W(h)ither environmental governance? - Limited access to information undermines meaningful public participation in development projects (Research Brief)
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There is a surge in public agitation against environmental destruction caused by ongoing development projects in Sri Lanka. The surfacing of environmental issues after construction has commenced is highly problematic for two reasons. First, the construction may have already caused damage to the environment, which may be irreversible in certain cases. Second, the revising of original project plans to mitigate environmental damages can result in delays and increased costs. A mechanism used globally to protect the environment and avoid such costly readjustments and delays is to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to commencing a project. An EIA is a consultative scientific process, which aims to “avoid, reduce or mitigate potential adverse impacts through the consideration of alternative options, sites or processes. This research brief finds that the ability of Sri Lanka’s public to meaningfully participate in the EIA process is severely hampered by limited access to vital information and identifies a number of gaps that exist in Sri Lanka’s EIA framework with respect to the disclosure of information and documents. These are: 1) the gaps in information disclosure in Sri Lanka’s EIA laws and regulations; and 2) the gaps in Sri Lanka’s EIA practice with respect to information disclosure. The public’s limited access to vital information identified in this brief has three adverse outcomes on effective and meaningful public participation. First, the difficulties encountered in accessing information disincentivises public engagement. Second, it compels the public to rely on information obtained through informal sources, which can negatively impact the effectiveness of public engagement. Third, the resulting lack of confidence in a formal process pushes the public to take alternative paths that are outside the law to resolve or highlight environmental issues and concerns. The overall consequence of these outcomes is that public participation in the EIA becomes a mere “window dressing” exercise that fails to achieve the key objective of meaningfully integrating the public into the development process.
Preliminary research support was provided by Navvid Mushin and Nethma Atapattu. Overall research supervision was provided by Nishan de Mel and editorial support was provided by Venya de Silva.18p.
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