Dilemmas in Community Level Environmental Assessment
Issues may arise in the course of any EA which complicate the process. There can be numerous sources conflict and dissension -- economic, political, social, ethnic, gender-based and simply personal. The issue of the control and use of natural resources is one which regularly arouses debate in a community, and one which is highly pertinent to EAs. There may be disputes over the potential environmental impact of the project. Some community members may be willing to accept environmental damage if it means increased economic standards. The rest of the community may disagree. A project which involves a major shift in direction for a community -- such as replacing foodcrops with cashcrops or introducing some form of mechanisation -- may not receive the full support of the community.
The community may unite around a position which is contrary to that taken by the EA team and project managers. Again, it may be willing to tolerate a higher level of environmental damage than the EA team feels is warranted, in order to attain economic benefits. It may even become clear during the EA that there is no support for the project. The community may have other priorities. The EA team may discover that a project's long-term sustainability hinges on changing a traditional practice that the community is reluctant to relinquish.
Regardless of its source, no conflict with the potential to harm the project should be glossed over. If it is serious enough, it is probably best dealt within the context of the overall project. Otherwise, as a general guideline, it is the responsibility of the EA team to resolve all such conflicts for the benefit of the project.
Assisting communities to understand and come to agreement on matters identified during the EA is likely to be quite critical to the project. These situations are likely to be the most challenging ones for the EA team, stretching their skills to the limit. Fruitful negotiations can result in important agreements between community level stakeholders as well as between the EA team and the community. There are many activities associated with PRA which can be used to build consensus and resolve differences. There may also be any number of established community practises which can also be used.
In working out compromises it is important that the EA team understand and respect the positions of stakeholders. Fostering an appreciation of opposing viewpoints should always be considered a productive EA activity. Also, whatever they may be, a community's aspirations for improved living standards must be recognised as valid social priorities. An EA whose recommendations conflict with such priorities is probably destined for failure.
Assessing the direction of the community will help to clarify difficult issues. A project may or not be indicative of a transition a community is making. The example of the tile manufacturers in Box 4.5, although extreme, illustrates the lengths to which people are willing to go in order to escape poverty and change their communities. Even if they cannot figure directly into the EA, the EA team should take such desires into account. If the sustainability of a project depends on transforming established community practices, the community should be shown concretely that the new technique or modification represents an improvement. This must be accomplished without anyone losing face. Pilot demonstrations and other such methods may help demonstrate better ways of doing things which can be easily adopted.
Finally, it is important to give communities enough time to come up with alternative approaches. Creative solutions to problems can often be found over time. Waste material that is an output of the project may have a second life as part of a finished product. Urban communities have shown incredible ingenuity in this regard. Even so, it will not always be possible to find alternatives and obtain agreement. The EA team must ensure that the EA is not compromised. In the example of the tile manufacturers, it is doubtful that an easy solution could have been found.