BBC Future: The human right that benefits nature

The history behind one of Costa Rica’s most important environmental commitments reads something like a legal fairytale. It started nearly 30 years ago, with a young boy who wanted to stop the pollution in his neighborhood and ended with a constitutional reform. The impacts of the boy’s efforts are still causing ripples to the present day.

It began in 1992, by a stream weaving through a small town near the capital, San José. Without a proper waste management system, locals would throw their garbage into the stream, causing waste to pile up at its banks. Frustrated about the situation, then 10-year-old Carlos Roberto Mejía Chacón, with help from his family, filed an appeal with Costa Rica’s constitutional chamber against the local municipality. Allowing the river to be used as a garbage dump, he argued, violated the human right to life, which requires adequate living conditions and protected, clean waterways.

The chamber sided with Chacón a year later and ordered the municipality to clear up the garbage and start managing residents’ waste properly. But it also came to a much deeper recognition. A clean and healthy environment is a very basis of human life, as are balanced ecosystems, biodiversity, and other elements of nature on which people depend, the judges reasoned. Just like food, work, housing and education, an all-round healthy environment should be considered a human right.

This remarkable conclusion not only set a new legal standard for courts around the country, but also spurred the decision to carve the human right to a healthy environment into Costa Rica’s legal DNA during a constitutional reform in 1994, recalls lawyer Patricia Madrigal Cordero, who was involved in the legislative process at the time. Since then, the constitutional right has helped guide many of Costa Rica’s widely praised – although far from perfect – environmental policies and reverberated through the country’s landscape and culture. “I think Costa Rica would be different if we didn’t establish that relationship between human rights and the environment,” Cordero says. 

The human right to a healthy environment – encompassing clean and balanced ecosystems, rich biodiversity and a stable climate – recognises that nature is a keystone of a dignified human existence, in line with a wealth of scientific evidence linking human welfare and the natural worldPeople depend on thriving ecosystems that clean water and airyield seafood and pollinators, and soak up greenhouse gases. Recognising this link legally can greatly strengthen human rights.

But equally important, Cordero notes, is that the right provides a powerful basis to protect nature itself. In a worsening global environmental crisis, some legal scholars have argued that the right to a healthy environment acts as a crucial legal pathway to protecting the natural world, both by encouraging governments to pass stronger environmental laws and allowing courts to hold violators accountable. Especially when installed into constitutions, such rights are taken seriously by many judicial systems and become hard to undo, creating an enduring force counteracting the interests against protecting nature.  

But although there is clear scientific consensus on the benefits of nature to people, the evolution of nature as a human right has been remarkably patchy around the world. Today, many Latin American countries are forging ahead while Europe and North America lag somewhat behind. Since the right’s first mention in the Stockholm Declaration in 1972 – a result of the first major environmental conference – some 110 countries have constitutionally recognised it. While its impact varies across the globe, it has created a powerful bulwark against a rising tide of environmental destruction in many countries, such as Costa Rica, Colombia and South Africa, as more nations look set to follow suit soon.

Of course, recognising the right “is not a magic wand we can use to solve all of our challenges”, says environmental lawyer David Boyd, who is appointed as a special rapporteur on human rights and the environment at the United Nations. “It’s a catalyst for better actions.”

Read the whole feature at BBC Future