Worldwatch Paper #127: Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment

December 1995
Aaron Sachs
ISBN: 1-878071-29-7
68 pages

The recent execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa for the "crime" of organizing an environmental campaign tragically underscores the findings of a study from the Worldwatch Institute--that the ravages of environmental exploitation are often backed up by brutal human rights violations. Documented cases not only in Nigeria but also in the United States, Brazil, Kenya, the Philippines, China, and many other countries reveal a systematic sweeping aside of communities and individuals who suffer from and then protest environmental damage.

The report, Eco-Justice: Linking Human Rights and the Environment, by Worldwatch Research Associate Aaron Sachs, also reveals that the most common victims of environmental and human rights abuses are impoverished minorities who already face societal discrimination, and who have limited resources for mounting protests.

"The Ogoni people of Nigeria," Sachs stated, "whom Ken Saro-Wiwa represented, are just one of hundreds of marginalized communities around the world who are losing their livelihoods, traditional cultures, and even their lives as loggers, ranchers, and oil drillers cash in on their environments. And all too often, as the Nigerian tragedy demonstrates, when people organize to defend themselves and to request compensation for lost jobs and deteriorating health, their appeals are met with harassment, beatings, imprisonment, or even murder."

Fortunately, Sachs reports, new and dynamic coalitions of human rights activists and environmentalists are beginning to challenge this pattern of environmental exploitation. By guaranteeing basic civil liberties--such as free speech and assembly and the right to due process--activists can help local people get more involved in development plans and thus prevent both social inequities and ecological harm.

Sachs lists several examples of environment-related human rights violations, among them:

The 1988 assassination of Chico Mendes, leader of the protest against Amazon deforestation--just one of more than 1,000 land-related murders in rural Brazil documented by Amnesty International in the 1980s.

In 1992, a group of women peacefully protesting the imprisonment of several other environmentalists were beaten unconscious by Nairobi police.

In 1994, a journalist in Cambodia was found dead two days after being warned by police to stop investigating the military's illegal involvement in the country's timber industry.

In 1995, a bomb blew up the office of an environmental organization in the coastal city of Zakynthos, Greece, a few hours after a local politician announced that he wouldn't mind "throwing all ecologists out of town." The environmentalists, one of whom was injured in the blast, had been lobbying peacefully to protect the nesting area of an endangered turtle from damage by tourism.

The activists who suffer such human rights abuses are almost always engaged in broader struggles for the health of their communities and their local environments. Community-level campaigns for environmental justice include:

In Nigeria, the Ogoni are fighting the government-sponsored ravages of the Shell Petroleum Development Company; of Shell's oil spills over the last decade in the 100 or so countries where it operates, 40 percent have occurred in Nigeria.

The Udege forest people of Siberia are taking on Russian, Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. logging firms, whose operations have destroyed the Udege's resource base and caused severe soil erosion and siltation of river systems.

The Yami people of Orchid Island, Taiwan, are protesting the government's storage of nuclear waste in rusting metal drums in a facility that the tiny ethnic minority never agreed to allow on their lands.

In China, both environmentalists and human rights activists have been fighting the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, which is expected to displace at least 1.4 million local farmers and villagers--adding to the 80-90 million people around the world who have had to make way for large infrastructure projects just over the past decade.

At the local level, environmental justice campaigns have linked human rights and environmental activists for years, from China to India to Brazil to the United States. Perhaps the best-known result of such collaborative campaigns is the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in the Brazilian rain forest. This reserve, half the size of the state of New Jersey, permits rubber tappers and indigenous peoples to live their lives unhampered by loggers and ranchers. Other successes include:

In southern India, a local development society helps organize communities of women villagers to establish credit programs, cultivate and use medicinal herbs, incorporate multi-cropping systems into local agriculture, and plant trees.

In the Peruvian Amazon, the Yanesha Indians maintain a sustainable forestry co-op that protects the rain forest from clear-cutting by ranchers and developers while the Indians earn a living exporting forest products to Europe and the United States.

In Burkina Faso, a program targeting 240 marginal farming villages and emphasizing community participation managed to transform the average family's food deficit of 645 kilograms per year into a 150-kilogram surplus--thanks to small-scale dryland agriculture projects the farmers designed and implemented themselves.

In northern Australia, Kakadu National Park is co-managed by the government park service and the aborigines who have inhabited the region for 50,000 years. Together they have fostered effective nature conservation, the preservation of traditional communities and cultures, and a tourist industry that provides income.

Sachs suggests that achieving social justice and making development environmentally sustainable will require the human rights and environmental movements to join forces not just at the grassroots level but also at the regional and international levels. Together, the two groups of activists could continue to devise creative, community-based conservation and development schemes, and they might also be able to convince policymakers to enshrine in international law each person's right to a healthy and healthful environment. As the late Ken Saro-Wiwa once wrote, "The environment is man's first right."

Perhaps the most effective strategy for guaranteeing a healthy environment, the Worldwatch study argues, is to adopt the human rights approach and protect the basic civil liberties that allow communities to defend themselves. As Sachs states, "If all the vulnerable members of society--the impoverished, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, women, children--had access to environmental information and could exercise their right to free speech, then potential polluters and profligate consumers would no longer be able to treat them as expendable, and would have to seek alternatives to their polluting activities and their overconsumption."

Human rights activists have taught environmentalists that confronting the dumpers with the dumped-on may well be the best way of protecting the right of the next generation to inherit a planet worth inhabiting.