The Right to Life

Greta Thurenburg is familiar to most of us, not least when in 2019, aged 16, she was named Person of the Year by Time Magazine.  Less well known is Carlos Roberto Mejía Chacón, even as the impact of his actions influences some 100 countries globally. His story and its implications are told by the environmental journalist Katarina Zimmer.

 

In a small town near San José, the capital of Costa Rica, and in the absence of a proper waste management system, locals would throw their garbage into a nearby stream.  In 1992, Carlos Chacón, then 10-years old and with help from his family, filed an appeal with Costa Rica’s constitutional chamber against the local municipality. Allowing the stream to be used as a garbage dump, he argued, violated the human right to life, which requires adequate living conditions and clean waterways.

 

One year later the chamber ordered the municipality to clear up the garbage and start managing residents’ waste properly. But the judges came to a much deeper recognition : a clean and healthy environment is a basis of human life, and, like food, work, housing and education, an all-round healthy environment is a human right.  Two years later this right was written into Costa Rica’s constitution, subsequently reverberating through the country’s landscape and culture, as was only too  evident when Mary and I were fortunate to visit several years ago.  It was apparent not only in the countryside itself, but even more so in the pride the people take in their environment.  At no time, for example, did we see the kind of road side trash that is all-too-common in the US. Rather, 98% of Costa Rica’s energy comes from renewable sources,  one quarter of its land is protected as national reserves and large swaths of once-degraded land have been reforested. Individual laws suits have ruled that the killing of the endangered green sea turtle is unconstitutional, as is felling the mountain almond tree, which is critical habitat for the endangered great green macaw, and moratoria have been placed on oil exploration and open-pit mining. Ecotourism has become a major source of income for the country. 

 

In Slovenia, a country with abundant greenery and extensive recycling programs (I recall vividly being startled to see a cigarette butt on a trail to a remote waterfall) the right to a clean and healthy environment has shaped the country's mentality towards nature, as evidenced by an education system which includes extensive curricula on sustainability.  Our young guide when we visited  the botanical gardens in the capital, Ljubljana, was intimately aware of the pollinating potential of all the plants she showed us, and the gardens were full of groups of young school children examining the local flora. 

 

Since the right's first mention in the Stockholm Declaration in 1972 – a result of the first major environmental conference – some 110 countries have written it into their constitutions, recognizing that human welfare and the natural world are closely linked, to the point that nature, in the form of clean and balanced ecosystems, rich biodiversity and a stable climate,  is a keystone of a dignified human existence.  Today, in Latin American and African countries in particular, and to its credit, India, the right to a healthy environment has created a powerful bulwark against a rising tide of habitat destruction.  But some of the world's richest nations – the UK, United States, China and Japan – lag behind, as has the United Nations.

 

In the US, the Declaration of Independence famously mentions three rights which human beings possess by birth or by nature - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No one may rightfully be denied these things, nor, since they are "unalienable," may they be rightfully surrendered.  Yet the same document does not mention the right to clean air, or clean water or untainted food …

 

As with other human rights, there's an implementation gap.  In South Africa, for example, where the right is written into its progressive constitution of 1996, the country remains starkly unequal (Nelson Mandela famously said in 1994 that to educate every child in the country would require the building of one school per day for the rest of the century.  That was doable; what was not attainable, after three centuries of effective apartheid, was finding the teachers to staff them.) South Africa has some of the world’s most polluted air,  many communities suffer from respiratory diseases and few people have the resources to  go to court to enforce their constitutional rights, even as the right to a healthy environment  allows courts to hold violators responsible. 

 

Human rights, it is often said, have their roots in wrongs. The UN Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 emerged out of the ashes of the Second World War at a time when a global environmental crisis was unforeseeable; the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 came out of the turmoil of the 50’s and 60’s, after people of all races had fought and died to oppose fascism only to face entrenched racism at home;  and it feels like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (2021) will be recognized as a lodestar after the many accusations of police atrocities in the last two decades in particular. 

 

As beekeepers we argue for a healthy environment for honey bees because of their  value to the environment and in particular to many of our food  sources.  It might be more effective to make that argument more expansive and advocate for the rights of all living things, ourselves included, to a healthy environment, not least clean air and water. That way we all benefit, not least the honey bees.

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