Community-based environmental assessments

Environmental Assessments (EAs) are increasingly employed within the development sector, required by governments, donors and international NGOs alike. However, misunderstandings among different actors often arise as to the scope and nature of EA. Industry actors prefer that EAs study only biophysical impacts and the number of jobs created, while communities and NGOs want EAs to focus on a broader range of socio-economic impacts, sustainability and habitat protection. These tensions can, and often do, lead to contested outcomes.

Community-Based Environmental Assessment (CBEA) is a type of EA driven by a community through a participatory process rather than being facilitated by industry in hopes of getting a license for development. CBEAs often exist outside of legal frameworks and requirements, giving more freedom for these processes to focus on broader issues of sustainability and land-use planning. Despite this opportunity, CBEAs often fall back into the trappings of “expert”-driven processes led by outside consultants focusing primarily on bio-physical impacts. NGOs like MCC have an opportunity to avoid these trappings and to use CBEA processes as a way for communities to plan around natural resource use and to discuss a host of socio-economic impacts on rights, gender dynamics, land use planning and conflict drivers. In order to be done well, CBEA processes need to focus on learning as opposed to ticking off the boxes of donor expectations and should integrate participatory assessment processes in order to impact project design.

EAs describe the systematic process of evaluating the environmental and broader impacts of a policy, plan or project and its alternatives. Many project implementers and politicians seek to limit the scope of EAs to focus on biophysical impacts and on jobs created by the project under assessment within a relatively contained geographic space. Ideally, however, EA processes should look at a broader range of environmental, socio-economic and political considerations and hear the perspectives of not just industry representatives and paid consultants, but of community members as well. So, for example, an EA of a high-profile project like the Keystone XL pipeline will examine a wide range of possible impacts, such as the long-term impact on jobs, global environmental impacts like climate change and the possible impact on U.S.-Canada relations.

Even when they do consider a wide range of impacts, EAs are too often quasi-judicial processes in which the purportedly “expert” testimony of government-appointed panels and industry-led environmental impact studies muffle the voices of community members whose lives will be affected by the initiatives being assessed. CBEAs, in contrast, while often still involving external resources and facilitators, are community-led, with community members determining the scope of the assessment (the impacts the CBEA will assess and the alternatives to be explored). CBEA processes are better positioned to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge and Indigenous practices into project design and can be a way for communities to manage natural resources. For organizations like MCC working in the midst of resource-based conflicts, such as those between farmers and pastoralists in eastern Africa, a CBEA can also be a process for mediating conflicts over natural resources and for land use planning. CBEAs are ideally participatory processes involving all parts of affected communities (although the danger exists that local power dynamics can end up excluding community members based on gender, age or socio-economic status).

Despite the social, economic and environmental sustainability opportunities a CBEA can give to a community development project, there remain challenges to the integration of CBEA into NGO programs. Some of these challenges are administrative. First, NGO projects are often already designed through participatory assessments, but EA requirements set up by governments and donors rarely integrate the CBEA process within this broader participatory assessment. Instead, EAs are often required after a project assessment takes place and the project has already been designed and approved. As such, rather than duplicate the assessment through a proper CBEA, a more conventional EA takes place, facilitated by external consultants and focused primarily on biophysical impacts. Because participatory assessments and CBEAs are not integrated, key opportunities for the sustainable management of natural resources can be missed.

Second, donor requirements for EA often use a predetermined set of indicators and categories to be assessed. Many of these categories are important, such as assessing the impact of the potential initiative on soil fertility, water sources and animals. However, predetermined categories can lead to a seemingly participatory process that in fact constrains the range of acceptable responses. Predetermined EA indicators can limit the ability of CBEAs to be facilitated learning and planning processes whereby communities discuss values and long-term sustainability goals. They also limit the mediating function a CBEA can have around natural resource-based conflict. Simply put, a CBEA should be a process, not simply a form to follow.

MCC’s long-rooted concern for the responsible use of resources and its critique of power imbalances in decision-making position the organization to support communities as the key decision-makers in natural resource management decisions and in setting local sustainability goals. As MCC projects grow in size and complexity, and as planning and reporting requirements become more stringent, it would be tempting for MCC to drift towards the world of experts and technocrats to fulfill EA requirements. But for MCC to more meaningfully integrate the best practices of CBEA it should remember, as it often has, that community members are the most valuable experts to consult.

Daniel Leonard is experiential learning coordinator at the University of Winnipeg. He previously worked for MCC in multiple capacities, most recently as operating principles coordinator.


Learn more:

Sinclair, A.J., Sims, L., and Spaling, H. “Community-Based Approaches to Strategic Environmental Assessment: Lessons from Costa Rica.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review 29/3 (2009): 147-156.

Spaling, H., Montes, J., and Sinclair, J. “Best Practices for Promoting Participation and Learning for Sustainability: Lessons from Community-Based Environmental Assessment in Kenya and Tanzania.” Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management 13/3 (2011): 343-366.

Noble, Bram. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Oxford University Press, 2009.

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