The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its first-ever access to information policy last week. The pilot policy—which will be revised after its first year—aims to “enhance transparency and openness” in the organization’s work. But despite its noble aspirations, the policy falls far short of providing true transparency.
The “resource curse" describes the paradox where countries rich in oil, gas, and minerals remain largely impoverished. Better transparency—both in how governments spend extractive revenues and how natural resource decisions are made—could help tackle this problem. While some new initiatives are making progress on this front, more needs to be done to ensure that drilling and mining doesn’t come at the expense of communities and the land, water, and wildlife they rely on.
More than 70 percent of Samarinda’s land (the capital of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province) is allocated to mining concessions, and little information is provided to citizens on companies’ compliance to safety and environmental health rules.
In the hopes of preventing mining fatalities, the Mining Advocacy Network (JATAM), a group of Indonesian NGOs and community organizations, requested information from the Indonesian government to determine what companies were doing to mitigate mines’ environmental and health impacts. This process prompted the STRIPE project, which will focus on building strong civil society coalitions to advocate for corporate disclosure of information.
The Open Government Partnership (OGP)—which held its most recent summit about three weeks ago—has made tremendous progress in its two years of existence. The OGP, a voluntary partnership between governments and civil society, aims to make governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Discussions at the summit made it clear that the partnership is already demonstrating impact. Sixty-two governments have now joined OGP, making 1,115 commitments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.
The Summit provided a real sense that there’s a growing community who really “gets” the importance of open government to meeting development goals. Yet there was still a gap in the discourse in one particular area—the environment.
Harriet Bibangambah, a Research Officer at Greenwatch Uganda, also contributed to this post.
Uganda is one of only 10 African countries with a national access to information (ATI) law. These types of laws are essential to human rights, providing citizens with legal access to the government-held information that directly impacts them—information on issues like mining permits, logging concessions, air quality data, and more. But as researchers are learning, ATI laws on the books do not necessarily guarantee freedom of information.
Uganda passed its Access to Information Act in 2005, releasing an implementation plan and ATI regulations in 2011. The regulations establish procedures for citizens to request government-held information and for the government to respond to citizen requests. WRI and Greenwatch, a Ugandan environmental law and advocacy organization set out in August 2011 to investigate how the law works.
Increased industrialization in Asia has created countless hurdles for communities to protect themselves from pollution. Important government information—such as the amount of pollutants being discharged by nearby factories or results from local air and water quality monitoring—still isn’t readily accessible in user-friendly formats. This practice often leaves the public entirely out of decision-making processes on issues like regulating pollution or expanding industrial factories. In many cases, the public lack the information they need to understand and shield themselves from harmful environmental, social, and health impacts.
This state of affairs recently prompted a group of government officials, NGOs, local community representatives, and academics to demand government action to change the status quo. Last week, representatives from China, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand released the Jakarta Declaration for Strengthening the Right to Environmental Information for People and the Environment. The Declaration urges governments to improve access to information on air and water quality pollution in Asia—and offers a detailed road map on how to do so.
Fourteen Latin American and Caribbean countries adopted an ambitious Plan of Action to improve access rights in the region, including access to information, public participation, and access to justice.
UPDATE, 4/19/13: Fourteen Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries adopted an ambitious Plan of Action to improve access rights on April 17, 2013. Read WRI's press release for more details about the Plan of Action for the LAC Principle 10 Regional Declaration.
Many of these conflicts occur because countries lack strong laws and practices that encourage the public’s access to information and early participation in government decision-making. Without these laws in place, citizens can’t legally obtain information on projects like proposed oil wells or highways—or engage in the decision-making processes about developing and approving these projects. Governments can then make decisions without considering the impact on local citizens. The resulting social, environmental, or health costs often fall disproportionately on the affected communities. (See our video, "Sunita," for more information on the need for access to information laws).
But the situation in the LAC region could be poised to change, depending on what happens at a meeting this week. Representatives from 13 countries and two observer countries will meet with civil society groups in Guadalajara, Mexico, to finalize a two-year action plan on implementing the LAC Principle 10 Regional Declaration. If attendees come up with a strong plan, several LAC countries will come closer to adopting a plan for improving environmental justice and public participation rights across the region.
As we enter 2013, there are signs of growth and economic advancement around the world. The global middle class is booming. More people are moving into cities. And the quality of life for millions is improving at an unprecedented pace.
Yet, there are also stark warnings of mounting pressures on natural resources and the climate. Consider: 2012 was the hottest year on recordfor the continental United States. There have been 36 consecutive years in which global temperatures have been above normal. Carbon dioxide emissions are on the rise – last year the world added about 3 percent more carbon emissions to the atmosphere. All of these pressures are bringing more climate impacts: droughts, wildfires, rising seas, and intense storms.
All is not lost, but the window for action is rapidly closing. This decade--and this year--will be critical.
Against that backdrop, experts at WRI have analyzed trends, observations, and data to highlight six key environmental and development stories we’ll be watching in 2013.
Open government requires an open executive branch, an open legislature, and an open judiciary. Historically, however, global attention to government transparency and access to information has focused on the executive branch.
Civil society attention on lawmakers and legislatures is critically important—especially in Africa, where parliaments have long worked behind closed doors (most legislatures on the continent are parliaments). Transparency is needed for civil society to hold legislators accountable for their decisions and actions, and to ensure they are responsive to the needs and concerns of their constituents.