Environmental justice: Think big, start small

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Cliff Chiduku

BY Cliff Chiduku
LAST month, Zimbabwe and the world marked the Desertification and Drought Day at a time humanity is struggling to come to terms with the effects of climate change. Over-exploitation of forests, overgrazing and land degradation through poor agricultural practices as well as frequent and more intense droughts are exacerbating desertification.

Meanwhile, weather-related natural disasters such as storms, heat waves and cyclones, among others are increasingly threatening humanity’s existence on this planet.

And for Zimbabwe whose economy is anchored on agriculture, these drastic weather shifts spell real disaster. When agriculture sneezes, all other sectors catch a cold, literally.

Given the dire impacts of climate change, it is critical for Zimbabwe to urgently craft policies aimed at protecting its environment in line with United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification to which Zimbabwe is a signatory.

The fight against desertification should be part of an integrated effort to achieve environmental justice (EJ) in Zimbabwe because desertification and general environmental degradation and pollution result when environmental injustice is rife.

EJ is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.

Examples of environmental injustice are many in Zimbabwe.

For instance, in March this year, the Environmental Management Agency disclosed that councils were discharging more than 400 million litres of raw sewage into water bodies such as Umguza River, Lake Manyame, Lake Chivero and Sebakwe River with impunity. Raw sewage spillage is dangerous to human health, animals and plants living in water ways. Experts say the presence of sewage can lead to the death of many species and cause serious damage to fragile river ecosystems. The outbreak of mediaeval diseases such as cholera and typhoid in urban areas will become commonplace under such situations.

Given this state of affairs, the establishment of specialised courts and tribunals cannot be overemphasised because in them lies Zimbabwe’s hope of achieving environmental justice and rule of law. Examples of specialised courts include commercial,  labour and corruption courts, among others.

Environmental courts are critical to achieve the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aimed at protecting the planet from degradation through sustainable consumption and production.

Environmental conflicts and crimes require quick response through specialised environmental courts divorced from our traditional justice system whose scope on environmental crimes and disputes is limited.

The establishment of specialised courts or tribunals is in line with section 73 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution and the recommendation in the Environmental Management Agency Strategic Plan (2021-25).

This call comes as Zimbabwe has in the past few years been recording an increase in environmental conflicts and crimes. The setting up of specialised courts and tribunals can be a game changer pursuant of EJ, environmental rule of law, sustainable development, green economy and climate justice.

If Zimbabwe is serious about attaining an upper-middle income economy by 2030, it should revisit its environmental governance and consider creating these judicial and administrative bodies to establish an effective EJ system.

Access to justice in environmental matters has gained prominence in recent years as an effective mechanism to hold governments, companies and individuals accountable and ensuring that environmental laws and regulations are enforced.

In 2003, the first court in South Africa specifically established to combat environmental crime was established. Its purpose was to prosecute poachers of abalone (a large sea snail with extremely rich, flavourful and highly prized meat that is considered a culinary delicacy). The courts also dealt with cases relating to other environmental issues such as the illegal trade in rhino horns, water pollution and other marine offences. The first case was heard within three months of the court’s establishment. In its first year, the court heard 74 cases, of which 51 resulted in successful prosecutions. This translated into a 70% success rate, increasing the number of convictions for environmental crimes. Such courts exist at different administrative levels in Gambia, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and Sudan.

Because the Judiciary has a role to play in the interpretation, explanation and enforcement of laws and regulations, it is long overdue for our judiciary system to have environmental courts.

Relying on traditional courts to achieve EJ and combat environmental crimes is problematic because environmental law is a relatively new discipline and is a too specialised an area to be casually treated.

Besides, the traditional courts are generally overwhelmed by other cases resulting in delays and denial of EJ.

These environmental courts and tribunals can be set up at local authority level to adjudicate on minor cases such as breaches of environmental by-laws, while complex cases can be referred to provincial and national level. For starters, environmental courts can be housed at the High Court.

Traditional leaders also need to be capacitated to preside over such cases in rural areas, all in the spirit of devolution and instilling the importance of EJ in marginalised areas where environmental injustices are usually rife.

Poor implementation and enforcement of laws, policies and regulations remain a major drawback in achieving EJ in Zimbabwe, but establishment of environmental courts and tribunals could help the situation. Resources might not permit, but the adage: “Think big, start small” applies.

Food for thought!

  • Cliff Chiduku is a journalist based in Harare. He can be contacted on +263775716517, Email: cchiduku@gmail.com or on Twitter @ChifChiduku.