Lack of adequate administrative capacity could be contributing to the creation of a culture of negotiated patronages that could undermine the democratic and transparency goals of stakeholder participation. When governments and investors have an interest in quick participation processes, and local communities face administrative bottlenecks for advancing them, there is a clear incentive for offering or demanding tokens (like a new school, or a bridge, or employing locals) in exchange for cooperation.
It is commonly agreed that Stakeholder Participation is a key element of Environmental Decision Making. It is time-consuming, but it can create new shared visions that allow for effective project and policy implementation (Harding et al., 2009). Given its importance as a tool for advancing impact assessments, a lot of attention is given to its structure, its legal implications, and even its role as a democratising tool. However, less attention tends to be given to the logistics that its implementation in large scale can demand, and the impact that this can have on the overall use of the tool.
Let’s take the case of Colombia, a country where previous consultation with ethnic minorities is a constitutional requirement whenever their interests or ancestral lands are about to be affected by infrastructure or mining projects (Rodríguez, 2011). The Colombian government is promoting mining and oil extraction as key elements for their economic development plans (the five locomotives of development), and they have stirred a fair amount of interest from international investors.
A large area of the country is classified as ancestral, and it rightfully belongs to the ethnic minorities that inhabit them. According to the National Census of 2005, the lands belonging to the Indigenous Peoples of Colombia amount to 34 million hectares, which is 29.8% of the nation’s territory, and they account for 75% of the forests. The lands belonging to Black ancestry communities are an additional 4.7 million hectares, which adds another 4.13% of the territory to the number. Given that these areas are so large, they necessarily host many of the promising sites for finding mining or oil deposits.
According to Colombian legislation, the government (through its Ministry of Interior) is in charge of running the logistics of all consultation processes with ethnic minorities, while the prospective investors pay the associated bills. Investors are interested in having quick consultation processes, because they have to finance the cost of the consultation itself (whose cost can be around the $2 million mark, but more importantly, because without a finalised process the project cannot have a green light, and sometimes this process has taken years.
The Ministry of Interior has a dedicated office for dealing with Previous Consultation processes, but they have to deal with a large number of processes with limited administrative resources. Last year alone, the Ministry of Interior processed more than 2000 certificates of Previous Consultation. The investors may pay the bills of the consultation process, but they do not pay the salaries and expenses of the Ministry. Considering that previous consultation is mandatory for projects in ancestral lands, and that these lands account for roughly 35% of the territory, a bottleneck looks inevitable, especially when many of these communities are difficult to reach and have limited knowledge of the official language (Spanish).
So what’s the problem with being patient and waiting for a couple years for a consultation process to be finalised? Well, both investors and the government want the projects to be decided upon quickly, and they want to see more of them coming every year, so there is an incentive for putting pressure on the communities in order to get things moving (Pinkeviciute 2013, pp. 83). Of course, it is sometimes the communities that are willing to give their approval in exchange for much needed infrastructure such as a new school building, a bridge, or some other service, that they otherwise would not be granted due to lack of government funds, or for being located in a non-priority area.
This environment easily spawns a culture of this–for–that negotiations between communities and investors in order to get things moving. This is a slippery slope that can lead to processes of co-opting and the corruption of an otherwise valuable tool for Environmental Decision Making. The likely result is that some communities may end up accepting environmental and social impacts that otherwise they may not have accepted within a more structured and transparent process.
The bottom line is that despite the good intentions of all the involved, administrative and logistic bottlenecks can hurt stakeholder participation. This in turn hurts the interests of communities, investors, and the environment. Due to these complications, there is talk among relevant stakeholders in Colombia of the growing need for change, and that consultations should be conducted by a stand-alone organisation funded (at least partially) by fees paid by the investors that want the projects to be consulted.
- Harding R, Hendriks C & Faruqui M 2009, “Public participation”, In: Environmental decision making: exploring complexity and context, pp. 171-192.
- Pinkeviciute J 2013, “La Colosa. Estrategias para impedir una verdadera participación de las comunidades”, Traza, Vol. 4, No. 7, pp. 80-95
- Rodríguez G 2011, “La Consulta Previa En Medidas Legislativas: Perspectivas Desde La Jurisprudencia Constitucional”, Verba Iuris, Jan-Jun 2011, pp. 149-163