By Perry Polar.   June 5, 2021

In 2020, I was a panelist on the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) City Network’s webinar titled: The New Urban Normal: Climate Inclusion for Equitable Cities. Environmental justice was at the center of the discourse. I have encountered several definitions of environmental justice, with a common thread being the recognition that non-desirable environmental impacts are more likely to disproportionately affect those who have historically lacked rights, and that corrective measures should seek to address inequality in rights in order to better mitigate impacts.

I propose the following as a common definition of environmental justice for Latin America and Caribbean, taking into consideration its unique social, economic, and environmental scenarios.

Environmental Justice is the realization of equity driven, quality of life and planetary goals particularly through the removal of institutional barriers which contribute to inequality and the incorporating of the public voice in governance.

 In my definition, I place emphasis on the importance of high-level goal setting, and implicitly the monitoring of progress through indicators. Global agreements are often made with the best interest of humanity in mind, and they establish far-reaching goals. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are just two of the more recognized multi-lateral agreements. Global agreements and their targets, whether quantifiable or not, guide policy and action for many international agencies. Individual countries often agree to adopt these goals.  However, the extent to which they drive national policy formulation may vary as these goals are in competition with other national decision-making processes, such as development plans, political manifestos, and individual and corporate interests.

Some countries may appear to place emphasis on a single or a few indicators, which unmasks the true priority goals for the country. For example, a country that heralds Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can appear to be placing the economy as the highest priority. The danger of over-reliance on a single or few indicators is that it can create a blind spot with respect to inequality in other aspects of the society.

Countries that place emphasis on achieving clear goals and targets using multiple-indicator systems are more likely to expose the limiting factors in their policy and implementation environment. This can guide policy reform in a more coherent and accountable manner, more so than piecemeal legislative and policy changes.

I recommend in the definition that goals which drive equity be prioritized.  In the Caribbean, high rates of inequality, including poverty, persist, and the nature of these is changing. Despite laudable efforts to address inequality, the institutional barriers which carryover from our colonial past, or are of our own making, still persist. While there are policies that aim to create equity, such as lower income housing schemes, Caribbean countries should go further and commit to remove existing written and unwritten discriminatory policies that perpetuate inequality, implement progressive policies to create equity, incorporate the public voice in decision-making, and strive to remove the bottlenecks in implementation.

Quality of Life (QOL) is defined by the World Health Organization as “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns”. The inclusion of national goals that seek to improve QOL of all individuals may be preferential to indirect methods, such as reliance on growth in the economy to provide benefits for all. Some global indicator systems, such as the UNDP Human Development Reports, incorporate QOL issues into its indicators (e.g., long and healthy life, knowledge, and decent standard of living). Caribbean countries should consider the results of global QOL indicators systems, such as the World Happiness Report, in their decision-making. They should explore which QOL issues may be of importance in the region, and use these in prioritizing regional or national goals. For example, given the multi-ethic nature of the Caribbean, retention of culture can be placed as a high priority for both social and economic reasons.

A major paradigm shift is required in our understanding of planetary goals. Global goals, like the SDGs, seek to sustainably utilize the physical and biological resources of the planet to support the continuation of human civilization. While SGD Targets, such as 12.8, seek to create the awareness for persons to have lifestyles in harmony with nature, they do not go as far as recognizing the Earth, Nature or sub-sections of Nature as beneficiaries. Empowering Nature with rights alongside humans allows Nature to be a stakeholder rather than an object in the decision-making process.

This idea is becoming a reality as some countries have embarked on the progressive step recognizing the rights of nature. In 2017, the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua) in New Zealand was recognized as a legal person with all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities as the result of litigation by the indigenous Mãori people. India and Bangladesh have followed suit in giving rivers legal rights. The intertwining of human life and the life of the natural world is a concept which many indigenous cultures share, but is a fringe viewpoint in our approach to civilization.

However, the practical value of giving entities in Nature legal personhood is the ability of the human representatives responsible for acting in its interest, to participate in the decision-making process on issues that will impact the entity. Further, it raises the possibility that if State institutions fail to protect the aspect of Nature, then the human representatives can use the legal system to protect its rights against individuals or even the State. The implications of giving aspects of nature rights can be far reaching and should be part of high-level global discussions, as it can transform the power balance on the planet.

It is my hope that the above definition can become part of the discourse on environmental justice as the action-oriented concepts can lead to a different development trajectory in the future.

References
Caribbean Development Bank (2016). The changing nature of poverty and inequality in the Caribbean: New Issues, New solutions.

Helliwell, John F., Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs, and Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, eds. 2020. World

Happiness Report 2020. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network Available at: World Happiness Report 2020 | The World Happiness Report

Human Development Report 2020 Technical Notes hdr2020_technical_notes.pdf (undp.org)

Polar, P. (2020). Redefining Environmental Justice – A Caribbean Perspective. Caribbean network for Urban and Land Management Redefining Environmental Justice – A Caribbean perspective (bluespacecaribbean.com)

Te Awa Tupua (Wanganui River Claims Settlement Act) 2017. Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 No 7 (as at 30 January 2021), Public Act – New Zealand Legislation

Dr. Perry Polar is the Project Coordinator at the Caribbean Network for Urban and Land Management and Programme Manager of the HIT RESET Caribbean programme at the Saint Augustine Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (STACIE) of The University of the West Indies.

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The perspectives and positions in the article are solely those of the author(s), and do not reflect the views or positions of the Foundation for Development Planning, Inc., its board of directors, its staff, its associates, or its partners.

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