In a recent in court case in Ecuador, a river brought a case against the Provincial Government of Loja, Ecuador. The builder of a road was dumping building rubble in the Vilcabamba River and the river brought a case against to stop the dumping and to force the government to clean up its act.
You’re probably thinking, “how can a river bring a case?” ?Obviously in this instance someone had to bring the case on behalf of the river and that is what did happen. The important thing to grasp here is that the river had rights and the rights of the river were enforced. The Constitution of Ecuador contains the rights of nature. We have all heard of human rights, here we are talking about environmental rights, or nature rights. That is quite a paradigm shift and is quite radical!
The South African Constitution does not contain environmental rights in the same way as the Constitution of Ecuador does, but it does contain the Bill of Rights, human rights. One such human right is the right to an environment that is not harmful to one’s health or well-being as well as the right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations through various measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation, promote conservation and secure ecologically sustainable development and the use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.
There is quite a lot to the environmental human rights contained in our Constitution and our Constitution is progressive in that it empowers people with the legal right to ensure that the environment is protected. Our Constitution allows anyone to bring a court case for the protection of the environment, even if such a person isn’t suffering directly. For example, if someone was dumping rubble in a river, anyone can bring a case to stop the dumping in the public interest, you don’t need to be a member of the community downstream of the dumping, suffering directly from the results of the dumping (in the past you could only take legal action if you were directly affected). Our Constitution, and other environmental statutes empower us all to take the protection of the environment seriously by giving us legal standing to take action for the protection of the environment. The environment itself doesn’t have the right, but we have the right and the opportunity to see the environment protected.