Environmental Justice for Inclusive Growth

Environmental Justice for Inclusive Growth

[Editor’s note: Last month, we asked for reflections in the aftermath of the Rio+20 conference. This guest blog post, from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) deputy resident representative in Saudi Arabia, takes a look at what it will take to make progress globally on environmental justice.]

In an effort to review recent progress on the relation between human rights and the environment, in March 2012 a new Resolution on Human Rights and the Environment was issued at the UN Human Rights Council. The Resolution establishes a UN Independent Expert on the right to a ‘safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ to advocate for a rights perspective for Rio+20 and its follow-up. As expressed by civil society groups during the Rio+20 gathering, a need exists to strengthen our focus on issues of rights and justice, and promote best practices on human rights-based approaches to sustainable development. The twenty years since the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 saw the rise of rights-based approaches and expansion of a transnational environmental justice movement. Environmental justice is an ideal of accountability and fairness in the protection and vindication of rights and the prevention and punishment of wrongs related to environmental impacts on the poor and vulnerable in society. As we advance the post-Rio+20 agenda, progress in three areas will, I believe, prove critical:
  1. Normative Frameworks and Access to Environmental Justice: At the time of the first Rio Summit in 1992, only 60 Constitutions had environmental rights provisions; by 2012 this more than doubled to 140. Recent years have also seen the rise of over 350 specialized environmental courts and tribunals across 40 countries, with courts serving as a check and balance against the majoritarian forces of the legislature and executive. Recent examples include passage in 2010 of India’s Green Tribal Act, and emergence of over 47 local green tribunals across China, both meant to address a surge of community protests in response to rapid growth in both countries.

  2. Ecological Change as Structural Violence: While communities around the world turn to rule of law to address environment impacts, they also confront the fact that in many ways systems of law and justice have been complicit in these very problems. The dominant forms of political economy often serve to institutionalize systems of unequal protection and subsidize ecological destruction. This is particularly important in emerging economies. While in 1992 a majority of the poor lived in LDCs, the majority now reside in Middle Income Countries (MICs). Environmental justice movements are increasingly geared towards the growing gaps in MICs between rich and poor, and urban and rural, with strong underlying factors related to the use of natural resources and the environment, traversing not only North-South divides, but also gaps between developed and developing regions within MICs.

  3. Traditional Paradigms of Justice and Nature: The re-emergence of developing countries at the center of the global economy will open more space for recognition of diverse worldviews on the relation between society, environment and justice. Many environmental justice movements in the South have strong roots from the colonial era and continue to retain a focus on post-colonial perspectives. They seek to redress historical injustices from abuse of society and ecology, and empower traditional conceptions on justice and nature. Ecuador for example has integrated the Rights of Nature into its Constitution, recognizing the existential right of nature based on a traditional indigenous thought, while indigenous empowerment is also at the core of social movements in Brazil and Peru, geared towards issues of social exclusion and sustainability related to the region’s vast mineral wealth.
Understanding the synthesis of global and local norms will be critical to understanding the evolution of environmental rights and justice principles. New institutional frameworks for sustainability should not only make development greener but also more inclusive, fair and just. Achieving a green economy will be about more than market mechanisms and technology transfer; it will also crucially be about issues of governance, justice and accountability.

Kishan Khoday has been the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Deputy Resident representative in Saudi Arabia since 2009. Previously, he served as the UNDP Sustainable Development Advisor and Deputy Coordinator for Environment & Natural Resources in Indonesia (1997–2005) and UNDP Assistant Resident Representative and Team Leader for Energy & Environment in China (2005–2009).