Author: Stephen Law - Director: Environmental Monitoring Group
( Article Type: Explanation )
Environmental Justice is a broad concept which sees the environment as including not just nature, but also the home, the neighbourhood and the workplace. It places the well-being of people, rather than plants and animals, at the centre of environmental, social, political and economic relationships. It is essentially a political concept in that it recognises that the poor and powerless in our society invariably bear the brunt of environmental degradation such as polluted air, polluted water, inadequate housing, lack of refuse removal, etc. Environmental justice means correcting these inequalities and allowing all people to benefit from a clean, healthy, aesthetic and sustainable environment, regardless of their status in society.
The environmental justice ‘movement’ in South Africa came to prominence in the early 90s with the relaxation of apartheid laws and unbanning of political movements.
Environmental injustices were seen to be closely related to apartheid’s marginalisation of black citizens, and the movement grew to include a divers range or organisations including environmental groups, trades union, researchers and academics, political parties, community organisations, etc. Apart from the work of these organisations which may range from campaigns against perceived injustices, raising public awareness, lobbying government and industry, advocacy, legal challenges, etc., environmental justice principles are also expressed in Section 24 of the Bill of Rights which gives all people the right (amongst other things) to ‘…an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being…’ and in legislation such as the National Environmental Management Act (1998) which states that ‘…Environmental justice must be pursued so that adverse environmental impacts shall not be distributed in such a manner as to unfairly discriminate against any person, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged persons…’ Despite the huge positive social and political change in South Africa over the last two decades, the struggle for environmental justice and environmental rights remains valid.
Poor communities remain poorly serviced with water, housing, waste removal, and are still the sector most vulnerable to natural disasters and other consequences of environmental degradation. The principles of environmental justice serve also to bind coalitions of disparate political, social and environmental groupings who work on these issues. Environmental justice is also increasingly part of the discourse on international issues such as trade, biodiversity, climate change and others. Government positions and civil society campaigns routinely call for equity between the ‘north’ and the ‘south’; compensation and reparation; justice and fairness.