Why does “access” matter? Access to environmental information is important because an informed public is more alert to problems, more apt to challenge assumptions of government or corporate decision-makers, more capable of discussing issues, and more likely to organize for social and political change. Access to decision-making matters because people want and need to shape the choices that affect their well-being – the quality of the air they breathe, the purity of the water they drink, the aesthetics of their neighborhood, the availability of forests that are a source of fuel or food, the wildness of their favorite place to hike. When people have access to justice – where independent courts supply remedy and redress free from politics – there is greater accountability for decisions that affect the environment.
In 2001-2002, a global coalition of 25 civil society groups called the Access Initiative measured the public’s ability to participate in decisions about the environment. For this pilot assessment, the Access Initiative focused on laws and public experiences in nine countries: Chile, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Uganda, and the United States. These countries vary in terms of income levels, development paths, literacy rates, natural resource dependency, and cultural and political traditions. The findings, summarized here, give a good indication of public access to environmental decision-making around the world.
The Access Initiative framed its assessment around the three elements of Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, which asserts that access to information, to the decision-making process, and to a system of justice are all essential components of a comprehensive system of public participation. Assessment teams in each of the pilot test countries used a common methodology, including review of planning documents, legislation, and court cases; interviews with government officials and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); questionnaires; requests for information; and media analysis (see Box 3.1 Measuring access). Using this material, the assessment teams examined how well public authorities provide:
1. Access to environmental information. Public information is one of the cornerstones of sustainable development strategies. Access to environmental information enables the public to make informed personal choices, contributes to the protection of the environment, and encourages improved environmental performance by industry.
The Access Initiative focused on access to four critical types of environmental information:
- Information about day-to-day environmental quality, such as air and water quality, which helps people decide whether children should play outside, whether to drink water from the tap, or whether to take other actions to lessen environmental impacts on their health.
- Information about environmental trends over time, which creates a more enlightened public – one that is better able to connect its actions to environmental consequences, more likely to support policies that minimize environmental harm, and more able to hold decision-makers accountable.
- Information about pollution from industrial facilities, which empowers NGOs, investors, neighbors, and consumers to press for responsible corporate citizenship
- Information about emergency situations and risks, which enables people to protect their health or environment during events such as a cholera outbreak or a fire at an industrial plant.
These categories represent a minimum standard for public authorities to use in providing environmental information.
Access Initiative researchers looked at specific cases of government practice and industrial reporting. They rated governments on how well they generate and manage environmental information and on how easily citizens can obtain comprehensive information in a timely manner, usable format, and appropriate language. They did not specifically rate the accuracy of the information, but stressed the efforts made to collect and disseminate it. For example, in examining the response to a fire at a chemical factory in Vi