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THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE

“Conserving Scotland’s marine environment is not just desirable – it is
essential to ensure our seas remain healthy and productive into the future.”
[Large poster seen in the entrance to SNH headquarters, Inverness published by Marine
Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee
]

3-14 June 1992 saw the United Nations’ Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This should have been a turning point for conservation and sustainable development around the world because, at that conference the Precautionary Principle was identified and devised. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was promulgated, twenty-seven principles designed to protect the environment whilst permitting sensible development. Britain was a signatory on that declaration.

Principle 15 states: "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.” – Rio Declaration, 1992

There is just one little term that seems to give the developer more leeway than nature, cost-effective, which seems to be a get-out clause meaning that if you claim you can’t afford to conserve, then please carry on regardless. Other than that, it’s straightforward: if you don’t know what wildlife the place you wish to exploit contains, then you must find out and put mitigation measures in place before development may begin. Hence the need for the EIA.

Principle 17 covers that: “Principle 17. Environmental impact assessment, as a national instrument, shall be undertaken for proposed activities that are likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and are subject to a decision of a competent national authority.” – Rio Declaration, 1992

That would seem to be straightforward enough and should need no interpretation or elaboration. An EIA has to be carried out and if the developer needs any advice on how to do it and do it right, the documents mentioned above will guide him/her.

You would think that developers and planners would be aware of this and that the former would do the job properly while the latter would oblige him/her so to do. Sorry. They need to be reminded, and we must keep doing that. It was encouraging to see that, though in first public consultation on a fish farm application that the Sleat community (south Isle of Skye) tackled The Precautionary Principle hardly got a mention, in the second consultation the word had got evidently around. Many people took the opportunity to remind the planners of their obligation to implement The Precautionary Principle.

Also, during the period between Loch Slapin application #1 (Marine Harvvest) and Loch Slapin application #2 (Hjaltland), the Scottish Government was engaged on creating Marine Protected Areas and, possibly due to our encouraging SNH to consider including the South Skye sea lochs, they carried out a comprehensive and – it should be acknowledged – very competent sea bed survey in Lochs Slapin and Eishort (currently targeted by Hjaltland for three fish farm sites). That survey will no doubt contribute to future planning decisions ... assuming they are considered as we fervently wish them to be, according to Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration.

Everybody, please keep pointing out to the planners that the UK signed the Rio Declaration and that it includes instructions on what to do before development proceeds at any ecologically sensitive site.

"The precautionary principle is an approach to human activity that attempts to minimise potential damage to the environment. In the present 9aquaculture) context, the precautionary principle is particularly relevant with regard to the lack of scientific certainty, in some cases, regarding the cumulative impacts of aquaculture. The precautionary principle should be applied in Ireland to ensure that an aquaculture project is not permitted unless adverse impacts of the project, in combination with other activities in the area, can be excluded. The onus should be on aquaculture developers to demonstrate beyond reasonable scientific doubt that there will not be such adverse impacts." - An Taisce, National Trust for Ireland.

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