Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Eyes Wide Shut - how effective are EIAs?

Plan for Police Bay development available on the internet

The public scoping for the proposed Police Bay hotel development (see my previous blog) has brought EIAs into the public eye with a bang. In fact, this area is listed in the law as an Ecologically Sensitive Area and therefore one that needs an EIA for any project undertaken there. The public meeting at Takamaka was arranged by the developers and therefore it was a response required by law.

Every once in a while an advert appears in the Seychelles Nation stating that an Environmental Impact Assessment for some proposed hotel or other development is available for public inspection. Environmental Impact Assessments or EIAs are necessary for many types of development under Seychelles law. The Environment Protection Act and the Environment Protection (Impact Assessment) Regulations, S.I.39 of 1996 defines the types of development requiring EIAS as well as the procedures necessary. EIAs have been undertaken under this law since 1996, the first one for a hotel development on Praslin which I undertook. EIAs are conducted by consultants hired by the developer.

The real impact of an EIA, forgive the pun, is difficult to determine. First it has to be established that the EIA has in fact highlighted key issues and describes measures to be taken to deal with these. In addition, it is vital to monitor the development to ensure that the requirements of the EIA are being respected.

In worst case scenarios (very worst case!) the EIA process is initiated after the works have already been kick started. The Police Bay project, for example, may be a "fait accompli". The public scoping which is the first part of the EIA process has just been launched. But it seems the developers are already going ahead with a marina/harbour as a "first phase" because coastal studies associated with this development have already been undertaken over a whole year. The coastal zone has been badly degraded from activities in the past (as I said in my previous blog). But plans for the "second phase" which is some sort of resort development have not been shown -  these would most likely involve construction along the hillside according to plans available on the internet (see picture above). The results of the "Assessment of Areas of High Biodiversity for Informed Decision Making in Future Land Use Planning and Management" revealed this week that sites above 100 metres at Police Bay deserve to be protected. An orchid native to Madagascar, Mauritius, La Reunion and Seychelles, Oeoniella polystachys (or Oeoniella aphrodite), occurs in an area known as Mont Corail. The orchid is uncommon in Seychelles (but can be cultivated easily). This highlights the value of my plea at the public scoping meeting that the entire developmental picture has to be unveiled NOW and the public given the chance to comment as per the law.

Experts as well as affected members of the public believe that several EIAS are just not addressing some of the real issues and in cases where they are there is no follow through or monitoring by the relevant authorities. A reading of EIAs reveals that quite a few are cut and paste jobs. These EIAs contain the same boiler plate information on climate, laws, impacts of construction and so forth, as well as loads of architectural plans. They even plagiarize from other EIAs! Some consultants hardly undertake any assessment of the natural and human environment in and around the proposed development site.

A few years ago I discovered that a publicly displayed EIA for a proposed tourism development at Port Glaud had missed the important fact that this small site hosts a very rare Seychelles endemic plant. It is well known that this site hosts this plant because a Seychellois botanist discovered it there. Either the consultants were hiding the fact that this endangered Seychelles species grows there or they just did not know about it! Construction has recently started on that site but there has been no public debate.

An additional concern which was raised in the past is the whole matter of civil servants being allowed to do the EIAs. Senior environment officers, who themselves form part of the approval process, have been authors of EIAs. However, this doesn’t seem to be the practice any longer.

At the end of the day, the public needs to make its views known about the EIAs. All EIAs have to be displayed for public comments before they are approved by the authorities. In many instances public scrutiny of EIAs has been almost non-existent. People, it seems, are cynical about it. They may believe their views will not be taken into consideration and that they may even be targeted if their comments are perceived as negative or overly critical. This is a shame because if the public does not provide its views the EIA process cannot be a success.

There are 2 issues or gaps that need to be examined. One, is what triggers an EIA. There have been instances where private dwellings, which usually don't need EIAs, have been allowed and sensitive biodiversity has been affected. I know of many cases. The most prominent led to the destruction of the best Seychelles White Eye, Zwazo Linet, habitat left on Mahe. The only other population is on Conception but the birds found on there are genetically different from the ones on Mahe. White Eyes have also been translocated to Fregate and Cousine islands but that is no reason why the last natural habitat on Mahe should be destroyed. Again, there was no public outcry about this huge loss although I officially informed Birdlife International.

The other missing link is where people are allowed to purchase state land that is known to contain endangered biodiversity. Most people want their property developed (its ironic that in the past government would acquire private property if it was left "undeveloped"). How can an EIA come in after the fact and for example recommend that development doesn't take place? Would the person have to be compensated in some way? Case in point is land harbouring one of the few remaining roosts of the Critically Endangered Seychelles Sheath-tailed Bat, Sousouri Banan, that was sold by the government some time ago with full knowledge of the existence of this roost. Nature Seychelles has been monitoring this roost in the past but no longer because of lack of funds. I have been informed that the owner now wants to sell the land to developers. This species is the rarest bat in the world and is in severe decline from causes that have not yet been fully determined. The public is unaware of what's going on.

The EIA process in the country is an excellent mechanism in itself and since it is enshrined in law it is mandatory for major development. But it needs fixing. As the country leap-frogs into more and larger projects it is essential that we make EIAs more credible. More awareness of the EIA process and its value must also be propagated - if people don't understand what EIAs are about and do not participate properly the whole thing comes to nought in the end.

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