By Ishmael Kindama Dumbuya, Senior IEC Officer – EPASL
In 2022, the President of Sierra Leone, Dr. Julius Maada Bio, signed into law the new Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Act of 2022 after constructive debate and enactment- by the Parliament of Sierra Leone. Law on cross curtain and emerging issues were developed through wider consultations involving Members of Parliament, environmental rights groups, civil society organizations, the media, Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of Government, and the public at national and sub-national levels.
The Environment Protection Agency Act of 2022, continues to strengthen and enhance the Environment Protection Agency of Sierra Leone to implement international environmental and climate change laws and policies. It further empowers the Agency to enforce compliance in line with environmental standards.
The EPA Act 2022, is one big achievement under the astute leadership of Dr. Bondi Gevao, Executive Chairman, EPA-SL. The Act received Presidential assent on the 6th of September 2022 through the dynamic leadership of the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Prof. Foday Moriba Jaward.
Environmental protection and management in the country have evolved and passed through several phases with the development of relevant policies and legal frameworks. Before 2008, environmental management and protection functions were placed under the National Commission on the Environment. The first framework legislation on the environment is the Environment Protection Agency Act of 2008 which established the Environment Protection Agency Sierra Leone and placed it under the supervision of the Ministry of Lands and the Environment. The 2008 Act was amended in 2010, placing the Agency under the Office of the President.
To harmonize critical environmental laws and enhance sustainable environmental governance practices, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Environment Protection Agency initiated a review of the 2008 Act and its 2010 amendment. This led to the enactment of the Environment Protection Agency Act of 2022 which harmonizes the former, strengthens existing provisions, and establishes new legal norms and structures that promote inter-agency and whole-of-society approaches for robust, effective, and efficient protection and management of the environment in the country.
To address existing and emerging environmental challenges, including the three planetary crises- climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss – countries need to strengthen existing institutions and legal frameworks and build stronger ones that adopt whole-of-society approaches. The new Act strengthens existing structures and establishes new ones for enhanced protection and management of the environment at all levels and across all sectors.
Under the new Act, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change would now play an oversight and supervisory role and provide policy direction and guidance to the Agency. It also coordinates and promotes the implementation of national environmental policies and Multilateral Environmental Agreements signed and ratified by Sierra Leone. The ministry, in consultation with the Board, also has the power to make regulations for the effective implementation of the 2022 EPA Act.
Further, the Board of Directors, consisting of 13 members, serves as the government of the agency. Its membership is constituted mainly to promote and ensure an inclusive and impactful approach to environmental governance. It is responsible for the control, supervision, and overseeing of the sound and proper management of the finances of the Agency, providing policy guidance and advice for the overall efficient performance of its functions, approving environmental impact assessment and public disclosure reports, and direct the Executive Chairman to issue Environmental Impact Assessment Licences to proponents.
The Environmental Protection Agency is the principal organ responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the Act and all other environmental regulations made under the Act. Its functions have been strengthened for greater enforcement actions, coordination, and mobilization for the result-based environment and climate actions. Among others, the Agency performs the following functions: advises the Minister on the formulation of environmental policies, coordinates bodies engaged in the technical or practical aspects of the environmental and promote effective communication between such bodies, collaborates and coordinates with foreign bodies for the implementation of the Act 2022, ensures compliance with Environmental Impact Assessment procedures, act in liaison with other institutions and bodies to control pollution and protect the environment, conduct investigations into environmental issues and advise the Minister, promote studies, research, surveys and analysis for the improvement and protection of the environment, promote formal and informal education programmes to raise public awareness of the environment and its importance to the growth of Sierra Leone, promote effective planning and develop a database for environmental management, make environment data and information available to the public, promote the establishment of national standards and guidelines on ambient air, water and soil quality, and pollution, issue guidelines for the implementation of the Act, coordinate climate change actions for consistency in the development and implementation of policies and laws to address it, act as the focal point on all environmental issues, and develop standards and guidelines for the importation, handling and use of all chemicals.
Moreso, to enhance sound environmental management and protection in the country, committees that promote and ensure a whole-of-society and whole-of-system approaches in the implementation and enforcement of environmental law and climate change policy have been established in the EPA Act 2022. These committees include the following: Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) Implementation Coordination Committee, the National Compliance and Enforcement Coordination Committee, and the Chiefdom/ Ward Environment Committees.
Chaired by the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, the Multilateral Environmental Agreements Implementation Coordination Committee coordinates and enhances the effective implementation of all MEAs signed and ratified by Sierra Leone. It constitutes all focal points of MEAs in different Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs).
It performs the other following functions: gather information and prepare and submit reports on MEAS implementation to sub-regional, regional, and global organizations, reports on the outcomes of conferences, meetings, and training on MEAs, and prepare annual reports on the implementation of MEAs.
The National Compliance and Enforcement Coordination Committee was established to build effective synergies in compliance and enforcement actions in the implementation of environment-related legislations and its core functions include: coordinating inter-agency enforcement actions of environmental law, collaborating with, and building effective synergies among MDAs in the enforcement of environmental law, educate the public on compliance practices and enforcement procedures of environmental law and prepare periodic reports on the discharge of its functions.
The creation of Chiefdom/Ward Environment Committees was necessitated to bring environmental governance, including the sustainable management andconservation of natural resources at the local level across the country. Its key functions are to ensure the conservation, protection, and development of the environment within their localities and to also promote the designation and protection of certain areas in their localities for the provision of ecosystem services.
The EPA Act of 2022 also provides room for incentives to be given out to proponents for their good environmental behavior in the country. If there is any reasonable proof that a proponent or project developer behaves responsibly towards the protection of the environment, such proponent/project developer may enjoy the following packages: inclusion in the Annual Environmental Award, an environmental tax cut, reduction of the EIA fee and the issuance of a certificate for environmental performance.
The certificate for environmental compliance may be issued to a project developer or owner for satisfactory mitigation and improvement of the quality of the environment. A private sector institution, a Non-Government Organization, or a public or private person may be recognized or awarded for good environmental practices, innovation, or involvement in ensuring a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Funds may also be designated to encourage research and innovation in environmental management and protection in educational institutions.
To enhance compliance with and enforcement of, environmental norms and standards, the Act of 2022 creates several offenses which are either criminal, civil, administrative, or regulatory in nature. Among them is undertaking or causing to be undertaken any of the activities set out in the First Schedule without a valid environmental impact assessment license issued by the Agency for that purpose. The Act now sets the new penalty and fines to a minimum fine of SLE 50,000 old leones, or a minimum term of 2 years imprisonment, or both the fine and imprisonment for a citizen of Sierra Leone while SLE 150,000 old leones for a non-citizen and SLE 500,000 old leones for a corporation.
Recognizing the importance of information and education about the environment, the new Act also creates room for information, education, and public awareness of the environment. It is important to note that environmental information, knowledge, and awareness are key for everyone to play a role in the protection and management of the environment. The agency has the responsibility to ensure that the public gets access to environmental information, promotes environmental education, and creates awareness among the people for effective environmental protection and management.
Further, under the 2022 EPA Act, every person has the freedom of access to environmental information submitted to the Agency. Any person who wishes to access information from the Agency should make an application to the Executive Chairman, and the agency should grant access to information with terms and conditions.
The Agency also has the responsibility to gather, analyse, manage, and disseminate environmental information for which it is granted the right of access to all environmental information of a public nature which it shall properly manage and determine the deficiency in any such information. Under the new Act, the Agency, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, may adopt strategies and measures to mainstream environmental education in learning institutions.
In conclusion, therefore, the new EPA Act provides opportunities for the sound and effective protection of the environment through inclusive, participatory, and people-centered approaches. Sierra Leoneans must therefore put all hands on deck to ensure a safer, cleaner, and more sustainable environment.