Until recently, Non Governmental Organizations in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe had little contact with Western consultants. Suddenly consultants seem to be appearing everywhere. If members of NGOs understand consultants' goals and methods, strengths and weaknesses, they will be better able to evaluate the potential contributions and pitfalls of working with consultants. Consultants inspire a wide range of positive and negative reactions; like other forms of cultural contact, they pose both an opportunity and a challenge.
Consultants are paid to help design and/or evaluate plans for siting and building projects such as dams, landfills, nuclear waste sites, electrical power plants, and factories. Consultants are also used to evaluate polluted areas and recommend strategies for cleaning them up or to develop plans for establishing nature preserves. Some environmental consulting groups specialize in policy making: they draft legislation for government or for an industry which may want a specific regulation enacted. Other consultants specialize in risk assessment and environmental impact statements which identify probable risks to human health and the local environment associated with proposed projects. The term "consultant" has become as confusing as the term NGO, or Non Governmental Organization. Like NGOs, consulting organizations vary in size from one or two persons operating out of a home or small office to giant multinational corporations with budgets in the millions of dollars.
If NGOs too often avoid claiming the title of consultant, it is also true that too many self-proclaimed consultants benefit from their professional titles even though the quality of their work falls far below the standards of unpaid NGO experts or even the more fundamental criteria of common sense. We have attended numerous public meetings announcing a controversial environmental project where a crowd of ordinary citizens uncovered embarrassing math errors, factual errors and unproven assumptions presented by professional consultants. Unlike lawyers, engineers, doctors, and most other professionals, consultants in the United States are not licensed and the profession is not regulated by the government. In the environmental information marketplace, the best advice is "buyer beware."
It is clear that almost anyone can assume the title "environmental consultant". But who deserves to be referred to as an environmental consultant? The answer determines whose advice will be heeded, who will be respected, and who will get paid and therefore be able to continue influencing environmental policies and actions. Perhaps the time has come for NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to simultaneously enhance their credibility and their treasuries by selectively providing fee for service consulting.
ECOLOGIA is most familiar with technical consulting performed in the field of municipal waste incineration in the United States. The record of faked data on air emissions and mis- representation of costs in this field is extraordinary and frightening. Consultants hired by the nuclear industry have asserted that "fail safe" technology would prevent accidents.
In the interest of providing a balanced view of how consultants operate in the real world, we asked some of our colleagues if they had personal experience with distortions by consultants hired by NGOs. Following are explanations of some situations and their results.
SITUATION # 1: Over the last few years, NGO experts have issued alarmist pronouncements about the severity of environmental problems. For example, environmental experts across the former Soviet Union have frequently asserted that their local ecological problems are "worse than the Chernobyl disaster". The intention of such exaggerations is undoubtedly to emphasize the need for outside support. RESULT: Aid has been discouraged as the situation was made to appear hopeless and unsolvable.
SITUATION # 2: Several international environmental organizations were premature in declaring that global climate change is a reality and an immediate threat. But scientists still do not understand the process. The public is confused. A weary and emotionally exhausted public is beginning to ignore many warnings, including well founded concerns about ozone depletion and about future energy shortages.
SITUATION # 3: International NGOs and zoos focus publicity and fundraising efforts on threats to species such as giant pandas, African elephants, and whales because of their enormous popular appeal. They claim that by developing "safe havens" in countries of origin, or by relocating animals, these species can be preserved. RESULT: Zoo purchases are depleting the existing wild animal population, in some cases reducing the chances of successful reproduction. With African elephants in Zimbabwe, lack of attention to the habitats of the animals has resulted in the deforestation of overly small reserve areas, the destruction of other species, and problems for the local farming communities.
SITUATION # 4: Citizens in a community are concerned about a local environmental problem, such as a leaking landfill. They hire a consultant to evaluate the situation. The consultant intentionally exaggerates the severity of the problem so that they will hire him to do further tests. RESULT: Citizens and regulatory agencies spend money, time and emotional energy on something which is really not a problem. Only the consultants and the lawyers benefit.
SITUATION # 5: Public concern in the United States over exposure to hazardous wastes led to the passing of Federal Superfund clean-up legislation in the 1980s. This set up a mechanism for certifying an area as highly contaminated and eligible for Federal clean-up money. Consultants claimed that by digging up and removing the hazardous wastes, environmental quality could be improved. RESULT: Wastes were moved into other communities, where they still leaked. Billions of dollars were spent. Bureaucrats, lawyers and consultants received most of the money allocated to clean-up efforts, in legal wranglings over where and how to move the wastes.
But in a world of increasing environmental problems and decreasing financial resources to deal with these problems, consultants can make a vital contribution. They can operate above the political arena and short term financial interests of individual clients and provide us with the information we need to be rational, to apply our limited financial and technology resources to ecological problems.
Much of the responsibility for the failure of consultants to live up to their potential is not the fault of the consultants themselves. It is the failure of the public, of NGOs, of industry, and of governmental officials who often do not want to be troubled with the extraordinary complexity of ecological problems. One local official in Pennsylvania summarized this feeling after hearing a two hour presentation by an internationally recognized consultant who presented evidence that challenged the claims of a previous government paid consultant. The official snarled, "I do not want to be confused by the facts".
Consultants play an increasingly important and valuable role in emerging democracies. As specialists they can provide information that average citizens and local governments do not have. However, the policy recommendations of consultants are not a substitute for broad based and informed citizen participation in political decision making.
Anyone can obtain free copies of environmental policy guidelines from the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The EBRD was created by western countries to assist in the reconstruction of countries with a Soviet history, in other words to act like the World Bank but with a more regional focus. Since it is a major investment and lending institution in the region, EBRD policies will become more and more influential.
We recommend the following free publications for any NGO or local government dealing with any western investment organizations, private or governmental. They are essential for any NGO or local government involved with an EBRD financed project. Many of the EBRD's free environmental publications are available in Russian, French, and German as well as English.
To order EBRD environmental publications, write:
The European Bank's Documentalist - EBRD
One Exchange Square
London EC2A 2EH United Kingdom
(or fax : 44 71 338 6541)
After the collapse of the USSR, both legal and illegal transportation of nuclear substances is occurring on a dangerous scale. New nuclear incidents demonstrate the weakness of the governmental structures, which at this point are not able to ensure security.
Nuclear transportation is part of the nuclear energy and military nuclear business. Our ECODEFENSE! group demands from Kaliningrad's government:
Over the past five years, how-ever, tens of thousands of acres of vineyards in California have been converted to organic farming. During the first few years of changeover, costs went up. But now production is as high as before, and operating costs are signif-icantly below those needed for chemical-inten-sive farming. Grape quality is higher now, also.
This is attributed to the presence of more micro-biological life in the soil, which adds depth and variety to the flavor of the grapes. Native predator insects such as ladybugs and spiders now control insect pests; they could be introduced after growers stopped using artificial pesticides. Peas and oats are planted in between the grapevine rows, providing nitrogen for the soil naturally, saving the cost and soil damage of artificial fertilizers.
Another company, the Fetzer Winery which is the sixth largest in the United States, started a small experimental organic grape section in the late 1980s. Now their entire 1400 acres of grapevines are managed organically.
Some commercial growers of apples, oranges and corn in southern California are also converting to organic farming, as they look to the long term to sustain their businesses and their investment in the land through the use of natural resources such as the soil, the insects, and biological diversity.
North and east of the winegrowing areas, in the state of Montana, some cattle and sheep ranchers have banded together to cope with the problem of leafy spurge. (2)
Leafy spurge is a pernicious weed, very resistant to herbicides, which takes over sections of farmland. Cattle refuse to eat it. As it spreads over grazing lands, its broad leaves and aggressive root system shade out the grass and thus reduce the ability of the land to support the cattle.
The innovative solution uses the different grazing habits of sheep and cattle to deal with the problem. Since sheep will eat leafy spurge, wagon loads of them are transported to areas with dense leafy spurge growth.
Portable fences contain the sheep and ensure that they will devour the leafy spurge rather than roaming widely to find grass, which they really prefer.
The sheep farmers gain free forage for their animals, while the cattlemen gain improved fields which can be reclaimed from the leafy spurge. Thus the cattle and sheep ranchers are cooperating for their mutual benefit, counter to the "wild west" tradition of mutual animosity between the two groups.
The Dutch have a centuries-old folk tale about a little boy who was playing in his family's fields one day when to his horror he saw that there was a small hole in the dike, and water was trickling through. The boy put his finger in the hole to keep the water back, and stayed there for hours until a search party finally found him. The adults were able to repair the damage and save the dike, but without the heroic little boy, the entire field and town could have been destroyed by the ocean. It is a startling reversal today to hear of the Dutch plan for turning some of the carefully tended below-sea-level farmland back to the ocean.
It is very expensive to run pumps to keep water out of the reclaimed fields; in some areas, pumps run for 16 hours a day. Furthermore such pumping has led to sinking land levels, creating a vicious cycle of dependence. The highly productive Dutch farms rely heavily on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, which are now major contributors to water pollution. Over one-third of the Netherlands' bird species have vanished since 1950, including storks. Many native plant species are also threatened.
The Dutch Government's plan involves purchasing land back from the farmers in certain areas, then opening dikes to allow the land to be flooded, and to allow lakes to be linked together by rivers. Birds should return as more wetlands, their breeding grounds, are made available, and as plants and mice provide a food supply.
In the long term, more sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture should coexist with the wetlands. As one member of his local water board summarized, "We have a better understanding of the huge cost not only of reclaiming land but also of maintaining it. And we see the harm it does to the surroundings. Today it makes no economic sense."
A similar process is taking place in northern Israel, in the Hula Valley near the Jordan River. A national drainage project in the 1950s opened up a sizable amount of land for cultivation. Opposition at the time was stifled for nationalistic political reasons, as described by Israeli conservationist Azaria Alon: "The draining was deeply troubling to nature advocates, but it was difficult to talk about it, because anyone who spoke out was considered anti-Zionist. This was seen as a tremendous achievement, celebrated in writing and song. But it wasn't thought through, and the result was ecological destruction." (4)
In the arid climate, the large-scale draining of swamp land led to unforeseen problems, including threats to the water table and water supply. Underground fires of dried peat caused damage, soil fertility declined and nitrates polluted the Sea of Galilee. Areas that could not be cultivated became wastelands covered by peat dust, mice and weeds.
Flooding of selected areas in Israel's Hula Valley is now underway, with continuing debates about land use and the balance between farming, tourism, and nature preserves.
References: (1) Daniel Zwerdling, National Public Radio Morning Edition, Washington D.C. Nov. 1, 1993 (2) Christian Science Monitor Radio, Boston Massachusetts, November 7, 1993 (3) Marlise Simons, "Dutch Do the Unthinkable: Sea is Let In" The New York Times, March 7, 1993 (4) Joel Greenberg, "Israel Restoring Drained Wetlands, Reversing Pioneers' Feat", The New York Times, December 5, 1993.
ECOLOGIA is now also developing air quality monitoring capability for monitoring network participants. Three monitoring sites will be provided with air sampling and air pollution measuring equipment within a year. The goal is to expand NonGovernmental Organizations' access to accurate knowledge as a basis for rational decisions for improving environmental quality. Funds for this expansion have been provided by a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation.
Currently, we have twenty monitoring program sites, located in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Uzbekistan.
We welcome the opportunity to work together with other international NGOs in the development of a standardized environmental monitoring system and training programs involving Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and the former Soviet Union. ECOLOGIA provides assistance in designing monitoring projects, training on monitoring equipment, on-site technical support, and aid in interpreting monitoring results.