Tom* was alarmed when construction began on a tuna processing factory in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. And he wasn’t alone. Scores of locals objected to what they saw as a threat to the archipelago’s fragile social and ecological equilibrium. Local fishermen feared that increased traffic in Port Vila’s harbour would limit their manoeuvrability, and that industrial fishing locally may deplete fish stocks. Plans to transport fish overland to the plant were also negatively received. Residents claimed this would put a further strain on Port Vila’s heavily congested roads, and that the strong winds and tropical temperatures would stifle the city with the stench of gutted fish. Waste water from the tuna processing plant also posed a problem. Locals maintained that releasing it into the bay as planned could entice sharks into the busy shallow waters, where children often swim. These various factors threatened to negatively affect Vanuatu’s tourism industry, which large sectors of society had come to depend upon.
The construction of the tuna processing plant was a joint venture between the Vanuatu government and China, initiated without any public consultation. In 2008 Tom and a group of locals obtained a consent order calling for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the factory. EIAs are required by law and designed to ensure the involvement of affected communities.
After some time passed with no sign of an EIA, the locals turned to Transparency International (TI) Vanuatu. Following pressure from TI Vanuatu, the authorities began carrying out an assessment. But the public soon learned that it was being funded by Beijing. Locals protested and the EIA was aborted.
Thanks to the persistence of all those involved, the case went to the country’s Supreme Court, who ruled that the EIA should be carried out by an independent body. At present, Vanuatu’s government is working with Australian environmental lawyers to draw up a robust framework for an independent assessment.
The construction of the plant has since been completed, but whether or not it becomes operational will hinge on the outcome of the new EIA. This case highlights the importance of rendering opaque decision-making transparent, and the need for legislation that ensures development projects like these serve the interests of their localities as well as their investors.
*Names have been changed