Environmental justice: A right to access nature?

Some of you might know that in 2012 we completed a project on ‘environmental justice’ in Australia. The work focused on the distributions of environmental harms across society, and the ability of impacted communities to access decision-making processes that result in these distributions.

While we have been pleased to see the report described as potentially groundbreaking, our broad conclusions came as no great surprise. Those who shouldered the greatest burdens of environmental harms (toxic waste, large polluting infrastructure, damaged water systems) were also those with circumstances meaning the were the least able to do anything about it (rural people, economically disadvantaged communities, Indigenous Nations).

So now we wonder – what about the distribution of and access to environmental benefits in Australia? For example, what sectors in Australian society can typically access green open space, coastlines and national parks? What happens when you don’t get access to nature, wildlife, and places for your kids to run about? Do we care and if so, shouldn’t our planning legal system in some way take in to account the equity of its outcomes?

Idea of the rights to access to nature, or ‘linking’ human rights and conservation of nature is quite well developed in overseas jurisdictions.

New Zealand has the Walking Access Act 2008, the purpose of which is to provide the New Zealand public with free, certain, enduring and practical walking access to the outdoors. The Nordic countries (of course) have long had access to nature rights codified in law. In Norway, the equal access to nature is codified in the Outdoor Recreation Act 1957. Finland has similar rights in that everyone is free to pick berries and mushrooms from the forest and the erection of signs to deter persons from entering property is unlawful (unless there is a legal right to do so).

There are dedicated groups in the UK working on access to nature issues, such as Our Open Space, the folks responsible for this fascinating report on the legal status and protection of green open spaces in England. Discussion is increasing around rights of children to access a wildlife-rich environment (and the repercussions of having generations of children disconnected from nature).

In the developing world, conversation has centred around the rights of those in developing countries to have access to the things that nature provides (like firewood and traditional medicines). Food justice is a whole other can of worms.

For me this all raises some pretty fascinating (and sticky!) issues about the Australian approach to land use planning and the lack of integration of human rights ideas and environmental conservation. In particular, if we advocate for equitable (and perhaps increased) access to nature for all, would this act as a vehicle for environmental protection – or a barrier to it?

My gut instinct is that there is a clear equity and fairness imperative to do so for health and wellbeing across society (not just for the privileged; and that developing generations of people who are well connected to nature means they are more likely to strive to protect it.

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