Analyzing the Effectiveness of the Precautionary Principle: Environmental Impact Assessments and the GASBOL Pipeline

As part of science and technology studies, scholars have studied the legitimacy of science and the role that scientists play when making important social, political, and economic issues. As many have come to explain, there are times when science and scientists cannot reach a consensus and even times when science is falsified. There are also times where we don’t have the tools necessary to develop a final statement on an issue. This lack of scientific certainty can be problematic when it comes to decisions that have the potential to adversely affect the environment and its inhabitants. As a result, the precautionary principle was established to make up for where science lacked. The development of the precautionary principle then became the basis for the creation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by the United Nations, a requirement for any project that could potentially have environmental consequences. Using the GASBOL pipeline project in Brazil and its environmental assessment as a case-study, I will analyze the types of findings found in the environmental assessment to show that while the EIA is ideal in theory, it can fail in practice due to the lack of enforcement of the measures outlined, a prioritization of economic gain, and the disregard for the voice of the people being affected.

The Precautionary Principle

The birth of the precautionary principle is many times attributed to Germany in the 1970’s (Kreibel et al, deFur, Ataputtu, Morris). Germany was facing many environmental problems, ranging from acid rain to pollution in the North Sea (deFur). There was a realization all over Europe that precaution was necessary – addressing the problem once it occurred was not enough (Kreibel et al, deFur). In 1998, the precautionary principle was defined as “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically” (Kreibel, deFur).

In his book “Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle”, Julian Morris creates two distinctions within the idea of the precautionary principle: Strong PP and Weak PP. Strong PP entails taking no action “unless you are certain that it will do no harm,” while Weak PP says that a “lack of full certainty is not a justification for preventing an action that might be harmful (Morris 2000, 1). The problem with Weak PP is that it enables the continuation of a project that can be detrimental to the environment (Morris 2000, 3). What follows with Weak PP is that companies continue with their projects having very little environmental precautionary measures implemented. What we will come to see through this case study is that even when we put Strong PP into place, there are still problems that arise in its practice.


In 1992, the United Nations met in Rio and created the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The document built upon the previous Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which was held in Stockholm in 1972 (Cunha). As part of the Rio-92 Declaration, Principle 15 states that

in order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

As a way of analyzing such possible risk, environmental impact assessments became required, under Principle 17 of the Declaration (Cunha). The idea was that the EIA would use the precautionary principle in order to preserve the environment when science could not directly determine the consequences (Cunha, Ataputtu). The idea is that using the precautionary principle will ultimately be more cost-effective, especially for developing countries who would not be able to afford waiting for a scientific conclusion (Ataputtu, Abaza). Ultimately, the EIA is supposed to be preventive, not corrective (Biller)

Parts of the EIA and EIA in Brazil

The EIA aims to prevent the omission of detrimental environmental effects from development projects around the world (Abaza). The structure of the EIA, on a most basic level, consists of the accumulation of general information, an environmental diagnosis of the area, a prediction on the potential effects of the proposal, and a mitigation proposal (Cunha, Joels).

In Brazil, the EIA requires assessments for all government projects and all private projects. Abridged assessments are not allowed, but some areas of Brazil are able to use other report types, such as the Environmental Feasibility Report or the Simplified Environmental Report. In the words of the actual law, “It is incumbent upon the Government to […] demand in the manner prescribed by law, for the installation of works and activities which may potentially cause significant degradation of the environment, a prior environmental impact study, which shall be made public” (EIALaws). The EIA is prepared and paid for by the project proponent, and anything requiring a license must be conducted by a legally qualified professional. Just because an EIA report is submitted does not mean the project is automatically approved. The decisionmakers get around 60 days to review the document. The decision is then written and made available to the public. The decisionmakers, specifically the Brazilian Institute on the Environment and Renewable Resources, has the power to impose conditions and/or control measures to the project. There are three types of licenses that can be issued as part of the final decision: preliminary (max 5 years), installation (max 6 years), and operational (4-10 years) licenses.

The content of the EIA must be interdisciplinary, meaning the types of impact analyses that must be done range from direct environmental impacts to cultural, social, and economic impacts. There must be some kind of discussion on mitigation measures, and there must be a monitoring plan included to track the effects throughout the completion of the project. In terms of access to information, the public has access to the EIA itself and the draft version. There should be no fee to obtain or view the documents. The public also has the ability to comment on the drafts and final version of the EIA, and can also attend public meetings and hearings about the projects. The comments should be taken into consideration by the decisionmakers. In some cases, the comments might push the decisionmakers to require more studies to be done before a decision is made. The project ultimately is supposed to be monitored by the environmental agency, but many times the agency relies solely on the information provided by the project developer, which could prove to be a problem (EIALaws).

Bolivia-Brazil Pipeline

In 1988, the Bolivian President and Brazilian President at the time signed the “Treaty for Integration of Energy”. This treaty bound Brazil into buying energy from the plant that would be built between the two countries, since Bolivia is very rich in natural gas. The details concerning the actual pipeline, the GASBOL pipeline, were under discussion for years, so much so the agreement had to be extended. The project was expected to be completed between January 1997 and December 1999. The project was expected to have over 4,800 workers spread out over 8 work sites.

The final report on the environmental assessment for the GASBOL pipeline was disclosed on February 24th, 2000, but was written/complied in August 1996. The document is available for download through the World Bank website, alongside the other environmental assessment reports for projects in Brazil. Most are available in Portuguese, only 63 of them in English. The final report is a compilation of assessments made by the various companies and stakeholders involved, a few of which are PETROBAS, a multi-national petroleum corporation, Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), Bolivia’s main oil and gas company, and ENRON Corporation, an American energy company. The final report is 648 pages long. Following, I will examine the findings in the environmental assessment.

The environmental evaluation can be found in the fourth chapter of the report. It begins with the delineation of the 6 ecological zones the pipeline will run through: Pantanal, Cerrado, Estacional Forest, Mata Atlantica, Araucaria Forest and Campo Limpo.  All ecological zones are extremely different, ranging from forest areas to vegetation fields. This is followed by a description of the different climate zones, which include mention of temperature range and precipitation estimates. The river basins and soil compositions are then examined, followed by a description of the possible noise affects during construction. The environmental assessment expresses the expectation that the majority of the pipeline would run through less developed areas.

The following section of the assessment analyzes potential flora and fauna at risk. The section spans for about 12 pages. Under the areas of high environmental sensitivy, the study determined the ecological zones of the Complexo do Pantanal and Mata Atlantica, due to “the fact that they are real natural life reservoirs, presenting a rich biodiversity of fauna and flora” (pg42, chpt4). Under low environmental sensitivity, the study determined “Cerrado and Campo Limpo (Campos de Altitude), because they are of easy recovery after the conclusion of construction,” yet did not elaborate on why exactly those areas would be of easy recovery (pg 43, chpt4).

The benefits presented in the assessment range from a boost in the economy to an increase in overall fuel availability. The main negative social impact established is the threat to the local populations in terms of accident hazards, not specifying what kind of hazards. The assessment also claims that there will be “no interference of the pipeline with the historical resources nor with the indigenous lands, and there is no need of population resettlement in the BOLGAS Area of Influence” (pg 6, chpt4). This statement will be reviewed later in the paper. In terms of climate impacts, the assessments estimates a slight noise and dust increase around the area of construction, in addition to a decrease in air pollution due to the fact that it is a natural gas plant, which is considered to be a clean alternative to coal. This statement will also be reviewed later in the paper.

The erosion that could’ve occurred during this process was deemed to be temporary and not of high concern in many areas. It was advised that construction avoid the areas that were most likely to suffer adversely from the development of this pipeline, as well as the revegetation of the areas after construction was over. The impacts on the natural vegetation in the area were deemed to be evident and direct during the clearing stage of construction, but at the same time deemed to be temporary in some areas. The assessment claimed that only 15% of the area would be affected, and only 7% of that area had no recovery potential, leading them to deem the impact as small. There is an acknowledgement of the “direct loss of important habitats for the fauna,” the consequences of that being “the interference with the reproduction of forest species and to the loss of feeding areas of some animals”. A “temporary shift of a big number of species from around the Directly Affected Area to more adjacent regions” was also to be expected. There was no mentioning of saving or establishing some sort of preservation system for the flora and fauna being affected.

Effects of GASBOL Pipeline (1pg)

In a study done by CEE Bankwatch’s Zsuzsanna Pató, the effects of the construction of the pipeline were examined. According to Pató, a 90 ft wide trench was cut through Bolivia’s Chuiquitano Forest, which has been deemed one of the most sensitive ecoregions in the world. The creation of this trench threatened over 34 species with extinction and has vastly deforested the area (9). According to Pató, “natural resources are continuously degrading due to overuse and misuse,” and increased traffic along the pipeline has caused massive air pollution. Because of the deforestation, the air quality has decreased alongside the pipeline as well (10).

Beyond Pató’s findings in 2000, Derrick Hindery published From Enron to Evo: Pipeline Politics, Global Environmentalism, and Indigenous Rights in 2013 telling the story of the adverse environmental remnants of the pipeline and how that has affected the indigenous communities in the area. Corporations ENRON and Shell decided to invest into the Bolivian-Brazil pipeline, and the route that they proposed “crossed directly through Chiquitano and Ayoreo Indigenous territories—affecting thirty-six communities with a population of about 8,000” (Hecht 2013, 64), This forest, as mentioned by Pató, was one of the most sensitive ecoregions in the world, and is the most endangered in Bolivia (Hecht 2013, 65). ENRON and Shell began the construction of their addition to the pipeline without it even being approved.

The debate that held back the approval for the pipeline had to do with how the Chiquitano forest was defined. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) “defined ‘primary forest’ as a ‘relatively intact forest that has been essentially unmodified by human activity for the past 60 to 80 years,’ distinguished by an abundance of mature trees and limited ‘artisanal’ or subsistence levels of hunting, fishing, logging, and migratory farming” (Hecht 2013, 70). According to insiders, it was necessary for ENRON to push for a definition of “primary forest” that would not classify the Chiquitano Forest as such because construction would not be approved if that was the case (Hecht 2013, 70).  According to Hecht and Hindery, “OPIC, under Enron’s influence, made a concerted effort to amass ‘scientific’ data proving the forest was not primary” (2013, 70).

The solution was then to create an environmental conservation plan that would essentially allow ENRON and Shell to continue their construction, but the environmental conservation plan was never truly effective. The conservation program represented a kind of “green neoliberalism”, “a form of global environmentalism that supports and legitimates the practices of corporations” (Hecht 2013, 79). The environmental organizations were given a stronger voice than that of the Indigenous people in the process as well, the corporations failing to realize that the two were more connected than they could’ve ever imagined. The environment that the companies were encroaching upon was the home of the Indigenous people, the people who knew how to take care of it and had been taking care of it for years.

What we see as a result of this project is a disregard for the vulnerability of the livelihood of Indigenous people. As Michael Painter and Oscar Castillo point out in their article the impact of large-scale energy development on Indigenous people, “the impacts of industrial-strength natural resource extraction and wildlife pose serious threats” to the abilities of the Indigenous people to carry out the activities necessary to feed and clothe themselves, which are important to their identities as people (2014, 124). To the corporations and stakeholders involved, the voice of the Indigenous people was an impedance to the final goal of economic gain.

GASBOL Pipeline EIA and Precautionary Principle

The EIA on the GASBOL pipeline estimated “no interference” with historical resources and indigenous lands. After years of advocating for themselves and their way of life, the people who lived in the Chiquitano forest were left with a 90 foot trench through their homeland and the negative environmental effects that would follow. In the words of Painter and Castillo, “there was no accountability for the social and environmental impacts of normal operatins or when accidents occurred, and examples of corruption and mismanagement were widespread” (2014, 125). Despite the multimillion dollar environmental conservation plan, the World Wildlife Fund has declared the area to be “critical/endangered,” with the pipeline serving as the third highest threat to the area due to the habitat fragmentation that has occurred as a result (WWF).

Derrick Hindery’s more detailed study on the social and environmental impacts of the pipeline determine that “the numerous impacts caused by [the pipeline], together with the assessments in documents of the World Bank itself, illustrate that the Bank failed to prevent, control and mitigate negative impacts that were predicted to arise” (2004, 295). What is the purpose of an assessment if all that is recommended and said will be implemented is ultimately completely neglected? Are we truly making good use of the precautionary principle with the EIA if the EIA is not doing its job? According to Hindery, the World Bank has consistently funded similar projects: projects that have marginalized indigenous peoples, projects that have degraded the environment and aided problematic institutions, such as big energy corporations (2004, 295).

What we see in the GASBOL pipeline case is a 648 page study written just because it was a requirement. The companies working on the pipelines experienced spills multiple times throughout the process, putting indigenous populations who depend on the area for livestock and crop cultivation at risk, as well as being found guilty of not taking the preventative measures they were told they needed to take (Hindery, 286). In the case of ENRON & Shell’s pipeline addition, only a formal warning was given for not complying with the agreements established in the EIA, signifying a lack of enforcement. Ongoing reports from NGO’s and indigenous groups attested to the violations of the EIA, and it is believed that no severe consequences were given out due to conflicts of interest with those in charge favoring the construction of the pipeline (Hindery 2004, 287).

Ultimately, the problem ends up being twofold: first, a problem with the subjectivity and falsifiability of science and second, the execution of the precautionary principle. We see the issue of the subjectivity and falsifiability of science when it came to defining “primary” forests. OPIC went ahead with the definition of “primary” that would allow it to justify constructing the pipeline, even if it meant putting the environment and the indigenous people who lived there lower on the priority list. The motivation for such a definition was economic, and it ended up working. A scientist will “find” the data it wants to find, and OPIC did just that in order to classify the forest as not being primary.

In terms of the execution of the precautionary principle, we are left with questioning whether the EIA works or not. The precautionary principle “reflects the mood of distrust over the introduction of risky technologies, processes, and products that are assumed to be forced on the unknowing and susceptible public by commercial interests, allied to governments, and exerting manipulative, self-interested power over consumers”(Raffensperger 1999, 17). The EIA is supposed to help mitigate the level of distrust between the actors involved, even allowing the public to comment and express their concerns. Yet what we are left with in the GASBOL pipeline case is an endangered forest, a more polluted environment, and a neglected group of people. To me, this signifies that the EIA is ideal in theory, but in practice it is not as effective as it needs to be in order to truly do its job.


The EIA for the GASBOL pipeline failed in practice. It had significant adverse on the land it cut through, the Indigenous people who lived on the land, and on the environment. The precautionary principle was meant to stop projects from adversely affecting communities and the environment before they even began, and the EIA was put into place in order to do just that. While the EIA is helpful, it is not useful if it is not enforced. It is not useful if the measures that are outlined are not followed. It is not helpful if it is not accurate. It is not helpful if the environmental effects are downplayed. It is not helpful if the public comments are not actually put into consideration. If the EIA wants to have any weight, it has to be respected and taken seriously.




Abaza, Hussein, Ron Bisset and Barry Sadler. “Environmental Impact Assessment and Strategic             Environmental Assessment: Towards an Integrated Approach.” UNEP. (2004)

Atapattu, Sumudu. 2002. “Evolution And Status Of The Precautionary Principle In International Law.” The American Journal Of International Law 96 (4): 1016–18.

Cunha, Guilherme Farias, Catia Regina Carvalho Pinto, Sergio Roberto Martins, And Armando Borges De Castilhos Jr. 2013. “The Precautionary Principle In Brazil Post-Rio-92: Environmental Impact And Human Health.” Ambiente & Sociedade 16 (3). Doi:Http://Dx.Doi.Org/10.1590/S1414-753X2013000300005.

deFur, Peter L., Michelle Kaszuba. 2002. “Implementing The Precautionary Principle” The            Science Of The Total Environment 288 (155–165).

“Documents And Reports.” The World Bank.


“EIA Country Report For Brazil.” Elaw.Org. (2014)


Hindery, Derrick. 2013. First Peoples: New Directions In Indigenous Studies: From Enron To      Evo: Pipeline Politics, Global Environmentalism, And Indigenous Rights In Bolivia.      Tucson, US: University Of Arizona Press. Accessed December 8, 2016. Proquest          Ebrary.

Hindery, Derrick. (2004), Social and Environmental Impacts Of World Bank/Imf-Funded            Economic Restructuring In Bolivia: An Analysis Of Enron And Shell’s Hydrocarbons                        Projects. Singapore Journal Of Tropical Geography, 25: 281–303.

Joels, Luiz Carlos De Miranda. “Sustainable El Dorado: Appropriateness And Effectiveness Of             Environmental Impact Assessment In The State Of Amazonas, Brazil.” Ph.D., University Of Aberdeen (United Kingdom), 1994.

Kriebel, David, Joel Tickner, Paul Epstein, John Lemons, Richard Levins, Edward L. Loechler,    Margaret Quinn, Ruthann Rudel, Ted Schettler, And Michael Stoto. 2001. “The        Precautionary Principle In Environmental Science.” Environmental Health         Perspectives 109, No. 9:871-76.

Pató, Zsuzsanna. 2000. “Piping the Forest: The Bolivia-Brazil Gas Pipeline”. CEE Bankwatch       Network.

“Rio Declaration On Environment And Development 1992” United Nations. (1992).

Http://Www.Jus.Uio.No/Lm/Environmental.Development.Rio.Declaration.1992/Portrait.  A4.Pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *