Theorising Indigenous impact assessment to advance a decolonising agenda

Dyanna Jolly - IIRC20
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The emerging field of Indigenous impact assessment is under-developed compared to other forms of impact assessment, particularly in terms of its theoretical foundation. Yet appropriate theoretical positioning is critical to conceptualising Indigenous impact assessment in a way that reflects self-determination and furthers a decolonising agenda.

In this presentation, we address that gap by highlighting the results of our current research on the conundrum in Indigenous practice, exemplified in the context of cultural impact assessments in Aotearoa New Zealand. Employing an Indigenist research approach, we have engaged in in-depth conversations with 27 practitioners highly experienced in cultural impact assessment processes throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, and with hapū (sub-tribal) members involved in a particular localised impact assessment process.

Our results indicate that while Iwi (tribal groups) and hapū use cultural impact assessments to identify and assess the effects of proposed activities themselves, the outcomes of such input are highly variable and unreliable in terms of providing strategic value as one of a number of tools for achieving Indigenous aspirations. This is attributed to, in part, to the ability of project and policy proponents, and decision makers, to accommodate the comprehensive and integrated view of impacts that Indigenous communities prioritise. To date, there has been little reflection and analysis as to what it means (or could mean) to practice Indigenous impact assessment in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In response to our findings, we seek to stimulate a re-configuration of impact assessment practice that acknowledges the right of Indigenous peoples to define their own means of shaping the future proactively, including through the impact assessment process. Hence, we then base our further deliberation in an Indigenous planning paradigm, reflecting our desire to centre Indigenous worldviews and approaches, and explore the dynamics of power, structure and agency within people and place-based realities and experiences. In doing so, we establish a theoretical and practical space for Indigenous impact assessment that confirms its legitimacy as a parallel form of impact assessment, owned by Indigenous communities.

At a national level, we argue that this provides a guiding framework to undertake a critical Indigenous analysis of how far cultural impact assessments go to deliver outcomes Māori define as positive. At an international level, we argue that this provides an empowering opportunity for communities to set their own parameters for impact assessment within their wider aspirations, conventions and structures, and a transformative opportunity to improve the performance of impact assessment in relation to Indigenous communities.