Environmental Justice: Working Together to Protect the Environment


A public interest lawyer from ACEF collecting waste water.

As the sun rides higher in the sky, Yi minority villager Yu Zerun begins his long journey home. On his way he will collect firewood and a bag of mushrooms to conceal the real target of his morning's expedition into the nature reserve. It is nearly time for his weekly visit to the nearby town to trade his caterpillar fungus with the dealer at the local market. But, despite the fact that these caterpillars provide a valuable source of income for him and his family, even he is concerned about the sustainability of his activities.

It is common knowledge that releasing toxic waste into natural fresh water sources will have a devastating effect on the environment. Yet despite the obvious consequences of discharging untreated waste into China's largest freshwater lake, that is precisely what the Synthetic Textile Industrial Base was doing at Lake Boyang, in Jiujiang City, Jiangxi Province.

Lake Boyang is recognised globally for its remarkable ecological diversity. It is an important wetland site and habitat for the largest concentration of winter water birds in East Asia. It is home to the world's only freshwater porpoise. Located in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, it is also vital to the development prospects of millions of Chinese people. In spite of its vast beauty and abundance of natural resources, however, all of this is under threat.

Faced with continued pollution from some of its business community, the Chinese government has taken significant strides towards improving environmental protection, enacting more than 20 statutes and administrative regulations. But for a country with over 270,000 km2 of waterways, enforcement remains a significant problem. At Lake Boyang, the failure of both the textile base and the local environment protection department to take adequate measures to control the pollution is symptomatic of this on-going challenge.

A key part of the solution has been identified as the need to enhance China's system of environmental governance; not just by strengthening the role of government, but by strengthening the capacities of communities themselves to protect their environmental rights. However, this is easier said than done, especially since many victims of environmental destruction in China are not well informed about their environmental rights, while those that are often lack the knowledge to seek legal redress.

Highlights

  • However, this is easier said than done, especially since many victims of environmental destruction in China are not well informed about their environmental rights, while those that are often lack the knowledge to seek legal redress.
  • Cases like this are also playing an increasingly important role in helping the ACEF build its litigation skills and draw attention to the crucial role that CSO's can play in protecting environmental rights.

Since China's public interest litigation system is relatively new, and with few clear laws on liability and compensation for environmental damage, it remains difficult to file public interest lawsuits. This situation is compounded by the fact that many Civil Society Organisations (CSO's) are not yet legally recognised as qualified plaintiffs – a legal entity that can bring a case against another in a court of law. Therefore, to help protect the public's environmental rights, UNDP has teamed up with the All-China Environment Federation (ACEF) to strengthen the role of CSO's in environmental governance and legal processes.

The ACEF is the largest government sponsored non-profit organisations of its kind in China, and serves as an important mediator between the government and civil society. And with UNDP's help, it is now acting as a plaintiff for the very first time, representing public interests in a small number of cases being heard by China's three environmental tribunals.

After receiving public complaints about pollution at the Synthetic Textile Industrial Base, and with UNDP's financial and technical assistance to develop a clear plan of action, staff from ACEF's Legal Service Centre began to build a case against the Base. Four investigative field visits to the alleged pollution site subsequently showed waste water toxins to exceed environmentally safe standards. Chemical oxygen demand (COD), for example, exceeded standards by 18.9 times, with biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) 27.5 times over the limit.

With this evidence in hand, the ACEF worked with China Central Television (CCTV) reporters to publicise the issue. This led to in-depth reports on the CCTV News Channel on 7-8 April 2011, and attracted the attention of the Jiangxi Provincial Government. As a result, the government moved swiftly to suspend all of the production plants located at the Synthetic Textile Industrial Base in Jiujiang City, pending a full investigation. The ACEF also lodged an environmental public interest lawsuit at the Wuhan Maritime Court, and is currently overseeing the process of following up on the case to ensure its full resolution.

The Lake Boyang incident is just one example of how UNDP and the ACEF are working together to make a real difference to people's lives. Cases like this are also playing an increasingly important role in helping the ACEF build its litigation skills and draw attention to the crucial role that CSO's can play in protecting environmental rights. UNDP and the ACEF are also working to raise public environmental awareness, and advocate for both a stronger environmental public interest litigation system and legislative changes that would allow more CSO's to qualify as plaintiffs.

To this end, the project has conducted a series of publicity and education activities, including a survey on public opinion towards the protection of environmental rights, public exhibitions and consulting services, and distribution of 11,000 books and pamphlets to lawyers, judges, pollution victims and some of China's environmental NGO's. The ACEF also held seminars for legislators from the National People's Congress (NPC) and lawyers, judges, and officials from the Legal Affairs Department of the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Crucially, these seminars covered topics such as environmental tribunals, environmental public interest litigation and China's Environmental Protection Law, Civil Procedural Law and Administrative Procedural Law.

With UNDP's help to recruit global expertise and provide research on international best practices, training has also been provided to public interest lawyers on public participation and protecting the public's environmental rights, and civil litigation and environmental public interest litigation. With this support, the ACEF is a stronger advocate for policy reform. And, in March 2011, the ACEF submitted a proposal to establish an environmental public interest litigation system to the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Winning against Pollution