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Is environmental impact assessment dead in Nigeria?

By Greg Odogwu

Last week, a former chairman of the Bayelsa State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Tarinyo Akono, raised the alarm over an ongoing bush clearing for a fertiliser plant by Brass Fertiliser and Petrochemical Company Limited through a contractor, Jestone Skill Services Limited, at the Akabeleu area of the Brass Island without conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment.
He said it was unfortunate that the people only focus on the positive impacts of locating such a company, while turning a blind eye to the first thing to be done in order to avert unforeseen disasters emanating from such people-oriented projects. Surely, when a proper EIA is conducted, it will give room for the mitigation of adverse impacts, not only from the point of bush clearing but also during the construction and operation phases of the venture.
“We are happy that a fertiliser plant is being set up on the Brass Island. It will boost development and the economy of the area. But the right things must be done following international standards. The company should not take advantage of the poverty level of the area to do things at will,” Akono told fellow journalists in Yenagoa.
When I saw the report, my first reaction was to verify the incident by contacting the former NUJ chairman, who is my former classmate – a seasoned journalist who is conscious of the environmental dilemma of the Niger Delta region. After giving me the details of the development (with site pictures), Akono made me understand that he was calling on the company in charge of the bush clearing to stop the work and conduct an EIA, and then disclose the same for the mandatory 21 days for the people (in the affected community) to make inputs.
To be sure, such project as construction of a fertiliser plant requires a document to be submitted to the Ministry of the Environment, on the associated and potential environmental impacts of the said project from end to end. The identification, prediction and evaluation of potential impacts of the project on the environment should be investigated and described. The impacts should be broadly defined to cover all potential effects on the ecosystem: Direct, indirect, secondary, cumulative, short, medium and long-term, permanent and temporary, positive and negative impacts.
Furthermore, these impacts should be described with regards to human beings, flora and fauna, soil, water, air, climate, land, cultural and interactions amongst them. Impacts during construction and operation phases should be considered including impacts that might arise from non-standard operating conditions, accidents, among others. Predicted impacts should be derived from baseline conditions as to prevail as a consequence of the project. The significance of impacts should be assessed, taking into account appropriate national and international standards where available; and consideration should also be made for magnitude, location and duration of the impacts.
Interestingly, the choice of significance of assessment should be justified and any contrary opinion elaborated upon. To be specific, the EIA study for fertilizer, urea and phosphates projects should also consider the cumulative impacts that could arise from a combination of the impacts due to other projects with those of other existing or planned projects in the surrounding area and including residual impacts.
It is therefore unfortunate that an environmentally significant project such as fertilizer production would commence without appropriate environmental impact assessment. The scenario seems to confirm the fears raised by a Nigerian researcher, Ifeanyi Anago, in his treatise entitled, “Environmental Impact Assessment as a Tool for Sustainable Development: The Nigerian Experience.”
In the said work, Anago argues that given the investment scenario prior to the EIA Act and the “current patronising attitude to its provisions especially by the public sector project proponents”, the environmental impact assessment law in Nigeria has become a “paper tiger”. Professionals and bureaucrats alike pay lip service to EIA with nothing in the real sector to show for it.
Ever since the 1972 Stockholm United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which established the nexus between underdevelopment and environmental integrity, environmental issues have become transnational. Awareness has been created about the devastating impact of uncontrolled exploitation of environmental resources. The threat to wildlife, ecosystem, flora and fauna, and indeed the security of the human race inspired the founding of organisations whose primary goals and objectives are the protection and preservation of the environment.
In addition, the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Earth Summit of Rio de Janeiro, generated an action plan for sustainable development in the 21st Century, which has become the policy instrument that drives environmental programmes in most developed countries. Sustainable development is broadly defined as the ability of the present generation to meet its needs without compromising the potential of the future generations to meet theirs.
Indeed, Principle 3 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development provides that “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations”. Environmental Impact Assessment is the perceived tool for achieving the desired balance. The EIAs involve a technical evaluation intended to contribute to more objective decision making. In the United States, it obtained formal status in 1969 with enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Nigeria is one of the few developing countries that have specific relevant legislation for the EIA implementation. Ours is the Environmental Impact Assessment Act 1992. However, the challenge presently confronting the Federal Ministry of Environment is how to translate the laudable provisions of the Act into an effective tool for managing the environment. Experience has shown that prior to the approval and development of infrastructure projects in Nigeria, EIAs are hardly undertaken.
The code enshrined in the EIA Act is proactive integration of development programme and environmental sustainability in order to deliver environment-friendly projects. But this vital principle is flouted time and time again. The key defaulters are various levels of government: federal, state and local. These entities routinely approve projects within the mandatory study list before any kind of impact assessment is conducted. The EIA Reports then becomes “post mortem” documents contrived to fulfil all righteousness, grease some palms, and fence off resistance from concerned NGOs.
Even where the requisite impact assessments were done, the detailed procedure laid down in the Act/Guideline were usually flouted, especially in respect to consultations. This is exactly what is going on in the fertilizer project in Brass Island. Zero or insufficient consultations with host communities usually raise anxieties and technical errors in project implementations. My concern is that fertiliser production is too eco-sensitive to be established without appropriate EIA.
It is also germane to point out that the Ministry of Environment must upgrade the EIA system in Nigeria through a requisite integrity test of the process. A typical case is currently in the Nigerian High Court, which involves the Ministry and some coastal communities along the Imo River.
The Federal Government awarded the contract for the dredging of the River to improve vehicular access to the nation’s only aluminium smelting factory at Ikot Abasi. The affected coastal communities stiffly resisted the project on the ground that the draft EIA Report was unfavourable. Unknown to them, the Final Report got the approval of the ministry and so the dredging project commenced. The matter is now subjudice, and represents a classic failure of consultations.
Hence, in a project as sensitive as fertiliser production, every stakeholder must remain true to the spirit of sustainable development. To me, this goes beyond bureaucracy and environmental governance. This is about the survival of a troubled region.

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