Why impact assessments matter: your questions answered

Why are social and environmental impact assessments important?

Social Impact Assessments (SIAs) and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are a crucial step in determining whether and how to initiate a wide variety of projects that have impacts on ecosystems and people. Evaluating the impact that a road, logging concession, or dam will have on the environment and people is vital to understand whether the project is worth pursuing, whether the costs outweigh the benefits, and how to to avoid or mitigate potential damage. Without properly understanding the impacts, a project is much more likely to encounter obstacles, create community opposition, and adversely impact ecosystems and people.  

What’s the situation with impact assessments in Sarawak?

Assessment processes in Indigenous communities in Sarawak, whether for logging, agricultural development, or infrastructure, are alarmingly weak. At the moment, many of the communities where we work are refusing to participate in any impact assessment or consultation regarding logging because of the issues they’ve experienced in the past. The common issues with EIAs and SIAs that we see and hear about from communities include:

  • lack of clarity and opaque procedures 
  • inaccessible documents 
  • low-quality participation
  • distrust between communities and extractive industries

When assessors visit villages, it is often unclear to participants who the consultants are, what they are doing, and why they are there. As one community leader explained, “Not all the villagers understand why these consultants come to do these social impact assessments…The real fact is that the kampong folks don’t understand. These consultants however, rushing with their presentation and what they present, it is beyond their experiences. Moreover some are illiterate even though the consultants tried to explain through slide presentation.” At the IAIA we listened to impact assessors from around the world explain how they spend multiple months, if not years, consulting communities before projects move forward. In Sarawak, the assessors often spend just a few hours at the village and then call it a day. 

Adding to the confusion is a lack of transparency regarding documents. Communities are normally not provided with the assessment documents, and are often unable to access reports, even when they formally request copies, including maps of their own territories and mitigation requirements. We have even heard from impact assessors themselves that they cannot access reports. This situation makes it functionally impossible for communities to verify or counter the findings and maps, or to monitor any mitigation processes or other agreements.

Inadequate public participation is visible in impact assessments and auditing reports. For example, a 2018 SIA for a 154,936 hectare logging concession in the Baram River Basin notes that a total of 55 respondents were interviewed in an area with an estimated population of at least 11,472. The 55 respondents were largely a homogenous group: 94% were male, and 63% were above the age of 55. The report notes that no one at all was interviewed in 5 out of the 22 villages listed. One community wasn’t included because the water level of the river was high and the assessors couldn’t cross the river, so they gave up and never went back. In two of the villages only 2 people were interviewed. 

Weak requirements for public participation also impact the quality of EIAs in Sarawak. Unlike the federal processes, there is no public participation requirement for EIAs in Sarawak. And, astonishingly, EIAs are not even required for logging concessions in primary forest; they are only necessary for re-entry or water catchment areas. 

Where we work, failure to obtain adequate public participation goes hand in hand with a lack of trust regarding industrial logging and the consultations conducted or contracted by timber companies. As one community leader put it, “We are fed up with the dirty tricks of those who often look for opportunities to ‘obtain’ our Free, Prior and Informed Consent in malicious ways. In the past, when we attended meetings with the logging company, they often took our presence there as an agreement to all their wishes or agenda without properly informing and consulting us via proper minutes of the meeting or with any other relevant documents.”

What are some solutions to improve the situation? 

The methodology of the Baram Heritage Survey provides an alternative, decolonial approach to conventional surveys and assessments centered around public participation and community ownership. This project, which we administered in conjunction with SAVE Rivers and KERUAN Organization, is built around relationships of trust between stakeholders and emphasizes Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The survey itself was designed to support community-led projects in the Baram area regarding land rights, forest protection, and self-determination. It eliminates the lack of clarity and transparency often encountered in conventional EIAs and SIAs in Sarawak, while collecting accurate and abundant data and highlighting community knowledge. 

For the BHS, communities decided for themselves to participate in the project, which they then co-designed alongside researchers and NGO partners. The communities, researchers, and NGOs together decided what data to collect, how to collect it, how to organize consultation meetings and trainings, and how to hire and manage field technicians. Not only was the assessment process demystified by community ownership and collaboration, the project also provided jobs and training. The communities identified field technicians who were hired and trained to collect wildlife data and interview community members. The research team cleaned, analyzed and returned the data to the communities, who are the owners of the information and decide how to share it.

The BHS collected an abundance of high-quality data. The results provide a comprehensive and accurate account of resource use, wildlife, household economics, and community aspirations. Compared to conventional SIAs, participation numbers were remarkably high. 

The BHS also found significantly more wildlife. A 2014 EIA states that totally protected fauna are rarely found in the project site, while the BHS found an abundance of protected fauna. The 2014 EIA found 29 Rare, Threatened, and Endangered (RTE) species, while the BHS found 39. The 2014 EIA claims that there are only 3 hornbill species in the logging concession area, while the BHS found an abundance of 6 hornbill species. 

In addition to collecting accurate and abundant data, the BHS increased community capacity to participate in future projects. Communities are more informed about surveys and assessment processes in general, and they are equipped with the resulting data and analyses from the BHS. BHS data can help verify or counter claims made in future assessment processes. 

Policy Change

The BHS provides a great alternative to address weaknesses in impact assessments in Sarawak, but we really need policy change at the state and federal levels as well. A few policies that could greatly improve the situation in Sarawak are:

  • Making documents readily available and accessible to the public  
  • Requiring EIAs for all logging projects, including primary forest
  • Requiring robust public participation in SIAs and EIAs 
  • Requiring assessors to adequately consult communities and ensure understanding