World Environment Day: the importance of ensuring access to information and freedom of expression

World Environment Day: the importance of ensuring access to information and freedom of expression - Transparency

Olenir Bernardo Bernardini on his farm in Canarana. Like the majority of wealthy families in this part of the country, the Bernardini family are Southern immigrants that were invited to settle in the Amazon during the rule of the military government to open up the forest and build ranches. Many Amazon landowners have become wealthy as production has increased and their land values have doubled every 4-5 years in areas that just a decade ago were pristine rainforests.

World Environment Day provides an opportunity to shed light on the increasing importance of the right to environmental information, as recognized in documents such as the Rio Declaration from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Eco -92).

ARTICLE 19 South America believes the right to a healthy and sustainable environment for all requires governments to disclose complete and current information on construction, public policies and environmental programs. Access to information provides a more transparent and participatory decision-making process on development and environmental issues. It also improves governments’ performance in meeting people’s demands and gives more legitimacy to environmental decisions by ensuring citizens’ rights to participate, and by promoting accountability.

The Brazilian Constitution guarantees everyone the right of access to information, and the right to receive information from public authorities.  In addition, the Access to Information Law (AIL), has been in force since May 2012 and it details how that right can be exercised by the individuals and implemented by the State.

On environmental issues, everyone should have appropriate access to environmental information held by public authorities, including information about materials and activities that may be dangerous to communities, licenses and environmental impact studies, the construction of dams etc.,  as well as the opportunity to participate in decision making processes.

At a regional level, civil society, NGOs and social movements are calling for the implementation of Principle 10, (proposed during the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992), through the adoption of a regional document to guarantee access to information, participation and justice on environmental matters – the so called “access rights”.

Eighteen states have already signed a declaration pledging to adopt a regional document to enforce Principle 10 in Latin America. This Principle aims to ensure that public authorities make environmental information available, promote public participation in the decision making process and ensure access to justice in cases related to the environment. Internationally, over 100 countries have adopted laws based on Principle 10. If effectively implemented, Principle 10 will allow Brazilian citizens to receive information from the State, and to take part in and demand public policies that promote social-economic development in a more sustainable manner.

In 2010, the UN established the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) as goals to be reached by the engaged countries. The MDGs deadline is approaching, and they will be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in 2015.  ARTICLE 19, along with others NGOs and civil society members, proposes that Freedom of Expression and Right to Information be included in the SDGs.  We would like to see the creation of a new SDG for good governance and the establishment of goals in three areas: Transparency, Freedom of Expression and Right to Information.

One particular example of the problems caused by lack of proper access to information and participation on environmental issues is the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, in Pará state, Brazil, which will impact on rural and indigenous populations, mainly in the region of Altamira (one of the biggest cities of Pará). Procedures stipulated by law that guaranteed access to information about environmental and social impacts of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam were not followed by authorities. Also there was no proper consultation with the indigenous peoples affected and the number of public hearings were not sufficient.

Due to the lack of information, the affected population could not express its opinion on the project’s continuation. By failing to provide all public information of general interest, the Government violated the right to information and their right to manifest their views. This made it difficult to properly analyze the economic viability and the social, environmental and cultural impacts the project would (and will) have.

The full adoption of Principle 10 and the inclusion of access to information and freedom of expression in the new SDGs could provide the means for the affected population, like those affected by the Belo Monte Dam working project, to obtain proper information and also to put pressure on the authorities when the right procedures are not properly fulfilled.

Principle 10 and a new SDG for good governance are important international tools to push governments to respect human rights. The present and future generations demand this commitment.