Public participation has become a cornerstone of environmental governance in recent years. The essence of public participation, especially in terms of environmental decision-making is widely recognized and is broadly adopted in both international and national levels. Azerbaijan ratified the Aarhus Convention in 1999 which is the key document granting the public rights and imposing obligations on Parties and public authorities to ensure access to information and public participation. The current issue of the brief discusses public participation in Azerbaijani environmental decision-making shedding light on existing hurdles and providing recommendations on enhancing public participation in environmental decision-making on a national context.
By Shahana Bilalova*
What public participation means
Public participation has become a cornerstone of environmental governance especially in recent years. Although there are numerous definitions, public participation in this brief is regarded as an involvement (i.e. direct or indirect) of all concerned stakeholders (i.e. both state and non-state) in the negotiation of consensual strategies while addressing certain issues within institutions and on multi-level systems (Xie, 2016; Quick and Bryson, 2016). Involvement into the process can be in numerous ways, namely providing feedback during a consultation process, having a membership on an advisory committee, as well as building partnerships with each other and with state entities (Smiley et al, 2010).
Why public participation matters
Accountability, transparency, fulfillment of legal requirements, advancement of social justice, conveying information to public, enhancing public understanding of issues, consensual solution generation and designing of policies, plans, and projects are among some motives behind integrating public participation into governance process (Bryson et al., 2013; Quick and Bryson, 2016). Based on the previous research studies, participatory governance is associated with better environmental decision- making, more successful policy implementation (Xie, 2016), awareness of local conditions (Yearley et al. 2003), access to locally held knowledge (Pellizzoni, 2003), as well as increased legitimacy and reduced conflicts (Berry et al., 2019). In addition to this, polycentric governance with multi-level participation also paves a way to higher environmental results comparing to monocentric governance with technocratic nature (Newig and Fritsch, 2009). Finally, public participation also benefits participants by giving them opportunities of engaging in democratic citizenship, providing a basis for social learning as well as helping them to comprehend what public interest is (Quick and Bryson, 2016).
Provision of public participation on an international scale
The essence of public participation, especially in terms of environmental decision-making is widely recognized and is broadly adopted in both international and national levels. United Nations (UN) 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development through Principle 10 setting out three key issues – access to information, access to public participation and access to justice- was a leap forward in terms of integration of public participation into environmental decision-making. Meanwhile, the Convention on Access to Information, Access to Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) was adopted in 1998 with an aim to grant the public rights and to impose obligations on Parties and public authorities to ensure access to information and public participation (Stec and Casey-Lefkowitz, 2000). Upon recognition of the essence of public participation in environmental decision-making by an international arena, almost all countries designed and implemented certain mechanisms of public participation to be integrated into a decision-making process.
Public participation in Azerbaijani environmental decision-making
Azerbaijan ratified the Aarhus Convention in 1999 and has implemented several modifications in legislative and regulatory frameworks to align with the provisions of the Convention on public participation, public access to information, and access to justice since then. The convention ensures provisions of the following (EPF, 2017; MENR):
• Extensive opportunities for public representatives to get access to environmental information available at state bodies increasing transparency and accountability of the latter;
• Enabling people to express their opinions and concerns regarding environmental issues and persons responsible for decision making to draft reports with this respect;
• Enabling the public to know the procedures for defining cases that violate the right to get information on environmental and to participate in decision making, and sometimes to file a lawsuit on cases of violation of the environmental legislation in a broad range.
However, the levels of harmonization and implementation of these legal and regulatory frameworks are low which result in limited stakeholder engagement in environmental issues (MENR, 2015).
There are also certain gaps in the existing legislative framework concerning public participation in environmental issues as both the Law on Environmental Protection and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Handbook lack several provisions. While mentioning the so-called Public Environmental Review (PER), the Law does not provide any connection between this process and decision-making other than stating that “the findings of PER have recommendational and informational character” (Azerbaijan Republic, 1999 as cited in Bektashi and Cherp, 2002). Furthermore, legislative and regulatory frameworks also lack clear procedures for holding public hearings on environmental matters (UN, 2011). All these gaps require existing legislative and regulatory frameworks’ further revision and development for conforming to the Århus Convention (Bektashi and Cherp, 2002).
Access to national environmental reports is another challenge in this context. Despite certain efforts are made to make environmental information publicly accessible through various tools and platforms such as websites, press releases and leaflets, public access is still limited to majority of national environmental reports (UN, 2011). Hereinafter, environmental reports including EIA reports (Bektashi and Cherp, 2002) are not publicly available which creates a hurdle in public participation in environmental decision-making in Azerbaijan despite encouraging legislative framework (UN, 2011). Access to environmental information is mainly framed in and regulated through the Law on Receipt of Information on the Environment (2002) and more generally through Law on Access to Information of the Republic of Azerbaijan (2005). While Law on Receipt of Information on the Environment highlights disclosure of national reports on state of the environment at least once in a year, there are still certain lags in practice concerning accessibility of reports which needs to be improved.
Land degradation, water and waste management, deforestation and pollution are among the major environmental problems in Azerbaijan. The situation in Azerbaijan is further challenged by factors such as climate change and certain weaknesses in management leading to not only ecological but also social problems. Thus, public participation is a vital factor to have effective environmental decision-making since decisions, directly and indirectly, affect people’s livelihood. Taking into account the afore-mentioned issues, the following recommendations can be presented to expand public participation in environmental decision-making in Azerbaijan:
- Legislative and regulatory frameworks should be revised to conform to the provisions of the Aarhus Convention on public participation, and legal enforcement on public participation should be improved.
- Agencies should fully integrated public participation into environmental decision-making process as a requisite for effectiveness rather than treating it as a formal procedure.
- Public participation in environmental decision-making should be designed in a way to ensure fair and inclusive participation by granting equal opportunities to every person, especially those who are impoverished and marginalized.
- Agencies should set out certain standards for public participation concerning a scope, funding allocation, timeline, feedback mechanism, as well as access to information.
- Public should be given an opportunity to prepare and submit their consecutive comments on draft documents in a set timeline.
- Outcomes of projects and ecological expertise should be made publicly available which would enhance transparency and serve to build public trust.
*About the author: Shahana Bilalova, Research Associate, Caspian Center for Energy and Environment at ADA University
Source: This article was published by CCEE as Policy Brief 41, August 2020 (PDF)
Azerbaijan Republic. (1999). Law of the Azerbaijan Republic on Environmental Protection (National Assembly (Milli Meclis) of the Azerbaijan Republic, available, in Russian, at <http://www. lexinfosys.de/document.asp?id=2237>, last accessed 18 February 2003).
Eurasian Partnership Foundation (EPF). (2017). Public Participation: The legislation and the practice of its application. Mentoring report. Available at <http://ogp.org.az/wp-content/uploads/ 2017/02/PUBLIC-PARTICIPATION.pdf>.
Berry. L. H., Koski. J., Verkuijl. C., Strambo. C., Piggot. G. (2019). Making Space: How Public Participation Shapes Environmental Decision-making. Stockholm Environmental Institute Discussion Brief. Available at <https:// www.sei.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/ makingspace-how-public-participation-shapes-environmental-decision- making.pdf> (Retrieved on 3 March 2020).
Leyli Bektashi & Aleg Cherp. (2002). Evolution and current state of environmental assessment in Azerbaijan, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, 20(4), 253-263.
Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources (MENR). (2015). National Forest Program (Forest Policy Statement and the Action Plan). Available at <http://www.fao.org/forestry/ 39774-0e03f4576d53ec8aeeba6da1d02f63922.pdf>
Newig, J. and Fritsch, O. (2009), Environmental governance: participatory, multi-level – and effective?.
Environmental Policy and Governance, 19, 197-214. Pellizzoni, L. (2003). Uncertainty and Participatory Democracy. Environmental Values 12 (2): 195- 224. Smiley. S., de Loë. R., and Kreutzwiser. R. (2010). Appropriate Public Involvement in Local Environmental Governance: A Framework and Case Study. Society and Natural Resources, 23(11), 1043-1059.
Stec, S., and Casey-Lefkowitz. S. (2000). The Aarhus Convention: and implementation guide. New York and Geneva: United Nations Publication.
Quick, K., Bryson, J. M. Theories of Public Participation in Governance. In Handbook on Theories of Governance Edward Elgar.
United Nations (UN). (2011). Environmental Performance Review: Azerbaijan. United Nations: New York and Geneva. Available at <http://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/env/ epr/epr_studies/Synopsis/ Azerbaijan%20ECE.CEP.158.synopsis%20english.pdf >. Xie, L. (2016). Environmental governance and public participation in rural China. China Information, 30 (2), 188– 208.
Yearley, S., Cinderby, S., Forrester, J., Bailey, P., and Rosen, P. (2003). Participatory Modelling and the Local Governance of the Politics of UK Air Pollution: A Three- City Case Study. Environmental Values, 12(2), 247-262.