Public involvement in Environmental Impact Assessment : the Portuguese case
Public involvement in environmental management has become an important component of decision making, which had been until the 1970's based almost entirely on "economic efficiency" and "science centred approach". EIA, the most widespread instrument asking for public involvement in environmental management has been reconceptualised to incorporate concepts of sustainable development for which EIA is well fitted provided it is a "holistic", "preventive" and "participative" instrument. However, depending on political, institutional and social contexts EIA processes, by opening decision making to the public sphere, still represent a great shift in traditional planning. EIA was introduced in the Portuguese legal system in 1990 due to the Portuguese membership in the European Union and public participation became mandatory. The intriguing question on the basis of this investigation is how a society labelled as having a non-participative culture and where decision making has never been opened to public scrutiny behaves with such an instrument. A broad picture of EIA public participation in the Portuguese society has been outlined, the approach taken stressing the importance of cultural contexts in getting insights to the understanding of the phenomenon. This broad picture has been enhanced by the use of an in-depth case study of the Portuguese reality in order to stress relevant features. An analytical model to guide the investigation has been constructed by putting together pieces of consensus on public participation effectiveness identifying key issues and key criteria. This investigation indicates that despite the reactive approach taken to EIA and the weakness of the Portuguese EIA system, EIA has been contributing to a change in public perceptions as well as in attitudes of developers, consultants, government and institutions towards environmental management. It is increasingly felt that EIA got roots in Portuguese society being the instrument that asks more regularly and with more efficacy for public involvement. In pair with this, it is also recognised that EIA needs reformulations to make it a more effective, comprehensive and credible tool. Public participation in the Portuguese EIA system presents several difficulties related to the social/cultural context and to the procedures used in its implementation. The former deals in a great part with the lack of traditions of participation in society, the strong weight of representative democracy and the low levels of environmental consciousness. The later deals with the late phase of public involvement, poor mechanisms used to disseminate information and promote a two-way communication and the use of a standard bureaucratic process. Environmental problems arrived late to Portuguese society but have become increasingly relevant due to the development policies followed. Signs exist now that the traditional passive citizenship can give place to a more active one and that the lay public increasingly feel that they have a word to say in decisions affecting their quality of life. Some avenues have been explored in this investigation related to context and practice of public involvement in EIA and to the challenge posed by sustainable development to societies especially those considered of intermediate development.