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The politics of EIA – examples and reflections

Explore how politics influence EIAs, as seen in incidents like mine dam collapse and community opposition to coal mining.
One of politician sitting by table with his hands over document during political summit or conference

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) should provide qualified and defensible evidence of the various impacts of proposed activities.

However, most projects, including dams, mines, wind farms, roads, pipelines, airports, and urban developments, rarely occur in isolation. They are characterised by the pressures of the political context and community landscape in which they occur.

Many of these projects attract opposition as stakeholders grapple with how the proposed development may affect them, their families, or their interests. Individuals may become very distressed because their homes, views, or areas are going to be destroyed or disrupted. Others may have moral or spiritual objections, and some may feel their businesses will lose money or become less profitable. Special sites may be destroyed, and knowledge may be lost.

The role of the community and the media should not be ignored or overlooked. If the project is large and potentially controversial, it is worth the proponent’s investment to get to know the stakeholders and address potential concerns. In some cases, public opinion can sway a decision, regardless of what the EIS says. However, the politics of EIAs make them dynamic and essential pieces of work, where the decisions about how to rank and prioritise impacts are even more crucial.

Politics can play a role in decisions, and any proponent will need to engage with this dynamic, in addition to undertaking the EIA itself.

The tailings dam wall in Jagersfontein which collapsed and covered parts of the town in toxic sludge The tailings dam wall in Jagersfontein which collapsed and covered parts of the town in toxic sludge.

Politics matter for many reasons, particularly in light of the potential risks that certain activities can pose to communities. For example, in 2022, the collapse of a mine dam wall in the diamond mining town of Jagersfontein, Free State province, South Africa, caused a flood that resulted in one death, dozens of injuries, and calls for the mining company to compensate for fatalities and damage to properties. Such situations are more likely to arise when Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) fail to adequately address the human risks and liabilities of projects.

A group of indigenous Karen women in Chiang Rai Province, North Thailand. A group of indigenous Karen women in Chiang Rai Province, North Thailand.

In April 2022, the Indigenous Karen community from Kabeudin village in Northern Thailand demonstrated how communities can unite to oppose developments. More than 600 local villagers filed a lawsuit against the government and the Thuwanon Company, opposing the approval of a coal mining project. In their petition, the villagers argued that the project had not been adequately assessed for its social and environmental risks, and that community participation in related responses and decision-making had not been ensured. By submitting the lawsuit, the villagers sought a more comprehensive assessment of risks and asserted their right to be involved in the decision-making process, including determining the project’s future based on the assessment’s results.

Ten or so civil rights groups supported the villagers, collectively arguing that the impacts of the project would include increased emissions, heavy-metal contamination of surrounding ecosystems, disruption to road access routes and increased traffic, and most importantly, food security risks. The villagers would lose more than 40 farm plots to the mine, while many waterways, on which they depend for crop irrigation, would be diverted. In this case, both the politics of opposition and the politics of partnership between the company and the government mitigated the effective development of the project for everyone involved.

Thus, understanding how to manage and navigate the politics within an EIA process is crucial. Political and cultural contexts inevitably affect how knowledge and science are collected, legitimised, and interpreted within an EIA. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, effective, open, and committed engagement with the community and politics is essential to building stronger EIAs and longer-term outcomes.

For further insights into the micro-politics of small mining, see EIAs, power and political ecology: Situating resource struggles and the techno-politics of small-scale mining [1]. For further insights into how politics affects the formulation of EIAs in India, see The Politics of Formulation of Environmental Impact Assessment Regulation in India: A Case Study [2].


1. Spiegel, S.J. (2017). EIAs, power and political ecology: Situating resource struggles and the techno-politics of small-scale mining. Geoforum, 87, pp.95–107. doi:

2. Singh, R.S. (2007). POLITICS OF ENVIRONMENT & DEVELOPMENT IN INDIA: (With special reference to activism of democratic institutions). The Indian Journal of Political Science, [online] 68(4), pp.751–758. Available at: [Accessed 4 Apr. 2023].

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