Environment and Human Rights in Africa

Environmental justice’s two basic premises are first – 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, and second – that it is predominantly the poorest and least powerful people who are missing these opportunities.

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 Various types of waste are exported to Africa including recycling electronic waste, expired food, pharmaceutical, outdated or unwanted goods, aging vehicles and/or poorly maintained, prohibited pesticides etc.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.

Access to justice in environmental matters means that people are better informed and that people can have their say in decision-making and environmental challenges. Access to justice requires procedural rights of access to information and participation. It also requires that environmental rights are protected so that citizens have an opportunity to seek redress whenever there is a failure to respect environmental rights.

Environmental justice can only be ensured through the meaningful involvement of communities in the development of law, programmes and policies concerning natural resources. In order to strengthen environmental justice, not only is there a need to have a good governance structure characterized by strong environmental legislation and explicit constitutional provisions, there should also be public access to decision-making and information.

In sub-Saharan Africa there are many environmental laws geared towards protecting the environment but they are poorly enforced. The lack of political will on the part of African governments to enforce environmental regulations or to adopt new regulations that will safeguard the environment from degradation is partly caused by international pressure to attract foreign investments. These lead to economic benefits derived from the activities of the degrading industries in the form of revenues and employment opportunities. The economic importance of petroleum, timber extraction, import of outdated technologies for the manufacturing industry and mining to national development is such that environmental considerations are given marginal attention. This has led to the transfer of environmentally polluting industries and technologies to Africa with adverse consequences for its environment.

Lack of access to justice may be due to either corruption or procedural injustices in the legal systems. The effect of this denial of access to judicial remedy is rampant abuse of power and corruption, as public officials are not legally bound to be accountable to their citizens. Violators are not punished properly and for many judges environmental cases are not a priority. Citizens, especially the poorest, may be denied access to justice when they are unable to pay legal fees.

Lack of access to justice also contributes to the degradation of the environment in sub-Saharan Africa. It not only affects the ability of citizens (especially the poor) to demand the protection of the environment that is essential to their livelihoods and survival, but also hampers the efforts of individuals or organizations interested in environmental protection. This is even more critical where the environmental resources being degraded are national resources for which no particular person can claim specific tenure rights such as forests and water resources.

African authorities will not protect the environment unless there is a strong people’s movement supporting environmental issues. The use of law, environmental awareness and grassroots action can play a major role in the protection of the environment and human rights.

The role of civil society organizations including NGOs in promoting or procuring access to justice for the poor should be supported and strengthened. A free media is also instrumental in highlighting environmental problems and encouragement of greater pollution compliance in both the public and the private sectors.

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.