Environmental impact assessment as a consequence of the prevention and precautionary principles in Guatemala

In accordance with the United Nations Charter and the principles of international environmental law, States have the sovereign right to use their own natural resources according to their environmental and development policies, as well as the responsibility to ensure that activities carried out within their jurisdiction or under their control do not cause damage to the environment. Likewise, development in each country must be carried out in such a way that it responds equitably to the environmental needs of present and future generations, and therefore, in order to achieve sustainable development, environmental protection must be an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation.

The State of Guatemala is a contracting party to international agreements on environmental matters, and therefore has created ordinary and regulatory norms that establish the rules and criteria that must be complied with by the inhabitants of the Republic to protect the environment and achieve sustainable development.

Among these regulations are the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the Framework Law to regulate the reduction of vulnerability, mandatory adaptation to the effects of climate change and mitigation of greenhouse gases, known as the Climate Change Law, Decree No. 7-2013 of the Congress of the Republic and the Regulations for Environmental Evaluation, Control and Monitoring, Governmental Agreement No. 137-2016.

Among other issues, this regulation promotes the principles of “precaution and prevention”, which must be observed in any present or future action that impacts the environment, in the sense that measures must be managed to ensure that the identified negative impact to the environment does not occur <prevention> and, when there is danger of serious or irreversible damage, the lack of absolute scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone the adoption of effective measures to prevent the degradation of the environment <precaution>.

In other words, the precautionary principle aims to avoid serious or irreversible damage based on the evaluation of possible environmental impacts without the need for scientific evidence on the possible impact on the environment, while the prevention principle seeks the adoption of measures to ensure that the negative impact on the environment already identified does not occur. Thus, these two principles must be applied jointly, as they complement each other.

The application of these principles by the State of Guatemala has been shown through the creation of regulations that require that all projects, works, activities or industries must first undergo an environmental impact assessment, known by the Rio Declaration as a “national instrument”, the purpose of which is to identify and predict the effects on the environment in order to avoid, mitigate or compensate them.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), according to principle number 17 of the “Rio Declaration”, must be subject to the decision of a competent authority, in the case of Guatemala this decision corresponds to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources -MARN-. This evaluation must comply with several requirements that have been issued by the Directorate of Environmental Management and Natural Resources -DIGARN- of -MARN-, among them:

    1. The activity to be carried out must be categorized according to the tax lists issued by that Ministry.
    2. The location of the project.
    3. The characteristics of the activities to be carried out, among others.

In addition to the EIA, there are other environmental instruments and guides that allow the compilation of technical information for an orderly identification and evaluation of the environmental impacts or risks of a project. These instruments can be:

    • Predictive: before the start of the activity or work.
    • Corrective: for activities in operation.
    • Complementary: that support the other instruments such as the social impact assessment, environmental management plan, etc.

The procedure for approval of the EIA or other environmental instruments consists of submitting the file to MARN for evaluation, which may include inspections or meetings with the proponent. If the proponent complies with all legal and applicable requirements, a resolution is issued that contains, in addition to the approval or denial, environmental commitments that must be fulfilled by the proponent. After notification of the approval resolution, the proponent requests the issuance of the Environmental License, which may be issued with a validity of up to 5 years. This license must be in force during the existence of the project. 

Likewise, for those activities that have a minimal environmental impact, according to the lists, the EIA does not have to be prepared, only a registration with the MARN. In all cases, before proceeding with the preparation of the EIA, the category of the facility must be defined using the tax list as a guide, which is why it is necessary to seek the advice of an expert in the field.

On the other hand, local regulations establish that all works, projects or activities that do not comply with the presentation of their environmental instrument or with obtaining their environmental licenses are subject to the imposition of economic sanctions, payment of compensation for damages for environmental damage, and even eventual closure of the establishment.

Beyond complying with a state commitment to avoid fines or sanctions, society must act with discernment and environmental awareness in all the activities it carries out or will carry out in the future, putting into practice the aforementioned principles of prevention and precaution with the purpose of protecting natural resources and guaranteeing sustainable development.