III. INSTITUTIONAL COORDINATION MECHANISMS
E. Mechanisms for interaction with the private sector
As yet, no formal mechanism has been introduced to enable interaction with, and participation by, the private sector in environmental planning and management, nor is the private sector represented on any official body. The private sector, selected members of the public, NGOs and churches are sometimes invited to participate as observers at some meetings and seminars, but that is very much on an ad hoc basis.
It is readily accepted that real progress on improving environmental problems is not possible without the full support and commitment of the private sector and the public, and it is thus imperative that a mechanism be established to ensure public participation in the decision-making processes. Thus, the provisions in the proposed Environmental Planning and Assessment Bill, which call for participation by, and inputs from the public in environmental matters, will be a major step forward. Among some of the more significant provisions of the proposed Bill are those which call for the Minister of Lands, Survey and Natural Resources to promote environmental awareness, encourage understanding and acceptance of environmental assessment. Another provision is for the minister to generally advise the Cabinet on all aspects of environmental administration, including ways of ensuring that appropriate provision is made for public participation in environmental assessment processes in order to assist decision-making.
The involvement of the public and private sector in environmental issues of national significance can be far-reaching. An incident in the late 1980s illustrates the strength of opinion among the public and the private sector when they are properly mobilized over important national environmental issues. An American company proposed to send hazardous waste from the United States of America to Tonga for incineration. Initially the Government of Tonga granted tentative approval for the proposed scheme. Fortunately, however, the potential environmental dangers posed by the scheme were well publicized in the media. As a result of that negative publicity, as well as serious concern among many senior civil servants and several Cabinet ministers, the government finally reversed its earlier decision by denying permission for the proposed project to proceed.
The biggest problem, however, is that no framework is currently in place which automatically calls for public or governmental scrutiny of proposed development projects that pose harmful environmental effects. The proposed Environmental Planning and Assessment Bill will go some way towards rectifying that shortcoming, but more legislation is needed. That need is explored below.
As might be expected, certain sectors are covered by laws which require the private sector to comply with conditions that are primarily aimed at safeguarding public health and, indirectly, the environment. For example, the Public Health (Building Regulations) require that permission must be obtained from Cabinet before any site within two miles of the Post Office in Nuku'alofa, Pangai and Neiafu can be used for building purposes; in addition, the site, and the construction plan and materials must have received prior approval of the Medical Officer.
At present, the only legislation which demands an EIA is the Petroleum Mining Amendment Act of 1985; future legislation on natural resources should embrace similar requirements.
The private sector worldwide can and does wield considerable power and influence, and Tonga is no exception. The primary goal of the private sector is to maximize profit, and often in its efforts to achieve that aim its activities inflict considerable damage on the environment. The situation can be aggravated when growth/profit maximization by the private sector coincides with government economic policies. It is therefore critical for a proper and systematic framework to be put in place for screening all physical development projects, private as well as public, that pose harmful environmental effects.