Global environmental problems (e.g. climate change and biodiversity loss), and lack of access to scarce environmental resources (e.g. energy and water), tend to affect the poorest and most vulnerable people hardest. Environmental justice in Africa is all about integrating human rights into sustainable development and environmental planning and services which help to focus interventions more on poor people. Poverty is the result of environmental injustice because poor people have no equal access to and benefit from the Earth’s resources as rich people do.

In major towns and cities, solid and liquid wastes are left untreated. As a result, air and water are contaminated with pollutants. This is a major health hazard for those who live in under-privileged areas. Few people are connected to a sewage system and the ones that exist disgorge their waste directly onto agricultural land or into other residential areas.

There is a worldwide recognition that chemical contamination may result in grave danger to human health and the environment. Since Africa is likely to face increasing challenges of controlling pollution and resource degradation, it is necessary to promote modern environmentally friendly sound technologies that are less polluting, use resources in a more suitable manner and recycle more of their by-products. Various types of waste are exported to Africa including recycling electronic waste, expired food, pharmaceutical, outdated or unwanted goods, aging vehicles and/or poorly maintained, prohibited pesticides etc. Africa has thus become a dumping ground for external companies. For a great number of high volume production chemicals, even basic data for risk assessment are generally lacking. It is therefore necessary to have good knowledge and assessment of these risks, which is a prerequisite for planning for their safe and beneficial use, recycling and disposal.

Environmental justice also involves protecting the poor against harmful substances and pollution from waste. Within the continued rapid industrialization of the African economies and the trends in the transfer of highly polluting industries, the flow of toxic chemicals and dangerous products is bound to increase in the region. African countries should now initiate action on creating a regional management guide for the environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes.

In Africa, the livelihoods of the majority are dependent on natural resources such as energy, land, animals, water and forests. Yet, local users often have no access to information concerning natural resource planning, and no right to participate in decision-making process affecting their natural resources.

Principles of environmental justice:

  • The people most affected by environmental degradation are the poor, there is therefore an urgent need to strengthen the capacity of the poor and their representatives to defend environmental rights. This ensures that the weaker sections of society are not prejudiced by environmental degradation; and are enabled to enjoy their right to live in a social and physical environment that respects and promotes their dignity;
  • Tackling the impact of environmental problems facing the poor is part of the social inclusion agenda;
  • Everyone has a right to a healthy environment and to access to natural resources on which their livelihoods depend;
  • People affected by environmental problems should be able to get hold of information about what is happening in their area, have compensation for the exploitation of their natural resources and related knowledge and practices. They should be empowered to change things;
  • Access to justice, participation in environmental decision-making and access to environmental information are the key pillars of environmental procedural rights.

Priority Action:

  • Campaigning with the representatives of the poor to place environmental rights within national legislations and to ensure that all natural resources benefit the many and not the few;
  • Help communities pursue environmental justice by enhancing communities’ access to natural resources and secure their rights through increased capacity to participate in the management of these resources;
  • Help people and communities understand environment laws relevant to their circumstances; and how to use the law to their own benefit.