Opinion

SCIENCE MATTERS: Healthy environment a right

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 neighbours 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 Feb. 3, from 4-5 p.m. 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.

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