By Prestige Dube.
Issues of ‘Environmental Human Rights’ or strictly, rights to a safe and healthy environment is not a new subject in Zimbabwe.
Protection of human rights by the rule of law remains one of the cornerstone for democratic expression. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) stipulates three main dimensions of correlation between human rights and environmental protection.
It is stated that the environment is a prerequisite for the enjoyment of human rights. Fundamental human rights, such as access to information, participation in decision-making, as well as access to justice in environmental matters, are essential tools for good environmental decision-making. The right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment is a human right itself as promulgated in the supreme law of Zimbabwe.
The principles of human rights, the right to life and the right to development cannot be realised in the absence of the right to a healthy environment. Human rights and environmental stewardship are inextricably linked. Zimbabwe’s wildlife environment has been threatened at unprecedented levels by the rapid social and economic changes occurring in the country due to mismanagement.
What makes Zimbabwe unique is that the government promoted lawlessness as a deliberate instrument of policy. Consequences of environmental degradation on land, freshwater resources, ecological systems and human settlements undermine the right to access to clean water, food, shelter and other basic human needs. The impacts constitute a serious interference with the exercise of fundamental human rights, such as the rights to life, health, food, housing and adequate standard of living.
Sixty-five years after its commissioning, L. Chivero has been shrinking in both size and usefulness, in terms of water quality due to pollution. Consequently, more money is being spent on water purification at a time when the national revenue is constrained due to the economic crisis. Apparently, the disaster unfolding at Lake Chivero is just a microcosm of the tragedy unfolding in the rest of the country’s aquatic systems due to the reckless destruction of natural resources.
It is the duty of government and private sector to respond to these impacts in terms of procedural and substantive obligations to protect human rights from harm related to the environment. Private actors also have obligations to address the human rights implications of climate change as enshrined in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Constitution of Zimbabwe embraces environmental rights and encourages environmental protection. The right to life requires full support by other rights such as environmental rights, rights to health, water and sanitation. Every person has the right to a harm free environment, posing no threat to their health or wellbeing, the right to have the environment protected sustainably for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative measures.
However, political lethargy has resulted in the non implementation of environmental policies that are supposed to help sustainable development. It is the role of the government, as we enter into the so-called new era to install measures to prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting economic and social development, as these are sole pillars for full enjoyment of human rights and a fulfilling life. Information about the conservation industry is scarce and anecdotal due to break down in many of the wildlife management systems.
Zimbabwe’s current political and environmental upheaval has created its own brand of natural catastrophe that threatens lives, both animal and human. Media freedom and information dissemination are fundamental pillars to sustainable utilisation and protection of the environment. As long as the brutal AIPPA and POSA are still occupying a place in the legislative books of Zimbabwe, full environmental conservation cannot be attained.
Journalists continue to be threatened and prohibited access to vital first-source information concerning environmental degradation, especially were the dark hand of politics is implicated. Whereas reports from the ground are politicised and incomplete, reports from abroad often lean towards the sensational. The chaos has been further accelerated as the Zimbabwean conservation community finds itself divided by crisis and politics.
The lack of property rights due to nationalisation of land and other resources have been the major driver to natural resources degradation. Insecurity in land ownership reduces the incentive for conservation of land and wildlife. Land owners view wildlife and land resources as an asset to be stripped from the land before it is re-confiscated.
Accurate monitoring of shirking is impossible. Wildlife researchers, law enforcement and journalists are usually barred from mining and safari concessions, making any systematic appraisal impossible under the current regime. Reporting of high profile cases is impossible due to the reported involvement of government officials and the military in mining and poaching businesses. A few well-documented cases offer a tip-of-the-iceberg view of the real situation.
It is increasingly difficult to find out very basic information in Zimbabwe because most people are too scared to speak on the record for fear of reprisal from the government. One of the best survival tactics in Zimbabwe is simply not to draw any attention to oneself because any voice of dissent is simply crushed. Thus, the greatest lesson if ever Zimbabweans have leant lesson is that if you can’t sing praises about the government; just keep your mouth shut.
Moreover, extraction of minerals resources have been marred with gross human rights violations. Military operations like Operation Hakudzokwi, in Marange, 2008, involved indiscriminate firing against miners at work and people in their villages. Between November 1 and November 12, 107 bodies, many with visible bullet wounds were brought from Marange to the morgue at Mutare Hospital.
Mining operations in Zimbabwe operate within an economic enclave, de-linked from other sectors of the economy resulting in high negative social costs on local community members, with very limited benefits. Communities in mineral resource-rich areas suffer from irregular displacements, degradation of their lands and environment, loss of life and livestock to deep open pits left by mining operations, and loss of communal land and natural resources as in the case of Marange community.
Work towards sustainable development is increasingly recognising the importance of a human rights approach. The protection of human life in relation to life, health, and living standards is central to any social, environmental or economic success. The right to life cannot be realised without the basic right to clean, water, air and land. A human rights approach allows the quality of life of people, in particular the most vulnerable, to be integrated into environmental decision making.
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