Skip to main content

PNEA Insights #2: The Need for Robust Environmental and Social Safeguards in the Pacific

Published date: 3-Jun-2024

The Pacific Islands are currently experiencing an unprecedented era of infrastructure development, with numerous projects being funded by various donors and funding sources. These projects, ranging from road networks and ports to mining and logging operations, have the potential to significantly impact the region's unique environmental and social landscapes. As these developments continue to shape the future of the Pacific, it is crucial to have comprehensive Environmental and Social Safeguards (ESS) in place to effectively manage the complex impacts of these projects on both the environment and the affected populations.

Conventional Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), which have been the primary tool for managing the environmental impacts of development projects in the Pacific, are no longer sufficient to address the growing scale and complexity of these projects. EIAs often prioritize environmental issues over social concerns, resulting in a limited analysis of the social impacts of development projects and their relevance to specific communities.

Sustainable Infrastructure Pacific

Sustainable Infrastructure development in the Pacific (Source: Island Business)

This article argues for a shift from conventional EIAs to more robust ESS, which will better address the interconnected environmental and social risks associated with development projects in the Pacific. By adopting a more comprehensive approach to risk assessment and management, Pacific Island Countries can ensure that their infrastructure development is sustainable, inclusive, and beneficial to all.

Environmental Impact Assessments were first introduced to the Pacific region in the 1990s, with most Pacific Island Countries (PICs) adopting EIA policies and legislation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. EIAs have been a useful tool for identifying and managing the environmental impacts of development projects, helping to minimize negative impacts on the region's unique biodiversity and natural resources.

However, as the scale and complexity of development projects in the Pacific have grown, the limitations of conventional EIA methodology have become increasingly apparent. One of the main shortcomings of EIAs is the prioritization of environmental issues over social concerns. This has led to a system where the treatment of a project's social aspects is minimal compared to its environmental aspects.

In many cases, the social information included in EIAs is limited to purely descriptive input without any serious effort to analyze its significance or determine its relevance to the specific projects to which it pertains. This lack of in-depth social analysis can result in an incomplete understanding of the potential impacts of development projects on local communities, including issues related to land rights, cultural heritage, and social cohesion.

Moreover, the focus on environmental issues in EIAs can sometimes lead to the neglect of important social considerations, such as the distribution of project benefits and costs among different stakeholder groups. This can result in the marginalization of certain communities, particularly those who are already vulnerable or disadvantaged.

Another limitation of conventional EIAs is the lack of consideration for cumulative impacts. Many development projects in the Pacific are implemented in areas where other projects are already underway or planned, leading to complex interactions and cumulative effects on the environment and local communities. EIAs often fail to adequately assess these cumulative impacts, resulting in an underestimation of the overall risks associated with development projects.

Furthermore, EIAs are often conducted as a one-time assessment, and although there are often requirements for ongoing monitoring and management, these provisions can be limited and poorly enforced. This can make it difficult to effectively address unanticipated impacts that may arise during the implementation of a project, leaving communities and the environment vulnerable to harm.

These limitations of conventional EIAs highlight the need for a more comprehensive and integrated approach to risk assessment and management in the Pacific. By transitioning to Environmental and Social Safeguards, Pacific Island Countries can better address the complex and interconnected risks associated with development projects, ensuring that these projects are sustainable, inclusive, and beneficial to all.

The Panguna Mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea The Panguna Mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, serves as a stark example of the consequences of lacking robust ESS during a project's operation. The mine, which operated from 1972 to 1989, had devastating environmental and social impacts on the surrounding communities, ultimately leading to a decade-long civil war that claimed thousands of lives and left lasting scars on the region.

Panguna mine

Panguna Mine 


The Panguna Mine was one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, producing copper, gold, and silver. The mine was operated by Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a subsidiary of the Australian company Rio Tinto. From the outset, the mine was controversial, with many Bougainvilleans opposed to its development due to concerns about its potential environmental and social impacts.

One of the most significant environmental impacts of the Panguna Mine was the disposal of mine tailings into the Jaba River and Kawerong Valley. Over the course of the mine's operation, an estimated 1 billion tonnes of waste rock and tailings were dumped into the river system, causing widespread pollution and degradation of the riverine environment. The tailings contained heavy metals such as copper, lead, and mercury, which contaminated the water and soil, making it unsafe for human consumption and agricultural use.

The environmental degradation caused by the mine had severe consequences for the local communities who relied on the land and water resources for their livelihoods. The pollution of the Jaba River and Kawerong Valley led to the loss of fish populations, which were an important source of food and income for many households. The contamination of agricultural land also reduced crop yields and made it difficult for farmers to grow enough food to feed their families.

In addition to the environmental impacts, the Panguna Mine also had significant social and cultural consequences for the local communities. The mine's operations led to the displacement of entire villages, as land was acquired for the mine's infrastructure and waste disposal sites. This displacement disrupted traditional social structures and cultural practices, as communities were forced to relocate and adapt to new environments.

The mine also exacerbated existing social inequalities and tensions within Bougainvillean society. The majority of the mine's employees were expatriates or Papua New Guineans from other parts of the country, leading to a sense of exclusion and marginalization among the local population. The unequal distribution of the mine's economic benefits, with most of the profits flowing to BCL and the national government rather than to local communities, further fueled resentment and anger.

These social and environmental grievances, combined with demands for greater autonomy and control over Bougainville's resources, ultimately led to the outbreak of a civil war in 1988. The conflict, which lasted until 1998, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people, with many more displaced and traumatized. The war also caused widespread destruction of infrastructure and the collapse of basic services, setting back Bougainville's development by decades.

The Panguna Mine case highlights the importance of comprehensively addressing both environmental and social risks in development projects. The lack of robust ESS during the mine's operation allowed for the prioritization of economic interests over the well-being of local communities and the environment. This, in turn, contributed to the grievances and conflicts that ultimately led to the devastating civil war.

Had robust ESS been in place during the mine's operation, many of the negative impacts could have been mitigated, and the conflict that followed might have been avoided. For example, a comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) could have identified the potential risks associated with the disposal of mine tailings and the displacement of communities, allowing for the development of appropriate mitigation measures and compensation mechanisms.

Ongoing monitoring and adaptive management, as part of a comprehensive ESS framework, could have also helped to identify and address unanticipated impacts as they arose, preventing the escalation of grievances and conflicts. Furthermore, meaningful stakeholder engagement and participation, a key component of ESS, could have ensured that the concerns and needs of local communities were adequately addressed throughout the project's lifecycle.

The lessons learned from the Panguna Mine case are particularly relevant for the Pacific region, where large-scale resource extraction projects continue to be proposed and implemented. By adopting robust ESS, Pacific Island Countries can help to ensure that these projects are developed in a manner that respects the rights and well-being of local communities, while also protecting the environment for future generations.

The limitations of conventional EIAs and the lessons learned from cases like the Panguna Mine demonstrate the need for a transition to more comprehensive Environmental and Social Safeguards in the Pacific. ESS provide a holistic approach to assessing and managing the risks associated with development projects, taking into account a wide range of environmental and social issues.

At its core, ESS is about ensuring that development projects are designed and implemented in a manner that minimizes negative impacts on the environment and local communities, while maximizing positive outcomes. This requires a comprehensive assessment of the potential risks and impacts of a project, as well as the development of appropriate mitigation measures and management plans.

One of the key elements of ESS is the consideration of a broad range of environmental and social issues. This includes traditional environmental concerns, such as biodiversity conservation, pollution control, and resource management, as well as social issues, such as labor conditions, community health and safety, land acquisition and resettlement, indigenous peoples' rights, gender equality, and human rights.

By taking a more holistic approach to risk assessment and management, ESS helps to ensure that development projects are sustainable and equitable, benefiting both the environment and the communities in which they are implemented. This is particularly important in the Pacific context, where the unique environmental and cultural heritage of the region is closely intertwined with the well-being and livelihoods of local communities.

Another important aspect of ESS is the emphasis on stakeholder engagement and participation. ESS recognizes that local communities and other stakeholders have a critical role to play in the design, implementation, and monitoring of development projects. By involving these stakeholders in the decision-making process, ESS helps to ensure that projects are responsive to local needs and priorities, and that the benefits and costs of development are distributed equitably.

This participatory approach is essential for building trust and support for development projects, as well as for identifying and addressing potential conflicts and grievances before they escalate. In the Pacific context, where traditional knowledge and customary land tenure systems play a significant role in natural resource management, the involvement of local communities is particularly crucial for ensuring the sustainability and legitimacy of development projects.

The adoption of ESS by major multilateral development banks and UN agencies, such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Green Climate Fund (GCF), and Global Environment Facility (GEF), demonstrates the growing recognition of the importance of addressing both environmental and social risks in development projects.

These institutions have developed comprehensive ESS frameworks that set out the requirements and standards for assessing and managing environmental and social risks in the projects they finance. These frameworks typically include a set of principles and standards that guide the design and implementation of projects, as well as specific procedures for conducting ESIAs, developing management plans, and monitoring and reporting on project performance.

The adoption of ESS by these influential development institutions has helped to promote the mainstreaming of environmental and social considerations in development projects globally. It has also provided a model and benchmark for developing countries, including those in the Pacific, to strengthen their own systems for managing the risks and impacts of development projects.

However, while the adoption of ESS by multilateral development banks and UN agencies is a positive step, there is still a need for Pacific Island Countries to develop their own robust ESS frameworks that are tailored to the specific environmental, social, and cultural contexts of the region. This will require a concerted effort by governments, civil society organizations, and development partners to build the necessary institutional capacity, legal frameworks, and technical expertise to effectively implement ESS in the Pacific.

The Tina River Hydropower Development Project in the Solomon Islands The Tina River Hydropower Development Project (TRHDP) in the Solomon Islands serves as a positive example of the application of ESS in a development project in the Pacific. The project, which aims to generate clean energy and reduce the country's reliance on imported diesel fuel, has placed a strong emphasis on managing both environmental and social risks throughout its design and implementation.

The TRHDP is a 15-megawatt hydropower project located on the Tina River, approximately 30 kilometers southeast of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. The project involves the construction of a dam, a powerhouse, and associated infrastructure, including access roads and transmission lines. The project is being developed by the Tina Hydropower Limited, a special purpose company owned by Korea Water Resources Corporation (K-water) and the Solomon Islands government, with support from the World Bank and other development partners.

From the outset, the TRHDP has prioritized the application of ESS to ensure that the project is developed in a sustainable and socially responsible manner. A comprehensive Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was conducted for the project, in accordance with the requirements of the Solomon Islands' Environment Act and the World Bank's ESS framework.

The ESIA process involved extensive stakeholder engagement and consultation, including with local communities, civil society organizations, and government agencies. This engagement helped to identify the potential environmental and social risks and impacts of the project, as well as the concerns and priorities of affected communities.

The ESIA identified several key environmental risks associated with the project, including impacts on aquatic biodiversity, changes in river hydrology and sediment transport, and the potential for increased erosion and landslides. To mitigate these risks, the project design includes measures such as environmental flow releases to maintain downstream ecosystem functions, a sediment management plan to minimize downstream impacts, and reforestation and soil stabilization measures to reduce erosion and landslide risks.

On the social side, the ESIA identified potential impacts on local communities, including the loss of agricultural land and access to natural resources, as well as the influx of workers and associated social risks such as increased pressure on local services and the potential for social conflicts. To address these risks, the project developed a comprehensive Environmental and Social Management Plan (ESMP) and a Resettlement Action Plan (RAP).

The ESMP outlines the measures that will be taken to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the environmental and social impacts of the project, as well as the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders in implementing these measures. The RAP, on the other hand, sets out the process for compensating and assisting households and communities affected by land acquisition and resettlement, ensuring that their livelihoods and living standards are restored or improved.

A key element of the TRHDP's ESS approach has been the ongoing engagement and participation of local communities throughout the project cycle. The project has established a Community Benefit Sharing Program, which includes a range of initiatives to support local development priorities, such as improved access to electricity, water supply, and education and health services. The program also includes a Community Development Fund, which provides financing for community-driven development projects.

The application of ESS in the TRHDP has helped to minimize environmental and social risks, increase community support and participation, and align the project with international best practices. The project has been recognized as a model for sustainable hydropower development in the Pacific, demonstrating the potential for ESS to support the transition to clean energy while also promoting social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

However, the TRHDP also highlights some of the challenges and limitations of applying ESS in the Pacific context. One of the key challenges has been the limited institutional capacity and resources available for implementing and monitoring ESS measures, particularly at the local level. This has required significant investments in capacity building and technical assistance, as well as close coordination between the project developers, government agencies, and development partners.

Another challenge has been the complexity of the social and cultural context in which the project is being implemented. The Solomon Islands, like many Pacific Island Countries, has a diverse and dynamic social landscape, with multiple ethnic groups, languages, and customary land tenure systems. Navigating this complex social terrain has required a deep understanding of local contexts and a commitment to ongoing dialogue and engagement with communities.

Despite these challenges, the TRHDP demonstrates the potential for ESS to support the development of sustainable and inclusive infrastructure projects in the Pacific. By prioritizing the management of environmental and social risks, engaging local communities, and aligning with international best practices, the project has set a positive example for other development initiatives in the region.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) plays a crucial role in supporting Pacific Island Countries (PICs) in environmental risk assessment and management. As the region's leading intergovernmental organization for the environment, SPREP is well-positioned to promote the adoption of ESS and strengthen the capacity of PICs to effectively implement these safeguards.

SPREP's mandate includes providing technical assistance and capacity building to PICs in areas such as environmental governance, climate change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity conservation, and waste management. In recent years, SPREP has recognized the need to broaden its work on environmental governance to include support for the development and implementation of robust ESS systems.

To this end, SPREP has been engaged in discussions with its member countries to identify the key challenges and opportunities for strengthening ESS in the region. These discussions have highlighted the need for increased awareness and understanding of ESS among policymakers, environmental practitioners, and other stakeholders, as well as the importance of building the necessary institutional capacity and legal frameworks to support the effective implementation of ESS.

One of the key initiatives undertaken by SPREP to promote ESS in the region has been the development of its own Environmental and Social Management System (ESMS) in 2019. The ESMS provides a framework for integrating environmental and social risk management into SPREP's programs and project implementation cycles, ensuring that the organization's activities are consistent with international best practices and standards.

The ESMS includes a set of environmental and social standards that guide the design and implementation of SPREP's projects, as well as procedures for conducting ESIAs, developing management plans, and monitoring and reporting on project performance. The ESMS also emphasizes the importance of stakeholder engagement and consultation, recognizing the need to involve local communities and other stakeholders in the decision-making process.

By developing its own ESMS, SPREP has demonstrated its commitment to promoting ESS in the region and leading by example. The ESMS provides a model for PICs to follow in developing their own ESS frameworks, while also ensuring that SPREP's own activities are consistent with the principles and standards of ESS.