Indigenous people's rights compromised

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2001, 12:00am

The preservation of Sha Lo Tung is another victory for the environment and, as I see it, a victory for the courts. It shows that there are a few enlightened souls within the legal profession willing to look beyond the strict parameters of protection of human rights.

However, it is important to look at the overall outcome of the ruling. Yes, valuable species are given another lease of life, but people's property, heritage and cultural rights are being trampled on. The culprit? Another case of piecemeal, ad hoc government policy whereby decisions are made as problems arise, leaving a few injured in the process, and whereby conservation is seen as just another way to describe land use rather than an objective in itself.

In the same way that Hong Kong badly needs an overall framework for sustainable development, it needs a conservation policy through which natural and cultural heritage assets are protected. An aspect of conservation policy that is beginning to be discussed in academic circles but that has, so far, had little impact with decision-makers is the social-impact assessment of decisions. Agreed, mankind is a small part of nature, but it is a significant part and the reasonable rights of people ought to be considered on a par with conservation.

The concept of social-impact assessment helps decision-makers to analyse what impact a government action might have on the social aspects of the environment. These aspects include the ways people use the natural environment (such as subsistence, recreation, cultural activities) or the 'built' environment (for example, for shelter, livelihood, spiritual activities) or the aesthetic and cultural character of the community.

To be able to effectively analyse the impact of such government actions, development decisions should:

involve the public, determining who the affected segments of the population are, especially those who do not routinely participate in government decision-making because of cultural, linguistic and economic barriers;

analyse impact equity, that is, who wins and who loses when the different options are considered;

discuss how the significance of a social variable is represented and explicitly explain the reasons why some variables are given more weight than others;

provide feedback to project planners; and

establish monitoring and mitigation programmes.

It would clearly be advantageous for social-impact assessments to be an integral part of planning and development, thus avoiding the problems of the case-by-case approach and the fragmentation of the decision-making process. Equally, community participation in a flexible process of impact assessment will only increase the degree of social empowerment over community territory, the necessary condition of sustainable community development.

The dragonflies of Sha Lo Tung have been saved, but the rights and practical needs of its indigenous people have been compromised. Putting a conservation policy in place by which social-impact assessments are conducted before decisions are made seems a plausible way forward.


Senior Research Assistant

Centre for Comparative Public Management and Social Policy

City University of Hong Kong