As most of you are now well aware, after widespread and sustained opposition, Protea Hotels, Zambia has withdrawn its application for a 144-bed hotel along the banks of the Zambezi River.
I had hoped to have posted a comment within days of the news, but it has taken Protea this long to reply to the few questions I had asked. And, having been away in Gabon for the last few weeks, I have unfortunately not been in a position to pressure them. So without wanting to rehash old news, it is still worth commenting on as there are broader issues relevant to the general ‘development versus environment’ debate.
While Protea need to be given credit for re-considering its development plans, there are two issues here that it and other developers would do well to consider for the future. Firstly, the Internet – social networking media in particular – has become an extremely powerful and effective way to rally people. Because it’s viral, a substantial number can be reached across the world, and in no time at all, and they can be kept up to speed throughout a campaign with precise information as to how to get involved *or* make their voice tell. When it comes to controversial or corrupt projects, the most significant factor is that developers and the institutions and individuals under their influence cannot control the networking media and the process.
Despite Protea’s muted response to questions on this issue, I am convinced that it totally underestimated the scope and effectiveness of the opposition – and that this became the tipping point. ‘At no point in this process was any formal or legal opposition put to Protea in respect of our application, however there were individuals who aired their opinions and views on various online forum’, was the response to my questions about the extent of the opposition the company faced. But the next answer is more telling: ‘… the withdrawal was based on the need for further information and clarity on this matter. It is not in our interests to build any hotel that is seen as damaging to the environment’. Hello – who forced the company to suddenly change tack by making it aware of how damaging the development could be to the environment? Either it needs to fire managers for wanting to proceed with developments that lack ‘further information and clarity’ and build hotels that are ‘damaging to the environment’, or it must recognise how effective the opposition was.
The second point is that the days of corporate and individual operators doing business with little or no consideration for the laws of countries, the environment or local communities are fast disappearing. And using friendly consultants to dish up weak impact assessments that rehash the same jargon about job creation, economic stimulation and the trickle-down effects of the specific project will no longer cut-it. History has shown that these benefits are usually vastly over-stated, and the promises of schools, clinics and all sorts of other inducements seldom materialise. In wilderness areas, the concern now is about environmental sustainability, and those wanting a slice of the action need to understand this.
While some developers will still manage to avoid being accountable and transparent, particularly in the most corrupt of political setups, the world is in many ways becoming a more informed and proactive place. Not only are they more likely to be exposed, but the news will now travel faster, wider and more effectively.