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ANALYSIS-Land, environment laws diluted as Asia-Pacific nations eye growth

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 12 August 2020 00:00 GMT

A palm oil plantation is pictured next to a burnt forest near Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

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Fast-tracked project approvals and new laws to spur economic growth after the coronavirus risk hurting rural communities

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, Aug 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Asia-Pacific nations are speeding up project approvals and removing environmental protections to spur economic growth dented by the coronavirus, moves that will hurt rural and indigenous communities, analysts say.

Indonesia has issued a law that makes it easier to take over community land, including those of indigenous groups, and for forests to be cleared for industry.

India has opened coal mining to the private sector in forest land, while a new environment impact assessment (EIA) notification allows speedier project approvals and less compliance.

Australia will fast-track approval for roads and other projects including the expansion of BHP Group's Olympic Dam, while the Cook Islands will grant seabed mining licences to bolster its tourism-dependent economy.

But besides addressing jobs and infrastructure issues, stimulus projects must deliver "broad, long-term community value, reduce inequality and help counter climate change," said Elizabeth Mossop, a dean at the University of Technology in Sydney.

"It is not clear that fast-tracking actually saves time in the long run, and there is little evidence that it provides us with good outcomes," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The risks are that these projects benefit large corporations, rather than communities, rural areas, women and people who most need jobs," she said.

The coronavirus outbreak could set back human development for the first time since 1990, plunging millions of people into poverty, with poorer nations hardest hit from the pandemic's social and economic fallout, the United Nations has said.


Even before the pandemic, growing pressure on land from an expanding population, and the demands of agriculture, industry and housing have led to increasing attacks on farmers and land rights activists, with 2019 being the deadliest year.

At least 212 people were killed last year, and indigenous people made up 40% of the victims, Britain-based Global Witness said last month.

Restrictions on movement that prevented rural communities from tending to their land, or from attending public hearings during lockdowns made it easier for illegal loggers and companies to encroach on it, activists said.

"Destruction of indigenous lands has increased amidst the pandemic," said Windel Bolinget, chair of the indigenous group the Cordillera Peoples Alliance in the Philippines, ranked as the deadliest country in Asia for land rights.

The country's new anti-terrorism law will make it harder for rural communities to protect their land, Bolinget added.

"The law has an over broad definition of terror, and gives authorities power that endangers indigenous peoples' rights to their ancestral land and to self-determination," he said.

Philippine authorities have rejected criticism of the legislation that U.N. experts have said may be used to target activists and critics of the government.

In Indonesia, despite a pledge by President Joko Widodo to return indigenous customary land, a new regulation could see more such land converted for industry in the name of public purpose.

In addition, a new Omnibus Bill would weaken environmental and social safeguards, said Grita Anindarini, a researcher at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, a think tank.

The bill would lift pollution controls of a large number of industries, shrink participation of communities in projects and weaken supervision of compliance, she said.

"The government only focuses on achieving economic growth and forgot to see that environmental protection is one of the core elements of sustainable development," she said.

Supratman Andi Atgas, chairman of the parliamentary body that deliberates on the bill, earlier said rules on environmental protection would only be simplified, not changed.


Across the region, there are also efforts to boost rural livelihoods, and to mitigate worsening climate change impacts.

In Thailand, more than 6 million trees will be planted over the next few years to increase green cover in the country, the environment minister said last week, while Laos is to build the largest wind energy farm in Southeast Asia.

Australia has fast-tracked approval for a $16 billion solar power project, and India is mapping rural land to give titles to hundreds of millions of people.

But also in India, coal mine auctions are opening up forested areas protected by the constitution, while environment impact assessments will be weakened by a new notification that exempts many projects from public consultations and compliance.

With a strict lockdown in place during the period for public feedback for the draft EIA notification, a Delhi court extended the deadline to Aug. 11.

The coal auction removes end-use restrictions, allowing mine owners to extract coal for profit-making rather than public purpose including energy security, said Kanchi Kohli, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research think tank in Delhi.

In addition, it would allow companies to fence off land for years, irrespective of whether they extract coal or not.

While governments "keep circulating a false narrative of environment vs development," environmental laws were never designed to hold back development, Kohli said.

But with the changes to labour laws, impact assessment norms and land acts, the intent is to "legalise access to land, water and other natural resources, with a singular focus of revenue generation," she added.

Jharkhand state's Chief Minister Hemant Soren has filed a petition in India's top court challenging the coal auction, calling for an assessment of the social and environmental impacts on the indigenous population and the forest land first.

Coal Minister Pralhad Joshi said on Twitter that mining was "a lifeline" for Jharkhand, and that he hoped for an "early resolution of issues to support mining activities in the state."

Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, responding to criticism of the draft EIA notification, said that suggestions and objections would be noted.

If laws that allow "environmentally sound economic decisions are being made irrelevant, one can expect fewer safeguards and regulatory oversight," Kohli said.

"It will exacerbate human suffering and damage businesses in the long run."

Related stories:

Coronavirus seen threatening global goals to end poverty, inequality

Land seizures and COVID-19: the twin threats to Brazil’s indigenous peoples

From Brazil to Cambodia, conflicts flaring over land, water

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Astrid Zweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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