacts of multiple developments and climate change, particularly the implications for environmental justice.”

This needs political vision. “We must demand greater resources for improved decision-making based on evidence-based science, and for

compliance and enforcement.”
In Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa’s speech at the conference, she spoke of pursuing

“South Africa is continuously reviewing and streamlining its environmental regulatory frame- work. This includes reducing the administrative burden on develop- ers and the state while ensuring the highest level of environmental protection and participation within

environmental decision-making.” But ornithologist Andrew Jen- kins believes it’s almost always an “uneven battle”, tipped in favour of development.

“If the public thinks the welfare of the natural environment and how it’s being affected by develop- ment is being properly managed by the DEA and the EIA process, they’re very much mistaken.

“While the EIA legislation is pretty solid, in practice it’s severely compromised by a lack of capacity in government to actually properly oversee the process in terms of the rules,” he says.

“Specialists should be working on a completely independent basis and should be able to deliver what- ever damaging findings they come up with… but you’re either dir- ectly or indirectly in the employ of the developer. If you constantly tell them what they don’t want to hear, you’re out of work.

“When one’s findings are com- pletely disregarded or rail-roaded by the developer, it gets frustrating and debilitating.”

Liefferink, who presented at the IAIA conference this week, concurs. “Currently all of the power lies with the applicant.

“The applicant pays for the con- sultants and the environmental assessment practitioner while the public lacks knowledge of spe- cialised areas of investigation, the ability to employ specialists and thus the ability to consult in a mean- ingful manner.

“In essence, the decision maker receives one informed side of the argument and one uninformed side of the opinion. The playing field is not level.”

The controversial One Environ- mental System – in which the Department of Mineral Resources became the competent authority for the issuing of environmental authorisation for mining activities – has been developed with the inter- ests of the mining business com- munity in mind, she says.

“This is driving a shortening of the timeframes for environmental assessment, which affects not only environmental authorisations for prospecting and mining but all environmental assessments.”

Dr Ian Little, a grassland conserv- ationist at the Endangered Wildlife Trust, is setting up a national task team of key EIA businesses, NGOs and government officials, who will form part of a workshop early next month on EIAs.

“We know enough to know there’s a big problem with EIAs. The obvious problem is the lack of objectivity in the process. The developer pays the consultant and the consultant pays the specialist and that in itself creates a perverse incentive. Specialist reports can be ignored and reappointed …

“What needs to happen is stra- tegic land use planning at a national scale to identify no-go areas and areas of high sensitivity.”

Fourie remarks that while there are some really good environmental assessment practitioners in SA, many others are fly-by-nights.

“Sometimes, we see adverts from environmental assessment practi- tioners advertising two EIAs for the price of one – people dealing in EIAs like a commodity. Some take specialists reports and water it down or fraudulently misrepresent the findings of scientific experts in their conclusions. We’re getting to situation where many practitioners are flying very close to the wind and we also see EAPs being gatekeepers of information.”

In a presentation to the confer- ence this week, Ishaam Abader, the deputy director-general of compli- ance and enforcement at the DEA, spoke of how the quality of EIA reports “in certain instances left much to be desired”.

EIAs by themselves cannot achieve sustainable development. “(An) EIA for an individual develop- ment proposal is very site-specific and cannot, with some exceptions, in detail consider cumulative impacts on a provincial or national level,” he stated.

EIAs, argues environmental futurist Professor Nick King, are inadequate and outdated.

“In virtually all development decision ‘trade-offs’, natural and social capital are constantly degraded and lost.

“EIAs are currently conducted in a sustainability vacuum, project by project, which is resulting in the equivalent of the ‘death of 1000 cuts’ for natural systems.”

Instead, models that outline the environmental contribution of a new development should be sought, he believes.

Fourie points out how previ- ously state-funded scientific bod- ies and academic research institu- tions must now generate their own income by outsourcing their servi- ces to the private sector, creating another conflict of interest.

This is an alarming erosion of scientific expertise. “The reality is that our scientific community, including scientists in government, is fast becoming less free, and less independent – and it is already largely inaccessible to the people who really need expert advice.”