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Polluting Away the People’s Right to a Healthy and Sustainable Environment in Ghana

by Dr Felix Nana Kofi Ofori, REACT Humanitarian Network, Oxford, UK

Like most developing countries, Ghana is internally engaging in development projects to provide sustainable economic, social, political and cultural systems, which address the aspirations of its citizenry. The UN General Assembly resolution 1803 (XVII) of December 14, 1962-Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources- recognises the “right of peoples and nations to the permanent sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources must be exercised in the interest of national development and of the wellbeing of the states concerned.” This mandate enjoins states of the international community, including Ghana, to work in concert with traditional leaders/chiefs in whose communities natural and mineral resources are located, to fashion strategic policies to advance the welfare of the people. Unfortunately, the environment upon which Ghanaians’ socio-economic and human rights depend is being destroyed through pollution, illegal artisanal mining and deforestation with impunity.

This blog examines the relationship between pollution and the right to a healthy environment, right to development and right to dignity and security as construed under international environmental law, national statutes and UN resolutions.

Mining

Ghana’s environmental challenges are due to several factors, including pollution of streams and river bodies.  As mining activities gain momentum in communities around Ghana, so are the consequences suffered by people in the afflicted communities. In Illegal Gold Mining Boom Threatens Cocoa Farmers (and your Chocolate), Marisa Schwartz Taylor and Kevin Taylor (2018), argue that, illegal mining activities commonly known in local parlance as “galamsay”, coupled with artisanal and industrial mining  play a major role  in polluting the river  and related water bodies.  Marisa Taylor and Kevin Taylor (2018), opined that:  

Dunkwa sits on the Offin River, a tributary of the Pra River, which is one of the largest river systems in Ghana. In the last few years, these water bodies have turned an alarming yellow color, due to chemical wastewater from illegal gold mining, unrecognizable from their former resilient blue.”

River Pra. Image credit: GhanaWeb

Besides pollution of water bodies, there are severe health challenges confronting the affected communities too. For example, the prevalence of artisanal and industrial mining have induced respiratory diseases –pneumonia, asbestosis and silicosis among the people. Equally, there can be little or no realisation of the right to a healthy environment and human dignity where the people are infected and afflicted by a myriad of pollution-induced sicknesses regularly.

Deforestation

The second major environmental challenge in Ghana is deforestation. Subjecting hectares of forest reserves to wanton destruction not only threatens Ghanaians’ right to a healthy environment but also damages the environment, thereby endangering a host of other human rights. Writing in the Quartz Africa, Kwesi Gyamfi Asiedu (2018), states that:

Local environmentalist fear that nearly 23,000 hectares of the Atewa Forest Reserve in the Eastern Region (of Ghana) is on the verge of becoming deforested because the current Ghanaian government has ceded the forest to the Chinese for US $2 billion dollars in order to prospect for bauxite in the forest Reserve.”

The government’s action represents abdication of leadership and reneging of political promises. For example, “a growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue” (Jim Robbins, 2016). Ghana’s geographical location within tropical Africa makes its human population susceptible to contracting malaria, a deadly disease which plaques and kills majority of Ghanaians on daily basis.

Ghana’s obligations in relation to the right to a healthy environment

The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment opines that “all human beings depend on the environment in which we live. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation.”(Report of theSpecial Rapporteur on the Indigenous people, A/HRC/39/7; and, Protection on Strategic Environmental Assessment, done at Kiev, (March, 21 2003). Although resolutions have no binding effect on states, they act as recommendations in guiding states to implement important actions at domestic levels as well as prompt the international community to craft hard laws with binding force (Pierre-Marie Dupuy, Soft law and the International law of the Environment, 1990). Thus the interrelationship between soft and hard law in protecting the environment is instructive.  As with many countries, Ghana is obliged under international environmental law and domestic constitutional provisions (The 1992 Constitution of Ghana and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Act 490, 1994), to safeguard the sanctity of human life and environment by regulating the economic and social activities of private investors, public servants and individuals, from polluting or degrading the environment or water bodies. Speaking at the World Forum for Democracy, in France (November, 16-18, 2020), the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, urged both political leaders, corporations and other stakeholders, to protect their citizens against environmental pollution; affirming that: “ … protecting environmental activists, indigenous groups and other human rights defenders who face harassment, imprisonment and extrajudicial killings for their essential work.” The UN Secretary-General’s charge has implications for Ghana with respect to environmental rights. First, it requires of the Ghanaian government and by extension community leaders, to strategise so as to protect environmental defenders against abusive practices. This is crucial because private investors collude with government agencies to attack, molest and sometimes kill local activists who resist deforestation and related environmental crimes (Sanjay Srivastavi and Agata Ewa Pawlowska; Ghana: Balancing Economic Growth and Depletion of Resources, September, 26 2020). Second, most of the environmentally afflicted communities in Ghana lack access to safe and clean water due to the illegal mining activities that pollute the streams and river bodies. These illegal and inhumane activities conspire to undermine the tenets and values of human right to a safe and healthy environment, including sustainable development. Third, the nexus between pollution and human dignity suggests that children in Ghana suffer most because their biological and physiological developments are susceptible to contracting pollution hazards and related sicknesses. Accordingly, the UNICEF’s Act Now: The Impact of Climate Change on Children, has stated that: “Globally, over 500 million children live in extremely high risk flood zones; 160 million live in high or extremely high drought severity, and 150 million people are at high risk of tropical cyclones” (UNICEF, November 2015).  

Flooding

On the security plane, the 1994 UN Human Development Report defines human security, inter alia, as “freedom from pervasive threats to people’s rights and safety, including an environment devoid of flooding and degradation. Some coastal communities in the Volta region of Ghana suffered diverse degrees of catastrophes occasioned by a combination of flooding and environmental-degrading factors, in 2021 respectively. As a consequence of the flooding, the people’s economic mainstay spanning trading and farming activities were wiped out; with children and women being the most miserably afflicted groups. This disaster relates to human security and development because most of the economic, social and cultural activities of the people were decimated; and without stable employment opportunities, no human existence or development is attainable. Article 2 (1) of the UN’s declaration on the right to development, states that: “the human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.” The twin- rights of -human rights and security- are severely threatened in Ghana, since majority of the people’s health, lives and economic subsistence are jeopardised through flooding and flooding-related threats.

The Right to development

According to Article 1 of the UN Declaration on development, the right to development is “an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate by contribution to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be freely realized.” It is worth emphasising that these rights can largely be attained in an environment free of pollution, flooding or degradation. Similarly, Article 6 (2) of the same declaration above, states that: “all human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent; thus equal attention and urgent consideration should be given to the implementation, promotion and protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.” Furthermore, In Article 1 of the UN Charter (October, 24, 1945, 1 UNTS XVI), human dignity is defined as “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Thus, at the core of every human right is the sanctity and dignity of the human person who depends on the environment as a platform to secure those entitlements. Shorn of conventional security principles, human security entails developing sound economic, social and political infrastructural projects to provide employable opportunities for the people to gain substantive access to decent livelihood. Similarly, human security principles enjoin governments and heads of states (Ghana’s Leadership included) to fashion strategic policies and programmes to ensure that social infrastructures are built to cater for the people’s healthcare needs in times of pandemics and normalcy. Moreover, another limb of human security is to safeguard the vulnerable and marginalised groups in Ghana by ensuring that their wellbeing and dignity are not jeopardised through harmful environmental practices. These groups have fewer resources to deal with deforestation and wanton degradation of landscapes with children and women being the most suppressed. However, the brazen pollution of river bodies, illegal mining activities coupled with deforestation violate the human security of most Ghanaians.

Conclusion

In concluding, polluting away the people’s right to a clean, safe and healthy environment through illegal mining activities, destruction of farmlands, flooding and deforestation, endanger the health, security, human rights and dignity of Ghanaians, particularly the marginalised and vulnerable communities. This is because children, women, persons with disabilities and older persons may have less resilient health, increasing the risk of illness or premature mortality caused by contaminated water and polluted environment. Serious concerns have been expressed about the disproportionate impact on women of water scarcity caused or exacerbated by artisanal miming, climate change as well as dangers faced by environmental hazards. Upholding the right to a healthy and clean environment is critical to achieving the security of the human person and dignity; without which sustainable development and growth are unattainable.

Feature image credit: Wli Waterfall, Ghana by Stig Nygaard

Blog editor: Rosemary Mwanza

Astrid Milena Bernal

By Astrid Milena Bernal

Astrid Milena Bernal Rubio is a Colombian LL.M student at Pennsylvania State University (concentrations in International Law and Energy and Environmental Law). She is a lawyer from the Universidad Católica de Colombia, Magister in Environmental Law from the Complutense University of Madrid and Specialist in human rights and critical legal studies from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) Latin American School of Public Policy- ELAP.

As part of the technical team of GFLAC (climate finance group for Latin America and the Caribbean), she supported the creation of the MRV system (monitoring, reporting and verification) for climate finance in Colombia. In addition, she has been a consultant for the WRI (World Resources Institute) and The Access Initiative (TAI), working as the National researcher for the Environmental Democracy Index (EDI). Also, she has worked as a consultant for AVINA Foundation, The Bogotá’s drainage and sewerage company (EAAB). She has worked as a lawyer and researcher on issues associated with public participation, access to information, forests, carbon markets, rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities in Colombia.

Astrid was a volunteer for the Network for Environmental Justice in Colombia and promoted the creation and growth of the climate justice division at the Environment and Society Association (AAS) of Colombia. She worked as the Climate Justice division coordinator for five years. Astrid was a senior research coordinator in a joint research project with UNICEF to contribute to the fulfilment of the SDGs (6), focusing its work on guaranteeing the rights of access to sanitation for rural, indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Colombia. She is also part of the founders of the Colombian NGO- CAMBIUM (Climate, Environment and Research-Action Uniting Worlds). This organization aims to, directly and indirectly, influence processes carried out by civil society and decision-makers related to climate change.

Currently, she works at the Global Forest Coalition as an associate for the Unsustainable Livestock Campaign. Astrid also supports the work of Pivot Point and the CLARA group (Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance), promoting the understanding and participation of CSOs to ensure higher ambition of NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) in Spanish speakers countries.

Astrid is a research assistant at Penn State University identifying how different kinds of transboundary river basin organizations have written and used dispute resolution mechanisms in both the bilateral agreements between the US, Mexico and Canada (NAFTA-USMCA) and the Autonomous Binational Authority of the Basin of Lake Titicaca (Bolivia, Peru).

Astrid is member of the core team in the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment (GNHRE), she is part of the global network of environmental lawyers (ELAW) and collaborates as a volunteer for The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition- CAIR coalition.