Bob Marley, in the Wailers’ fifth studio album, told the slave drivers to catch ah fire or go to hell, and Brazil’s President since January 2019, Jair Bolsonaro, might as well be telling the rest of the world to catch a fire with his irresponsible unconcern as millions of hectares of the world’s biggest rainforest burn to the ground. As we share, comment and post the disturbing images on social media we must not forget that this is not just a problem caused by environmental change but a human problem; a problem driven by eroding human rights through corruption and unconscionable capitalism.
Human rights and environmental sustainability are highly interdependent. A healthy environment is one of the cornerstones of some of our basic human rights – like the right to a standard of living that ensures one’s health and well-being, and our safety and security. On the other hand, our rights to freedom of expression and access to justice allow us all to be advocates and stewards of responsible environmental decision making. Neither exists in its full extent without the other.
You should not be surprised then, that eleven of the top fifteen countries on Yale’s 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) also fall within the top twenty countries on the global 2018 Human Freedom Index, with twelve of the EPI’s top fifteen also ranking within the top twenty ‘cleanest’ countries on Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. As countries become more corrupt and throw human rights to the side, their natural environment suffers.
Public participation is at the core of these rights. The right to participate, directly or indirectly, in political and public decision-making is central to a well-functioning democracy. Where everyone’s voice counts, from the politicians to the marginalised, equitable and sustainable development has the best chance of realisation. Once again we should not be surprised that President Bolsonaro’s second day in office was marked by the signing of Provisional Measure 870/2019 which effectively constricted the role of civil society in Brazil, while handing over the responsibility for managing indigenous lands from Brazil’s national agency for indigenous peoples, to the Ministry of Agriculture. Following this on April 2019, the President issued an executive order immediately eliminating over 600 civil society councils whose mandate it was to engage in public participation and advocacy. Four months later, the Amazon’s fires are big enough to see from space.
A line can be drawn connecting these actions to the global crisis happening to the lungs of the Earth. As the world tries to decide on what a response to this tragedy might look like, we all need to look closer to our homes, countries and civic responsibilities. It is sometimes easier, in the face of such complex phenomena such as climate change, land degradation or species extinction, to feel incapacitated by the scale and magnitude of these issues. However, these problems affect all of us in many different ways and we need to use our voices, now more than ever, to hold our neighbours, companies and governments accountable for their environmental stewardship.
We in the Latin American and Caribbean Region (LAC) have a real opportunity. Our governance agencies have developed the first binding legal treaty instrument that seeks to ensure that persons have access to information that affects their lives, that provides them with avenues for justice, and which protects their fundamental human right to a safe environment. The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (known as the Escazú Agreement) was adopted in March 2018 to member countries in the LAC Region and is currently open for signatures and ratification. Through this treaty, the Region has indicated that environmental human rights must be enhanced as a matter of concern. It is imperative that countries in the region sign and ratify but this is not enough (Brazil itself signed in September 2018 without ratifying). We as citizens of one of the most biodiverse regions in the world must understand that concern for the declining health and sustainability of the natural environment is not just important to the ‘tree hugger’ activists; it is an existential threat to our human well-being.
Trinidad and Tobago historically has some of the most progressive environmental legislation and frameworks in the LAC Region but an unenviable track record in environmental accountability and sustainability. We need to change this.
Civil society strongly urges the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to take the opportunity to sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, to join a region that is hopefully learning from its mistakes. Our Government must demonstrate its commitment to sustainable development through this action, and we, as citizens, must refuse to continue this rampant exploitation of our natural capital or we’ll all catch ah fire in the end.
Omar Mohammed is the Chief Executive Officer of The Cropper Foundation, a technical non-profit organisation advancing sustainability in the Caribbean region. The Cropper Foundation and its partners – the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI), the EquiGov Institute and Environment Tobago are leading on public awareness and advocacy for the signing and ratification of the Escazú Agreement by the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.