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Putting people and the environment at the centre of development projects

Putting people and the environment at the centre of development projects

Local newspapers have reported that scores of households will be affected by the construction of Sierra Leone’s new airport at Mamamah in the north of the country.  This project will be funded by the Chinese government.  (Photo: Sonkita Conteh, author)

At a recent community meeting to explain the project, the Minister of Transport and Aviation was reported to have said that the $ 315 million project makes provision for the relocation of the affected villages, compensation for economic trees and construction of dignified dwellings for the inhabitants.  Much as this meeting was meant to reassure the communities, the papers reported that a number of people they spoke to were less than reassured. One resident voiced the fear that previous government relocations for development projects have been problematic with re-housed communities cut off from essential services in their new locations. The minister was reported to have said that work had already started on the new airport.

Since the project was announced there have been differing opinions about its utility. Some argue that as significant upgrade work was done to the existing airport across the river from the capital, there was no need at this time for a new one. Others maintain that there are pressing priorities in health, education and agriculture that should be addressed in place of a new airport. Those who travel by air to and from Sierra Leone would readily welcome the idea of a new airport, a short distance from the city and accessible by road. The hassle and safety concerns of crossing the river into the capital in small boats, especially in the rains, could be a serious disincentive.

The purpose of this piece is not to come down one way or the other for a particular view, because the die is already cast. Rather, it is to remind the relevant institutions of government of two key things: development projects should properly take into account the views of those likely to be affected and, crucially, they must comply with the laws of the land.

The right of individuals and groups to participate in decision making processes that may affect their lives or the exercise of any of their rights is widely recognised. This involves the right to be given full and equal access to information, the right to make their views known and an obligation on the decision-maker to consider such views. For this right to have any meaning, consultation should be real and take place before a final decision is made. It is not enough to merely inform a group or community about a life-altering decision that has already been made on their behalf.

When decision-making is participatory, the chances for wider acceptability are greater. Relocation of villages or communities for development, commercial or other purposes is a life-changing event for the affected communities. Government must ensure that the communities likely to be affected by the airport project are properly consulted and their views heard on the process of relocation. They should be encouraged to contribute to the development and implementation of any relocation plan. The UN’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement among others outline clear steps for genuine consultation with and participation of those affected by development projects in the decision-making process.

It is not clear from the reports whether alternative locations have been identified, however, it is important that these communities are part of that process as they, not government officials, shall be the people living in these new sites. Access to essential services is crucial and must be factored into the plan. The government should not use the excuse of politically-set deadlines to short-circuit meaningful consultation or participation. Nor should it employ its police powers to forcibly evict communities that may find alternative sites unsatisfactory. It is important that the airport project does not leave them worse off than they already are.

As a government with a “development agenda” and a desire to further enhance its democratic credentials, it is worth pointing out that two key attributes of good governance are participation and responsiveness to the needs of the people. Implementation of development projects often requires governments to exercise “eminent domain” i.e. compulsorily acquire private [non-government] property for public use. Whether they do so directly or through a third party, governments are expected to fully comply with the law on compulsory acquisition and any planning and environmental laws in force. The constitution of Sierra Leone requires that where property is compulsorily acquired there should be prompt payment of adequate compensation. It also secures the right to access a competent tribunal to determine the legality of the acquisition or the adequacy of compensation.

Clearly, the government should not opt out of the obligation to pay adequate compensation to those affected by the airport project. This would amount to a violation of the right to property that is recognised by the constitution. In the past, the government has been accused of breaching this constitutional guarantee by refusing to pay landowners, some of whose lands were used in a road expansion project in Freetown. The transport minister has reportedly indicated that compensation would be paid in this case. Whether it will be adequate remains to be seen.

Large scale development projects often impact the environment in which they are carried out- most times negatively. Important biodiversity may have to make way for a gleaming new bridge, airport or road. The new airport project will be no exception. It will have negative impacts on the environment which will have adverse long term consequences if not addressed now.

As for the Environment Protection Agency’s stance with respect to government-led development projects, that remains unclear. The Environment Protection Agency Act of 2008 clearly set out that infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges and airports require environmental impact assessment before they can be licensed. The law also provides for such assessments to be tested publicly. Work on the airport has reportedly started but there is no indication as to whether an impact assessment was carried out or publicly tested.

An impact assessment is meant to determine potential adverse consequences of a project on the environment and suggest ways to avoid, mitigate, or remedy those effects. Constructing an airport without an impact assessment is not only ill-advised. It is a clear breach of statute. The government should not be allowed to cut corners. There should be an impact assessment for every infrastructure work it undertakes. A basic tenet of the rule of law, known as supremacy of the law, dictates that no one, not even the government is above the law. It makes nonsense of our democratic culture if the government that seeks to enforce compliance by individuals and companies is itself non-compliant with our laws. Our stewardship of the environment now is crucial because our future depends on it.

By Sonkita Conteh, Director, Namati

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