The two-year journey began with a bold vision. At the end of 2014, at a regional forum in Thailand, the USAID-supported Mekong Partnership for the Environment project (MPE) laid out a roadmap that would result in the creation of regional guidelines for improving public participation in infrastructure development – the standard by which all large-scale projects in the five Mekong countries would be judged in the future.
The need was pressing and the challenges daunting. Mega-projects of unprecedented scope are being planned and constructed in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, and will have a profound impact on environments and livelihoods across the region. Each of these projects needs to follow an environmental impact assessments (EIA) process, and without meaningful public participation, they could cause serious harm to communities, the environment, and investors’ bottom lines and reputations.
Meanwhile, a complex network of rules and regulations that are inconsistent across national boundaries and full of loopholes have been unable to address these impacts. Bringing about real change requires more than just drawing up a wish-list. It requires bringing local communities, civil society, the private sector, and the government together, to get them to recognize the need to transform the roles they each play.
The first step MPE undertook was to gather representatives from these sectors to form the working group that would draft the regional guidelines, ensuring it would be a document that spoke for all stakeholders, to be seen as a natural part of embarking on a project, not as a complication or hurdle.
The Regional Technical Working Group (RTWG) on EIA, comprised of five representatives each from the five countries along with a number of national advisors, bonded strongly over what was a long but rewarding process. They produced a rigorous document that feels comprehensive yet flexible. Above all, it emphasizes one principle: public participation.
So what better way to assess the Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in EIA than to present them at public consultations in each country, engaging not just selected representatives of each sector but everyone who wants a say. For the guidelines, these national consultations would be the litmus test.
MPE works behind the scenes – focused on process, not public posturing. Events like the national consultations are the rare occasions when all of MPE's efforts are showcased.
The public consultation events would show whether the stakeholders MPE had been engaging with were on board with the process being put forward by the RTWG. They drew robust attendance across the region – packed houses whether in theater-style settings as in Myanmar or smaller discussion-style groups in Thailand. Most significantly, a little more than a fifth of those attending were project proponents or EIA consultants – ultimately the key stakeholder groups upon whose engagement the success of the guidelines rests.
THE CHALLENGE OF EMPOWERMENT
“You empower one group, you risk disempowering another,” said one participant at the Thailand consultation, explaining the difficulty of making progress on this issue. “To bring things to a level where it can be acceptable to all parties, this is not easy.”
Those who benefit from the status quo will need to be brought around to the changes that would result from adoption of the guidelines. For this to happen, they will need to recognize the importance of sacrificing short-term expediency for the long-term gains of breaking out of the current cycle of conflicts, delays, lawsuits and reputational harm.
CONSISTENCY = FAIRNESS
Among those who take the long-term view, the benefits are clear. Take EGAT – the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand – one of the larger project proponents native to the region.
Long active on Thai soil, but now taking on projects in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, EGAT representatives attended the consultation because they sense the advantage of a level playing field.“Right now we have to follow our own rules, Thai law, local laws, and deal with conflicts with civil society as well. The hope is that if the five countries can have consistent rules, then there will be fairness,”one EGAT representative said.
In a diverse region, the consultations brought to the fore many differences between countries and stakeholders that would need to be reconciled – the ethnic conflicts of Myanmar, the protest laws of Vietnam, different stances on the definition of "indigenous," differences among financial disclosure laws.
But what the consultations also revealed was how much the region has in common, and the potential for enormous gains to be made by pushing for shared solutions. One concrete achievement has been new interest in how business is conducted in other countries. Vietnam and Myanmar attendees learned they both want to address transboundary impacts of large-scale projects, for instance. And almost all participants were focused on how to bridge the gap between what is supposed to be done in theory and what is actually done in practice.
“Since this guideline is developed by representatives from the Mekong countries, it should be at least one step forward," said Sirinimit Boonyuen, an environmental consultant. "It should at least result in recommended minimum practices.”
OPENING UP, PRESSING REFRESH
The drafting of the regional guidelines comes at an interesting stage of development for the Mekong countries, presenting an opportunity to gain feedback from very different perspectives. In Myanmar, where the concept of EIA is very new, participants focused on big picture ideas; in Thailand, which has a substantive set of regulations already, critiques were directed at specific details.
For both countries, the process afforded a chance to shake things up. In Thailand, it is the opportunity to press refresh.“Thailand is very advanced, but actually now when we look at our neighbors, we feel we are moving backwards – Myanmar especially. Because EIA is very new there, they are very open in their thinking,” said a Thailand participant.
In Myanmar, the process is contributing to the creation of something new. The recently adopted EIA Procedure for Myanmar requires public participation, but without providing details on the forms it should take throughout the process. After decades of military dictatorship, the country lacks both resources and expertise in managing development. At the request of the Myanmar government’s Environmental Conservation Department (ECD), MPE is helping develop the RTWG model specifically for the Myanmar context.
“Myanmar sits at the precipice of big changes on public participation,” said Christy Owen, who leads MPE. “We’re seeing the learning, work and relationships we’ve supported regionally serve as the foundation for strengthening development within particular countries. And Myanmar’s a powerful example of that process."
Much of the consultations looked forward to exactly such scenarios, directed at how the recommendations of the guidelines would be implemented in national laws. The people attending were not looking to just make a statement and take the easy way out. They were there to create lasting change. Indeed, several of the participants even called for the regional guidelines to be institutionalized.
“The level of participation exceeded my expectations,” said Dr. Parichat Siwaraksa, an EIA expert and the Thailand national advisor for the RTWG. “They are really serious when they write their comments, in their discussions. As facilitator, you always worry that people will not be interested. What was good was that the guideline has some guiding philosophies and principles that run through it.”
THE EVOLUTION OF DEVELOPMENT
If one concrete achievement of the consultations was high engagement, a more intangible one was the notion of the consultations themselves. In a region that is rapidly changing and becoming more prosperous, the old top-down models of development are losing their effectiveness. The region is full of citizens who are recognizing that they too should have a say in what goes on in their backyard. It is the goal of MPE to facilitate these voices, and to help them build the future. And companies and governments are recognizing that it is in their best interest as well.
“There are a lot of opinions that are going to be coming in from all the five countries,” said one Laos participant. “But even if your views do not get incorporated, everyone here should be proud already for making their voice heard.”
MPE agrees, and so do the diverse array of government, civil society and business partners it has listened to, supported, and connected across the region.
Although the future of the Mekong region is one of many opportunities, it also one of worrisome unknowns.
But with the help of this landmark participatory process, one thing is certain: There is finally a clear roadmap for ensuring citizens’ voices will be heard.
The Regional Technical Working Group (RTWG) on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) will finalize the Regional Guidelines on Public Participation in EIA in early 2017. For more information on the RTWG and upcoming announcements, click here. For more information on MPE, click here.
Lead photo: School boys near an area slated for development as an economic zone in Dawei, Myanmar. (Taylor Weidman, Getty Images in partnership with MPE)