Environmental Impact Assessment in Post-Colonial Societies: Reflections on the Proposed Expansion of the Panama Canal
Post-colonial societies endowed with abundant natural resources often under-perform economically when these resources are exploited as economic enclaves lacking significant linkages to other sectors of the economy. The Panama Canal, a symbol of Panamanian identity and a reminder of Panama's lengthy colonial history, has historically functioned as an economic enclave akin to the mineral extraction and industrial agriculture enclaves prevalent throughout the developing world. Based on a case study of the contentious decision to expand the Panama Canal, this article examines the ways in which the colonial legacy distorts the development planning process, and discusses strategies that might be deployed to resist the re-imposition of colonial practices and institutions. The article focuses on environmental impact assessment (EIA) as a development planning tool, analyzes Panama's EIA legislation, and examines the application of this legislation to the decision to expand the Panama Canal. The article argues that Panama has adopted a technocratic approach to the EIA process that reinforces the colonial legacy and impedes public participation in governmental decision-making. The article proposes a democratic approach to the EIA process, and makes specific recommendations designed to improve the information available to government agencies, to enhance public oversight of government decision-making, to integrate the evaluation of socioeconomic and environmental impacts, and to facilitate public participation in the development planning process.