DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: "Environmental Rights"

Human Rights Dialogue: "Environmental Rights" (Spring 2004)

September 12, 2004

1. In “Environmental Rights as a Matter of Survival,” about Cambodia’s fishing communities, Blake Ratner quotes fisher Ning Savat as saying that human rights and the environment are “related in every way.” Why, then, is the connection between human rights and environmental degradation only recently gaining widespread attention?

2. Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s article describes how the Inuit in the Arctic are seeking to hold governments accountable for the devastating consequences of climate change. They claim that global warming is threatening their ability to survive as a hunting-based culture. Can a claim like this be framed as a human rights violation? If so, how do we identify the duty bearer—that is, the person, government, or group to be held responsible?

3. Peter Veit and Catherine Benson write about the clash between efforts to preserve wildlife and those to protect people in an article focusing on Africa’s national wildlife parks. Likewise, Alison Renteln discusses the difficult balance between protecting cultural rights and preserving endangered species. How should policymakers resolve such competing aims? Should indigenous populations that “illegally” occupy their ancestral lands always be given legal status? Who should decide? Is it possible for some traditional cultural practices to be accommodated within environmental protection schemes? Are there cultural practices that are so environmentally harmful that they ought to be curtailed regardless of who engages in them?

4. The recognition of the right to a healthy environment would usually be considered a step forward for the progress of human rights. Yet some instances of protecting this right have brought deleterious consequences for certain groups, as Kelly Alley and Daniel Meadows report when discussing the impact of pollution control measures in Delhi on some of India’s poorest laborers. Should green policies, such as those devised by Delhi officials, be seen as a step forward or backward for human rights? Can the argument be made that human rights of all Delhi residents are, in the long run, better served by such policies? Even though some groups may be harmed in the short run? Why or why not? To what extent could future efforts be designed to minimize this conflict?

5. Jeffery Atik states in his commentary on environmental justice movements that these movements are often inadequate because they simply involve redistributing the burden of the environmental harm while doing nothing to rectify the overarching problem. If this is the case, what kinds of approaches might better address the root causes? What barriers might such alternative approaches face?

6. Should environmental rights be understood principally as procedural rights, i.e., the right of individuals or communities to be recognized and to participate in decision-making processes that affect them? Or should environmental rights be construed as substantive rights, along with civil and political rights? The case of Tagbanwa (see “A Choice for Indigenous Communities in the Philippines,” by Maurizio Farhan Ferrari and Dave de Vera) suggests that a land rights approach is more effective than a participatory rights approach. To what extent is this lesson generalizable?

7. Abigail Abrash Walton, in her discussion of the Freeport McMoRan case in Papua (Indonesia), and Jorge Daniel Taillant, in his article on the enforcement of environmental rights in Latin America, both question whether environmental rights are the best rubric for addressing environmental harms. Rather, they say, it would be more effective to consider these problems as issues of development rights. Are development rights distinct from environmental rights or simply another version of them? To the extent that they are distinct rights, are they compatible with environmental rights approaches? Should the rhetoric of environmental rights be abandoned altogether?