The 39th Conference of the International Association of Impact Assessment (IAIA 19) was held in Brisbane from the 29 April to 2May 2019 at the Brisbane Conference and Exhibition Centre.
The conference gave an opportunity for Pacific Island countries participating to showcase their work and challenges on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and also learn of the EIA processes across the world.
The conference was preceded by two days of training courses plus additional courses and technical visits held three days post conference providing participants with hands on exercises, site visits and training for impact assessment.
The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) participated in these events as well and presented the regional perspectives of environment impact assessment. SPREP is mandated by its member countries since the 1990s to provide technical support on capacity building in EIA for Pacific Island Countries and Territories.
There was a notable presence of Pacific Island Countries at the Conference with officials from Cook Islands, Federate States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu, Tonga and Vanuatu.
Principal EIA Officer from Vanuatu, Ms. Naomay Jibe Tor presented on strengthening the process of EIA in Vanuatu. Her presentation focussed on the challenges the Department of Environment Protection and Conservation of Vanuatu is currently facing. Some of these challenges include the lack of staff, lack of political support, weaknesses in public consultation, and low capacity in monitoring and enforcement.
Principal EIA Officer from the Samoa Government Planning and Urban Management (PUMA) Unit, Ms. Della Savaiinaea presented on the EIA systems in Samoa. Her presentation focussed on the importance of strengthening the capacity of the private sector to properly inform the preparation and development of EIA reports.
The presentation covered an important part of the EIA process in the Pacific because minimal work is carried out in this area and there is a need to shift capacity building programs to include the private sector.
Some challenges faced by PUMA include the lack of a register for qualified EIA consultants which is reflected in poor quality EIA studies and reports; insufficient public consultation; and proponent driven EIA reports containing biased information rather than the independent views of qualified consultants.
SPREP made a presentation on the importance of EIA in Ocean Management, the SPREP approach on Strengthening and Supporting EIA in the Pacific, and provided an overview of some best practices on the EIA process in the Pacific.
SPREP Environment Assessment and Planning Officer, Mr. Greg Barbara said, “SPREP views the environment as not simply a biophysical entity but encompassing all aspects of human life as well. Therefore when we talk about EIAs we always need to consider the social aspects of development; as social and human health impacts associated with developments are not separate from nature.”
“Only by conducting an inclusive EIA with social and health can more holistic mitigation measures can be put in place for sustainable developments,” he added.
SPREP also raised the issue of the emerging interests in Seabed Mining in the Pacific highlighting the history of land based mining in the region with poor management practises of environment and social issues. Thus when considering an environment like the seabed where little is known about its ecosystem function it is important that thorough environmental impact assessments are conducted to develop proper environment management systems in order to strengthen the EIA process.
Promotion of environmental impact assessment remains an important priority for SPREP. The Regional EIA Guideline has been viewed as a good example of environment management practices by SPREP member countries and partners. The significance of these guidelines was highlighted by the signing of a new Pacific Learning Partnership between SPREP, the University of the South Pacific (USP), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank.
The Pacific Learning Partnership for Environmental and Social Sustainability (PLP-ESS) aims to foster training, knowledge exchange, technical expertise and capacity building related to environmental and social safeguards and infrastructural development standards in the Pacific region. The partners already refer to the EIA guidelines as good practice for EIA capacity building, as the EIA Guidelines are applicable to the full range of projects and economic development sectors in the Pacific and aims to support the implementation of current EIA legal requirements and to strengthen Pacific-based application of the EIA process.
Similarly, the Coastal Tourism Development EIA Guideline aims to assist the implementation of national EIA legal requirements and to promote best practice in EIA process for Coastal Tourism Development. SPREP partnered with the South Pacific Tourism Organisation and member countries to develop the Coastal Tourism Guideline.
Many Pacific Island Countries have the EIA Process mandated under their respective Environment Acts and EIA Regulation. In addition, some PICs have EIA guidelines in place while some are planning to review their existing guidelines and regulations.
Some of the positive developments of the EIA process in PICs is the adoption of the formulation of the Terms of Reference (ToR) for development applications. Approving authorities that use ToRs are able to provide clearer guidance to the development and the review of the of the EIA reports. Few PICs have developed a system for registering all EIA consultants. Those that have them in place have led to the improvement in the standard of EIA Reports submitted for approval.
Engagement of stakeholders and the public in the EIA process has improved in some countries, but still requires further strengthening as effective engagement is still lacking particularly for remote or vulnerable communities.
Many stakeholders in the PICs still view the EIA process as purely an approval document and something only dealt with by the regulators as required under the Law. It is the intention for next steps in the EIA Capacity Building programme for the region there will be an emphasis to re-focus the training programme from the regulators to the private sector, communities, and resource owners. This will improve their understanding on environment planning and their role in the EIA process. The inclusion of all stakeholder groups in the EIA process will improve decision making for sustainable development.
SPREP organised a “talanoa” dialogue with the country representatives during the conference. The focus was on how SPREP can improve the delivery of its EIA capacity building program. One common message that stood out is the need to strengthen the EIA community of practise in the Pacific. SPREP has developed the Pacific Network of Environment Assessment (PNEA) network under its website with the aim to give an opportunity to EIA regulators to share information and queries on EIA process and support in relation to the application of the EIA process. Visit the PNEA website for more information and to join the network here.
The Director of the Cook Islands’ Department of Environment, Mr Nga Puna, in his contributions to advancing Impact Assessment in the Pacific Island Countries, informed of the importance of creating awareness amongst decision makers and politicians. The New Zealand Association of Impact Assessment (NZAIA), in support of the work of SPREP on Environment Assessment, agreed to work with SPREP on their annual NZAIA Conference to be held in New Zealand end of 2019.
The next IAIA20 Conference will be held in Seville, Spain in 2020 and SPREP is hoping that through support from the PICs and partners, there will be a strong representation of the Pacific Islands at the conference.