Human Rights and the Environment: How Do We Do Better?

New Security Beat
July 13, 2016
By: Adrienne Bober

2015 was a deadly year for environmental activism. According to Global Witness, 185 activists were killed, a 60 percent increase from 2014. Of the victims, 40 percent were indigenous people, like Berta Cáceres, who spoke at the Wilson Center last year and was shot and killed in her home in Honduras this March. [Video Below]

“Meeting Berta and understanding her commitment to this issue, she knew that there was always the chance…that she along with other leaders would lose their lives,” said Santiago Ali, senior advisor to the administrator for environmental justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States knew “they were constantly putting their lives at risk, that the next day was not promised, but that the sacrifices that they were making was to lead to a better future for everyone,” said Ali. Many of today’s environmental leaders “have the same understanding – that what they are really doing is fighting for civil rights.”

At an event co-sponsored by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, Ali was joined by experts from non-government environment and advocacy organizations to discuss environmental justice and human rights at the Wilson Center on June 22.

Getting to Green 2.0

Environmental justice is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

In the United States, it is a term most commonly invoked around issues of race. Looking at the environmental justice movement, a majority of actors are people of color, but when you look at the mainstream environmental movement, the composition is the opposite, said Whitney Tome, executive director of Green 2.0, an organization that tracks and encourages racial diversity in the U.S. environmental movement.

Tome began to take note of this disparity in her early career working in ocean conservation with the Environmental Defense Fund where she was often “the only person of color who ever showed up in a room.”

Inclusiveness is not just an ethical or moral concern, she said, but a matter of effectiveness. If leadership does not reflect the kind of people environmental groups are working to protect, they are less likely to be effective. In the United States people still lack access to clean air, water, and food, and communities of color tend to be disproportionately affected, said Tome. Yet, in a survey of private and public environmental organizations, Green 2.0 discovered that on average people of color make up no more than 16 percent of staff.

People of color will be a majority in the United States by 2042, said Tome, which will carry significant economic and political leverage as well as important implications for leadership at various levels. “There is the moral case, there is the business case, and there is the political case here.”

Indigenous Inclusion

Indigenous rights are at the heart of this conversation internationally. Some environmental groups have been accused of ignoring local wishes in efforts to conserve biodiversity or wildlife areas or working with corrupt governments and corporations to boost funding.

“There is the moral case, there is the business case, and there is the political case here”

“There is the potential to just get wrapped up at this very international level, and to be having this conversation up there, and maybe you think that everybody is speaking the same language,” said Theresa Buppert, director of indigenous policy and practice at the non-profit, Conservation International. “But then when you come down to a local level, it doesn’t resonate at all and it’s maybe not representative at all of the concerns on the ground.”

Conservation International tries to ensure programs authentically represent stakeholder voices by connecting what is happening on the ground with decision-making at the top. Buppert highlighted two programs as being particularly successful: an indigenous leaders’ conservation fellowship program and an indigenous advisory group that provides feedback on policies and projects.

The fellowship “is an opportunity to recognize indigenous local leaders who…have an idea on how to advance their traditional knowledge,” said Buppert. “Their research can then serve a greater purpose and it can feed back into these higher level discussions.”

One of the first fellows, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, researched climate change’s impact on the Lake Chad area in 2011 and how traditional knowledge can help communities adapt. Ibrahim now is an expert on indigenous rights and climate change, and spoke at the signing of the Paris climate agreement following COP-21.

The Climate Challenge

The rights of individuals forced to move by climate change are an especially difficult new area for human rights, said Maxine Burkett, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center and professor of law at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa.

“Environmental migration falls outside of more traditional protection regimes, like the refugee treaty. And that’s important because legal definitions bind states in ways that descriptive labels cannot.”

Burkett said the absence of a legal framework for those affected by climate change is already aggravating suffering and creating a positive feedback loop in which the most vulnerable are made more so.

In order for there to be climate justice, there needs to be legal infrastructure that binds states to human rights commitments, she said. “The law is supposed to be sort of the walking, talking, demonstration of our ethics, of our public values that we’ve sort of reached by consensus.” But the solutions being proposed for climate change too often focus on what seems politically possible versus what is right.

She pointed to the idea of “climate refugees” as an example. The term has no legal connotation at the moment and some resist creating one because of concerns over how to determine whether someone has been displaced by climate change or another potentially overlapping factor, like poverty. This hesitance shifts the conversation from solutions that could be “reparative” to those that are “simply accommodating,” putting the burden primarily back on the displaced.

To Be a Full Community

“When you give communities the opportunity to define what their future looks like, it can yield huge benefits,” said Ali. Creating space for young people in the environmental movement in particular “can be a driver in the innovation that’s going to be necessary for us to address environmental justice, to address climate justice, to address climate change, and sustainability and equitable development.”

Read more at New Security Beat.