Eight years ago, developers proposed a five-dam project on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Patagonia, Chile. While they projected that the hydropower would produce 2,750 megawatts of power, the project would also flood 23 square miles of wilderness, jeopardizing the environment, local culture, and tourism of the region.

Citizens opposed the project, arguing that Chile’s energy needs could be met through less damaging projects, such as energy efficiency and renewable energy. Just last month—after eight years of campaigning by the Patagonia Defense Council, a coalition of more than 70 domestic and international organizations and individuals—Chile’s Environment Minister, Pablo Badenier, revoked the permit. The advocacy of this coalition, which includes Access Initiative member FIMA, was credited by International Rivers as “perhaps the most important reason” for the reversal.

The success of this campaign is a powerful example of the importance of public participation in land-use decisions. Civil society raised concern over the impacts of the proposed dams on livelihoods and the environment, which ultimately created political opposition. However, far too often the public is not meaningfully engaged in these decisions. This is often due to weak laws that limit the public’s access to information, do not provide adequate public voice in decision-making, or provide no access to justice when environmental harms are committed. These issues are at the heart of environmental democracy—a key component in preserving the health of communities and the regions they call home.

Why Is Environmental Democracy Important?

Environmental democracy is rooted in the idea that meaningful participation by the public is critical to ensuring that land and natural resource decisions adequately and equitably address citizens’ interests. Rather than setting a standard for what determines a good outcome, environmental democracy sets a standard for how decisions should be made.

At its core, environmental democracy involves three mutually reinforcing rights that, while independently important, operate best in combination: 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.

Understanding 3 Fundamental Rights: Information, Participation, and Justice

Access to Information

When well-designed and implemented, access-to-information laws require that governments and companies make information such as environmental impact assessments, development project plans, and pollution discharges freely available to the public. By being informed, the public can participate more effectively in decision-making and hold companies and governments accountable for actions that are not in accordance with the law. Information should not only be available, but accessible to the public through formats they can readily use—taking into account literacy, language, readability, use of technology, and more.

Making environmental information open and freely accessible can often be the foundation for change. The United States, for example, developed the first-ever Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR)—called the Toxics Release Inventory—in 1986 following several environmental disasters, including a chemical release from the Union Carbine plant in West Virginia in 1985. The TRI requires that certain industrial facilities annually submit data on the quantity of toxic chemicals they release. Since 1986, at least 50 other countries have developed PRTRs or implemented pilot programs. While the US TRI certainly still has room for improvement, compelling companies to make this data public has helped reduce the incidence of toxic releases in the country.

Public Participation

Public participation laws improve information flow between communities and government or private sector decision-makers. This exchange can help avoid unintended consequences, increase support for a decision, and lead to a more equitable distribution of costs and benefits. The public should be informed early in the decision-making process about opportunities to participate, such as through town hall meetings or community workshops. They also need to be provided with any information necessary to meaningfully engage—such as environmental impact assessments—and should be able to participate without incurring burdensome costs, such as traveling to a capital city. Participation is less meaningful when the public is merely informed of an upcoming decision and left with no opportunity to influence it.

One of the better-known public participation processes for the environment is through Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), which in many countries require public consultations before the development of projects that will have environmental impacts. However, these consultations can vary widely in quality. When the public is given ample notice along with the necessary information to understand and participate meaningfully, these assessments can be effective ways to safeguard against environmental harms or to ensure that adequate compensation. On the other hand, public consultations that serve only to inform of a decision that has already been made undermine public trust, reduce legitimacy and stifle the flow of important information.

Access to Justice

When members of the public do lack access to information and participation, they should be able to exercise a right to seek justice—such as compensation or appealing a project. These accountability mechanisms should be independent and impartial, and ideally able to issue binding, enforceable decisions.

Environmental tribunals such as India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) are good examples of mechanisms that provide access to justice. The NGT was established in 2010 in recognition of the large number of court cases involving environmental disputes. The tribunal has jurisdiction over all civil cases involving “substantial question[s] relating to [the] environment,” and is mandated to attempt to conclude a case within six months of the filing date. Between May 2011 and March 2014, the Tribunal has adjudicated 393 cases.

Spotlight on Environmental Democracy

Over the coming months, The Access Initiative at WRI will continue to look at environmental democracy around the world. This work will both showcase success stories and help shed light on areas for improvement. By fostering a better understanding of how environmental democracy principles are applied in countries throughout the world, we can work toward improving quality of life for people and the planet.