The Basic Human Right to a Healthy Environment

An interview with David R. Boyd, Adjunct Professor, Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University.

David BoydHis recent books, The Environmental Rights Revolution (UBC Press, 2012) and The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada’s Constitution (UBC Press, 2012), advocate for the protection of both human rights and the environment through constitutional amendments.

by Trevor Wideman, CEHE Research Intern

Q: Why did you feel it was important to take on the issue of environmental rights on such a large scale (i.e., examining national constitutions and case studies from all over the world)? This seems like a massive undertaking.

A: I’ve been interested in the concept of a constitutionally protected right to live in a healthy environment since the early 1990s. At that time, I learned of a lawsuit brought by Antonio Oposa, Jr., a Filipino environmental lawyer. Oposa sued the Filipino government on behalf of his children and future generations, asserting that the ongoing destruction of old-growth forests in the Philippines violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment. The government filed a motion arguing that children and future generations had no standing to sue, but the Supreme Court of the Philippines issued a powerful judgment in favour of the children because of their constitutional right to a healthy environment.

As a lawyer, I’ve always known that constitutions are special, not only as the highest form of law in our society but also as a reflection of our society’s deepest and most cherished values. After learning of the Oposa case, the exclusion of the environment from Canada’s Constitution struck me as a fundamental problem.

When I had the opportunity to go back to school to do a PhD, exploring the evolution and effects of the constitutional right to a healthy environment was an obvious choice. Not so obvious, however, were which countries to focus on. I struggled with the question of how to select a group of case studies as I worked on the first piece of research, which was reading about 200 constitutions to determine the prevalence of the right to a healthy environment and other environmental provisions around the world. Ultimately I was unable to find a convincing argument for narrowing the field, so I looked at all 92 nations whose constitutions include this relatively recent yet surprisingly common right.

Recent advances in the availability of online databases and online translation tools facilitated a study that was far broader and deeper than I had ever imagined possible. It has been an incredible journey of discovery.

Q: In our increasingly globalized world, would it still be possible for environmental rights (and by extension, human rights) to be violated in the name of economic development, even with constitutional protections?

A: Constitutionally protected environmental rights can operate as a bulwark against the economic pressures exacerbated by globalization. For example, Costa Rica refused to compensate a multinational oil corporation (Harken Energy) after cancelling permits granted to that company for offshore oil and gas exploration. Costa Rica’s position was based in part on a concern that oil and gas exploitation would violate citizens’ right to a healthy environment. Colombia recently rejected an application by Canadian mining company Greystar Resources to build an open pit gold mine worth an estimated billion dollars, on the basis that the mine would violate the constitutional right to a healthy environment. On the other hand, the right to a healthy environment is not a magic wand that can address all of the complex problems caused by pervasive inequality, the pursuit of endless economic growth, blind faith in technology, and concentrated corporate power.

Q: How might the information from a large scale study such as yours be valuable to someone who is working at the community level towards environmental justice and change?

A: The results of my global study may be valuable for folks working at the community level to achieve environmental justice in three ways. First, the fact that communities in all regions of the planet are working on similar issues and in some cases enjoying remarkable success by enforcing their right to live in a healthy environment should serve as a source of hope and inspiration. Second, some of the specific strategies employed successfully by other environmental justice advocates may be adopted or adapted for use in different communities. Third, the evidence that recognizing rights and responsibilities can lead to societies that are not only greener and cleaner but healthier and wealthier is powerful evidence that can be used to persuade decision-makers of the wisdom of this approach. For example, Scandinavian nations such as Sweden and Norway are not only leaders in environmental protection, but are also highly rated in terms of innovation, economic competitiveness, and social justice. Canada would be well-advised to emulate their success!

Q: What grassroots actions can be undertaken in Canada to ensure that Environmental Rights become constitutionalized?

A: Opinion polls show that nine out of ten Canadians support constitutional protection of their right to a healthy environment. Achieving constitutional recognition of environmental rights will only happen if Canadians not only support this concept, but demand that their elected representatives also support it. Two of Canada’s leading environmental groups, the David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice, are building a campaign intended to translate public support for environmental rights into political action at the municipal, provincial/territorial, and national levels. Grassroots action–organizing, educating, mobilizing, voting, sparking conversations, collecting petitions, and more–will be a critical aspect of this effort. Citizens from coast to coast need to speak out and demand recognition of their right to clean air, safe water, and a healthy environment. Although amending Canada’s Constitution to reflect our environmental values may seem daunting, we should remember the wise words of Nelson Mandela, who said that when tackling a difficult challenge “it always seems impossible, until its done.”

Relevant Links:

Additional Links:

For more information about the Oposa case, see:

For more information about Harken Energy vs. Costa Rica, see: