Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 11 (Spring 2004): Environmental Rights: SECTION 2 THE CONFLICT BETWEEN RIGHTS AND ENVIRONMENTALISM: Commentary on "The conflict between rights and environmentalism"

Apr 26, 2004

As the first set of essays demonstrate, in today’s world human rights and environmental protection are inextricably linked. Yet the protection of the rights of people and of the places they inhabit are not always complementary aims. The essays in this section vividly illustrate that efforts to protect the environment from the “bio-degenerative consequences of human action” — specifically, the protection of biodiversity, the implementation of pollution controls, and the protection of endangered species — can run the risk of colliding with human rights norms.

In the first essay, Peter Veit and Catherine Benson describe one of the better known, and all too widespread, types of conflict: between conservation measures and the people (usually indigenous) who inhabit the targeted lands. This conflict pits conservation-first advocates, many of whom are self-avowedly “anti-people,” against human rights advocates who are seeking a better alternative to species and habitat protection than coercive conservation. Under the coercive conservation practices of certain African governments (often with the backing and encouragement of international conservation organizations), indigenous people have been tortured, shot, and killed in anti-poaching operations. As Ian Khama, then commandant of the Botswana Defense Force and now Vice President of Botswana, told National Geographic writer Douglas Lee, “No country can ignore armed men crossing its borders…. We took on the poachers aggressively — we actually shot a few of them.”

Alternatives to coercive conservation have not always reaped the desired results, largely because the affected peoples are usually denied the procedural rights to participate in conservation decision-making. For example, under ecotourism schemes, affected communities — most often poor indigenous peoples — are often denied income from the initiatives. Compensation and relocation planners — particularly those within the World Bank, which funds many of the conservation projects globally — generally focus attention on loss of residence rather than loss of access to a traditional lifestyle and means of livelihood. Beyond the problem of deviation from the standards intended to alleviate the negative effects upon displaced peoples is the problem of the standards themselves: World Bank guidelines on resettlement mandate merely the restoration, and not the actual improvement, of standards of living, which arguably should be part of a human rights agenda. Veit and Benson demonstrate that even the minimal standards are often not enforced and that those seeking a balance between human rights and environmental goals must be vigilant about respecting the procedural rights of affected peoples.

Kelly Alley and Daniel Meadows describe a rarer instance of conflict between rights and environmentalism. In the case of Delhi, India, the conflict between pollution remediation efforts and human rights turns the traditional conception of environmental justice on its head. Whereas we are accustomed to hearing of minority and other politically marginal groups that have been subjected to harm by the presence of nearby toxic waste, in this instance the poor and disenfranchised are vulnerable to industrial pollution remediation efforts supported by the middle class. While the Indian middle class and Western observers hail Delhi’s Supreme Court justice Kuldip Singh as the “Green Judge,” critics charge that the only “pollution” that is really being moved out of the city is the unsightliness of shanty towns and slums that are home to India’s poorest workers. Similar to the cases of protected areas, the path to avoiding the problem is to open up the deliberative process of defining public interest to include workers in a way that takes into account the reality of the informal sector. Even if a more legitimately determined notion of public interest were to rest solely on pollution abatement, addressing these problems might require different solutions, such as requiring industry to install pollution control technologies rather than simply relocating them outside the city limits.

Alison Renteln describes the clash between cultural claims to the right to kill and use endangered species and the legal efforts to protect those species — yet a third type of conflict between environmentalism and human rights. Whereas Veit and Benson suggest that indigenous peoples who engage in traditional practices are often the best protectors of nature, Renteln presents examples where this may not be so. She points to a more thorny rights trade-off between cultural rights and environmental rights that will require greater attention from both theorists and practitioners to resolve. Assessing the hierarchy of rights in any given situation requires first an analysis of the empirical validity of the tradeoff argument and, second, an ethical analysis of the moral basis for making the decision to prioritize rights. Renteln ultimately takes the bold step of coming down in favor of environmental rights — not as animal rights but as supporting the survival of species upon which the cultures depend. While her solution points to a framework for engaging these types of problems, each individual situation that arises will again raise questions, such as: How should policymakers strike an appropriate balance between environmental protection and cultural survival? Can some practices be accommodated within environmental protection schemes? Are some practices simply so environmentally harmful that in all cases they need to be curtailed, regardless of who engages in them?

As these essays make clear, the instances of human rights infringements in the course of conservation and pollution control efforts stem from the implementation of environmental measures. They involve a mixture of procedural and substantive rights violations. Procedurally, inadequate inclusion of affected peoples in policy processes that both define and implement “public interest” results in undermining the right to livelihood and corresponding subsistence rights. The type of conflict that Renteln describes is more fundamentally one of substantive (cultural) rights and environmental preservation, which is perhaps why the resolution of each situation is a difficult balancing act. In all three types of situations, a fair resolution demands a recognition that both sets of values matter and must be incorporated into the policy solutions better than they have in the past.

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