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Public participation in Environmental Governance

First Posted 16:03:00 07/21/2008

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A highly respected and much loved Buddhist monk was asked what he thought was the cause of human suffering. ?Greed,? was his prompt reply. Psychoanalyst-philosopher Erick Fromm defines it as ?a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.? It is a form of addiction which impacts not just on the individual but also on the values and attitude of the person?s inner circle of family, friends and network.

Greed particularly rears its ugly head when government powers are used and abused by the holders of public office for illegitimate selfish ends. The use of the public office for personal gain is one reason why institutions are weakened, enforcement of the laws is sidelined and the level playing field in the decision-making process that the various sectors seek becomes a myth. Erosion of the public?s faith in the political system leads to political, economic and social instability and worse, breakdown of peace and order in a society.

A strong public participation in governance is an effective antidote for curbing abuses of power in the public sector, especially in the enforcement of our environmental laws. Recognizing the State?s principal duty to protect and serve the people, and its guarantee that the constituents shall have a healthy and balanced ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature, the 1987 pro-people Constitution went a step further. It guarantees active participation of the citizens in governance through the State policy of full disclosure, the people?s right to access public information and to a reasonable and effective participation at all levels of decision-making process, among others.

The foregoing rights provided for under the Constitution blend perfectly with Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which states that:

?Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.?

In June 1998, the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Aarhus, Denmark, also called the Aarhus Convention, was signed and ratified by the European Union and countries in central Asia. The Aarhus Convention promotes environmental democracy where ?every person has the right to be informed, to be involved in decision-making and to have access to justice in environmental matters.? This creates the much-needed atmosphere of trust in the minds and hearts of the people in relation to the institutions and, on a broader level, their democratic way of operating. By their involvement in environmental discussions, the requirements of transparency and accountability, are likewise met to attain good environmental governance.

Public participation and access to justice are the key factors in involving the citizens in the protection of our environment and strengthening compliance and enforcement of our environmental laws.

A form of ensuring compliance with and enforcement of the law through public participation is the environmental citizen suit. It is a remedy afforded the people to hold parties accountable for violations of environmental laws. Under the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act and the Clean Air Act, suits may be filed by any citizen against any and all parties, not just the government agencies concerned, for their neglect, refusal, failure and even improper implementation of both laws. There is no filing fee and injunction bond may not be required.

Another important feature is SLAPP (Suits and Strategic Legal Actions Against Public Participation) and the Enforcement of the Statute Suit. This is a measure to deter the institution of harassment suits that are filed against the person, institution or government agency who instituted the environmental case. After a hearing within 30 days from filing, the court will determine if it is such, dismiss the case and attorney?s fees and double damages shall be awarded.

It is indeed timely that environmental courts were created in January this year by our Supreme Courts. Its institution will hopefully change behaviors, improve compliance and reduce violations of the laws and raise public awareness about the environment.


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