Subtheme 7: Empowerment of Marginalized Communities
* Angela Andrews of the Legal Resource Centre compiled this summary of the Specialist Report.
The following constitutes a summary of a report written by consultants to the EIAMS process and does not reflect the views of the Legal Resources Centre.
Original Report by: The Green Connection
Vulnerable and marginalised communities are not empowered to participate meaningfully in the environmental impact assessment and management strategy processes.
The Constitution guarantees all people the right to a safe and healthy environment. NEMA states that environmental hazards should not be distributed in a discriminatory way and that everyone should have equal access to environmental resources. NEMA also requires that all interested and affected parties (I&APs) be given the skills needed to effectively participate in environmental decisions. Decisions must take into account their interests and values.
The current reality is that marginalised communities bear the greatest burden of pollution and are often unaware of the health risks they face or the rights they possess. Environmental assessment practitioners (EAPs) conducting environmental assessments have not worked with communities to enable effective participation; rather, EAPs and government officials are widely distrusted and seen to be on the developer’s side.
Three criteria were used to determine whether a community was marginalised: geographic area (proximity to environmental hazards and distance from communication), dependency (dependency on land for survival, on EAPs for information, on development for jobs), and social standing (as measured by literacy, age, gender, health, culture, class, wealth).
The study was conducted by reviewing legislation, reading academic literature, and conducting interviews with people active in NGOs and CBOs (community based organisations) working with marginalised communities.
The following are the common frustrations marginalised communities experience with the environmental management process.
- Lack of environmental awareness and knowledge: People living in these communities are focused on survival, with little spare time and energy to devote to activism, and often favor any development that might result in jobs. EAPs tend to exploit the tension between community members concerned about the environment and those seeking jobs. People expressed distrust of the government, which is seen as promoting development without listening to community concerns. NGOs and CBOs were more trusted sources of information. Schools often lack environmental programmes.
- Lack of funds and resources to participate: Community members lack spare time to attend meetings and read documents, spare cash to pay for transportation to and from meetings, stationary or writing skills to submit written comments, and access to the internet and other sources of information. In short, marginalised communities are ill-equipped to participate through the channels set up by the current EIA process. Public meetings are often alienating, with EAPs not taking questions and requiring comments in writing.
- Lack of awareness of environmental rights: Many community members are unaware of their environmental rights, or at least confused by constant amendments to the EIA regulations. Community members had never experienced an EAP explaining their rights to them but instead relied on NGOs for information. Most people believed that EAPs were biased but did not know that the government could take action against EAPs suspected of bias. EAPs point out that developers will not be willing to pay EAPs to empower communities.
- Technical language: Most meetings are held in English with no translation provided. Moreover, the reports are in technical language and often difficult to translate into local languages. There is a need for creative ways to convey information – such as visual media – and for community specialists who have technical knowledge, are trusted by the community, and can interpret the information in a way the community can understand. Public meetings, with question and answer periods, can help communities understand the issues better. “Open days,” during which community members can approach EAPs for information, are seen as propaganda tools.
- 5. Decisionmaking, monitoring, and compliance: Community members distrust the decisionmaking process, perceiving the rankings of various projects (as high, medium, or low impact) to be inaccurate and the EIA to be a rubber stamp. Community members also often do not understand the final decision on the proposed development or the conditions of the approval. Thus, they are unable to determine whether the development is in compliance with the authorisation.
Given that a large proportion of South African citizens fall into the marginalised category, public participation processes should be adjusted so that the standard is one suitable for maginalised communities, with some special methods (such as internet participation) available for the elite. NGOs and CBOs play a key role in mobilising communities to stand up for their rights, raising environmental awareness, and organizing community-based environmental management.
- Raising general environmental awareness:
- Use existing educational models (such as NGO-designed programmes) to raise awareness in schools.
- Work with interest groups and facilitators that are trusted by the community. Faith communities can act as information hubs.
- Communicate through channels appropriate to the community, such as meetings called by traditional authorities and radio rather than TV or internet.
- Compile short environmental mini-programmes to be played over radio and on video in public buses.
- Hold meetings with sufficient notice, provide transport, and use an accessible language and format.
- Enable community groups to teach the information they learn to other community members (train the trainers).
- Tailor methods to the needs of particular groups (rural, youth, women, etc.)
- Increasing training opportunities:
- Continue and expand existing NGO courses and workshops on sustainable development and environmental awareness, such as Green Connection’s workshops that helped rural communities understand the environmental impact of climate change and the Abalimi Bezikhaya project promoting urban farming.
- Expand internship programs at NGOs for activists from marginalised communities.
- Design a training programme for EAPs, government officials, and local authorities that includes how to provide technical information in an accessible format, sensitivity to and appreciation for community context, and conflict management skills.
- Empowering communities to effectively participate in environmental assessment processes:
- i. Information must be presented in the local language of the development site in an accessible format.
- ii. Meetings must be mandatory, held at times and places convenient to the community, and barriers such as transportation should be removed.
- iii. Open days should be discontinued.
- Working in areas of poverty without resources:
- i. EAPs should use a social impact assessment to understand the needs of a community before the EIA process begins – such needs should then inform how to design the public participation process.
- Working to inform communities about the EIA process and their rights:
- i. Workshops should be conducted covering the entire environmental management process.
- ii. A rating system for EAPs, indicating their independence and track record, could be implemented to help inform the communities’ acceptance or rejection of an EAP.
- Overcoming technical language:
- i. Specialist advisors should be appointed to assist the community in understanding technical data.
- ii. NGOs should assist communities in preparing their own EIA submissions.
- Monitoring and Enforcement:
- i. Community members should be trained to monitor developments and report violations. They should be included in environmental monitoring committees.
- ii. Developers should be required to report their monitoring results to the affected communities.
- Improving access to resources and funding:
- The developer should not only pay EAPs but also allocate funds to NGOs that work with the community, which can then contract a specialist to help empower the community. The developer should have no say over the specialist.
- Government must also ensure that marginalised communities get the expertise they need.
- Professional organisations could provide a database of consultants and specialists as well as implement a grading system.
Risks & Rewards
Expending resources to empower communities will likely increase the costs of environmental assessments and perhaps cause delays. It may also result in less developments being authorised. However, more input from communities will lead to better decisionmaking and many projects that should not go forward will be stopped, reducing negative impacts on the environment. The principles of NEMA and the Constitution will also be better realised.