15 Apr 2019 Story Environmental rights and governance

Marine litter and environmental justice

The panel discussion on Marine Litter – Impacts, Inequality and Environmental Injustice, held during the Fourth UN Environment Assembly, addressed the role of environmental justice on communities affected by marine litter and microplastics pollution.

Speakers included:

  • David Boyd: UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment
  • Lucien Limacher: Acting Regional Director, Legal Resources Centre
  • Alejandra Parra: Founder, Environmental Rights Action Network
  • Joshua Wycliffe, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Environment, Fiji

The problem

“Unless the environmental rule of law is strengthened, even seemingly rigorous rules are destined to fail and the fundamental human right to a healthy environment will go unfulfilled," said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

According to UN Environment’s Environmental Rule of Law Report, non-compliance with the rule of law is attributed to several factors, including: (a) lack of knowledge by communities on what is required for compliance; (b) the cost of compliance; (c) soft penalties prove insufficient to deter violations; (d) reluctance of government officials to form strategic partnerships with other institutions with similar interests in implementation and enforcement for fear of losing the power or control.

Environmental justice in the context of marine litter and microplastics pollution is a topic receiving growing attention. Vulnerable communities, including those who depend on wild seafood for their diet, face greater risks to their health and livelihoods from marine litter and microplastics, which can be a million times more concentrated with chemicals compared to the contaminated surrounding water.

There’s great reluctance by actors to promote preventive action against marine litter and microplastics pollution. The effect of this can be traced across national structures, including business enterprises, which sometimes form resistance to rules and legislation designed to curb marine litter and microplastic pollution.

In Fiji, 80 per cent of land-based litter ends up in its waters, which is a disheartening fact given that nearly 60 per cent of the country’s population lives in coastal areas and depends on the marine economy, including fishing and tourism. In an effort to mitigate the problem, the Fiji government has resorted to the rule of law through its constitution to create opportunities for exclusive community awareness of resource use and management, which has led to transformative thoughts and actions.


Addressing marine litter and microplastics pollution

David Boyd advised on the need for governments and institutions to shift from linear economies to circular (reusing and recycling) economies, which reduce incineration whilst promoting the use of biodegradable resources and encouraging new ways of reusing non-biodegradable resources, at lower costs.

According to Joshua Wycliffe, one of the ways to address marine litter and microplastics pollution is through creation of awareness across all national structures, including education sectors. He gave the example of Fiji, where trained awareness officers work in schools interdependently promoting awareness of marine litter and microplastics pollution. During marked environmental days in the country, it’s mostly students who are involved in carrying out the environment-related activities.

As advised by Lucien Limacher, countries should hold capacity building programmes with communities at large. In South Africa, such capacity building programmes have brought about positive environmental effects, with communities forming their own coalitions in support of environmental conservation, leading to a nationwide 30–35 per cent reduction in waste. Despite such successes, however, racism is still a hindrance in the country for indigenous people; it blocks their knowledge of environmental conservation from being taken up by national and private institutions.

The way forward

  • International actors should develop better innovative tools to handle marine and microplastics pollution. An example of this is the drone technology developed by the Fiji Government for surveillance and monitoring purposes across borders. The drones are used by enforcement officials as well as in schools as methods of enhancing customs skills and awareness. Environmental Impact Assessment as a tool should also be continuously used as a way to measure the impact of marine litter and microplastic pollution.
  • Indigenous knowledge on conserving resources should be integrated in national development plans. Governments often fail to seek the opinions of local communities when developing environmental protection policies. Where indigenous groups are likely to be affected, governments and institutions should seek solutions from their vast indigenous knowledge.
  • Political will across all government sectors is key to promoting good governance, accountability and responsiveness in decision-making. State and non-state actors should allow for transparency in access to information by all stakeholders, especially directly affected communities, to enable them to secure their rights to a healthy environment. This will in turn see governments adopting and implementing sustainable environmental policies for the good of both the environment and the people.

For more information, please contact: Maria.Manguiat [at]un.org I Angela.Kariuki[at]un.org I Niamh.Brannigan[at]un.org I Catherine.Abuto [at]un.org.