Podcast: Maria Antonia Tigre, Director of Latin America for the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment

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Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75

February 24, 2021

Kimberly White
Hello and welcome to Common Home Conversations. Today we’re joined by Maria Antonia Tigre, Director of Latin America for the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment. Thank you for joining us today!

Maria Antonia Tigre
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Kimberly White
So Maria, can you tell us about the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment and the work you do there?

Maria Antonia Tigre
Absolutely. So the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment, the GNHRE, is basically what it sounds like. It’s a global network of academics, researchers, policymakers, lawyers and community activists that are particularly interested in this intersection of human rights in the environment. It started in 2018 as the brainchild of Anna Grear, who’s an academic with the simple idea to bring people together who are working at this intersection. And the network recognizes the intersection of these two domains that human rights impact the environment and environmental quality impacts human rights. And so it nurtures a group of people who wanted to find more effective solutions than what had been done up until now. And because our core team has dedicated members divided by geographic regions, our growing network is particularly diverse. I’m the Director for Latin America and have as a result, the responsibility to engage with members who are based or focus their work on that particular region. This is done through webinars, through blog posts and an exchange of academic scholarship. We have a dedicated virtual research repository that contains over 2000 sources for research, which is by far the most extensive dedicated research portal on human rights and the environment available. And we are constantly updating it so it reflects the most recent scholarship on the team and particularly through research from those different regions of the world that are not always as focused in academia. So we also have a blog that provides commentaries on recent legal innovations, such as court decisions that have recognized the right to a healthy environment in some particular way. And since 2020 was the year of zoom meetings and webinars, we have developed a series of webinars focused on human rights based climate litigation, which was our biggest programming initiative so far. We had an introductory webinar that provided a broad overview of human rights-based climate litigation, and then subsequent webinars that each focused on a specific region. The webinars had a very interesting mix of advocates, scholars, and lawyers, some of which were actually litigating the claims that we were talking about, which was a really interesting perspective to look from. And we had the privilege to hear from, in our webinar on focus on Latin America, we heard from Soledad García Muñoz who is the first Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And we got from her the broad perspective on how to recognize climate change and develop climate litigation at the inter-American system. This broad network that we have has allowed us to get a worldwide conversation on climate litigation, it goes well beyond the discussions that we have seen so far, with the truly incredible quality of interventions of very thoughtful people trying to figure out how to protect human rights and environmental rights. We have several projects planned for 2021 that focus on advancing the development of this right and forge new conversations and relationships among our members.

Kimberly White
That’s fantastic. I’m looking forward to checking all of that out, especially the research repository. I think that sounds very interesting. So 2020 was a challenging year, with the pandemic and lock-downs and everything that went along with that. What are some of the highlights for human rights and the environment that stood out to you recently that we should know about?

Maria Antonia Tigre
I think so. I think there have been several cases in Latin America that have advanced climate litigation through a human rights-based approach and also focused on the pandemic, specifically. I think what’s interesting about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has truly sort of spread throughout all crevices of society. And, of course, it’s primarily a health crisis with devastating consequences on the human right to life and the human right to health but the urgent and all encompassing nature of the pandemic’s effect has complicated other environmental and human rights challenges in unpredictable and unprecedented ways. And given the origin of the Coronavirus as a zoonotic disease, meaning that it was transmitted from animals to humans, the exploitation of wild species and deforestation becomes a central aspect in addressing the pandemic and preventing future ones. So I think the right to a healthy environment has really developed sort of, within that whole context is sort of a response to the pandemic as well. And in fact, I’m actually coordinating a working group at the Global Pandemic Network, which developed sort of as of response from a series of academics all over the world to the pandemic, with this idea of responding to what we’re living and trying to understand it from a legal perspective and trying to find better responses to react to it and as we sort of move towards this next phase, but also preventing future ones. And this group that I’m coordinating focuses on how the right to a healthy environment and other sort of green rights have been infringed by the pandemic. And one of the aspects that we look at is precisely this increased and modified interface between people and wildlife, which leads to the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people. And from a legal perspective, we are asking how the right to a healthy environment as well as these other related rights, such as the right to water, the right to food, the rights of indigenous peoples, play a part in that discussion. So I think there’s an increased call for this international recognition of the right to a healthy environment because of the pandemic.

Kimberly White
Yeah, unfortunately, it has been challenging, and you know, again, it is all interconnected. That brings me to my next question, and we can dive in a little bit further with COVID. So the climate crisis and the concurrent COVID-19 pandemic seemed to show us a connection between environmental degradation, health, and human rights. How would the Global Pact for the Environment bolster human rights while bringing about international accountability?

Maria Antonia Tigre
So I think a lot of the studies that we’ve seen from the pandemic and the underlying causes of it, they show that these causes are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change, including issues like land use change, agricultural expansion in wildlife trade and consumption. So the role of a deteriorating environment both as a cause and a consequence of the pandemic is very significant here because it raises, like I said, the demand for international recognition of a right to a healthy environment, and this recognition is crucial given the link between the rights of health and environmental protection, which was evidenced by the pandemic and the recognition at the international level would provide for increased accountability and ensure that environmental protection is observed as a human right throughout the world. And this is also important as we see backsliding in environmental regulation as a result of the pandemic or using the pandemic as an excuse as has been observed, for example, in Brazil and in the United States. And this is where the Global Pact for the Environment can be particularly useful because it provides a platform, an opportunity for the recognition of the right to a healthy environment at international level along with other environmental principles such as the principle of resilience and the principle of non regression, both of which would have been essential in avoiding this pandemic and future ones and also recovering from it. So despite COVID-19 having sort of stolen the debate at the international level, and sort of the attention that was supposed to have been focused on environmental issues. So for international discussions, I think there’s an opportunity here to actually give a little more strength to some of the arguments that have been used for the Global Pact for the Environment to bolster these human rights and environmental rights.

Kimberly White
So the right to a healthy environment has been incorporated into more than 100 national constitutions. However, we have yet to see it realized in an internationally legally binding treaty. Why is this?

Maria Antonia Tigre
So I think that the right to a healthy environment is, as my colleague Erin Daly from GNHRE often says, it’s a story that is still being told. When the main international treaties and human rights were adopted, the relevance of the natural environment to the enjoyment of human rights was not yet recognized. For this reason, the right to a healthy environment was not adopted in these main human rights documents. And as the environmental movements took over in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was already too late. And I say that, sort of, in quotes, to recognize the human rights to a healthy environment at the international level. And the rights then developed simultaneously throughout the world through constitutional recognition, like you mentioned, and in academic scholarship. And with this broad constitutional recognition, the growing movement to recognize the right at the international level increased, and there have been calls to do so in different ways throughout the last, like two decades or so. And several proposals have been presented at the United Nations and more recently, as well, and that includes the Global Pact for the Environment. But the issue I think is that during the international debate that arose from the proposed Global Pact at the United Nations, the discussions that underwent at UNEP’s headquarters, a lot of countries were for that recognition, but a few countries explicitly rejected this international recognition. And that includes the United States, which is one of the few countries that has not adopted a right at the national level. And, of course, the United States carries a lot of weight in those in those discussions, and we now have a different government coming in. So this scenario could likely change. But many of the countries that still oppose international recognition do so due to national self-interests and the avoidance of environmental responsibility at the international level. And while innovative approaches have been proposed to fill this gap in international environmental law, including, for example, the adoption of a children’s rights to a healthy environment by the Human Rights Council last year, it is likely that this debate about environmental rights and duties will mark the next decades of deliberations at the United Nations. Hopefully, it won’t be too long until we actually have an adoption. But there’s a lot of friction between delegates on whether that should be adopted or not.

Kimberly White
Yeah, we see that with a lot of these treaties and agreements. There’s always that one group that doesn’t want to join on just yet. So hopefully, we’ll see more action this year. And as we hit the decade of ambition, really get things moving. How could the legal framework proposed by the Common Home of Humanity address the existing legal gaps in international environmental law?

Maria Antonia Tigre
I think what’s interesting about the approach proposed by the Common Home of Humanity is this recognition that the earth system is interconnected and, as a result, its governance should address the unity and indivisibility from a legal standpoint. As a unity everyone shares the responsibility for the protection of the environment. And while this has been acknowledged from a theoretical perspective, we still lack the legal mechanisms to make it a reality. As a result, developing countries still rely a lot on their sovereignty and the historical responsibility of developed countries as an excuse to continue polluting the environment. Yet the widespread destruction of the environment shows how we must go beyond some of the core concepts of the international environmental legal regime and ensure that a shared responsibility actually exists. So if you take the Amazon rainforest, for example, everyone knows that Amazonia has a crucial role for the global climate. And when the 2019 fires happened, there was an unprecedented, and very much warranted global outrage from countries. But there’s still a legal gap on how to care for the ecosystem services that Amazonia provides since it remains a free resource that is available at a global scale. And protecting that resource has a price for Amazon countries, which is what the leaders of those countries usually rely on to sort of avoid responsibility for caring for it a little better. There are very few economic mechanisms that give Amazonia a value that is more than rhetorical. And as a Brazilian, I feel emboldened to speak about the Amazon rainforest in a way that others can’t. So while it is heartening to see the world outraged by the Brazilian policies and the policies from other countries that share Amazonia as well that have led to increased rates of deforestation, unless the world also provides a legal solution that affords Amazonia and Amazon countries as a consequence with a real value, that outrage is meaningless. So the Common Home of Humanity uses the discussion ignited by the Global Pact as an opportunity to bring a new approach that would address this legal gap in an innovative way. And as the Global Pact developed from an academic proposal, it brought a lot of backlash from delegates at the United Nations in the way that it was proposed, which brought this opportunity to rethink some of the core concepts and bring innovative ideas to better frame the foundational aspects of international environmental law. So I think the more people that we have actually thinking about this and proposing innovative solutions, the better.

Kimberly White
And speaking of the Amazon, the 2019 Amazon fires made global headlines, but the 2020 fire season set new records. According to international NGOs, an area almost equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom burned across Brazil up until the end of September. Given your research and expertise, can you discuss the importance of regional cooperation among Amazonian countries to save this vital ecosystem?

Maria Antonia Tigre
Yeah, one of the unfortunate, unintended consequences of the global pandemic was the rise of forest fires and deforestation in the Amazon region. 2020 was supposed to be the year of the environment, and yet everyone got distracted by the chaos that overpowered all other debates. The pandemic gave leaders in the Amazon region a free pass to avoid enforcement of environmental law based on a couple of different arguments, but namely, that it was too risky for agents of environmental protection agencies to be in the field, and that the economy was suffering and increased deforestation and pollution was a way to boost the country’s economy. So based on that, enforcement was completely reduced. As a result, deforestation and forest fires were increasing once again. It was also the case that the media did not pay as much attention to this issue as it did in 2019 as the news was so overwhelmed by the Coronavirus. And another aspect relates to the protection of indigenous groups, which was completely sidetracked during the pandemic as evidenced by the disproportionate numbers of virus transmissions and deaths in those communities. Several countries have ongoing litigation that calls on their national governments to provide a response that ensures environmental protection and their responsibility towards the global climate. Some specifically focused on the forest fires. But the forest fires, and more broadly, deforestation much like the pandemic involve elements of national, regional and international protective efforts as well as legal norms that expand across and beyond these categories. Amazonia represents one single unique ecosystem, which should be protected in its integrity rather than through different national approaches. And that still hasn’t yet been done in an effective way. The global significance of the threats to Amazonia requires legal responses based on cooperation between and across countries. And given how Amazon countries were affected by the pandemic, it is essential that this cooperative response takes place in the region. At the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, which is the regional scheme that developed in the past four decades as a result of cooperative efforts between the nine Amazon countries has yet to develop an overarching protective scheme that works throughout the region and involves all countries in a practical effort. As a response to the 2019 forest fires, regional leaders adopted the Leticia Pact, which is basically a declaration of intent, with this goal of providing a regional response to emergencies, such as the forest fires, but that has also yet to take shape in any concrete ways. So despite the significance of regional cooperation and the existing regional frameworks in practice, this cooperation still doesn’t really exist.

Kimberly White
That’s really interesting, and I think with the fires, the media did not pay as much attention as it did in the past and likely, as you said, because of the pandemic that’s going on. Now, in his recent state of the planet address, the UN Secretary-General said that the state of the planet is broken and humanity is waging a war on nature. Despite the intensifying adverse impacts of climate change, climate policies have not yet risen to the challenge. How would the Global Pact for the Environment better address the environmental crises facing our global community?

Maria Antonia Tigre
One of the main gaps in international environmental law, which was highlighted by the Secretary-General in 2018, is the fragmentation of this regime. So rather than having a framework treaty that provides the core legal principles like the Human Rights regime, for example, international environmental law, developed through a sectoral approach. We have a biodiversity regime, a climate regime, a forest regime, etc. So the pandemic showed us, if that wasn’t clear already, that the environment is all connected, which warrants a connected approach. And this is exactly what the Global Pact for the Environment would provide. A Global Pact would postulate the basis for legal answers to existing and emerging environmental problems, as well as a baseline when the international community fails to agree on a joint response. As the climate discussions show, international diplomacy can be often slow to respond to emerging problems, as there are so many different aspects that should be considered when negotiating those. So the Global Pact would particularly fill this gap, providing general answers when more specific ones are still lacking. It would also provide for more accountability from states for example. As we can see from several climate litigation cases that have spread throughout the globe in the past few years, the right to a healthy environment and other environmental principles provide the basis for increased accountability from states, even when those fail to accept more stringent policies. Hopefully, the discussions arising from the call from the United Nations General Assembly for a new political declaration will be progressive enough to deliver some of the legal responses that we need right now.

Kimberly White
Absolutely, and I think as we’re getting into 2021, we really need to amplify what we’re doing, and we need to see those nations step up. Was there anything from the recent Climate Ambition Summit that stood out to you for human rights and the environment?

Maria Antonia Tigre
So I think, not specifically from the climate negotiations, but in general from the discussions that I’ve seen at the United Nations and specifically, this call from the new political declaration. What I think stood out to me is that COVID-19 even though is mentioned all the time and is obviously acknowledged by countries has yet to actually provide the boost in the discussion for environmental protection that I thought was warranted. So hopefully, we will see a little bit more of that as we see more reports and more sort of a push from different people around the world talking a little bit more about how the pandemic affects the environment. We can see a bigger push for this recognition of the human right to a healthy environment and how that relates to the pandemic as a whole and see a little bit more engagement from countries as a response to that because I think the pandemic has still been used mostly as an excuse to avoid more stringent commitments. But I think that’s exactly where we shouldn’t go. And the lessons that we need to learn from this are exactly the opposite, that we should be engaging more, and we should be accepting more responsibility. And we should be protecting the environment with more fervor in a way than we’re doing so far. So hopefully, it will make countries engage a little bit more in the commitments that they’re making.

Kimberly White
I agree 100 percent. Are there any countries or national policies that have, you know, stood out to you as an example for the international community to follow?

Maria Antonia Tigre
I think that European Union has been developing a green recovery that is a little more ambitious and considers how we should respond to this in a way that is environmentally safe and protective. So hopefully, we’ll see a little bit more of that from other countries and, I think, as the United States, as there’s a different government. Hopefully, we’ll see more progressive responses as well from that and see a green recovery that is conscious of everything else that we are suffering.

Kimberly White
Definitely, with these calls for green recoveries, they need to be shifting toward the future rather than returning to business as usual. And as one of the world’s largest emitters, I’m hopeful that we will see concrete plans moving forward from the United States. We’ve had a lot of rollbacks here over these past four years environmentally, so it will take a lot of work, but I am hopeful to see some climate action. And I think, you know, accountability is another thing we need to keep in mind. So what can we expect to see for the human rights and the environment movement in 2021? What should we be watching for?

Maria Antonia Tigre
I think you mentioned it perfectly well, the environmental cases, I think that’s the way that we see the right to a healthy environment being developed a lot throughout the world as a whole. I think using the right to a healthy environment as the basis for environmental claims is the way to go and is the way that we can see this right being developed in a faster way and more effective way, in a sense. I think it’s interesting to see this movement from courts all over the world, that are trying to be progressive and filling this gap in their national governance system, in pushing governments to actually do more to protect the environment and climate, more specifically. We have seen many cases throughout Latin America. Brazil has a bunch of new innovative cases that have been proposed as for all 2020, that we’re likely going to see results in 2021. And in several other countries as well, they obviously use Brazil a lot as an example because I’m from that region. And I’ve been researching a lot how human rights-based climate litigation has been developing in Latin America as a whole. And it’s a region that has shown a lot of progress in that regard. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights has also developed the right to a healthy environment in recent cases, they had an advisory opinion in 2017 and 2020 showed the first contentious case that actually developed that right. So I think it’s very likely that we’ll see more of that as it develops. So I’m excited to see this development of a green jurisprudence in courts all over the world.

Kimberly White
That’s fantastic. I’m looking forward to seeing that as well. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?

Maria Antonia Tigre
I think just to keep an eye out for more work from the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment, I think we’ll have some exciting things that we will announce in the coming weeks and also from the Global Pandemic Network. Like I mentioned before, we’re developing this report on how environmental rights have been infringed by the pandemic with a lot of very specific examples from some different countries and proposals on how we could respond better to everything that has been going on. So there’s a lot of exciting things that will come out of that work as well.

Kimberly White
All right, and there you have it. International environmental law has developed through a sectoral approach, leaving legal gaps. Widespread destruction of the environment shows we must go beyond some of the international environmental legal regime’s core concepts. The pandemic shows us that all of the environment is connected, warranting a connected system. The Global Pact for the Environment would give us the opportunity to fill these legal gaps, ensuring that everyone shares the responsibility for the protection of the environment. That is all for today, and thank you for joining us for this episode of Common Home Conversations Beyond UN75. Please subscribe, share, and be sure to tune in on March 10th to continue the conversation with our special guest, Louis Kotzé, Research Professor of Law at North-West University. And visit us at www.ThePlanetaryPress.com for more episodes and the latest news in sustainability, climate change, and the environment.

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