Developed in the mid-1970s, environmental impact assessments (EIA) have been increasingly applied to large and medium-sized development proposals. An EIA is an assessment of the possible impacts – positive or negative – that a proposed project may have on the environment. It refers to both a decision-making process and a document. The purpose of the assessment is to ensure that decision-makers consider the ensuing environmental impacts when choosing whether or not to proceed with a project. It is meant to provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to participate in the identification of issues of concern, practical alternatives and to identify opportunities to avoid or mitigate adverse impacts.
After an EIA, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle may be applied to prevent, limit or require strict liability or insurance coverage to a project based on its likely harms. It can also culminate in follow-up monitoring and mechanisms to secure compliance with conditions for approval. While there is widespread agreement on basic principles of EIA, their application differs internationally, particularly in the degree to which alternatives are assessed, the public involved, and follow-up considered as part of the process.
EIAs are often controversial. In another example from Ecuador (Gerber and Veuthey, 2010), the EIA of an industrial eucalyptus plantation turned out to be eminently political. The EIA started when the project had already been launched and the final report was kept hidden from local environmental NGOs. The EIA did not specify the exact area and location of the eucalyptus. A monitoring plan was not provided, nor was there any civil society participation vehicle as stipulated by law. Instead of a real popular consultation, the plantation company organised a kind of electoral campaign within the neighbouring communities, winning over people by making promises of employment, training and compensation. All this resulted in a resistance campaign by a grassroots NGO with the support of local peasants against the plantation. This case is far from being an isolated example.
Gerber, J.-F. and Veuthey, S. (2010) ‘Plantations, resistance, and the greening of the agrarian question in coastal Ecuador’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 10 (4): 455–481.
For further reading:
International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) (2012) www.iaia.org.
This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber
EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos