ISDR Informs The Americas

Economic Development and Environmental Protection Thoughts from a law perspective

Look what it took for humans to be human! Look what it took for us to realize that the resources on our spaceship called Earth are finite and do not automatically replenish themselves! In order for us to understand this, we have had to go through different stages, difficult and slow at first, though somewhat quicker in recent times.

Articulating with a broad-based consensus the idea of “fundamental law,” which would recognize, first and foremost, the respect of life, liberty, equality and human dignity, and embodying this idea in a written code baptized Constitution were achievements that took centuries to attain and were the outcome of the birth of the modern State —that liberal, minimalist State that was limited to guaranteeing people’s private lives and security, as well as justice when needed. Of course it was not always so effective in practice, but at least the idea of the civil and political rights spread throughout the known world.

Industrialization brought the concentration of economic resources in the hands of the dominant few, while most people, simple workers, saw their rights being violated. This situation sparked numerous protests aimed at reclaiming their social, economic and cultural rights. As a result, societies wrote constitutions in the mid-19th century that enshrined the social State based on the rule of law —a State that is more involved with and supportive of its citizenry— attaining what we know as “second generation rights” through the so-called “welfare State.”

Following these, “third generation rights” came to light in the mid-20th century, in response to unfettered, negligent industrial growth for which economic profit is a priority, even if this means harming the environment and people’s quality of life, many times irreversibly.

These rights do not displace the earlier fundamental rights, but rather, complement them by stopping abuses that could put our entire way of life in jeopardy.

Now we have the “ecological guarantees of economic rights,” which entail rights and, in turn, responsibilities for all those under their protection. This movement started voicing its views globally in the Stockholm Declaration of 1972, followed by numerous agreements, such as the Earth Summit, held in Rio in 1992. Then, in 2005, the UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction was held in Kobe, Japan, which resulted in the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), a document that includes specific, concrete measures to be taken between 2005 and 2015.

At the same time, governments around the world have been amending their constitutions to bring them into line with the new legal concept that protection of the environment is a fundamental right. For example, in 1994, Argentina amended article 41 of its Constitution, enshrining environmental protection as a right and responsibility, to ensure that it is the right of everyone to “enjoy a healthy environment and the responsibility of all to preserve it.” Authorities must guarantee this right and make it a guiding principle of their social and economic policy, embodying the concept of sustainable development, which from our standpoint can be simply defined as economic development with environmental protection.

It is clear that an optimal solution to this issue is a long way off. Successes are few and the path is slow. It will entail costly changes in production systems and, especially, education and information at all levels, to make our environmental stewardship effective.

The important thing is that the path has been blazed. Let us follow it without pause, for the well-being of present and future generations. There is no shortage of laws. What we need is to get the word out about this specific legislation. When people and organizations are knowledgeable, understand these pressing issues and exercise their rights, they will be able to have fair legal protection that in turn will enable them to commit to a sustained, integrated environmental protection. “Information sharing,” one of the aspects highlighted in the HFA, should include information on “environmental rights.” In this way, different social and institutional sectors will be able to strengthen their actions aimed at “ensuring that disaster risk reduction is a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation” (HFA, Priority for Action 1).

Dr. Ana Lía Kraan
Environmental law specialist
San Nicolás, Buenos Aires, Argentina