As everyone filed into the meeting room, they stopped to greet familiar faces. Some shook hands, others gave friendly waves, wai’s or pats on the back. Diverse voices and backgrounds filled the venue. Five countries. A vast range of ministries, government agencies. NGOs, community organizations. But through the process of creating this group, the 25 members had gotten to know each other. They had begun reaching a better understanding of each other’s countries, sectors and viewpoints. And they made friends, despite geographic or ideological boundaries. The Regional Technical Working Group (RTWG) on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is ready to change how things are done the region.
Government and civil society from around the region discuss strategies for bringing stronger public participation to the Mekong region. Photo credit: MPE
By design, government and civil society should have much in common. Both aim to represent the people. And both are institutions where citizens come together to manage their collective future. But they are too often seen as rivals instead of partners.
What happens when you bring them together to solve social and environmental challenges? My project, the Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE), believes together they can create a solid foundation for sustainability. When it comes to development projects such as dams, mines or economic zones, they can work together to cut the risks of negative impacts or conflict. We’re helping governments and civil society groups from across the region connect to improve development decisions and prioritise stakeholder engagement.
Across the Mekong region – in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam– there are more and more development projects crossing borders with through both investments dollars and impacts. A hydropower dam may be built in Cambodia or Laos, but its construction might be funded by Chinese or Thai or other investment, with costs and benefits felt by Cambodians, Vietnamese, Thais and others.
As they build these huge infrastructure projects, how can Mekong countries minimize negative social and environmental impacts? And how can they bring more benefits to local people? How can the concerns of local people be heard? MPE supports a Regional Technical Working Group (RTWG) on Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) to find shared solutions.
Signs of regional development: construction near Dawei Special Economic Zone in Myanmar: Photo credit: Taylor Weidman, Getty Image, with support from MPE.
The 25 members represent governments and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from across the region. They have tasked themselves with drafting public participation guidelines to ensure communities and citizens have input into development projects such as dams, mines, transportation links or economic zones. Through drafting a regional standard on participation in EIA, the group hopes countries across the region will improve public involvement in the decision-making process.
Getting 10 civil society organisations, five governments and an array of ministries to agree on one set of guidelines will be hard. But the members are up for the challenge. They have a lot to teach each other. And are eager to learn from experiences in other countries and sectors.
We talked to a few members of the RTWG during their first official meeting in Bangkok in September to see how they felt about this challenging but exciting opportunity. Their video interviews are below.
My country, Thailand, hosted this kick-off meeting, and two of Thailand’s five members are Mr. Suphakij Nuntavorakarn, Healthy Public Policy Foundation and Ms. Chanakod Chasidpon, Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) of the Thai government.
Mr. Suphakij says he’s eager to share experiences with regional colleagues: “We have been working directly, indirectly and involved in the process on the improvement of the reform of the EIA system in Thailand for many years – more than 10 years. We see some progress and improvement, but a lot more to do. Therefore, the work at the regional level also benefits the process that we try to push forward for even more reform and improvement of the EIA system in Thailand.”
“We hope… to develop a regional guideline that is not only good on paper but really benefits the real practice and the real cases,” Mr. Suphakij told us, ”…to try to find better ways, better solutions, better alternatives, or even better development strategies and directions that all stakeholders can accept.”
NESDB’s Ms. Chanakod appreciated the chance to come together, but noted that the first meeting really sets the base for the challenging work to come: “The most important is to keep the momentum of the working group. This is the first meeting. How to keep us in contact and keep thinking and working on EIA and public participation – that is the most important thing.”
Thailand’s neighbour to the East, Cambodia, also has five members on the RTWG. One of them, Tek Vanarra is Exectutive Director of NGO Forum on Cambodia, where he is leading and advising 11 projects on issues such as hydropower dam development, land and livelihood and natural resources.
One of Myanmar’s five representatives is Mr. Soe Win Hlaing, of Forest Resource Environment Development and Conservation Association (FREDA) recognizes that in these early stages, listening to other members – both government and civil society – is key: “Like EIA processes and public participation, we too need to develop our listening skills and to make sure they know what we are looking for.”
Mr. Soe Win Hlaing worked for almost 40 years in the Forest Department, under the Ministry of Forestry in Myanmar, so he understands the challenges of bringing together different voices.
Vietnam is also represented by five members drawn from government and civil society. From the Center for Environment and Community Research (CECR), Ms. Nguyen Ngọc Ly is passionate about community and citizen engagement in environmental protection as a democratic practice. She expects to see that same passion in her colleagues: “In terms of the requirements to get the RTWG team to work effectively and successfully: first, which is very important, is that each member should be very passionate and committed to this work. I think there should be good environment to enable creativity, you do not have to follow old procedures, we need to be creative. Respect and trust among members is very important for successful work. We need strong discipline… And then we need to have an ‘advocacy strategy’ to communicate our work to the region to our clients, to national governments, and the ASEAN Secretariat and donors.”
One of Laos’ members is a key EIA expert in the Lao government. Mr. Somvang Bouttavong works with the Department of Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (DESIA) in the
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE). He has experience in reviewing guidelines and legislation related to EIA, reviewing EIA reports, monitoring EIA projects, and providing recommendations to decision makers. He told us about his hopes for the RTWG’s talks.
That’s only a few of the voices from the 25 people tasked with contributing to improving regional development. It’s a group with a wide variety of backgrounds, but with big hopes that they can work together. The group meets again this month, and I am excited to see how they can incorporate their diverse experiences and opinions into a standard for public participation that really improves the social and environmental sustainability of development projects across the region. I believe that together we will learn. And together we will make the region a better place!
Selfie with one of the Thai representatives to the first RTWG meeting. Photo credit: Areerat Chabada
Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE) is one of the partners supporting Mekong Citizen. You can find more information here. MPE co-convenes the RTWG on EIA with the Asian Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Network (AECEN).
Lead photo: Partners in action, by AECEN