Loudest voices may drown out other stakeholders’ concerns

Is the public meeting requirement for CECs working? According to the Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) Rules, 2001, where an application for a CEC is made under these rules, the Authority shall issue to the applicant a notice acknowledging receipt of the application, and it shall, if necessary, notify the applicant that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required to be in in compliance with Terms of Reference (TOR).

While the TOR is specific to each application, is usually requires a minimum of two “public meetings,” the guidelines of which are quite specifically outlined in the TOR with respect to location, advertising, invitees and meeting format.

The comments and questions from these public meetings (usually a verbatim transcript) form part of the EIA report submitted to the Environmental Management Authority (EMA).

But what is actually making its way into the EMA by means of this public meeting process? And are these comments and questions really contributing to EIA decision-making?

Over the past decade, I have attended and participated in many of these required EMA public meetings, including possibly the closest I have come to seeing violence erupt at a public meeting: the proposed Alcoa smelter consultation in Chatham Youth Centre in 2006.

And, while there is definitely a need, as the EIA process intends “to allow communities that can potentially be affected by the proposed project and the wider public to understand the project and its impacts on them,”

I am not sure that the mandatory public meetings are achieving this.

While I acknowledge that the public meetings are not intended to be the only form of stakeholder consultation, very often there seems to be little or no meaningful engagement coming out of the process.

Space permitting, let me discuss just two of the key challenges with the public meeting approach currently in place.

Consultation fatigue

Consultation fatigue is real, especially in communities where the presence of the oil and gas sector demands an EIA with public consultations for almost all CEC applications.

What inevitably happens is that the same communities, and very often the same people in these communities, are being consulted over and over again on the same issues related to, for example, proposed oil and gas exploration activities.

This is not only exhausting for the community, but also diminishes the real value of the stakeholder engagement process, as residents come to view these consultations as mere “box ticking” exercises with no real hope of community concerns being objectively considered, far less addressed in any meaningful way.

This potentially undermines the entire process, resulting in more animosity and hostility at meetings, thereby distracting from discussions of the real issues affecting the communities.

He who shouts loudest gets heard

There appears to be a trend at these public meetings of “he who shouts loudest gets heard.” Unfortunately, however, the ones getting heard are not always addressing the important community concerns associated with the project, nor are they always representative of the voices of the communities on whose behalf they claim to speak.

Again, these are the voices that monopolise the discussion time and these are the views that are then reported into the EMA as representing community concerns.

On many occasions, there are people who come to the meeting presenters and consultants after the meeting has closed to discuss issues that ideally should have been raised and addressed during the meeting, but there was no opportunity to speak when those with the loudest voices “take over” the meeting.

The public consultation process is intended to be a medium for stakeholders to have their views and concerns publicly raised and discussed.

Like any form of stakeholder engagement, however, it needs to be done based on open and objective dialogue built on trust, where stakeholders appreciate and value the process and see it not only as a means to an end, but believe that the process provides a channel through which their voices can really be heard.