An opinion piece by Sean Bain, ICJ legal consultant in Myanmar, and Vicky Bowman, Director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.
A strategic environmental assessment is needed to enable sustainable development and the fulfilment of human rights for the people of Kyaukphyu, the site of a planned SEZ and deep-sea port.
In its interim report released in March, the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, called for a comprehensive assessment of the special economic zone in Kyaukphyu Township.
The aim would be to “explore how the SEZ may affect local communities and map how other economic sectors in the state may benefit (or possibly suffer) from the SEZ”.
The State Counsellor’s Office endorsed the commission’s interim recommendations, including for this assessment.
The call for a comprehensive assessment in Kyaukphyu echoes a proposal from our organisations, the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business and the International Commission of Jurists, for the government to undertake a strategic environmental assessment.
Its purpose would be to address concerns about human rights and to consider the cumulative environmental and social impacts of planned developments. Oxfam has put forward a similar recommendation to the government.
Our recommendation comes as media reports this month suggest that the government is giving renewed attention to the future of the SEZ and related projects in Kyaukphyu.
The SEZ, which has been planned to include industrial parks along with deep-sea ports and transport links to China, would transform the demographic and economic character of Rakhine State’s central coast and hinterlands.
It would have significant impacts for local communities and the state economy, both during and beyond the envisaged 20-year construction period.
Kyaukphyu – already the starting point for oil and gas pipelines to China – would host the largest development project ever undertaken in Rakhine State.
Financed mostly by Chinese investors, with shipping facilities linking Myanmar to international routes through the Bay of Bengal, the project also has national and regional economic significance.
However, to date there has been insufficient consideration of the impacts, either positive or negative, on the livelihoods and human rights of residents and the economy of Rakhine State.
Plans for the SEZ are ambitious yet detailed information is scarce and so far there has been no genuine public participation in planning processes.
While contracts and payments regarding investments are decided in Myanmar’s economic and political capitals, it is at the local level that negative impacts can be felt the most.
It is also at the local level where economic benefits may be enhanced.
To address negative impacts and enable benefits, a joined-up approach that brings together national and local government and local and foreign companies with the people of the area is needed.
At present, a lack of coordination across ministries, and between national and regional governments is limiting the scope to harness opportunities and manage impacts of investments.
Despite their significance, neither the SEZ and deep-sea ports nor the offshore gas projects serviced from Kyaukphyu are included in Rakhine State’s socioeconomic development plan.
We believe a strategic environmental assessment is needed to enable sustainable development and the fulfilment of human rights in the Kyaukphyu area.
Strategic environmental assessments, which are part of Myanmar law, are defined in the 2015 Environmental Impact Procedure as “a range of analytical and participatory approaches that aim to integrate environment into policies, plans and programs and evaluate the inter-linkages with economic and social considerations.
The principle is to integrate environment, alongside economic and social concerns, into a holistic sustainability assessment.”
Unlike an environmental impact assessment, which is a permitting requirement for individual projects, a strategic environmental assessment takes a holistic approach by integrating environmental and social concerns and human rights protection, to produce a big picture view of the impacts of interrelated projects.
At Kyaukphyu, the national and state governments – drawing on financial and technical assistance from development and human rights partners – could commission expert independent consultants to undertake the necessary studies and analysis to produce such an assessment.
The assessment would consider the cumulative human rights and environmental impacts of the SEZ, seaports, pipelines, offshore gas developments and transport and energy infrastructure, including impacts on traditional fishing and farming livelihoods in Kyaukphyu.
It could address how best to avoid or minimise the physical and economic displacement of residents, and how to reduce the potential for local tensions and conflict associated with expected socioeconomic transformations.
A legal framework – based on international law and standards – for protecting human rights during economic displacement and resettlement needs to be put in place. That’s not just for the SEZs, but for all projects.
While insufficient to address the lack of legal accountability in the SEZ Law and the limited access to justice in Myanmar, a strategic environmental assessment could improve transparency and give voice to the views of local communities, businesses, civil society organisations and other stakeholders.
This would help fill major gaps in planning and decision-making processes thus far.
Consultation is critical to the value and legitimacy of any assessment but too often it is tokenistic or minimised to cut costs and time.
Development partners should ensure that they are funding genuine and extensive public participation.
A lesson from Myanmar’s only other assessment of this kind, currently underway with support from the International Finance Corporation focused on the hydropower sector, has been the need to communicate and engage constantly about the purpose and process of the assessment.
Many civil society groups chose not to participate in consultations for the IFC-backed assessment due to scepticism and lack of confidence in the process.
To learn from this experience, international and local NGOs in Kyaukphyu could share information and support communities to make informed decisions about their engagement with a strategic environmental assessment.
Until there is a concrete and transparent plan to manage impacts from development projects in Kyaukphyu, particularly those with negative impacts on human rights, current preparations for the SEZ should be put on hold.
This includes land acquisition that is underway and risks violating the rights of local residents.
The government should also delay entering into investment agreements with the winning consortium of developers, which is led by China’s CITIC Group, until there has been broader multi-stakeholder debate about the SEZ, and how it may develop and interact with other investments in the area.
A strategic environmental assessment in Kyaukphyu could contribute towards correcting a development process that has so far not contributed meaningfully to the realisation of human rights or addressed the economic needs of the population in Kyaukphyu or Rakhine State.
We hope that the Myanmar government at national and state level as well as development partners will take this forward, building on the advisory commission’s recommendation and its endorsement by the state counsellor.