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Access to justice in environmental matters is critical to the realisation of environmental rights. Promoting such
access requires a multi-pronged approach and the involvement of a diverse group of stakeholders. It also
requires taking on board institutional forms and institutional norms that may not yet be formally recognized.
There are, however, interventions at different levels that can foster access to justice in environmental disputes.
These interventions need to keep in mind a sustainable development approach, the agenda of which is very
similar to that of environmental justice, in terms of equity.

Aadya Singh

In December 1984 in Bhopal, India, a toxic cloud of deadly methyl isocyanate was released from a
Union Carbide chemical plant, an incident that, to date, has resulted in thousands dead and many
more injured. Twenty-five years after the disaster, people are still suffering severe health effects and
have not been adequately compensated.
The name Cancer Alley refers to the area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New
Orleans, Louisiana, USA. Here, over a hundred chemical and oil companies have set up along the
river, often near poor and/or minority communities. Residents in these areas suffer disproportionate
exposure to the environmental hazards that come with living near chemical waste. Cases of rare
cancers are reported in these communities in numbers far above the national average.
In Nigerias Ogoniland, Shell Petroleum Development Corporation continues to reap profits from oil
exploration almost none of which reach the local people, who instead suffer from oil spills,
contamination of drinking water supplies, erosion of land, adverse health effects, and displacement.

It has been my opinion, that he who receives an estate from his ancestors is under some kind
of obligation to transmit the same to their posterity.
-Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklins opinion is one that paves the way for the idea of sustainable

development, as defined by the Brundtland Commission report of 1987 as a development

which would meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of

future generations to meet their own needs". However, the stewardship of the planet is not a

guideline followed by most people, organizations or governments. Be it for purely moral or

humanitarian reasons, the concept of solidarity with the Earth as a whole is still alien to

many, save a few conscious persons and organizations. Deep ecology1 may be a philosophy

known to many but it is not practiced by most; earth care or earth love is just a literary

concept for now. Today the environment is commodifiable, and sadly, most religious tenets2,

philosophies and opinions borne of practicality further the same notion.

In both the industrialized and developing parts of the world a growing body of

evidence demonstrates that the poor and other disenfranchised groups have been the greatest

victims of environmental degradation.3 There is also substantial evidence that much

environmental damage on a global scale can be attributed to the actions of richer nations, or

richer groups within nations; with poorer nations or poorer groups within nations being the

chief victims.4 Not only do industrialised countries currently take far more than a fair share

of the Earths resources, but they are historically responsible for a wide range of over-use of

environmental resources. This has been called the ecological debt5 of the First World to the

Third World. Some claim that this debt is even larger than the external debt - the financial

debt which poor countries are currently servicing.

At the heart of the concept of sustainable development is the fulfillment of the basic

needs of the worlds poor without compromising the capacity of the environment to provide

similar benefits for future generations. International instruments have concentrated mainly on

the economic dimension of sustainable development. In legal terms, the concept of

sustainable development has in many cases been equated with sustained economic growth.6

Deep ecology, a term coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Nss in 1973, referring to an ecological
philosophy that considered humankind as an integral part of its environment, emphasizing the equal value of
human and non-human life.
God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus
under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in
like manner.- Vatican Council II (1966), Gaudium et Spes n.69.
United Nations Environment Programme 2007 Global Environmental Outlook 2007.
World Resources Institute 2002 Wastes Produced from Industrialised Countries. Available at
Martinez-Alier (1998)
Pallemaerts, M. (1993).

The human dimension has been neglected while the environment aspect has been tailored to

fit within the prevalent economic paradigm. Further, human rights that constitute an integral

part of the realization of sustainable development have hardly been considered in this context.

Evidence around the world supports the claim that environmental and human rights

issues are closely linked and often exist simultaneously. For instance, in Burma, the ruling

military regime continues to use slave labor and wreak havoc in the countrys vast teak

forests. Moneys from timber sales reportedly go to support military assassinations of ethnic

and religious minorities opposed to the destruction of their land and communities.7 Forests

of Fear, a report published by the UK-based environmental group Fern clearly links the

disappearance of the worlds forests with the horrifying catalogue of human rights abuses

taking place as a result of conflicts between forest people and the powerful government and

corporate interests within forests. The report calls for prioritizing the defense of human rights

as the primary solution to solving the forest crisis.8 Such examples point out the possibility

that environmental injustices are generally more prevalent in nations where human rights

protection mechanisms are weak.

Environmental Justice is a concept that brings together environmental problems and

social injustices. It links environmental science to the repercussions of such activities and

debates on ecological rights, justice and equity. It deals with the distribution of environmental

goods and services, in terms of the creators of negative externalities and the sufferers. It is a

radical environmental movement that has evolved from civil society groups, angered at what

they perceive as the unjust distribution of environmental resources and, conversely the

unjust distribution of environmental damages.

Forests of Fear: The Abuse of Human Rights in Forest Conflicts. FERN Report (November 2001). Available

This concept of environmental justice, or eco-justice embraces two objectives. The

first is to ensure that rights and responsibilities regarding the utilization of environmental

resources are distributed with greater fairness among communities both globally and

domestically. This entails ensuring that poor and marginalized communities do not suffer a

disproportionate burden of the costs of development of resources, while not enjoying

equivalent benefits from their utilization. The second is to reduce the overall amount of

environmental damage both domestically and globally. This latter aspect of eco- justice has

been included in various international instruments including principle 7 of the Rio

Declaration, which holds that: "to achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of

life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production

and consumption..."

The movement for environmental justice started as a movement of local civil

society groups against local environmental injustice and the inequitable distribution of

environmental damages, chiefly in USA. It is now becoming a movement that encompasses

international environmental injustices and issues of access to environmental goods,

discussing environmental justice issues both across countries and also across generations. The

movement now includes a collaboration of non-governmental organizations with

environmental scientists, professionals, and lawyers, all working on the issue of the

distributions of environmental harms and the rights of everyone to a healthy environment.

One definition of environmental justice that was pulled together by NGOs and academics in

the UK in 2011:

that everyone should have the right and be able to live in a healthy environment, with access
to enough environmental resources for a healthy life
that responsibilities are on this current generation to ensure a healthy environment exists for
future generations, and on countries, organisations and individuals in this generation to

ensure that development does not create environmental problems or distribute environmental
resources in ways which damage other peoples health9

Todays definition of environmental justice is beginning to shift discourses from

climate change to climate justice, from water pollution to rights to clean water, air

pollution to rights to healthy air. Environmental protection is thus becoming part of a

larger social justice movement that not only aims at protecting nature, but strives to achieve a

more reasonable balancing of the costs and benefits of environmental protection across

human societies as well. In other words, it is shifting the goals of environmental protection

towards taking into account the needs of the poorer sections of the community that have

suffered the environmental consequences of industrialisation more that others.10

As prominent Indian critic of globalization Vandana Shiva notes, globalization of

trade and investment in recent decades has increased the destruction of the environment and

local, sustainable livelihoods.11 As the world moves towards an urbanized globalization,

cities are the loci for many local issues of environmental damage, some of which have

substantial repercussions on the global scale. It is increasingly evident that cities are one of

the main generators of greenhouse gases and hence climate change. Such actions are linked

not only to the well-being of overall ecosystems but also to the well-being of people


National sovereignty has been eroded in many respects by the growing trend of

corporate globalization, including dramatic increases in international flows of private capital

and the sheer size and scope of multinational corporations. Yet some nations remain much

more powerful than others, and they strive in various ways to maintain and enhance their

power and privileges, including, on occasion, intentionally inflaming prejudice and inter-

ethnic tensions.

Stephens C., Bullock S. and Scott A (2001).
Gadgil and Guha (1994).
Shiva, V. (1999)

Women tend to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental and natural resource

degradation, especially in societies where they are responsible for collecting firewood and

water, and providing food for the family. Deforestation, water pollution and resource scarcity

result in women having to walk longer distances and working much harder to collect life-

sustaining resources for their families. Environmental justice, therefore, has a particular

significance for women. The lack of gender sensitivity and the failure to pay adequate

attention to the rights and needs of women results in women being frequently overlooked in

decision-making processes, including those related to natural resources. This led to the

reiteration at the Beijing conference12 that womens rights are human rights.

Other very divisive and difficult obstacles are prejudice and discrimination based on

skin color, ethnicity, religion, and national origin. These remain formidable barriers to the

realization of a globally shared sense of purpose, responsibility, and future. Despite some

positive trends in the twentieth century, prejudice and related discrimination still pose a great

global threat to achieving true environmental justice and sustainable development.

Ensuring environmental justice requires policies and actions which treat people

equitably, and policies and actions to address current and historical injustices. Environmental

justice also cuts across many policy areas: health, transport, housing, employment, waste, and

policies for many social groups.

In this rich context, research13 shows that to achieve environmental justice, there are

four broad areas where changes in policy and practice are needed:

1. Rights and responsibilities: Ensuring a right to a healthy environment is an overarching

aim of policy, which must be supported by placing responsibilities on individuals and

organisations to ensure this right is achieved.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995.
Environmental Justice: Rights and Means to a Healthy Environment for all. ESRC-FOE Report. (2001)

2. Assessment: Projects and policies need to be assessed for their distributional impacts.

3. Participation and capacity: Decision-making should involve those affected, and those

groups or individuals enduring environmental injustices need support in order to increase

their control over decisions which affect them.

4. Integration: of social and environmental policy aims.

Attaining sustainable development in a broad-based and structural manner will require

much greater focus on efforts to attain environmental justice. This focus must entail specific

actions, including the development of laws, policies, programs, and projects that strive to

harmonize and integrate natural resource protection and management initiatives with efforts

focused on promoting equitable and wise use of the natural environment.

In Europe, the public is gaining more access to information on environmental costs

and damages through policy mechanisms such as the Aarhus convention,14 and

internationally, civil society groups are becoming aware that there are mechanisms to support

them if they challenge environmental pollution.

By studying the gradual emergence and strengthening of the environmental justice

lobby in the UK, it is possible to gain valuable lessons for the implementation of

environmental justice in a developing country like India. A special briefing by the Economic

and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Friends of the Earth (FOE) on Environmental

justice: Rights and means to a healthy environmental for all suggests that by looking at

social justice issues through an environmental lens, and vice versa, it becomes more

plausible, and easier to deal with both, in an inclusive way rather than separately. Though the

report focuses on issues and experiences from the US and the UK, the cover page ironically

The Aarhus convention, a Treaty of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) signed
on June 25, 1998 in the Danish city of Aarhus, grants the public rights regarding access to information, public
participation and access to justice, in governmental decision-making processes on matters concerning the local,
national and trans-boundary environment.

features a picture from Kolkata, India, where artisan tank-makers are shown risking serious

occupational hazards building water tanks for wealthier citizens.

Another important vision the ESRC-FOE report gives is that of the involvement of

Governments, which are pressed to address environmental injustice problems from a social

inclusion perspective. On the other hand, the report also warns governments, as well as

companies that are themselves benefitting from environmental justices, pointing out that

sooner than later, people suffering from environmental harm will be increasingly able to seek

redress and defend their right to a healthy environment. Hence, governments and

companies which act early to change policies and practices to reduce environmental

injustices, and look ahead to meet the challenges of how to distribute scarce environmental

resources, will be much better placed than those that react later.

As pointed out by the ESRC-FOE Report, the realization of environmental justice and

sustainable development requires the active involvement and support of those most affected

by the absence of environmental justice and sustainable development. The best strategy for

encouraging and sustaining active involvement and support would be the effective promotion

of participatory democracy. This requires the establishment and implementation of

procedural rights, such as the right to receive and disseminate information, the right to

participate meaningfully in planning and decision-making processes, and the right to effective

remedies in administrative or judicial proceedings.

The close and profound relationships that many local communities share with the

environment must be respected and recognized. This will require creating holistic and

integrated approaches that include the meaningful participation of directly affected

individuals and communities, while simultaneously promoting rights to information and


New paradigms to address current problems must likewise reflect sensitivity to gender

issues and differences in language and culture. Similarly North-South sensibilities, which

have a substantial bearing on issues of judicial equality, need to be taken into consideration,

and attempts to reach fair and mutual decisions merit greater support. This involves efforts

aimed at building trust and establishing transparent communication channels. Strengthening

the independence of the media and providing more diverse and balanced reporting is crucial

in this endeavour.

Encouraging sustainable lifestyles in overly consumptive societies is another

imperative to ensure that we achieve levels of development that can support the Earths

current and future populations and equitably address growing inequalities in material wealth

and human well-being.

With the rise of corporate globalization and the dominance of free-market ideology,

measures to enforce accountability of corporations, international financial institutions, and

private individual investors need to be strengthened and enforced, especially since voluntary

observance of such norms has proven inadequate. With regard to environmental justice, the

performance of these institutions must be measured and monitored in terms of adherence to

human rights and environmental standards, including global institutions like the World Trade


Civil society needs, more than ever before, to network and coalesce its efforts towards

promoting democracy, environmental justice, and sustainable development. Governmental

and inter-governmental agencies need to work closely with and understand the needs,

demands, and struggles of local communities and civil society institutions striving to amplify

their voices.

Developments in international and national law during the past sixty years have

created some spaces for promoting sustainable development and environmental justice.

Despite these and other positive developments, much more remains to be done. Throughout

much of the world, environmental degradation continues to worsen, and in many places

human and environmental rights continue to be violated.

Legal rights can help advance the cause of human rights, but they are not guarantees

for the attainment of environmental justice and sustainable development. Legal rights need to

be supported by accessible procedures, as well as good governance, political will, and

effective implementation.

Part of the justice discourse in developing countries constructs environmental

protection as a luxury which poor nations and people cannot afford; this construction is

counterproductive. More often than not, environmental protection is crucial to the poor, who

are more primary product and natural-resource dependent than the rich. Farmers, fishermen,

loggers, hunters and gatherers are all less able to escape environmental degradation than are

the well off. The stake of the poor in environmental protection is fundamental. Nevertheless,

it is precisely an uneven distribution of resource use and opportunities that makes global or

even national solutions problematic in terms of justice. Justice hence becomes a necessary

condition for efficacious policy.

The strengthening and promotion of a rights-based approach to environmental justice

deserves concentrated attention and efforts by all actors. Such an approach would serve to

reinforce human rights principles of non-discrimination, gender-equality, non-retrogression,

and the right to remedy. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his 1998 Annual Report on the

Work of the Organization said: the rights-based approach describes situations not simply in

terms of human needs, or of development requirements, but in terms of societys obligations

to respond to the inalienable rights of individuals. It is only by shifting the current focus

from a market-based approach to a rights-based one, that some hope for sustainability and

justice can be upheld.



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