After a 10-year crusade, Sri Lankan environmentalists finally got what they wanted: mandatory environmental impact assessments for development projects. But the whole thing is riddled with glitches...

-- SRI Lanka's more radical environmentalists are learning the relevance of G Bernard Shaw's aphorism--There are 2 tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it - as they contend with the effects of a legal instrument they have long advocated: environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

EIAs evaluate the environmental effects of a proposed development project or policy and the alternatives that may be environmentally better. When used correctly, EIAs enable the dissemination of information and public participation in the development process. On the other hand, when they are poorly conceived and administered, they can probably do more damage than no EIAs at all.

Sri Lankan environmentalists are worried that their country's recently adopted EIA process -- 10 years in the making -- is headed in the wrong direction. In 1984, when Sri Lanka's cabinet of ministers ruled that all development activities must be preceded by EIAs, environmentalists were elated. The island nation was hailed as one of the first developing countries to adopt this policy.

However, the euphoria soon turned into frustration. It was only in 1988 that the National Environmental Act was amended to make EIAs mandatory for all substantial development projects. And then, drafting and adopting the regulations to identify project approval agencies and processes and set qualifying parameters took nearly 5 years. This was largely because of pressure exerted by an increasingly vocal industrial community. When that failed, the industrialists demanded many concessions. Ultimately, the ministry of environment and parliamentary affairs gazetted the regulations on June 24, 1993.

But environmentalists were further disillusioned. Says Ranjen Fernando, president of Sri Lanka's Wildlife and Nature Protection Society, who was one of the NGO negotiators, "We also resented the involvement of certain foreign consultants in the negotiation process."

Nalin Ladduwahetty, environmental lawyer and executive director of the Mihikatha Institute, another NGO, agrees: "Considering the time taken in formulating the EIA laws, one would have expected a much better outcome. But what we have is a mockery of environmental assessment and public participation."

The regulations prescribe a stage-by-stage procedure for EIAs. This includes an initial environmental examination (IEE), an action plan to mitigate environmental impacts and, if necessary, a supplemental environmental report. Each stage is more exacting than the preceding one.

However, things aren't as demanding as they seem. One criticism is that some "thresholds" are too high, offering developers enough loopholes to avoid carrying out EIAs. For instance, EIAs are required only for: hotels or holiday resorts with more than 99 rooms or covering 40 ha; aquaculture projects covering more than 4 ha; industries formulating more than 50 tons of toxic chemicals a day, and hydro-electric stations generating more than 50 mw. Although all projects near protected areas and archaeological sites need EIAs, irrespective of magnitude, analysts point out the high thresholds exempt a large percentage of medium- and small-scale industries, construction projects and other schemes from the EIA process.

Another concern centres around project-approving agencies (PAAs), which include ministries and government agencies like the Board of Investments (BOI) and the Ceylon Tourist Board, whose mandates often clash with conservation interests. "The inclusion of agencies like BOI as PAAs brings the entire EIA process into question," says Ladduwahetty, adding, "We can't expect the BOI, which is dedicated to boosting foreign investment, to exercise environmental cautions seriously."

A major issue that has cropped is the lack of IEE or EIA reports in local languages. Under the regulations, promoters of development projects have to submit an IEE or EIA report to the PAA, which in turn has to gazette it in Sinhala, Tamil and English and invite comments from the public through newspaper advertisements. The PAA is bound to consider all valid public objections and if needed, hold a public inquiry.

NGOs point out that most EIAs are available only in English. When only about 10 per cent of Sri Lankans can read and write English fluently, "it is not only meaningless but also insensitive and insulting to make available a technical document like an EIA report only in English," says Ladduwahetty. Vernacular versions, when available, are only summaries of the original and some are ridden with terminological errors or misleading, callous translation.

Recently, EIA reports on the Colombo-Katunayake expressway, being planned by the Road Development Authority (RDA) as Sri Lanka's first toll-levying highway, and the Kukule Ganga Hydro Power Project proposed by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) were faulted for technical weaknesses, misrepresentation of facts and alternatives and non-availability of acceptable vernacular versions. For example, the ecological impact of the Katunayake expressway was not mentioned in the Sinhala summary. Both projects entail forced eviction of residents as well as other social and environmental costs. After a group of angry citizens took RDA to court, it was compelled to give in and is now promoting the improved, trilingual EIA report.

Non-use of the vernacular is only one among many aspects of EIA elitism. One hitch is the hefty fee of Rs 2,750 ($56) charged by the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) for making a single copy of an EIA report. "This is actually higher than what commercial copying companies charge," says Ladduwahetty. "The CEA seems to he making a small profit from each EIA report released to the public!"

Writing EIA reports has become a lucrative business for a handful of scientists. A typical EIA, written by up to a dozen specialists, could cost Rs 1 million ($20,500). A whole new enterprise has opened up for a small band of low-paid scientists and university academics (a professor is paid less than $500 a month), which dominates EIA report-writing.

And that's not all. The judgement of these academicians has come into question. "When a developer asks an expert to prepare an EIA, the expert has a vested interest because he gets paid by his client," says Mallika Wanigasundara, a senior environmental journalist. "Can we expect an impartial assessment?"

Piyal Parakrama of the Nature Conservation Group agrees. "We find that EIA documents are misused to lend legitimacy to ill-conceived projects. We still do not have the capacity to prepare independent EIAs."

Most PAAs don't have the capacity to evaluate an EIA report. Although some PAAs have started in-house "environmental cells", they need strengthening and training. Until then, environmentalists fear, intense lobbying by developers and corrupt officials will rule the day.

The entire EIA process is being jealously guarded by a handful of city-based elites, alleges Sarath Kotagama of the Open University of Sri Lanka. "No formal training has been given to national NGOs on the EIA process. Although some workshops have been held, participation has been limited mostly to government officials. When NGO representatives are invited, it is only from privileged NGOs in the city," he adds.

"For the EIA process to work effectively, there must be effective and meaningful public participation," says Ladduwahetty. "Public participation does not mean the involvement of select academics or NGOs in and around Colombo. It should include all types of people, especially those who will be directly affected."

Even more alarming is the observation that some developers commence project work before the PAA clears their EIA reports. Examples:

* Before a ruling on its EIA, the RDA began preliminary work on the expressway and recently, it launched a massive advertising campaign.

* Rajawella Holdings Ltd, which plans to build a large golf course and luxury hotel in Kandy district on the banks of the Mahaweli river, started clearing several ha at the project site without waiting for a response to its EIA, filed in late 1993. A nursery for growing imported grass for the golf course was being set up. Says an exasperated Ladduwahetty, "The company seems very confident of obtaining the PAA's approval."

Even when the credibility and accuracy of an EIA report is not in question, insensitive bureaucrats can still discredit the process. Some senior PAA officials publicly engage in academic and social relations with proponents of projects whose EIAs are being reviewed. Says Ladduwahetty, "When senior environmental officials openly hobnob with key promoters of a project awaiting approval, can we expect justice to be done?"

Despite the problems with the EIA process, nobody wants to abandon it for fear of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Sri Lankan environmentalists know that a good EIA process could be a major correcting force in development planning. Before the EIA regulations came into effect, several EIAs were carried out at the insistence of foreign aid donors. Examples:

* In 1987, the director of coast conservation refused to permit the CEB to set up a coal-fired power generation plant in the east coast town of Trincomalee. The reason: the project's EIA report was weak and faulty.

* In another case, the World Bank insisted on an EIA on the government's controversial forestry master plan of 1986 before it was accepted for funding.

In both cases, NGO lobbying was a major factor in forcing these decisions. "The EIA procedure fulfils a great need for greater openness and participatory processes," says Ladduwahetty. "To some people, it must be a nuisance. But to others, EIA represents a ray of hope in being able to influence development processes so that environmentally and socially damaging projects may be stopped or corrected."

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