Less than a decade ago, Europe and the United States sent many of their decommissioned ships to the far-flung graveyards of Bangladesh’s shipbreaking yards. Bangladeshi workers dismantled more than 250 large ships from 2005-2007 alone, handling dangerous substances like asbestos, lead, arsenic and polychlorinated biphenyls. Workers often received less than a dollar a day for their labor—many lost their lives in the process.

The situation has since improved some, thanks to hard-fought battles led by environmental attorney Rizwana Hasan. She petitioned the Bangladesh Supreme Court, arguing that under the Basel Convention, which bans the export of toxic waste, the country should not receive ships before they’re stripped of harmful substances. After years of litigation, Bangladesh’s high court closed 36 ship-breaking yards in 2009 and imposed tighter restrictions on the industry.

“[The decision] has told workers that they may get cancer by working in this industry, it’s raised an alarm in the country and it’s raised awareness in Europe as well,” Hasan said at a recent WRI event in Washington, D.C. “Once you hammer on your environmental rights, it actually improves the situation.”

Those environmental rights are part of a larger principle known as “environmental democracy,” or citizens’ rights to access government-held information, to participate in environmental decision-making and to seek justice for grievances. And as Hasan and others highlighted, those rights are fundamental to ensuring sustainable development.

The Environmental Democracy Index

Hasan joined WRI experts, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) General Counsel Avi Garbow and Chile’s Ministry of Environment’s Constance Nalegach to launch the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI). It’s the first publicly available, online platform that tracks and scores countries on their national environmental democracy laws. It’s intended to create more transparency and help bolster citizens’ rights throughout the world.

“Governments will find in this an extremely useful tool, not only to measure and compare results, but to spur within their own societies and operations better processes and rules,” Garbow said.

The index also paints a global picture of current national environmental democracy laws.

Sixty-five of the 70 countries listed in EDI have at least some legal provisions for citizens’ rights to environmental information, while a significant 73 percent will hear environmental cases in court.

On the other side of the coin, less than half of the countries assessed received a “good” or “very good” ranking. Forty-six percent of EDI countries do not proactively release air quality data for their capital cities, and 79 percent have “fair” or “poor” public participation laws.

“Still, far too many of these rights are lacking,” said Manish Bapna, WRI’s managing director. “If we are going to succeed in eradicating extreme poverty, if we are to succeed in the post-2015 development agenda, the voices of marginalized people need to be heard.”

2015: A Key Year to Expand Environmental Democracy

This year offers unprecedented opportunities to expand environmental rights.

Researchers from WRI’s Access Initiative plan to help policymakers learn from EDI’s findings. “It’s really a first step,” said Jesse Worker, EDI’s manager. “We’ll discuss results and develop action plans and proposals.”

National governments around the world are currently negotiating a new climate agreement designed to scale up action and prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, the United Nations is creating a new set of Sustainable Development Goals to replace the global Millennium Development Goals, which expire at the end of this year. Expanding environmental democracy is critical to supporting both of these international processes.

“As we’re looking toward a sustainable, environmental approach that also lifts economic development, public participation is really key to that,” Garbow said. “The whole notion of these [environmental democracy] elements really is at the core of our ability to achieve a sustainable future.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in Bangladesh. Despite progress in shipbreaking practices, Hasan argues that there’s still a long way to go in fighting corruption in the industry both at home and internationally. Bangladesh received only a “fair” score on EDI, providing citizens with strong rights to justice, but only limited access to information and public participation.

At the same time, the country struggles with natural resource and climate change challenges. As Hasan pointed out, if warming continues unabated, one-third of Bangladesh will be under water. Here, too, environmental democracy plays a role.

“Seventy percent of Bangladesh depends on natural resources for their livelihood,” Hasan said. “We need global leaders to commit themselves to standards of environmental democracy, and at the national level, we need to be very wise. We can’t just follow blindly the development paths countries thus far have been following that have given birth to problems like climate change.”

  • LEARN MORE: Check out our event page for additional resources, or watch the full video of the event below.