Environmental Rights are Human Rights

By : Rosaly Byrd and Aikaterini Tsakanika  

A look into the human dimension of the Guanabara Bay

Tonight the documentary Urban Bay, produced in partnership between UNDP RIO+ Centre and Ricardo Gomes will be screened at the International Human Rights Film Festival, in what will be the film’s avant-première. The International Human Rights Film Festival, which takes place in Buenos Aires, Argentina from 31 May- 7 June 2017 will show films that relate to social problems, human rights and the environment in a way that contributes to social transformation.

The screening of Urban Bay at the human rights film festival is a reminder of the connection between human lives and the environment. As the film illustrates, the environmental consequences that plague the Guanabara Bay (water pollution, overfishing, climate change, and ocean acidification, among others), has a direct impact on the people that depend on the bay. Fishing communities around the Guanabara Bay, similar to those around the world, are negatively affected by issues which we often relate to being solely “environmental.” Yet when fisheries are overfished or when water contamination reduces the amount of fish to be caught, the people that suffer most are those whose livelihoods are based on these natural resources. Oftentimes these are also the most vulnerable communities that have little to do with the root causes of these environmental impacts. We as human beings have a right to a standard of living adequate for our health and well-being, according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

In the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro which surrounds the Guanabara Bay, sewage and water treatment is still inadequate, leaving household and industrial contaminants to be discharged into the Guanabara Bay. A study in 2015 [1] indicates that constant environmental pressures by sewage, liquid and solid waste charged into the Guanabara Bay hinder sustainable management of the local fishing activity as it affects navigation and the native fauna. Moreover, it leaves the local fishing communities, which are most vulnerable and poor, exposed to health problems and deprived from a living within a healthy natural environment as well as negatively impacts their leisure activities that take place around the bay.

Besides the pollutants that have been discharged into the bay over many years, occasional incidents have radically changed the already fragile environmental balance of the Guanabara Bay, bringing as well tremendous changes to the lives of the local people. Such is the case of the oil spill near the mangrove protected area on Guanabara Bay’s coast in 2000. Although the marine food cycle proved to be resilient as the documentary Urban Bay indicates, it did suffer from a sharp decline of the fish stock and subsequently of the fisheries yield. As Markus Stephan Wolfjdunkell Budzynkz, current Executive Coordinator of the Permanent Assembly of the Entities of Environmental Defense in Rio de Janeiro (ADEPEMA/RJ), depicts:

“The overflowed oil was a plague which ended with everything: there was no more crab or fish. It looked as if it was all black. While alternatives were proposed, the fishing community became multiply divided… That job [the fishing activity] was not sufficient even for many years before, there was not a lot of job for everyone…every time the territory was turning into harbour area, and they were suffering… and the consumed fish was found to have great concentration of residuals and pollutants. They finally decided to do something else, and they raised bees in the mangrove forest. They changed territory and they ultimately became more united. Today they cultivate organic vegetables and they distribute it collectively. They received a lot of money [as indenisation from the oil industry] but poor investment decisions didn’t benefit the community.”

The screening of Urban Bay at the International Human Rights Film Festival is a testimony to the growing recognition that the environment is inextricably connected to social and human rights. Sustainable development hinges on the ability to adequately balance social, economic and environmental dimensions of development. Yet as the Guanabara Bay’s case highlights, environmental rights are human rights. As such, we must design policies and implement management plans that acknowledge and allow for environmental sustainability: Our universal and fundamental rights as humans depend on it.

[1] Source: Fistarol, G.O., Coutinho, F.H., Moreira, A.P.B., Venas, T., Cánovas, A., de Paula Jr, S.E., Coutinho, R., de Moura, R.L., Valentin, J.L., Tenenbaum, D.R. and Paranhos, R., 2015. Environmental and sanitary conditions of Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro. Frontiers in microbiology, 6, p.1232. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4653747/>