The safeguard policies of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) seek to guide the Bank’s staff and clients in their analysis of the potentially adverse environmental and social impacts of IDB-financed projects. One key tool in this process is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). EIAs are carried out whenever a project has the potential to produce negative environmental or social impacts. These are made available to the communities that might be affected, and to society at large, as part of the Bank’s transparency and due diligence process.
This blog post identifies five major limitations in the production of the EIAs’ social component, whose combined effect could undermine EIAs quality and even thwart the purpose behind them. The points identified are based on an iterative analysis of EIAs carried out for different investment projects in several Latin American countries, particularly in sectors like transportation and energy. The most salient limitations identified in those studies were:
1) A tendency to prioritize environmental issues over social aspects of EIAs. Tradition and legal requirements have created a system where the treatment of a project’s social aspects is minimal compared with that of its environmental aspects. This happens even in cases where a project’s social elements are much more important and complex that its environmental aspects.
2) Insufficient level of analysis of the information gathered by studies. Most of the EIAs’ social-related information is limited to purely descriptive input without any serious effort to analyze its significance or determine its relevance for the specific projects to which it pertains.
3) Inadequate coverage of indirect social impacts. Investment projects usually have both direct and indirect social impacts, yet EIAs preparation has shown recurrent deficiencies in the coverage and analysis of indirect social impacts. Examples of such impacts include gentrification in urban areas and displacement of small producers in rural areas, the building of secondary access roads for the informal extraction of natural resources, spread of sexually transmitted illnesses, an increase in domestic violence levels, migratory pattern changes, and intensification of internal conflicts in rural communities.
4) Limited integration of the EIAs’ different sections. The structure of these studies is typically segmented, making it hard to find the connections between their different sections. Additionally, the correlation between created impacts and required mitigation steps is often unclear, reducing the potential of those steps to tackle the real problems present in a given project setting.
5) Lack of familiarization of the permanent staff with specific social contexts. Consulting firms’ permanent staff involved in EIAs preparation are usually assigned to a variety of projects in many different places, which leads them to gain only a superficial understanding of a project’s social context. Yet, there are some issues such as the analysis of possible impact on indigenous communities, or the intensification of gender violence, which require deep knowledge of the socio-cultural context in order to conduct an adequate analysis of a project’s social impacts.
A key element necessary to effectively tackle these challenges is a transition towards more rigorous standards for the social component of EIAs, placing greater care on data gathering and social impact analysis. One step frequently taken by multilateral banks as part of their operational policies –such as the IDB’s Environment and Safeguards Policy– is to identify EIAs gaps and areas that need reinforcing. The adoption of international standards for social management, such as those used by multilateral organizations, could help close the gap between EIAs’ expectations and reality.
Establishing an authentic mechanism for the effective management of projects’ social impacts is a very important process, not only to promote the social viability of investment projects, but also to manage adequately the likely adverse impact that those projects might have on the lives of the affected population.
Have you ever met a challenge when working on the social component of an EIA? Send us your comments.
Photo: Women with corn, seeds and fresh food on display at Muyu Raymi, the indigenous seed festival.
Photo credit: Angela N Perryman / Shutterstock, Inc.