South Africa has risen above many challenges
South Africa has risen above many challenges and managed to produce highly knowledgeable people who are highly qualified. A lot has happened and freedom was attained mainly through public engagements and each community of industry had representatives whose efforts were to have their views on what they believe a better South Africa will do to their careers and anyone living in the country. It came as no surprise when truth and reconciliation became the core of freedom. That was influenced by the Art of communication, facilitation and public participation which many who participated in engagement had at the time. Negotiation skills led to conclusions of what seemed impossible.
For a young Environmentalist, one never saw the need for communication as one of the drivers of a complete Environmentalist. The field is faced with hostility from business, government, farmers, mining houses and communities who have heard many promises that sounds like Environmental Impact Assessment. Whilst Environmental Impact Assessment is aimed at identification, assessment, engagements and informing decision makers, what has failed to come out clear is how stakeholders should treat the process. It is often met with resistance and accusations which are not entirely conclusive leading to chaos during the process.
In a country where political structures lead communities whose role in consultation is the core founding principle, it is sad that most of community members mindsets are crowded by political alignment and reactive mentality, it has become increasingly challenging to have an effective environmental studies where local information must be contributed by locals. Many community issues could be addressed if it was not for resistance but how far people respect public participation?
IAP2 defines public participation as any process that involves the public in problem solving or decision-making and uses that input to help make decisions. It is a process leading to a joint effort between Stakeholders, Developers, Technical experts, Government and Community at large. What has gone wrong? Many stakeholders do not understand their roles. When project gets advertised, it is often met with resistance, legal views and less of environmental issues. Public meetings are often attended at the behest of the local councillor and all they want is a job. This led to one side informing another leaving community disappointed that the meetings were not about their issues.
It is quite costly to conduct public participation without willing proponent and unfortunately Some EAPs ignore the basics only to destroy the confidence on the process. Most times, public participation does not have budget and some legal companies just want to delay the process without debating subject matter. The authorities have been made to play a referee role in the process yet National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 as amended does not provide for mediatory role during the process. This has left many processes considered flawed because stakeholders that has contacts at departments will not submit their comments to EAP but authorities and claim they were not consulted.
Does Public Participation need integrity? Environmental Practitioners are not necessarily communicators and there is an opportunity for young graduates in communication who can enhance rapport and approaches of communicators than Scientist. The challenge with many scientists is that they want to believe everyone is aware and just want to waste the time. Public Participation is a legal requirement to ensure the proposed project does get comments and localised information from local people however the cornerstone of issues is the approach from either party.
Often mining houses and farmers appoint legal firms with no clue of Environmental Laws leading to frustration and waste of money. Some are able to debate and engage on fundamentals and principles but most lawyers wish to dismiss the process of Public Participation and the work flaw is often considered relevant. Can the process be flawed and you are part of it? That is hard to say but the process starts with informing and when communicated to someone who does not understand the process, there will always be anticipation of more information. How long is enough? Several discussions need to uncover the reason for parties not finding each other.
In conclusion, Environmental Assessment practitioners must not react angrily to comments by stakeholders, stakeholders must find a way to understand the purpose and objective of Public Participation in the process of EIA. Talking passing each other lead to frustrations and delays. Public Participation is not placing site notices and meet stakeholders in silos. The intention is to have details of project and environment to be affected known by all parties.
Authorities must come clear to define and address challenges faced when dealing with applications where stakeholders chooses to react that to participate information within the process. There should be no one who is superior and feel victimised. The anger amongst people is still very much in existence and can only be addressed by clear concise consistent approach that should not be missed by either party. Issues cannot be left to EAP to resolve without consideration of timelines especially where there are no environmental inputs.
What are your views on Public Participation during Environmental Impact Assessment at its current state?
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