By Lloyd Gardner   March 1, 2012

Environmental impact assessment (EIA) can be defined simply as a mechanism for identifying the likely environmental impacts of an action.  Within the Caribbean, EIA is used in two basic ways; (i) as an evaluation tool for identifying the environmental impacts of specific projects, and (ii) as a process for facilitating public participation in environmental decision making.

As an evaluation tool, EIA can incorporate a range of techniques used for its various components, such as ecological assessments, risk assessment, social impact assessment, cost-benefit analysis, and other similar applications.  Additionally, it has utilized technologies such as videography, remote sensing, and computer modeling.  In the Caribbean, EIA as an evaluation tool is used mainly at the authorization stage of development projects, with almost no application to plans, programs, legislation, or policies.  There is need for significant improvement even within this narrow application.  Most EIAs for privately funded projects typically address a small number of perceived “popular” impacts, and very rarely utilize standard techniques to analyze the various components of EIA listed above.  Even in large infrastructure projects, economic and environmental assessments are often undertaken as separate and unrelated studies.  These problems have arisen from technical capability and resource capacity inadequacies within both the regulatory institutions and the private consulting community.  Additionally, with the limited application of the tool, there is little opportunity for learning, as post-audits and evaluations are rarely conducted.

Caribbean countries have increased the focus on the use of EIA as a decision-making process.  In many countries, there are clear guidelines for submission of Terms of Reference and EIA reports, consulting with community groups, and public review of EIA reports.  In the past five years, a number of countries have also conducted training for staff in public and civil society organizations in the review of EIA reports.  However, EIA as a process has enjoyed limited success, and largely remains a work in progress.

In order to increase the chances of success in pursuing sustainable development strategies, significant improvement is required in the application of EIA as both evaluation tool and process.

First, the use of standard methods in EIA should become more commonplace.  Better use of diagnostic tools and predictive models, as well as addressing a wider range of issues, is necessary.  This is important in order to ensure that multi-level, cumulative, and multi-generational effects and consequences can be properly identified and addressed.

Second, EIA should be used more as a planning tool, and applied at the various levels of the development planning process.  Used in this broader context, environmental assessment is often referred to as Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA).  SEA can be considered simply to be the process by which environmental considerations are integrated into the preparation and adoption of development policies, programs, or plans.  As such, SEA can be used when analysing alternate policy decisions (e.g. mix of renewable vs. non-renewable energy sources), sector development strategies, or for environmental assessment of entire regions/areas targeted for development (e.g. watershed or enterprise zone).  In such cases, EIA would subsequently be applied at the level of the individual project.

Application of SEA can result in substantial reduction in program and project costs and social conflicts, both of which are major problems associated with development activities throughout the Caribbean.  Unfortunately, SEA is rarely used in the development planning or development control process in the Caribbean, and provision for use of SEA is not typically included in physical planning laws or EIA regulations.

To an extent, some of the social conflicts associated with policy implementation, enforcement of legislation, and development control arise from constraints in human resources.  Public sector personnel are often inexperienced and overworked, while many persons working in civil society institutions are likewise inexperienced, but also distrustful of the regulatory authorities.  To ensure improvement in EIA process and practice, regulatory agencies require more staff and resources, and existing staff of both public and civil society institutions require additional levels of training.

An additional requirement for improved management in the application of both EIA and SEA is in the area of monitoring and evaluation.  A rigorous process of monitoring and evaluation is required in order to ensure that development planning decisions are based on the best available information and tools.

Lloyd Gardner is an environmental planning consultant and President of the Foundation for Development Planning, Inc.