South Africa

Op-Ed

Why raising the bar in Environmental Impact Assessments is critical to enhance social and ecological justice in South Africa

Ths is the Inyanda-Roodeplaat wind farm site in the Eastern Cape, taken from the cover of the Final Environmental Impact Report.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are a requirement for many large projects, which give the red, amber or green light to sustainable development projects in South Africa. However, the recent papers on the required Climate Change adaptation pathways by the IPCC and the IPBES paper on the significant loss of biodiversity due to land-use change, highlight the need for EIA to become more adaptive to these global threats.

The International Association for Impact Assessment defines EIA as “the process for identifying, predicting, evaluating and mitigating the biophysical, social and other relevant effects of development proposals, prior to taking major decisions or commitments made” (IAIA: What is Impact Assessment?). EIA also allows us to be precautionary in terms of the negative externalities that development may bring in the future – if an activity can pose threats to human health and well-being or the environment, we need to take precautionary measures – show the amber or red light. In theory, EIA either significantly adjusts the dire impacts or stops the impacts if they cannot be mitigated. Does EIA as it is currently practised in SA, allow for this increased scrutiny that leads to climate change adaptation, and socio-ecological sustainability?

EIA is a complex and costly process, which is not without its blemishes. However, for large projects, an intensive EIA process that is managed by skilled and ethical Environmental Assessment Practitioners (EAPs), well-qualified EIA specialists and balanced government authorisation, is more likely to achieve sustainable development as an outcome. However, as with any complex process, it can be manipulated to ensure short-term gains for a few, at the long-term expense of the environment and our people.

Before we can voice concerns about EIAs and managing land use and land-use change more effectively in South Africa, another set of issues needs to link into the EIA picture. Climate change is a well-documented reality. Managing our land use and land-use change wisely has never been more critical, as we collectively evolve of necessity to a carbon neutral human status (Homo carbonneutralis?). As highlighted by Griscom et al, awareness needs to be raised about the importance of land use and land-use change as a climate change adaptation strategy in terms of achieving Natural Climate Solutions, as well as significant threats to biodiversity as outlined in the recent IBPES paper. Given the rapidly increasing rate of land use and land-use change impacts, it is of critical importance to improve scientific understanding and standards concerning the management of land use and land-use change in South Africa. Against this background, any attempts to undermine the EIA process in South Africa must be viewed with concern. We want to illustrate our contention of the threats to a just EIA process and propose suggestions to close any possible gaps that may undermine the process.

By way of example, we look at the recent authorisation decision made by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) regarding the Inyanda-Roodeplaat Wind Farm, despite conflicting specialist findings that were unresolved. To their credit, the Department has reversed its initial authorisation of the project and upheld an appeal against the development.

In the Inyanda-Roodeplaat EIA, the application was made for the development of 48 wind turbines on the Groot Winterhoek Mountains in the Eastern Cape making use of SRK as the environmental consultants. Wind farming is an excellent example of sustainable development, as renewable energy is a critical component of future energy supply. However, we also need to ensure that the biosphere and the ecosystem goods and services it provides are sustained.

The locality of the proposed wind farm is directly adjacent to the Groendal Wilderness Reserve complex, adjacent to three protected areas, in an area designated as having national strategic conservation importance in terms of the National Protected Areas Expansion Strategy. As strongly raised by provincial planning and conservation: the choice of site conflicts with local biodiversity and heritage planning relating to the Baviaankloof Mega-Reserve Project, which has Unesco World Heritage status.

Questions regarding the suitability of the proposed development were initially raised by the Avifauna component of the study conducted by Jon Smallie. Smallie found that due to significant risk to breeding raptors within the area, and the lack of policy fit to the conservation planning for the site and surrounds, the project was fatally flawed.

A second opinion was then obtained from an international avifauna specialist, Dr Steve Percival, who contended that the project would not be a significant risk to avifauna. Given that the conflicting Avifauna reports were never resolved, it was astonishing that the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) issued a Record of Decision authorising the project on 5 April 2018. What should be of concern for EIA practitioners, specialists and civil society, in general, is that prior to the authorisation, the DEA had previously flagged other unresolved issues in the EIA.

On the 20 February 2016, the DEA issued a rejection of the previous EIA report (DEA Reference: 14/12/16/3/3/2/464) based on four key issues, amongst others that had also not been addressed in the EIA. The first problem was the previously mentioned difference of opinion of the avifauna findings that needed to be resolved, with the recommendation that the review is undertaken in conjunction with BirdLife SA. Secondly, the Department wanted the ecological specialist report to be subjected to a peer review by an external ecological specialist. Thirdly, the EAP was requested to adequately assess the impact of the proposed development on the World Heritage Site as well as on the wilderness areas. “The Department also requires comment from Unesco and must indicate how does the use of renewable energy in world heritage sites impact the site, and what types of renewable energy developments for what purpose is allowed” (DEA Reference: 14/12/16/3/3/2/464, World Heritage, Site Heading Y). Finally, the Department called for a further detailed assessment of cumulative impacts on the surrounding areas.

In response to the DEA rejection letter, as found on the SRK website, there was no avifauna comment listed or comment from BirdLife SA. There was no follow up on the Unesco clarification or requested comment and no listing of a peer review of the ecological study. Given the possible Unesco World Heritage risks associated with the Baviaankloof Mega-Reserve Project, it is very surprising that there were no Integrated Heritage Impact Assessment.

Perhaps the DEA initially decided to strategically override their previous well-considered concerns and ignore their national and provincial conservation plans, even though the proposed area is outside of the strategically defined Renewable Energy Development Zones areas, as well as negate World Heritage expansion opportunities and go with the critical need for renewable energy. However, as stated in a recent article in Daily Maverick by John Yeld titled, Feathers fly over Watson wind farm plan; it seems that interference took place that compromised the correct procedural process that DEA was intent on following, and required them to make a decision prior to resolving their concerns regarding the EIA.

The decision on the wind farm appeal has been upheld, but apparent changes of the DEA decision making highlights gaps in the EIA process that need to be addressed if we are to raise the EIA standards and meet challenges created by climate breakdown, loss of biodiversity and land degradation.

The critical issue is, given that so many impacts had been left unresolved, we came very close to undermining the integrity of EIA in South Africa. If this EIA authorisation had been granted a number of precedents could have been set in terms of how we manage future land use and land-use changes in areas identified as having planned biodiversity and cultural heritage significance.

The first precedent is that politicians, or minority political influences, would be able to over-ride the DEA in terms of what constitutes international best practice in defining socio-ecologically sustainable development. If the DEA can’t adequately implement their constitutional mandate to ensure best practice in EIA or fulfil their right to ensure that their concerns regarding best practice in EIA are addressed prior to authorisation, then what is the point of implementing EIA? Or of having the DEA?

The second precedent is that EAPs undertaking EIA processes would not have to perform a thorough EIA process. In other words, why should any other EAP undertake a thorough EIA process at an increased cost to the client, or adequately respond to DEA flagged risks, if other EAPs do not have to also comply with the same standards, but still obtain a positive authorisation? The third revolves around this question: If two specialists have conflicting findings and the conflict is ignored, how does one quantify the risks or mitigation measures required to achieve socio-ecologically and just sustainable development? This shortcoming leads to a process of ‘cherry-picking’ specialists by developers to find the specialist who will raise the fewest issues at the lowest cost.

The consequence of these combined precedents and by implication, risks, can significantly undermine the international and national credibility of the DEA as a sustainable development relevant authority, and also undermine the EIA process, which is supposed to be a fundamental tool in determining socio-ecological sustainable development in South Africa. A crucial reason for EIA is also being ignored: the role of investor confidence in the EIA process. Which national or international financial institution is going to fund a project where the EIA is mired in controversy?

This is especially true for renewable energy funding organisations that often rely on international grants. An essential purpose of a credible EIA is to provide investor confidence so that funders can invest in this country, ensuring that they can make a profit within the realms of manageable environmental risk. Investor companies do not want to be forever burdened with the cost risk of having to deal with environmental lobby groups, of which there are many, contesting environmental negligence. Such negative publicity is not good for the bottom line.

Wind and other crucial renewable energy projects are required at a scale that can make a significant contribution to our national renewable energy mandate. It is equally important to ensure that wind farming (and other large scale developments) takes place in socio-ecologically sustainable, strategic locations and that it does not detract from planned biodiversity conservation and cultural heritage initiatives that are vital for our biodiversity conservation and eco-tourism.

Perhaps we need to tighten up on the EIA process, and the following suggestions are offered to initiate a debate about EIA standards.

Firstly, standards and accreditation are important. Should you have appendicitis, pop around to your local mechanic and ask for a quick fix. You will soon realise the importance of the training that the relevant medical practitioner has undertaken to remedy the problem and be happy that she is registered with a registration authority allowing confidence in the medical professional’s work. This should also hold for all EIA practitioners and specialists.

After starting the process in 2011, the Environmental Assessment Practitioner Association South Africa (EAPASA) was finally promulgated in 2018 (Notice No 41434 in Government Gazette 632 of 8 February 2018) as the single Registration Authority for EAPs in South Africa. This is a significant move forward for EIA quality assurance in South Africa. However, the process has only recently started, and environmental assessment practitioners (EAPs) still have a time period to register. A possible omission is that the website does not offer Interested & Affected Persons (I&APs) access to a list of registered EAPs, and an online platform for I&APs to register complaints against non-compliant EAPs, assuming they are listed.

Furthermore, this registration process should also become mandatory for EIA specialists. While some EIA specialist registration authorities are available, such as the South Africa Council for Natural Scientific Professions and the Association of Professional Heritage Practitioners (APHP), not all specialisation fields are covered. Registration authorities that include all EIA specialist practitioners need to be established, preferably linked to a database that has a centralised tracking system, possibly with an expansion of the mandate of EAPASA with open access to the general public to ensure transparency, accountability and professional competency.

Secondly, no EAP or Client should be allowed to remove an EIA Specialist from an EIA process without following a rigorous and transparent process. As indicated earlier, this is a significant issue that opens up the potential for ‘cherry-picking’ EIA specialists. Peer review is a critical component of improving science and should be managed as an academic process, to further the pursuit of international best practice in the specialist field.

The suggestion is that peer review processes should not be controlled by the EAP or developer, but rather by the EIA specialist registration authority. For example, if an EAP disagrees with heritage findings in an EIA process and the specialist is registered with APHP, then APHP should be consulted to facilitate the peer review process, or at least make a recommendation about a suitably qualified specialist to undertake the peer review. This protects the heritage practitioner if their findings are correct and protects the integrity of APHP if the heritage findings are incorrect. This approach gives the registration authority the motivation to remove or adjust the licence of the practitioner to operate. This increases confidence in the EIA specialists, increases the quality of the decision-making process and increases the potential for development that is social and ecologically sustainable as an outcome. Given the increased likelihood of disputes over the suitability of land use and land-use change in the future, this is a significant gap in the EIA process that needs to be addressed.

With looming climate change challenges, it is likely that in the future, the qualifications and registration of EIA practitioners and specialists are going to be subject to more I&AP scrutiny. The specialist-specific registration authorities should also be mandated to ensure adequate mentorship programs to effect needed transformation within the ranks of EIA specialists.

Thirdly, it is fundamental to the EIA process and ensuring sustainable development in South Africa, that the DEA decision-making processes are not subjected to political interference. Good environmental governance requires accountability and transparency at all levels of assessment, authorisation and implementation. Ultimately, civil society needs to get more involved to ensure that environmental governance processes become more accountable and adaptive. I&APs need to ensure that EAPs and EIA specialists are adequately qualified and registered, and all EIAs start to refer to climate change issues, specifically addressing the reduction of carbon emissions during the life of projects, the cumulative risks of land degradation, and the long-term protection of ecologically sensitive areas.

We are all on “spaceship earth”, as Buckminster Fuller intimated in 1968, and we need to work out any shortcomings to our collective understanding of sustainable development. NEMA, as our sustainable development framework, with EIA as a toolbox, amongst other legislation, must ensure that collective land use and land-use changes are aligned to climate change adaptation pathways. This is one of the ways that we can create living landscapes, that are expressions of social and ecological justice, and that are more resilient and allow for less carbon-intensive land uses.

As Belinda Reyers, Professor of Sustainability Science at Stellenbosch University and a Coordinating Lead Author of the Global Assessment and Lead Author of the African Assessment for IPBES recently stated, “we need development that is good for people AND good for the planet” (AllAfrica). If this vision is to become a reality, we do need to close any gaps undermining socio-ecological sustainability assessment processes and increase standards and accountability of all environmental practitioners. DM

Stephen Stead is the director of Visual Resource Management Africa and has 18 years’ experience in assessing the landscapes and land-use change in southern Africa as a Landscape and Visual Impact EIA Specialist. He is registered with the Association of Professional Heritage Practitioners and is a past president of the South African affiliate of the International Association of Impact Assessment. He is currently undertaking an MSc at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in land use and land-use change required for Natural Climate Solutions.

Dr Robert Fincham is professor emeritus in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Associate in the Sustainability Research Unit, Nelson Mandela University. His research interests include a focus on food security and agricultural systems, as well as their policy outcomes in the context of rapid urbanisation and climate change.

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