Quantcast

Let’s Stand Up for Our Right to a Healthy Environment

David Suzuki

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Public health worker Beatriz Mendoza was living near the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she started losing feeling in her fingers and toes. Her neighbors were also experiencing health issues—including skin rashes, cancers and birth defects—clearly linked to pollution in the heavily industrialized area. The Matanza-Riachuelo basin is one of the most contaminated waterways in Latin America.
 
In 2004, Mendoza and other residents sued the national, provincial and municipal governments and 44 corporations. And they won. Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd describes the case in his book, The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada's Constitution. He writes that the lawsuit led Argentina’s government to establish a new river basin authority and put in place clean-up, restoration and regional environmental health plans.
 
The government has since increased the number of environmental inspectors in the region from three to 250, and created 139 sampling points for monitoring water, air and soil quality. Three new water treatment plants have been built, providing clean water to millions of people; 11 sewage-treatment plants have been built or expanded, also serving millions; 169 garbage dumps have been closed; and 484 polluting industrial facilities have been shut down.
 
As Boyd points out, this was possible because Argentina’s constitution recognizes “the right to a healthy environment and the citizens’ power to defend their rights through the judicial system.” It’s a right that people in more than 100 countries worldwide enjoy. Canadians are not among them.
 
Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives us freedom of expression, equal protection from discrimination and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. But one fundamental right is notably absent—to live in an environment conducive to health and well-being, with clean air, water and soil and biological diversity. As Boyd writes, “In a country where Nature is an integral element of our national identity, and in an era where scientific evidence establishes our basic dependence on a healthy environment, it is striking that our constitution makes no reference to it.”
 
Along with David Boyd and Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation is working to change that. Boyd’s book helped launch the initiative, and the Foundation is hosting a telephone town hall with him on Sunday, Feb. 3, from 4 to 5 p.m. PST (7 to 8 EST). It’s free, but space is limited. You can register until Jan. 27 at www.davidsuzuki.org.
 
Boyd makes a convincing case for the necessity of such constitutional protection. He points to evidence from more than 100 nations demonstrating that, “constitutional entrenchment of environmental rights and responsibilities contributes to stronger laws, increased enforcement, an enhanced role for citizens, and improved environmental performance.”
 
Although the idea of a constitutional right to a healthy environment is gaining support, it does have its detractors, including some government and industry insiders in Canada. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers argues such a law would harm our economy, and some government representatives claim it would hinder tar sands and other industrial development. Boyd doesn’t buy it. He notes that constitutional rights must be balanced against competing rights. For example, free speech comes with restrictions against pornography, hate literature, false advertising and so on.
 
Evidence from countries with environmental rights, such as Norway, also shows the shakiness of the economic argument. “Rather than trumping economic activity,” Boyd writes, “the right to a healthy environment would compel, or at least increase the likelihood of, sustainable development.”
 
And, even though there is still much to be done in Argentina’s Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin, people there are already enjoying significantly improved living conditions, including a stronger local economy.
 
Getting the right to a healthy environment enshrined in Canada’s Constitution won’t be easy. We’re headed in the opposite direction, with environmental protections and laws being rolled back or gutted, mostly in the name of keeping us tied to a resource-extraction economy. And despite our country’s abundant water, many people, especially in First Nations communities, don’t have access to clean drinking water.
 
It’s time to address Canada’s dismal and worsening environmental record. If all of us—“Canadians of all ages, all backgrounds, all provinces and territories, and all political persuasions”—work together, we can make it happen.

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

------
 
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signs the so-called Affordable Clean Energy rule on June 19, replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that would have reduced coal-fired plant carbon emissions. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency / Twitter

By Elliott Negin

On July 8, President Trump hosted a White House event to unabashedly tout his truly abysmal environmental record. The following day, coincidentally, marked the one-year anniversary of Andrew Wheeler at the helm of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), first as acting administrator and then as administrator after the Senate confirmed him in late February.

Read More Show Less
A timber sale in the Kaibab National Forest. Dyan Bone / Forest Service / Southwestern Region / Kaibab National Forest

By Tara Lohan

If you're a lover of wilderness, wildlife, the American West and the public lands on which they all depend, then journalist Christopher Ketcham's new book is required — if depressing — reading.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

Read More Show Less
Somalians fight against hunger and lack of water due to drought as Turkish Ambassador to Somalia, Olgan Bekar (not seen) visits the a camp near the Mogadishu's rural side in Somalia on March 25, 2017. Sadak Mohamed / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

World hunger is on the rise for the third consecutive year after decades of decline, a new United Nations (UN) report says. The climate crisis ranks alongside conflict as the top cause of food shortages that force more than 821 million people worldwide to experience chronic hunger. That number includes more than 150 million children whose growth is stunted due to a lack of food.

Read More Show Less
Eduardo Velev cools off in the spray of a fire hydrant during a heatwave on July 1, 2018 in Philadelphia. Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

By Adrienne L. Hollis

Because extreme heat is one of the deadliest weather hazards we currently face, Union of Concerned Scientist's Killer Heat Report for the U.S. is the most important document I have read. It is a veritable wake up call for all of us. It is timely, eye-opening, transparent and factual and it deals with the stark reality of our future if we do not make changes quickly (think yesterday). It is important to ensure that we all understand it. Here are 10 terms that really help drive home the messages in the heat report and help us understand the ramifications of inaction.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Senator Graham returns after playing a round of golf with Trump on Oct. 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Ron Sachs – Pool / Getty Images

Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Senate Republican who has been a close ally of Donald Trump, did not mince words last week on the climate crisis and what he thinks the president needs to do about it.

Read More Show Less
A small Bermuda cedar tree sits atop a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. todaycouldbe / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Marlene Cimons

Kyle Rosenblad was hiking a steep mountain on the island of Maui in the summer of 2015 when he noticed a ruggedly beautiful tree species scattered around the landscape. Curious, and wondering what they were, he took some photographs and showed them to a friend. They were Bermuda cedars, a species native to the island of Bermuda, first planted on Maui in the early 1900s.

Read More Show Less
krisanapong detraphiphat / Moment / Getty Images

By Grace Francese

You may know that many conventional oat cereals contain troubling amounts of the carcinogenic pesticide glyphosate. But another toxic pesticide may be contaminating your kids' breakfast. A new study by the Organic Center shows that almost 60 percent of the non-organic milk sampled contains residues of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide scientists say is unsafe at any concentration.

Read More Show Less