Hesperian Health Guides

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Appendix B: Using Laws to Fight for Environmental Rights > Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs)

Because industry and development projects have caused so much environmental destruction, many governments, industries, and development agencies are now required by law to evaluate the effects of their projects before starting them. One common decision-making and planning tool is called an environmental impact assessment, or EIA.

An EIA describes how a project, such as building roads, mines, airports, or other industrial development will affect the people, animals, land, water, and air quality in an area. It may also look at social problems such as displacement of people and loss of cultural resources, such as traditional livelihoods, places of historic or spiritual importance, etc. An EIA must also suggest less harmful ways for the work to be done if a project is to go ahead.

An EIA may be done by a corporation alone, or it may be done by a corporation together with communities and government officials. (For stories about how 2 communities used an EIA, see “A home run for health” and “Communities resist mining”.) But it is the responsibility of the government to decide if a project can begin.

How EIAs work

EIAs should involve 2 basic activities:

  1. A study of the project’s impacts and a written report describing these impacts. This is usually the responsibility of the company managing the project and may or may not involve community participation.
  2. Public meetings to allow affected communities to evaluate the project before it begins.

An EIA works best when it is guided by the precautionary principle. If an EIA shows harm may result from a project, the plan should be stopped or changed. But often EIAs are used to make a project appear harmless even though it will cause serious harm to people and the environment, now or in the future. It can sometimes help community members to ask a university or organization to explain the EIA and the impacts it describes.

At a long table, a group of people in suits face a group of people in work clothes.

Many companies write the EIA report before inviting community participation, rather than writing it with community participation. Sometimes companies do not publicize meetings about the EIA or they make the meetings difficult for people to attend. When an unfair EIA process is rushed through by a company or government agency, it often leads to a situation where the project begins while the community campaigns to stop it. Nevertheless, EIAs can be an important tool for communities and governments to evaluate and improve proposed development projects.

How communities can influence an EIA

4 people point of information on 2 papers to a man.

Getting lots of information from different sources (not just from the company) and taking the time you need to understand all the potential impacts, are important parts of exercising your right to participate in an EIA. Usually, many decisions are already made by the time the people who are most affected have any say.
Participating in an EIA process can help educate and organize your community to better protect its health and resources in the long term. Even if it is not always possible to stop a harmful project, educating and organizing around an EIA can help protect your community.

Demand to participate
Communities can demand a voice in an EIA. Sometimes a court, government, or development agency will allow community representatives to take part in the EIA process. People from the community may participate, or can ask an ally, such as an NGO or a lawyer, to represent them. If community representatives take part in the EIA process, they can then report back at community meetings about what the company is planning and doing. Participation can also help build an understanding about the community’s rights and responsibilities, and the ways they may prevent harm from a project or prevent the project altogether.
Get the entire EIA report
Communities have a right to see the entire EIA document, not just a summary or a partial version. EIA reports often include sections called “Security Risks,” “Social Risks,” “Health Risks,” and “Clean-up Costs.” These sections may describe problems the company would rather not share, especially at public meetings. Communities and their allies can also identify errors in the EIA or important missing information.

The problems described in an EIA, as well as the problems ignored by the EIA, can be shared with media, government officials, and the public to help build broader resistance to harmful projects. You can also share them with national or international bodies, such as the United Nations, which may result in pressure being placed on corporations or governments to respond to community concerns.

Communities resist mining

The small farming community of Junín lies in a beautiful area of cloud forest on the slopes of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador. People here are poor but they have earned a living from the earth for hundreds of years. Recently, the people of Junín faced the biggest challenge in their history: a company planned to build one of South America’s largest open pit copper mines in their region.

When a Japanese mining company came to explore the area, people in Junín knew that mining could bring pollution. But the mining company promised to bring jobs and "progress" in the form of new roads and schools, so the people let them explore for minerals anyway. Before long, the company found a large deposit of copper, and the people of Junín soon found their water supply polluted with mine waste. People were soon suffering from skin rashes and other health problems.

A woman speaks.
We continued organizing. Some villagers started a newspaper and community radio to keep us all informed.

The community asked the mining company to stop polluting. The company didn’t stop, so the people of Junín took action. When the miners were away on holiday, hundreds of villagers entered the mining camp, removed tools, furniture, and other items of value, and left them with the authorities. Then they burned down the camp. The company got the message and pulled out, but later sold the mine to a company from Canada.

The Canadian company worked to divide the community. They offered people from Junín large amounts of money to sell their land. Some people did sell, but others refused. The company knew this would cause conflicts. The company also sent a doctor to provide health care, but only to people who signed a paper saying they were in favor of the mine. After making this injustice known, local organizations raised funds to open a community health clinic.

The law in Ecuador requires an EIA before any development project can begin. The villagers knew that if an EIA was not done properly, the government would not allow the mine to be built. They also knew an honest EIA would show how copper mining would force people to move away, cause air pollution, erosion and silting of waterways, and contaminate the water with raw sewage, heavy metals, and other toxic waste.

A line of protesters.

The people of Junín had learned to use the law to their advantage. After the company claimed it had done the EIA, the government rejected it as incomplete.

People in Junín also used direct actions, such as refusing to let the company enter the area by blocking roads. Community leaders declared the entire municipality a non-mining zone. By using a variety of tactics, the people of Junín have prevented this open-pit copper mine from destroying their homes, their rich forests, and their water sources.

Community-based EIAs

A community-based EIA can help people in a village, town, or region come to a common understanding of the ways they use, protect, and depend on resources such as air, food, water, animals, forest products, plant medicines, sacred places, and so on. This can create a process for resolving conflicts and misunderstandings within communities about the use of resources. This can belp build the unity needed to challenge corporations or governments. It can also help mobilize people to oppose industries which take advantage of divisions among people to exploit their water, timber, land, or other resources.

A community-based EIA can be as simple as discussing what resources the community uses and coming to agreements about how to best protect them from exploitation. A more complicated community-based EIA can include making detailed maps, conducting surveys, and building alliances with neighboring communities and supportive organizations.

A community-based EIA is different from an EIA carried out by corporations or governments. It may not meet the legal requirements of an “official” EIA, because it puts more importance on what communities think and the health of people and their culture than on exploiting resources. A community-based EIA recognizes that the difficult to understand structure and “scientific” language required in EIAs is not only confusing to most people, but purposely designed to exclude them.

A community-based EIA is a way of saying “Another way to assess environmental impact is possible."

Many of the activities throughout this book, such as mapping, sociodramas, health surveys, watershed protection activities, trash walks, or other activities developed by your community can contribute to a community-based EIA.