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Introduction
Conclusions
Background paper 1
Background paper 2
Background paper 3
Background paper 4
Background paper 5
Background paper 6

Joint UNEP-OHCHR Expert Seminar on Human Rights and the Environment
14-16 January 2002, Geneva: Background Paper No. 6

 

[The Background Papers reflect the views of the authors and not of UNEP or OHCHR]

Review of jurisprudence on human rights and the environment
in Latin America [1]

Adriana Fabra and Eva Arnal
Instituto Internacional de Derecho y Medio Ambiente

Introduction

This article provides a review of some of the most important developments in environmental protection from a human rights approach in the domestic courts of Latin American countries since the early 1990s. Given the widespread recognition of the right to a healthy environment in the region's laws, the explicit protection afforded to the environment in many of Latin America 's national constitutions, and the express reference to this right in the Protocol of San Salvador, this article will focus on the enforceability of these legal measures. The cases described below refer to a wide range of environmental issues in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru, including the rights of indigenous peoples to protect their forests from logging; the pleas of villagers to safeguard their environment from the adverse effects of industrial air  pollution; an action by a nation's population to protect the a native and emblematic tree species, and the right to protect a national park, to mention but a few.

From a survey of these court cases three important lessons can be drawn: first, the courts are moving the right to a healthy environment up the hierarchy of human rights by recognising it as a fundamental right; second, the courts are defining the content and nature of the right to a healthy environment through landmark decisions; and third, the cases indicate which methods are most effective to protect these rights.

The  Right to a Healthy Environment

Judges in Latin America have stated without reserve that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right. In rendering their decisions, the judiciary researched the status of this right and considered the need to protect it. Given the depth of these decisions, it is worthwhile to review selected excerpts.

Argentina

In Argentina , the National Constitution recognizes since 1994 the right to a healthy and suitable environment. However, even before the law provided for such explicit recognition, courts had acknowledged the existence of the right to live in a healthy environment.

Already in 1983, and before the formulation of this right was introduced in Argentinean jurisprudence, an administrative court stated that "the right of any citizen to preserve his or her habitat amounts to a subjective right" and that such right would entitle any person to initiate an action for environmental protection (case Kattan, Alberto and others v. National government ).

In a 1993 case concerning environmental harm to fisheries and wildlife in a lagoon ( case Irazu Margarita v. Copetro S.A. ) the court asserted:

The right to live in healthy and balanced environment is a fundamental attribute of people. Any aggression to the environment ends up to becoming a threat to life itself and to the psychological and physical integrity of the person -- which is based on ecological balance [.]. [2]

After the Constitution's modification, this right has been often recognized by the judiciary and interpreted broadly. In the 1994 case of Alberto Sagarduy the court considered the right to defend everyone's environment as a "natural human right", which allows citizens to place any complaints to government agencies regardless of the existence of a specific administrative procedure. [3]

It is also interesting to note a decision of 1999 in which the court established that the right to live in a suitable environment and to enjoy an adequate standard of living merits en extensive interpretation, covering as a result the broadest possible number of environmental offences, including, as in the case, the right to enjoy the ocean's view -impaired by the construction of a wall ( case of Sociedad de Fomento Barrio Félix v. Camet y otros ).

Colombia

In the pioneer case Fundepúblico v. Mayor of Bugalagrande and others , of 1991-1992, the plaintiffs sought to prevent actual and imminent damage as a result of an asphalt plant's operations in their town. The Constitutional Court explained the right to the environment, which had then just been incorporated in the 1991 Colombian Constitution:

[the right to the environment] has been conceived as a group of basic conditions surrounding man, which define his life as a member of the community and allow his biological and individual survival, in addition to his normal participation and integral development in society.

In the same case the Court of First Instance had stated in 1991:

Everyone has the right to enjoy and live in a healthy environment. This should be regarded as a fundamental human right, which is a prerequisite and basis for the exercise of other human, economic and political rights. It should be recognised that a healthy environment is a sine qua non condition for life itself and that no right could be exercised in a deeply altered environment.

In the case of Antonio Mauricio Monroy Cespedes , in 1993, the Court observed that

side by side with fundamental rights such as liberty, equality and necessary conditions for people's life, there is the right to the environment [ . ] The right to a healthy environment cannot be separated from the right to life and health of human beings. In fact, factors that are deleterious to the environment cause irreparable harm to human beings. If this is so we can state that the right to the environment is a right fundamental to the existence of humanity. [4]

Referring to the relationship between domestic law and international law, the court stated in the Santa Marta case, that "the main obligation and faculty of the judge [ juez de tutela ] is to comply with [ the constitution ] before any other foreign norm, particularly when fundamental rights such as the right to life, to healthy and to the environment are being attacked."

Costa Rica

The Supreme Court of Costa Rica affirmed the right to a healthy environment in a 1993 case concerning the use of a cliff as a waste dump (case Carlos Roberto García Chacón ). Quoting the First Instance Court, the Supreme Court stated that life:

is only possible when it exists in solidarity with nature, which nourishes and sustains us -- not only with regard to food, but also with physical well-being. It constitutes a right that all citizens possess to live in an environment free from contamination. This is the basis of a just and productive society. [5]

Guatemala

In the case Concesiones otorgadas por el Ministerio de Energía y minas a Empresas Petroleras (1999) the environmental ombusman made a close connection between the protection of human rights and the environment:

Lack of interest and irresponsibility on the part of authorities in charge of National Environmental Policy [ . ] amounts to a violation of human rights, considering that it impairs the enjoyment of a healthy environment, the dignity of the person, the preservation of the cultural and natural heritage and socio-economic development [ . ] .

the right to a healthy environment AND FUTURE GENERATIONS

Courts have also explained the right to a healthy environment in relation to the rights of future generations.

Argentina

In case Irazu Margarita c. Copetro SA , the Court of La Plata stated that "a change on the environment can have an effect not only to our quality of life but also to the quality of life of our descendants."

In case Finis Terrae (1997) the court said that "environmental damage shall never be reparable through compensation, given that it shall -fatally-fall upon future generations [ . ] "

Colombia

The Colombian Constitutional Court stated in the case Fundepúblico v. Mayor de Bugalagrande that "the protection of the environment. is a compromise between the present and future generations".

Chile

In a 1988 case ( Comunidad de Chañaral v. Codeco División el Saldor ) the Supreme Court explained:

Present claims are particularly relevant because they relate to the right to live in an environment free from pollution [ . ] . [ These problems ] affect not only the well being of man but also his own life, and actually not only the [ the livelihood ] of a single community of persons, at present: future generations would claim the lack of prevision of their predecessors if the environment would be polluted and nature destroyed [ . ] .

Costa Rica

In 1993, in the Carlos Roberto Mejía Chacón case the court asserted:

although man has the right to use the environment for his own development, it has also the obligation to protect it and preserve it so that future generations can use it.

Guatemala

In the case Concesiones otorgadas por el Ministerio de Energía y minas a Empresas Petroleras (1999) the Constitutional Court explained that the objective of environmental measures is addressed to guarantee the right to healthy and the achievement of a standard of living that guarantees the survival of future generations. [6]

Right to life and health Argentina

In the Argentinean case Bustos Miguel y Otros v. Dirección de Fábricas Militares, the Court stated in 1986:

It is obvious that environmental harm finds legal coverage in positive law because it prejudices life, health and the psychological and physical integrity of those who . (are affected by) polluting substances.

Later on, in the 1993 case Margarita v. Copetro SA the court asserted that pollution arising from a coal burning industry, and particularly as a result of the cancerous substances that emanated from it, constituted a violation of the right to life, as recognized in the regional human rights instruments. This was before the right to the environment was recognised in the Argentinean Constitution.

In the case Almada Hugo N. v. Copetro and others , the court considered that in situations of environmental pollution the rights to life and health are directly affected and threatened. And in Margarita v. Copetro SA , the Cámara Civil y Comercial de La Plata stated that any change to the environment also has an impact on the quality of life.

Chile

In Chile , in the case of Juan Pablo Orrego Silva et al. v. Empresa Eléctrica Pangue S.A. the plaintiffs opposed the construction of the Biobío dam, alleging that water shortages and flooding would adversely affect the right to life of the local communities.

Colombia

In cases affecting indigenous peoples, courts have immediately identified survival and

health issues with the protection of the environment.

In the Colombian case Organización Indígena de Antioquia v. Codechoco & Madarien , where indigenous peoples claimed human rights violations as a result of logging in their territory, the court explained in 1993 that:

the devastation of  [the indigenous peoples'] forests alters their relation with the environment and endangers their lives.since.with the reduction or disappearance of the forest, the main source on animal protein. is also reduced or extinguished.

Costa Rica

In Costa Rica , the human rights to life and to health have been considered many times in relation to the right to a healthy environment. In the case Presidente de la sociedad MARLENE S.A. v. Municipalidad de Tibás Marlene, the court stated that the right to health and to a healthy environment emanate from the right to life and from the state's obligation, in that case, to protect nature. The court added that without recognition of the rights to health and to the environment the right to life would be severely limited. [7]

Right to Culture

In cases affecting indigenous peoples, courts have taken particular notice of indigenous rights and have identified threats to indigenous cultural survival as a result of harmful effects on the environment. For example, in the case Organización Indígena de Antioquia v. Codechoco & Madarien, the Court asserted that the devastation of the forest endangers indigenous peoples' cultural and ethnic integrity and that these communities were likely to suffer future damages due to their cultural dependency on the tropical forest in which they dwell.

Chile

Two 1990 Chilean decisions on the protection of the Araucaria, a tree species, provide interesting language regarding the links between environmental protection and cultural rights. The courts recognised the special value of this tree and its fruit for the Pehuenche indigenous peoples of Chile (a sub-group of the Mapuche), stating that these peoples "have made history and sovereignty from the pehuén , the word used for the Araucaria, and that "the Araucaria species is intimately linked to values and principles which constitute the historical, social and cultural heritage of the Mapuche people." In addition, these decisions have declared that this species is part of the heritage of the whole country and its extinction would not only threaten environmental conservation but amount of to a threat to cultural heritage of the Nation.

Right to Property

An essential aspect of defining the content of a right includes determining its restrictions. These limitations are generally the result of exercising other rights. Some case law indicates that one of the rights which most often needs to be balanced against the right to a healthy environment is the right to property.

Chile

Two judicial decisions mentioned above establish clear limitations on the right to property in favour of the protection of environmental rights. In these cases, people holding rights to exploit a forest of Araucaria filed suits for the protection of their right to property after an administrative decision had banned all Araucaria logging. In both cases, the courts dismissed the plaintiffs claims and one of the decisions stated that property is limited by obligations emanating from its "social function". The courts spelled out that an element of this function is environmental conservation.

Actions to protect the right to property have also been used to support environmental claims, as in another Chilean case that concerned the construction of the Biobío dam. This time, the holders of the property rights were not the plaintiffs (unlike the two cases above); rather, the plaintiffs sought to limit the use of the property rights held by the developers.

Colombia

In several cases, Colombian courts referred to the social function of property as a way to balance it vis a vis environmental interests. For example, in a 1993 decision it said that the social function of property implies certain obligations and this means that property "shall be recognised as far as it serves to public interests." [8]

Right to Privacy

A fairly innovative approach in the judicial circles of Latin America in the early nineties was the protection of the right to privacy from environmental nuisance. In a Colombian case of 1994 (case Vecinos de la Veredas de la Tribuna y otro v. INDALPE ) , a local community sued an animal food industry because of the fetid fumes it emitted. On appeal, the Constitutional Court linked the right to privacy and property to the right to a healthy environment and ordered the defendant to suspend its emissions within 60 days. The case was then unprecedented, given that there was no legislation in Colombia against such adverse emissions and the court considered that the foul odours amounted to "an arbitrary intrusion in the privacy rights of the plaintiffs."

Right to Information

Protection of the right to a healthy environment is fundamental to exercise procedural rights, such as access to information and the right to participate in decision-making. In the early 1990s, in Latin America there were less actions to protect these rights than other "substantive" rights. The reasons for such lack of jurisprudence in the field could have been the result of the unrestricted exercise of these rights; citizen's needs to prioritize food, health or survival issues before political rights; or simply, people's unawareness of their own rights of access to environment information or to participation.

However, some interesting cases emerged, which attempted to enforce legislation protecting the right of individuals to environmental information. In Peru, the 1993 Constitution granted an action called habeas data which allows citizens to go against any acts or omissions by any administrative officer or person which violate or threaten rights. Exercising this action of habeas data for the first time, the Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA) launched an action in early 1994 against the Peruvian mining authorities and requested public information regarding technical aspects of the mining process. It was resolved favourably to the SPDA.

Other elements of the Right to a Healthy Environment

In addition to establishing linkages with traditionally recognized human rights when describing the right to a healthy environment, Latin American courts are introducing new dimensions to the linkages with this right.

Ecuador

An interesting 1993 decision in Ecuador (wherein the Constitutional Court requested suspension of mining operations and road  building in a National Park) clarifies some of the functions the environment provides for human beings. The court said:

Environmental degradation in Podocarpus National Park is a threat to the environmental human right of the inhabitants of the provinces of Loja and Zamora Chinchipe to have an area which ensures the natural and continuous provision of water, air humidity, oxygenation and recreation.

Peru

A 1993 decision by the Peruvian Supreme Court concerning the protection of a mangrove area from coastal shrimp farming industries constitutes an important contribution to the definition of the right to a healthy environment by incorporating the principle of sustainable development. Upholding the lower court's decision, the Court said that it was more profitable for the present and future development of the region to preserve and sustainably manage the mangroves rather that risk their depletion. The court ordered all shrimp farms in the mangrove area to suspend their operations and to restore them to their natural state.

Colombia

Finally, an interesting example of the consequences of strengthening people's rights to a healthy environment is found in the 1994 decision of the Court of First Instance in Colombia. The plaintiff organization, Fundepúblico, filed an action on behalf of the inhabitants of Santa Marta against the importation of toxic wastes into Colombia. Based on the human right to healthy environment, the court ordered that a Croatian ship which had unloaded a cargo of waste containers in the Colombian port should reload the waste cargo and depart Colombia in less than 24 hours ( Fundepúblico v. Tradenet S.A y otros ).


Case law references

Argentina

Eugenio Jaime . Juzgado de lo Criminal y Correcional nº 1 de Transacción de Mar del Plata. Ruling of 23.9.1999. LLBA, 2001-114.

Sociedad De Fomento Barrio Félix V. Camet Y Otros. Cámara De Apelaciones Y Garantías En Lo Penal De Mar Del Plata, Sala I . Ruling of  9.9.1999. LLBA, 2000-991.

Almada Hugo N. v. Copetro and others . Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Ruling of 19.5.1998. LLBA, 1998-943 - RCyS, 1999-530.

Almada Hugo N. v. Copetro and others . Cámara De Apelaciones en lo Civil y Comercial de La Plata, Sala III. Ruling of 2.9.1995. LLBA, 1998-943 - RCyS, 1999-530.

Alberto Sagarduy . Cámara de Apelaciones en lo Civil y Comercial de La Plata, Sala III. Ruling of 15.11.1994. LLBA, 1998-943 - RcyS, 1999-530.

Finis Terrae. Cámara de Apelaciones. Sala Civil, Comercial y del Trabajo. Amparo Ambiental. 24.9.1997.

Carlos Emilio Moro v. Municipalidad de Panamá . SJT Entre Ríos. Sala I de lo Penal. Primera Instancia: 2.6.95, Segunda Instancia: 23.6.95.

Municipalidad de Vicente López . Municipalidad de Vicente López  v. Juzgado Federal de San Martin 1. Ruling of 20.9.1994. Available in www.eldial.com .

Fundación Chidalevú . Juzgado Federal de Santa Rosa, La Pampa. 20.5.1993. Available in www.eldial.com .

Margarita V. Copetro Sa. Cámara  Civil Y Comercial De La Plata. Ruling Of 10.5.1993. Available In www.eldial.com .

Victor Hugo Morales y otro v. Provincia de Mendoza . S/ Acción de Amparo. Juzgado Civil de Primera Instancia Nº 4. Mendoza, 2.10.1986.

Bustos Miguel y otros v. Dirección de Fábricas Militares . S/Acción de Amparo. Juzgado Federal de Primera Instancia Nº 2. La Plata, 30.12.1986.

Kattan, Alberto and others v. National Government . Juzgado Nacional de la Instancia en lo Contenciosoadministrativo Federal. Nº2. Ruling of 10.5.1983, La Ley, 1983-D, 576.

Chile

Juan Pablo Orrego Silva at al. v. Empresa Eléctrica Pangue S.A , 29. 9.1992 (legal brief by plaintiffs).

Mario Arnaldo García Sabugal v. Ministro de Agricultura . 30.5.1990, at 2736.

Gonzalo Lledó García v. Corporación Nacional Forestal . 30.7.1990, at 4625.

Comunidad de Chañaral v. Codeco División el Salvador. S/ Recurso de Protección. Corte Suprema. 28.7.88.

Case Humberto Palza. Suprema Corte de Justicia. 19.12.1985

Colombia

Camilo Augusto Hernández Córdoba v. la Alcaldía del Municipio de  Ricaurte . Sala séptima de la Corte Constitucional. 453/98. 31.8.1998

Fundepúblico v. Tradenet S.A y otros . Tribunal de la Magdalena. 1994.

Maria Sarria Álvarez v. el Alcalde municipal de Guaduas . Juzgado Promiscuo municipal de Guaduas. 30.9.1994.

Santa Marta. Tribunal Superior Del Distrito Judicial De Santa Marta. Sala Civil. 22.7.94 .

Organización Indígena de Antioquia v. Codechoco & Madarien . Juzgado Tercero Agrario del Círculo Judicial de Antioquia. Medellín. 24.2.1993.

Antoio Mauricio Monroy Céspedes. Sala de revisión de tutelas de la Corte Constitucional. T- 92/93. 19.2.1993.

Fundepúblico v. Mayor of Bugalagrande and others . Expediente T-101. June 1992 (on appeal).

Fundepúblico v. Mayor of Bugalagrande and others . Juzgado Primero Superior. Interlocutorio  # 032. Tuluá. 19.12.1991.

Vecinos de las Veredas de la Tribuna y otro v. INDALPE. Corte Constitucional. Expediente T-25623.

Costa Rica

Asociación Palmareña para la recuperación del Ambiente . Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Recurso de Amparo. Decision 5974/01, of 19.8.1998.

Hans Georg Kuster. Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Recurso de Amparo. Decision 5260/96, of 4.10.1996.

Presidente de la sociedad MARLENE SA v. Municipalidad de Tibás, el Ministerio de Salud y contra José Joaquín Murillo Murillo . Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de justicia. Decision Nº 6918/94 of 25.11.1994.

Carlos Roberto García Chacón . Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Decision 3705/93 of 30.6.1993.

Victor Hugo Morales  y otro v. Provincia de Mendoza S/ Acción de Amparo. Juzgado Civil de Primera Instancia Nº 4. Mendoza. Decision of 2.10.1986.

Ecuador

Arco Iris v. Instituto Ecuatoriano de Minería y Ministerio de  Agricultura y Ganadería . Tribunal de Garantías Constitucionales. Caso Nº 224/90. Resolución Nº 054-93-CP.

Guatemala

Acción de inconstitucionalidad total. Promovido contra el congreso de la República Corte de Constitucionalidad. Decision 575/98. 23.2.99.

Concesiones otorgadas por el Ministerio de Energía y Minas a Empresas Petroleras . Resolución en Conciencia del Procurador de los Derechos Humanos de Guatemala en Materia Ambiental. Exp. 002-98/D.S. 10.10.98.

Peru

Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental v. Dirección Regional del Ministerio de Pesquería. Unidad Agraria Departamental de Tumbes del Ministerio de Agricultura y Concejos Provinciales de Zarumilla y Tumbes del Ministerio de Agricultura y Concejos Provinciales de Zumilla y Tumbes . Corte Suprema de Justicia. Expediente Nº 1058-92. Dictamen Fiscal Nº 1476-92. 17.2.1993.


[1] This review is partly based on a previous article by Adriana Fabra, "Enforcing the right to a healthy environment in Latin America", published in the RECIEL, vol. 3:4 (1994). The authors wish to thank the generous contribution of the following lawyers and organizations without whose assistance this paper would not have been possible: Eduardo Astorga, Chile; Cedarena, Costa Rica; Centro de Derechos Humanos y Medio Ambiente, Argentina; Centro de Estudios Ambientales, Argentina; Cordavi, Ecuador; Fundepúblico, Colombia; Virginia Gascón y la Fundación Derecho y Recursos Naturales, Argentina; IDEADS, Guatemala, and The Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental, Peru. Translations of original texts are made by Adriana Fabra.

[2] Similarly, in the Case Hugo Almada , the court considered that the right to the protection of the environment was implicitly recognized in the Constitution, in relation to the rights to life and health. Case Hugo Almada , Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, Ruling of 19.5.1998. LLBA, 1998-943 - RCyS, 1999-530.

[3] In a later decision, the Criminal Court of Mar del Plata stated that the burden of proof of the existence of the right to the environment does not fall upon the plaintiff but it is for the court - if willing to apply any restrictions to it - to provide the necessary arguments (case of Eugenio Jaime).

[4] For other rulings that examine the relationship between the environment and the life of human beings see: decision num. 411, of 17 June 1992; 428, of June 1992; 451, of July 1992 and 536, of September 1992. They have stated that the right to the environment is a fundamental human right.

[5] Other cases where also the right to a healthy environment was recognised as a fundamental human right: Presidente de la sociedad MARLENE SA v. Municipalidad de Tibás, el Ministerio de Salud y v.José Joaquín Murillo Murillo . Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de justicia. Decision Nº 6918/94; case Hans Georg Kuster. Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Recurso de Amparo. Decision 5260/96, of 4.10.1996 and case Asociación Palmareña para la recuperación del Ambiente . Sala Constitucional de la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Recurso de Amparo. Decision 5974/01, of 19.8.1998.

[6] "para el desarrollo y cumplimiento de las normas fundamentales que garantizan el derecho a la salud, y a un nivel de vida más humano que garantice la supervivencia de las futuras generaciones mediante la protección y el mejoramiento del Medio y el equilibrio ecológico, se legisló que, para alcanzar tales objetivos el Estado, las municipalidades y los habitantes del territorio nacional tomarán todas las medidas preventivas que eviten la contaminación y propugnen su óptima conservación(.).See also Acción de Inconstitucionalidad total, promovido contra el Congreso de la República.

[7] Many other cases have repeated the same idea. See cases 56/90; 1755/90; 1580/90; 1833/91 2362/91; 2728/91; 1297/92; 2233/93 and 4894/93, from the same court.

[8] Decision C-066 of 24 February 1993 . See also case of Maria Sarria Álvarez v. el Alcalde municipal de Guaduas; ; decision C-216 of 9 June 1993.

 

 
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