The World Resources Institute’s Sustainability Initiative seeks to align the Institute’s business practices with its mission. Using research and expertise from staff to guide us, WRI is committed to reducing the environmental and social impact of its operations.
Walking the talk on...
At its core, environmental democracy involves three mutually reinforcing rights: the ability for people to freely access information on environmental quality and problems, to participate meaningfully in decision-making, and to seek enforcement of environmental laws or compensation for damages
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.
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.
Laws that ensure access to information provide citizens with the right to crucial facts and data, including those about natural resources that are critical to livelihoods. These transparency laws are the cornerstone of good governance, which all governments have a duty to respect, protect, and fulfill. With the goal to improve governance, The Access Initiative (TAI) successfully influenced a model African Union access-to-information law, as well as a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) access-to-information policy.
WRI is the Secretariat of TAI, the largest network in the world dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities.
International and regional institutions, such as UNEP and the African Union, have wide-reaching effects that shape national policies. However, without robust access-to-information policies, UNEP and the African Union lacked practical means of ensuring that their decisions consider sustainable development concerns and the interests of the poor.
WRI has a long history of shaping legal, institutional, and practical reforms to improve transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability around environmental decision-making. This history lay the groundwork for WRI and TAI partners to effectively campaign for UNEP and African Union reforms.
Before Rio+20, WRI and TAI partners presented strong arguments to delegates and helped draft language, which were incorporated into UNEP’s final decision to adopt an “access to information” policy. Simultaneously, WRI worked with partners to review and comment on an African Union model access-to-information law. WRI submitted official comments and provided recommendations to reduce exceptions to the law and include new provisions to better guide implementation and promotion of the policy. The majority of our specific recommendations were adopted in the final model law.
Today, UNEP is finalizing its access-to-information policy and working with WRI to enhance stakeholder participation in decision-making. When the policy is finalized and implemented, UNEP will be one of the most transparent and inclusive organizations in the United Nations system.
The African Union (AU) passed a strong model law, which provides a template for all African countries to write access-to-information acts. It provides legislators a tool to address issues specific to the African context, such as requirements to improve record-keeping and provisions for oversight and monitoring by an independent enforcement body. Currently, of the 54 African countries, only 13 have access-to-information laws. This new, model law encourages the 41 other countries to pass similar legislation.
WRI and TAI are building on our success with UNEP and the AU in new ways, such as working to influence the Open Government Partnership on high-level transparency and accountability policies.
Despite its small size, Ecuador is one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. Political instability, though, has led to weak environmental laws and few opportunities for citizens to participate in decisions about the management of the country’s rich natural resources. A new law now requires the government to consult citizens on environmental matters. It’s the result of a long process undertaken by WRI and Ecolex, a non-profit organization in Ecuador focused on sustainable development. Together we identified weaknesses in Ecuador’s laws regulating public access to environmental information, participation, and justice. This assessment was followed by multi-stakeholder workshops which led to the creation of draft legislation approved by the Ministry of Environment and signed into law by the president.
For eight years, WRI and 160 partners in 40 countries have been working to open up the channels of information on environmental decision-making. This effort – The Access Initiative – is the largest global action network dedicated to ensuring that people have the right and the ability to influence decisions about the natural resources on which their communities depend.
How does it work? Coalitions of civil society groups assess the state of access to
information, public participation, and justice in their nation. Gaps in laws,
institutions, and practices are identified. The coalitions then engage their
government in a dialogue and develop campaigns to bring about reform. It isn’t easy, especially in Southeast Asia where leaders have long kept
political control through information control. Eight years of work by The Access Initiative, however, came to fruition recently when Indonesia
enacted a new Freedom of Information Act. The Access Initiative also
played a strong role in ensuring Thailand’s new constitution enshrines the right of the public to have information about new development projects that affect the environment and to participate in decisions concerning such projects. Rights to remedies are provided when the government acts in breach of these provisions.
In a nationwide referendum in early 2009, Bolivia overhauled its federal constitution. Among its sweeping changes are new legal rights for citizens to take part in public policy planning and to be consulted and informed on decisions that may affect environmental quality and natural resource use. The constitution also establishes the country’s first environmental and agricultural court, giving citizens and communities a forum to air grievances.
These provisions are largely the result of work by WRI and PRODENA, one of Bolivia’s oldest environmental advocacy organizations. “Using a toolkit WRI developed, together we identified weaknesses in Bolivia’s proposed new constitution regulating public access to environmental information, participation, and justice,” explains Lalanath de Silva, director of WRI’s Access Initiative (TAI). PRODENA is a member of TAI, the world’s largest network of civil society organizations working to ensure that people have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities. Based on these assessments, and with WRI support, PRODENA advocated tirelessly for the inclusion of such rights, which Bolivia’s government adopted into the text of the constitution.
“It’s a great result,” continues de Silva, “the type we envisioned when we launched The Access Initiative a decade ago.”