The extent of environmental degradation in Africa is matched only by the complexity, scale and urgency of the challenges which it poses.
Part of the problem is due to the limited resources and authority typically made available to environmental management authorities. However, on its own, greater funding may not make much of a difference.
Many countries’ environmental policies have been unduly influenced by related practices in industrialised countries. Procedures, technologies and remedies which seem to work in the North have been vigorously promoted in Africa with little regard for local conditions and constraints. The result has often been counter-productive.
An emphasis on procedures, rather than on outcomes, regularly results in mere box-ticking. For example, investors are frequently required to consult with local communities, yet seldom is any consideration given to how they should consult; whether communities are suitably represented and informed; or how irregularities might realistically be challenged.
Enforcement is usually more of an ambition than a reality. In many instances, the law imposes only criminal liability for violations. This is seldom an effective deterrent, and often encourages corruption. Prosecutions are anyway relatively rare. In many cases, there might as well not be a law.
Civil liability - where it exists - is just as problematic. The costs involved in bringing a claim are beyond most victims’ realistic contemplation. Locus standi and scientific proof are just two of many additional hurdles. There is also the problem of enforcing judgments against foot-loose foreign investors.
Also, the hostility generated by litigation can so inflame tensions that it becomes entirely fanciful to talk of getting the parties to work together to avoid further similar incidents.
Greater regional collaboration may help in some cases, and stricter controls and more zealous enforcement in others. In most instances, however, the villains may never be held accountable.
Calls for a greater political commitment to address the problem are well founded, but are not always realistic. They are also frequently trivialised by the involvement of publicity-seeking minor celebrities.
In the meantime, what is needed are more effective ways of avoiding (or at least resolving) the disputes which will inevitably arise. Only then will there be any prospect of focussing on the underlying issues.
This is not a task only for government. Business needs to be far more proactive in establishing and promoting procedures which could prevent the resulting environmental disruption from turning into wider, open conflicts.