The Charter for Nature

Where do we stand 39 years since?

A human has rights. We understand that. To what extent we have understood that is a very good question. One answer is offered by observing the simple fact that in so many contexts the observance of human rights is altogether missing.

Animals have rights. Some of us are just beginning to understand that. In that case, then does the third aspect of this earth, nature, have rights? It would only make sense that it does.

The United Nations, ten years after the UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972, popularly known as the Stockholm Convention, came forward with the UN Charter for Nature. In 2022, this Charter will complete four decades. So, 39 years from that year of 1982, it is only fitting to take a look at where we stand on those rights. The Charter came as a result of being pushed by what is today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, or then known as Zaire. There were a number of developing countries that supported this, with a majority of them being African nations.

By nature, a charter is a non-binding document, and is present to provide a philosophical and political frame to the conservation of nature. It is clear that there is no obligation under law to abide by what is stipulated. But it was argued, when this charter was brought forth that it ‘can be treated like a moral code of conduct like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. The question is should it be?

The short and sweet, but hard to implement, answer is Yes. Paying nature the attention it deserves, will require an overhaul and a systemic re-working which few will commit to, if at all, because it disrupts long standing capitalist superiorities. But the need for this overhaul is crucial now more than ever, even in the most anthropocentric understanding. An anthropocentric understanding implies the consideration that human beings and their existence are the most important and central fact in the universe, and the Stockholm Declaration said “Both aspects of man's environment, the natural and the man-made, are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights, the right to life itself.” There is plenty of proof that the natural environment is fast headed to a point of no return. In 2019, the UN said that there were only 11 years left to save the earth from irreversible climate damage; Research has shown that the planet’s tropical regions are being pushed towards the limits of human livability; the well-known activist, Greta Thunberg starkly called out the inaction towards Climate Change. The point is, that it is now imperative for humans, to save the environment if they want to save themselves. With 40% of the population living in tropical areas, and them being in danger, what more do we need to comprehend the severity?

The Guardian in an article noted that “....rising temperatures also posing enormous risks for parts of China and India…” India was once “aranyasanskriti” – a culture that revolved around forests. Today we are at a point, where those who go on endlessly about ‘culture’ and ‘traditions’ are the ones who are ready to throw it out at the first chance they get. Even though India was one of two countries to be represented by their heads of state at the Stockholm Conference in ‘72, India was also one of the countries to oppose in 1982, something that has been in the news recently.

The Charter for Nature talks about assessments and exhaustive examination, which the government has repeatedly ignored. The Environment Ministry’s draft Environment Impact Assessment 2020 lifted several projects from the purview of public consultation. The business friendly and ecologically harmful draft notification caused an uproar across the country and has invited many legal challenges.

But the government has shown its determination to push on. For instance, the recent diversion of 140 hectares of forested land for rail lines in South Goa, despite the environmental uproar, the lack of attention to the recommendations of the Ravi Chopra Committee against Hydrolectric Projects on paraglacial lakes after the 2013 Uttarakhand floods and so many others. The nod to the Chardham Highway Project that allows the widening of the highway to a 10-metre tarred surface (7-metre main carriageway and 3-metre paved shoulder). While this considers the Defence Ministry’s position that Chardham widening is in sync with the "security interests of the nation.” It flouts a Supreme Court ruling and ecological concerns against the widening. This again, happens to be in contravention of Article 20 of the Charter. In response to Brazil’s objection to the environmental assessment Zaire’s representative had replied- “Who could rationally favour executing development projects so haphazardly as to disturb nature?"

Our actions could lead one to question the commitment made to promote “rule- based order rooted in international law” and “It is clear that climate change is both a strategic priority and an urgent global challenge, including for the Indo-Pacific region,” made this March in the Washington Post op-ed jointly authored by US President Biden, Indian PM Modi Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga and Australian PM Scott Morrisson. It recognizes the severity of the challenge, but at least in India, that rings hollow.

The language used in the Charter carried an aspirational tone. However continued inaction, and blind preference to economic development has morphed the aspiration into compulsion. Article 15, which says “knowledge of nature shall be broadly disseminated by all possible means, particularly by ecological education as an integral part of general education”, is key to acting on this compulsion. An understanding of the critical state of nature has to be embedded in children’s education right from the start, in order for them to develop an outlook in which ecological sensitivity is inextricably intertwined in their daily lives. Asking one who is set in their ways to alter themselves in ways that the environment becomes part and parcel of the way they think, is much more difficult than making sure that a child is equipped with, right from the beginning, a keen awareness of the environment.

There are scores of scholarly studies that suggest this about environmental education and children. It is said, “providing environmental education to young children was urgently proposed to support their understanding of the environment and to help them gain environmental sensitivity, positive attitudes towards the environment, environmental values and environmentally responsible behaviour. However, bottom-up change is largely absent. Such change will only be possible through coordinated, collaborative efforts, or else...

It will be a cruel tale of justice, which we will have no option but to be, despite being at the centre of the world, victims to our own greed.

(The writer is an author/editor of three books, two short story collections and most recently, the editor of “India's Long Walk Home”, a collection focussed on the environment and, the pandemic, for charity) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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