The Access Initiative

Application des droits environnementaux en Afrique: Des principes à la pratique

WRI et The Access Initiative Africa ont lancé le projet sur les droits environnementaux en Afrique pour étudier la faisabilité et les options de voie pour améliorer la reconnaissance et la mise en œuvre effective des droits environnementaux en Afrique et soutenir l’élaboration d’une feuille de route pour l’action. Ce rapport présente notre évaluation initiale et nos recommandations basées sur un niveau élevé de cartographie des accords, des lois et des décisions de justice sur les droits environnementaux à travers l’Afrique et des études de cas détaillées en République démocratique du Congo (RDC), au Ghana, au Kenya et en Afrique du Sud.

The Road to Realizing Environmental Rights In Africa: Moving From Principles to Practice

WRI and The Access Initiative Africa has begun the Environmental Rights in Africa Project to investigate the feasibility and pathway options for improving the recognition and effective implementation of environmental rights in Africa and support development of a roadmap for action. This report presents our initial evaluation and recommendations based on a high level of mapping of environmental rights agreements, laws, and court decisions across Africa and detailed case studies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa.


La violencia en contra de defensores(as) ambientales y de la tierra en Colombia

En 2016, hubo al menos treinta y siete personas asesinadas por su trabajo de defensa del ambiente y la tierra en Colombia. Los datos de la organización Global Witness ubican al país entre los tres más letales desde al menos 2013. Además de los atentados contra su vida, las y los defensores ambientales y de la tierra en Colombia se enfrentan a amenazas, criminalización y secuestros, entre otros peligros.

Este informe investiga la situación de violencia en contra de defensores(as) ambientales y de la tierra mediante el análisis de las condiciones de riesgo, medidas de prevención y protección para defensores, y las brechas de implementación para reducir los riesgos que enfrentan. El texto se basa en una revisión de la literatura y en entrevistas realizadas con organizaciones de la sociedad civil que trabajan con defensores(as) ambientales y de la tierra en Colombia.

Violence Against Environmental and Land Defenders in Colombia

There were thirty‐seven killings of environmental and land defenders in Colombia in 2016. Global Witness’ data has placed the country among the three deadliest in the world since at least 2013. In addition to attacks on their lives, environmental and land defenders face threats, criminalization, and kidnappings, among other dangers.

This report examines the situation of violence against environmental and land defenders in Colombia through the analysis of risk conditions, prevention and protection measures for defenders, and implementation gaps to reduce the risks that they face. The analysis is based on a literature review and interviews with civil society organizations that work with environmental and land defenders in Colombia.

Regressions in the right of access to environmental information, articles 6 and 7 of the regional agreement

Civil society is extremely disappointed with the regressive nature of the access to information provisions in a region which has some of the strongest right to information legislation in the world. The regional agreement is a backward move in that it fails to meet the standards outlined in the Inter-American Regional model law on access to information and provides no categories or types of environmental information which can be definitively deemed  as public information across the region..

The failure to include an exception regime unbalances the agreement as it provides no substantive guidance on a regional standard for the release of environmental information under reactive regimes. It also fails to provide innovative and progressive mandatory proactive disclosure regime to improve access to critical information including information on emissions, EIA, permits etc.

The main regressions we see in articles 6 and 7 are:

  1. There is no regional standard for an exceptions regime
  2. There is no category of environmental information whose access can never be denied by the states
  3. There is no general duty of states to provide assistance to persons making a request for access to environmental information
  4. There is not a mandatory list of information to be included in environmental information systems
  5. There is regression in the provision of access to public documents that impact the environment

1.There is no regional standard for exceptions

The text adopted in article 6 on access to information, while enshrining the principle of maximum disclosure in paragraph 1, restricts its application by not establishing a clear, limited and standardized system of exceptions for the whole region and instead allows each country to apply its own general domestic regime of exceptions, however restrictive when denying access to information. The exemption regime is critical to the operation of an effective and transparent system of access to environmental information. To create a regional agreement the Parties needed to create a list of information that would be exempt.

 The provision is also incongruous. It indicates that Parties may apply the exceptions. In no country a party applies exceptions, it should be a public authority that applies exceptions

 A clear regime of exceptions would also provide clear guidance to the signatory countries who currently do not have access to information legislation such as St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Grenada and St. Lucia. The list of exemptions that exists does not meet with the standard for the model law in the region and there was no response or substantive discussion with these countries on these provisions.

Finally, the text only encourages each Party to adopt an exception regime that favors the disclosure of information. It does not require this.

2.The text also does not establish any category of environmental information whose access can never be denied by the states.

In the sixth version of the compiled text, Article 6.7 stated that information concerning factors that negatively affect the environment and human health and safety would not be considered as being exempt from disclosure. This article, which was deleted by the states in the negotiation in Argentina, provided for information of fundamental importance to the protection of the right to health and a healthy environment was always brought to the attention of the citizens. Similar articles are included in other instruments of international law such as the Aarhus Convention, which states that information on emissions of pollutants to the environment should always be delivered, and the Inter-American model law on access to information, which states that in no case access to information may be denied in cases of serious violations of human rights or crimes against humanity.

Art 6.6 now contains a vague and unprecedented obligation to ‘take into account’ human rights obligations when applying the exceptions regime. There is no meaningful standard in this article as countries are already obligated to apply the human rights instruments they are parties to. It is unclear how this is expected to operate in this context as it is not expressed as an exemption to the exceptions regime and it does not form part of the public interest test. This will undoubtedly create problems in implementation as it is a binding obligation which is difficult to interpret and apply. This has ramifications both for the public and public authorities as public authorities will have difficulty establishing they have complied with this requirement and the public will have difficulty understanding the scope of this requirement in the first place.

3.The general duty of states to provide assistance to persons making a request for access to environmental information was excluded

Article 6.2. stated certain rights that states must guarantee to the people when a request for environmental information is made such as: make a request without mentioning any special interest or explain the reasons for the request, be informed promptly if the authority has the information requested, and be informed of their right to appeal if the information is not given, however, this article did not include the general duty of states to offer assistance to individuals when making a request. The duty to assist is important to ensure that petitioners receive information in a timely manner. When authorities help petitioners clarify their requests for information they can reduce time spent searching for information. This duty is found on The OAS Inter-American Model Law on Access to Public Information states, s. 25(2) and access to information legislation in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago among others. Although Article 5(3) refers to assistance to be provided to the public when exercising access rights, the language used in that article is “shall endeavor” and is therefore non-binding.

4.There is not a mandatory list of information for environmental information systems which must be proactively disclosed.

The failure to provide a regional exception regime is made worse by the refusal of Parties to agree on a minimum set of information which must be proactively released to the public as a regional standard. This will undermine the ability of the public to be able to get access to key environmental information which currently is not available in many countries including permits, EIAs, contracts, monitoring reports, enforcement information. The access to environmental information proactive provisions in the regional agreement do not then substantially take the region forward requiring progressive improvement at the national level. States committed in article 7.3 to have environmental information systems but failed to agree on a mandatory list of information that should be included in environmental information systems, and simply included a list that established certain voluntary guidelines.

5.There is regression in the provision of access to public documents that impact the environment

The regional instrument should address the provision of access to documents and information in relation to the use and exploitation of natural resources. The new Article 7.9 states that: “Each Party shall promote access to environmental information contained in concessions, contracts, agreements or authorizations granted involving the use of public goods, services or resources, in accordance with national legislation.” This article is problematic because it circumvents the standards of many countries whose legislation already enshrines that documents such as concessions and public contracts will be public, and instead provides that the parties will promote access to environmental information in such documents, but not to the whole documents as such. There is much information in these documents that despite not being strictly environmental impacts the environment, and should be public knowledge.

Fighting for Answers, Indonesia’s Poorest Communities Don’t Know What’s in Their Water

This article is the third in a series on WRI’s latest report, Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand. This post focuses on Indonesia, where industrial runoff is degrading the water fishermen depend on.

Roshadi Jamaludin has fished from his local pond for only three years, but everyone in his village remembers what it was like before the pulp and paper and textile mills started releasing wastewater into the Ciujung River, which fills it. Roshadi, who prefers his nickname, Adi, commented, “Long before the fishpond got affected by pollution, everything was really smooth. There was no disease on the shrimp, crab and milkfish. Their growth was also good.”

For generations, people in Adi’s village of Tengkurak, in Serang, Java, Indonesia, have relied on the Ciujung River as their daily source of water for bathing and cooking. Village fishermen set up enclosed ponds on the bank of the river to raise and sell shrimp and fish. But in the 1990s, after rapid industrialization in the area, community members noticed a significant decline in water quality and suspected that industrial wastewater was to blame. Since then, pond fishermen have noticed drastic decreases in the quality of their catch and in their income. Shrimp populations have declined, with catches falling from 30-50 kilograms to 15-20 kilograms. Adi agrees, “Daily income is not available if there is wastewater. If wastewater goes to the pond, everything is off.”

After years of trying to engage the mills and the Indonesian government through protests, meetings and even the courts, people in Serang are still fighting to restore the Ciujung and protect their livelihoods. Yet even after a 2013 government audit of the main waste contributor found multiple problems with its practices and violations of water pollution laws, the community is still struggling. They want answers about the pollutants contaminating their river and whether the companies are releasing more pollution than allowed under wastewater discharge permits.

“(We received) no notice from government when wastewater came along, came uninvited,” confirms Adi. “Information is desperately needed. When there is wastewater, come discuss in forum. Just to let me know. All is helpful.”

Transparency Laws Ineffective

Adi is not alone. Many communities throughout Indonesia and Asia are struggling to get the information they need to address the impacts from rising industrial pollution and weak enforcement of pollution control laws. As documented in WRI’s new publication, Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia and Thailand, these Asian governments have strong transparency laws that clearly require the disclosure of environmental information. But inadequate implementation and ineffective disclosure mechanisms are preventing poor, often marginalized community members from getting the local, facility-specific public health information they need.

Indonesia is trying, despite limited budgets and resources. It passed a Right to Know law in 2008 so citizens could request information from the government, implemented a public ratings program showing how industries comply with pollution control laws, and mandated the release of government environmental impact assessments, which set forth standards for private companies and monitoring requirements. It’s developing a public, online environmental database. Despite these efforts, information on local water quality is still not reaching communities like Tengkurak.

Impacts on Participation

Governments in Asia and across the world have recognized access to information as an essential prerequisite for participation and accountability. It can help build public trust in government decisions; ensure proper compliance and enforcement of laws; tailor solutions to local socio-cultural and environmental conditions, and increase a sense of ownership over the process and outcomes. Sharing information clearly with communities can inspire citizen activism and help the government as it works to identify and correct environmental problems.

But without meaningful access to information, local communities are handicapped. For Adi and other communities throughout Indonesia, Mongolia and Thailand, this lack of access is hurting their ability to protect their livelihoods and earn a living. Without the power of knowledge, they can’t hold local government and companies accountable for the impacts of contaminated water, or participate in government decisions about pollution control and enforcement that could help clean up the river.

The report cites numerous examples. In a village in Mongolia, herders fear that mining companies are polluting the Tuul River and making their livestock sick. In Thailand, independent researchers have confirmed that wells in the industrial community of Map Ta Phut are contaminated with mercury and arsenic. But without documentation of water contamination or information about the companies causing the pollution, residents don’t have the facts they need to stop them from violating their permits.

Actions to Improve Transparency

Governments, civil society and international donors have many options to improve responsiveness on water issues. They can release local water pollution information in non-technical formats, like radio broadcasts, pictures and signs that citizens can understand without translation or internet access. They can organize local environmental data and publicly provide accurate, up-to-date information about water use, health risks, and types and amounts of pollutants entering waterways, as well as company-specific data. Civil society organizations and international donors can advocate and invest in initiatives that promote better access to water pollution information.

For now, Adi watches his catches dwindle and his pond degrade. For citizens like him throughout Asia, implementing these recommendations will help ensure he gets the local, facility-specific and public health information he wants. It will ensure he has the power to fight for water justice. 

Left in the Dark on Pollution, Mongolia’s Poorest Communities Must Use Contaminated Water

This article is the second in a series on WRI’s latest report, Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand. This post focuses on Mongolia, where toxic chemicals from gold mining threaten residents and their herds.

Baasan Tsend, a nomadic herder living in the Mongolian gold mining region of Zaamar, suspects that the water he uses for drinking, bathing and raising his livestock is toxic. Over the past two decades, he’s watched dozens of multi-million-dollar corporations and powerful Mongolian companies pillage his ancestral homeland in search of gold. He’s seen these mines contaminate the groundwater and rivers that have sustained his family’s way of life for generations and consoled neighbors whose animals died after drinking the polluted water.

“We cannot live here,” Tsend says, holding his grandson’s hand. “It is now impossible for any human or animal to drink from that water.”

Like Tsend’s village, poor communities across Mongolia—those that still depend on local water sources—have suffered most from the water pollution that has accompanied the country’s gold rush. Lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals released during gold extraction processes have leached into Mongolia’s groundwater and flowed untreated into rivers. Exposure to these pollutants can cause severe, long-term health effects, from skin and bladder cancers to irreversible immune system and neurological disorders.

Contaminated water also threatens Mongolian herders’ livelihoods. For many families, livestock are their primary, and often only, source of income. When their animals get sick or die from drinking bad water, herders are left with nothing. They have few financial safety nets and limited economic opportunities.

As the scramble for gold in Tsend’s village heats up again, water pollution is also on the rise across Mongolia and throughout Asia. Each year, industrial facilities dump 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, toxic sludge and other pollutants into the world’s waters, and in Asia, 80-90 percent of wastewater flows untreated back into ground and surface water sources. Yet secrecy around the amount and type of chemicals that companies discharge is still the norm, especially in Asia. Worldwide, 80 percent of countries do not provide comprehensive information on the amount of pollution that companies release into the environment.

A new WRI report, Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand, examines vulnerable communities’ access to water pollution information in these three countries. It finds that, like many Asian nations, Mongolia, Indonesia and Thailand have all established comprehensive laws that mandate proactive disclosure of water pollution information to the public. Mongolia’s laws, for instance, recognize citizens’ right to obtain environmental data from the government, and establish concrete steps officials must take to release this information to local communities. Yet WRI’s report shows that, despite passing these strong “right to know” laws, Mongolia, Indonesia and Thailand are putting many of their poorest communities at risk by not effectively telling them if their water is safe to use.

Resolving this environmental injustice will require these governments, and others across Asia, to address three barriers that obstruct local communities’ access to information:

Gaps in Local Water Quality Information

Across the world, people need to know if their water sources are too contaminated to drink, cook with, fish or give to their livestock. They need to understand what pollutants companies are releasing into their water sources, how these chemicals will impact their health, which companies are contaminating their waterways and what steps governments have taken to prevent further degradation. Access to this information not only allows families to make more informed choices about their water use, but also enables them to monitor industrial facilities’ compliance with environmental regulations and hold law-breaking polluters to account.

But in Mongolia, Indonesia and Thailand, the data that governments disclose concern ecosystem impacts or threats to overall water quality―not the local, facility-specific and health information that communities need. Mongolia, for instance, does not disclose individual facilities’ pollution discharges, issue permits regulating these discharges or provide companies’ compliance records. Our research partners were also unable to locate any information about health risks associated with using contaminated water, or water quality data for local sources.

In Indonesia, community members face comparable challenges accessing facility-specific information. Although their government publicly rates companies’ compliance with Indonesian environmental regulations, including water pollution controls, officials do not disclose the criteria they use to evaluate compliance. Nor do they release any information on the amount or type of pollutants that facilities dump into local waterways.

Inaccessible Water Pollution Information

The information that Indonesian, Mongolian and Thai governments do release is inaccessible to local community members, many of whom live below the poverty line and reside far from government offices. Villagers in Tsend’s hometown of Tumstii, for example, have few computers and limited internet access, making it nearly impossible for them to navigate national websites or access online databases.

Similarly, when community members in Thailand’s Rayong province submitted information requests to get water data that they couldn’t find online, officials told them that they had to search for the documents in Bangkok—a demand that shifted the burden onto poor villagers to cover travel costs and forfeit a day’s earnings.

Technical, Hard-to-Understand Data

Even when people can successfully access water pollution information, the data that governments provide is so technical that community members cannot understand it. Indonesian fishermen in Serang, a village on the Ciujung River, had to rely on civil society organizations to translate the raw data provided into pictures that they could understand. Mongolian herders also needed local nonprofits to explain the technical responses they obtained through information requests. Community members we interviewed in Thailand received official documents in English, a language they couldn’t speak.

Suffering the Consequences

Without access to pollution information, Tsend can’t protect his grandson from drinking contaminated water. He can’t determine whether it’s safer to give his herd groundwater from a well or let them drink from the river. He can’t meaningfully participate in local decision-making, pressure his government to protect his community from exploitation, or hold companies responsible for environmental violations.

Improving transparency of water pollution data will give Tsend’s village and poor communities throughout Asia access to the information their governments are legally obligated to provide and a voice in the water justice movement. It is an essential first step in claiming their right to clean water. 

RELEASE: Is the Water Safe To Drink? Without Better Access to Pollution Information, Asia’s Poorest People Don’t Know

STOCKHOLM (August 30, 2017) — A new report from World Resources Institute’s (WRI) The Access Initiativereveals that Asian countries are not effectively telling people if the water they use for drinking, farming and fishing is polluted or dangerously toxic. Despite passing strong “right to know” laws, governments are still putting their poorest communities at risk by failing to release pollution information that they are legally required to disclose.

Launching at this year’s World Water Week that focuses on water and waste, the report Thirsting for Justice: Transparency and Poor People’s Struggle for Clean Water in Indonesia, Mongolia, and Thailand examines vulnerable communities’ access to water pollution information. WRI analysis shows that, although governments have passed laws that protect citizens’ right to environmental information and mandate public disclosure of this data, officials are failing to live up to their legal obligation—either proactively or upon request. For example, government agencies in Indonesia and Mongolia ignored 58% and 59% of information requests, respectively.

“The right to information about environmental threats is a human right in itself, and it is also critical to the protection of other human rights,” said John Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. “People have the right to know about hazardous pollution in the waterways on which they rely. Governments that fail to provide that information are violating their citizens’ human rights.”

Each year, industrial facilities release upwards of 400 million tons of hazardous pollutants into the worlds’ waters. Yet secrecy around the amount and type of chemicals that companies discharge is still the norm, especially in Asia. Worldwide, 80% of countries do not provide information on the amount of pollution that companies dump into the environment.

Thirsting for Justice analyzes data from state of the environment reports, water quality monitoring portals and other public databases to assess the availability of pollution information that governments are legally obligated to disclose. The report authors also tracked 174 information requests that local community members submitted and spoke with nearly 150 affected people about barriers they faced accessing pollution data.

“Governments’ failure to provide water pollution information is an environmental injustice,” said Elizabeth Moses, report author and environmental democracy specialist at WRI. “Without it, poor, marginalized communities cannot participate in decision-making, let alone hold governments and more powerful corporations accountable for contaminating their local water sources.”

In Thailand, a country with one of the most advanced environmental disclosure regimes in the world, residents of Map Ta Phut, a sprawling industrial estate that hosts more than 140 petrochemical facilities, still don’t know if their water is safe to use. Researchers from nearby organizations and international universities have discovered dangerously high levels of mercury and arsenic in the water, but as the report finds, public access to government pollution data is extremely limited in practice.

“All the government services — municipalities, public health, the Office of the Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning, and the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand — realize what has been happening with pollution in our community, but they don’t tell or give us the true information … I’ve never received correct and clear information about the water,” said Nangsao Witlawan, former oil refinery worker and Map Ta Phut resident.

When governments do release environmental data, officials often provide limited information that community members can neither access nor understand. For instance, Thai government officials frequently respond to information requests in English, which most Map Ta Phut residents do not speak. In Indonesia, many local fisherman cannot understand the highly technical wastewater information they receive from the government and need it translated into more straightforward formats like pictures or graphics.

“Villagers who fish Indonesia’s Ciujung River need to know what pollutants companies are releasing into their water sources, how these chemicals will impact their health, which companies are responsible and what steps their government has taken to prevent further contamination,” said Henri Subagiyo, Executive Director at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law. “Yet our government rarely provides such local, facility-specific information, and even when officials do, it’s often so technical that we have to translate it into pictures that the fishermen can understand.”

WRI’s report calls for a radical shift in information sharing to protect people from using contaminated water that could harm their health and economic livelihoods. It recommends that governments release information in non-technical formats, create centralized systems for responding to communities’ information requests and encourage companies to disclose pollution information.

Civil society organizations and international donors also have a role to play. They should invest in building local communities’ capacity to understand water pollution information, advocate for greater government transparency and participate in decision-making.

The full report is available at