Environmental Impact and Social Justice: The 2018 IAIA conference

Victoria Griffiths

See Victoria's profile here

Last week it was time to head to sunny South Africa for the International Association for Impact Assessment 2018 conference (IAIA18). It was also a lovely excuse for me to go home for 10 days to see family, friends and horses! 

The International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA) is a leading global network on best practice in the use of environmental and social impact assessment for policies, programmes, plans and projects. It brings together researchers, practitioners and users of various types of impact assessment from all parts of the world, all of whom are concerned with environmental stewardship and sustainability.



Every year, IAIA hosts an international conference, including a mix of industry representatives, practitioners and academics. The conference aims to bring together real-world examples to explore the challenges and possible solutions to environmental changes that pose a threat to the sustainability of the physical and human environment. The conference theme for this year was: “Environmental Justice in Societies in Transition" – perfect for the work that we carry out at ICCS!

The conference was held in Durban, a city on South Africa’s East coast and built around one of the busiest ports in Africa. More than 900 delegates, from about 80 countries were present, providing a great opportunity to learn about work and practice from all around the world. It was also fun to reconnect with collegues and friends, including some friends from my previous company SRK Consulting!

I was invited to present some of my DPhil research during a session hosted by The Biodiversity Consultancy (TBC): “Offsets and People”. Biodiversity offsets are the last step in a hierarchy of mitigation measures, used to compensate for the residual environmental damage resulting from economic development projects. Until recently, most of the research has focused on the ecological challenges facing offsetting but there is an increasing recognition of the ethical and social impacts associated with biodiversity offsets. My work forms part of a project funded by the UK’s Darwin initiative, exploring whether it is possible to achieve No Net Loss for communities and biodiversity in Uganda.

The aim of the session was to draw on real-world biodiversity offset projects to identify trade-offs between multi-stakeholder visions for offset management. The four presenters in this session (including myself) highlighted lessons learnt from their experiences (particularly in Madagascar, Senegal and Uganda) and tools and techniques that can be used to develop a collaborative approach to biodiversity offset design, establishment and implementation, using an interdisciplinary approach between social and ecological sciences. It was brilliant to see the session so well attended, indicating an increasing amount of interest and awareness about the need to incorporate social aspects into the biodiversity offsetting process. 

sAside from a big focus on biodiversity offsetting, conference topics were very diverse, ranging from climate change and public participation to opportunities for renewable energy, human rights, indigenous people’s rights, and cultural heritage. Several sessions also looked at the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) process, evaluating its effectiveness in reducing impacts to biodiversity and local communities, and suggesting ways that it can be improved.


It was great to learn about work being carried out in my field, such as the new national biodiversity offsets policy being developed for South Africa, no net loss for migratory birds in Ghana, implementation of biodiversity offsets in Gamsberg, South Africa and biodiversity offset policies in South America, to name just a few. But I also really enjoyed attending some different sessions with a large social focus, including involuntary resettlement, gender issues, livelihood restoration programmes and developing a social license to operate.

po7Being South African, a big highlight for me was the keynote address by the Honorable Albie Sachs. He is a human rights activist, involved in campaigning against apartheid, and former judge at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. It was thanks to Albie that South Africa was the first country in the world to have to have environmental protection included in its constitution. His talk, was titled “Do you have to be white to be green” and I think his message is a good one to end on. He emphasised how nature and the environment is a unifying element in a country, how being ‘green’ can connect cultures, and that you can be any colour to appreciate and protect the environment!