By Henry Steinberg
We might all know that Costa Ricans have a constitutional right to a healthy and balanced environment. But is this constitutional right also a human right? If so, does this affect how we should treat the right to a healthy environment?
All across the globe the right to a healthy environment is gaining recognition as a human right. From the Stockholm Declaration to the United Nations Convention on Environment and Development, to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (part of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights), international environmental and human rights agreements are recognizing the right to a healthy environment as a worldwide human right. Human rights tend to receive broad protection from courts, legislation and society, and the constitutional right to a healthy environment may deserve such broad human rights protection.
This right is recognized in the Costa Rican Constitution and across the globe because humans cannot thrive without a healthy, balanced environment. Protecting this right is essential to support prosperous economies, human health, nutrition, and reliable weather, to name a few.
With its rich natural heritage and progressive constitution, Costa Rica stands at the forefront of this necessary development in human rights and environmental conservation. Presently, as a fantastic first step, Costa Rica supports the right to a healthy environment through court-mandated protection of individual species, such as leatherback turtles. However, in order to effectively protect the right to a healthy and balanced environment, Costa Rica must strive to protect not only individual species, but also whole ecosystems, such as coral reefs.
In regards to individual species protection, in 2008, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Costa Rica (Sala IV) ruled that species extinction violates the right to a healthy environment. This decision protected the highly endangered leatherback turtles at Las Baulas National Park. And in April 2010, when the Legislative Assembly was set to vote on a measure that could strip these turtles of essential legal protection at the park, a lucky executive intervention delayed the vote until this legislative season.
Losing these endangered leatherback turtles and violating the right to a healthy environment could remove Costa Rica from its position as a global environmental leader and undermine the international human rights efforts to protect environmental health.
Although the turtles may be safe for now, how thoroughly are they protected? While the Sala IV concluded that the constitutional right to a healthy environment protects individual species, ecology shows that the most effective species protection comes from conserving ecosystems and habitats.
The protection of a healthy, balanced environment must extend beyond concerns about individual species to include the conservation of natural habitats. Here Costa Rica can make serious gains, and the beautiful coral reefs on both coasts of the country are a perfect place to start. Coral reefs provide enormous benefits to society, from wave protection, to biodiversity support, to tourism revenue and cultural heritage. These benefits show that protecting the right to a healthy environment is not only the “right” thing to do, but also economically and socially beneficial.
Unfortunately, coral reefs are in decline across the globe, and the situation in Costa Rica is no different. Global climate change kills reefs through coral bleaching, and a related process called “ocean acidification” further threatens to deplete coral reefs.
In addition to these global threats, Costa Rica’s coral reefs receive no legal protection from coral extraction or overfishing outside of protected areas.
Furthermore, none of the coral reefs in the country are adequately protected from the severe sedimentation and nutrient loading caused by improperly regulated land-use on the coast and mountainsides. As a result, Costa Rica’s coral reefs are in decline, and if legal protection doesn’t come soon, the ecological situation shows little reason to be hopeful.
The constitutional and human right to a healthy environment should protect this valuable ecosystem. The Sala IV holds that the loss of a species violates the right to a healthy, balanced environment. It seems a short step of logic to conclude that since the constitution protects individual species, it should provide habitat protection as well.
The story of Costa Rica’s leatherback turtles is a magnificent example of protecting the human right to a healthy environment. However, this protection must extend beyond species to include full protection of valuable habitats such as coral reefs.
Costa Rica’s coral reefs need protection, and the constitution and human rights demand it.
Henry Steinberg studies environmental law and human rights law in San Francisco, California, U.S. He recently visited Costa Rica to research the ecology, policy, and laws surrounding coral reef protection across the Americas with the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense in San José. The University of California Human Rights Center generously supported his work.