Environment, Natural Resources, Rural Development and Children
The South African Government has placed human rights at the heart of its development agenda, and has enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996 the right to an environment that is not harmful to one’s health and wellbeing; and one that is protected for the benefit of present and future generations. This is central to the Government’s sustainable development agenda, and also to Commissioner Janet Love’s portfolio on Environment, Natural Resources, and Rural Development.
The right to a healthy environment is fundamental to the enjoyment of all human rights and is closely linked with the right to health, wellbeing, and dignity. A sound and healthy natural environment lends an enabling background for the enjoyment of other human rights. It is clear therefore that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental part of the right to life and to personal dignity. Environmental destruction can result in discrimination as the effects of environmental change are felt mostly by vulnerable and socially and economically disadvantaged groups. These groups include children.
All over South Africa, children experience the negative effects of environmental degradation, including water shortage, compromised air quality, fisheries depletion, soil erosion, and unsafe management and disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and products particularly from the extractives industry. Climate change, for instance, is exacerbating many of these negative effects of environmental degradation on human health and wellbeing, and is also causing new ones, including an increase in extreme weather events and an increase in the spread of malaria and other vector borne diseases.
In the context of socio-economic rights and the environment, the Commission has identified the need to carry out a number of activities in promoting and protecting the rights of people affected by natural resource issues. One of these activities is monitoring the impact of mining on environmental rights. One environmental impact that has received attention over the years is that of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The Commission has worked for a number of years on the issue of AMD and the human rights implications of this mining-related environmental problem. The Commission deals with various complaints and submissions on AMD and related impacts, including the lack of public participation in decisions related to the treatment of AMD in affected areas, the lack of health studies in AMD affected areas, and the lack of monitoring of adherence to social and labour plans and environmental management plans.
AMD, as with other environmental problems, poses a risk to the realisation of children’s rights of access to food and sufficient water, adequate housing, access to healthcare services, freedom and security, and human dignity. It is a pattern seen in various parts of the world — children being sickened from exposure to chemicals, contaminated air and water, and physical danger resulting from mining activities. In the South Durban Basin, where air quality is severely compromised from activities of several refineries operating in the area, the Commission received complaints of children suffering from respiratory conditions such as asthma and persistent colds and coughs, and general malaise linked to the poor environmental quality in the area. Despite reports from within mining communities as well as former miners of the adverse effect of mining dust on human health, no generalised epidemiological studies have been completed in South Africa on health and mining. There is a need for urgent study on mine dust in order to protect the health rights of children in those communities.
Meanwhile, in the gold and coal mining regions affected by AMD, children are exposed to a host of environmental issues including toxic mine dust, acidic, and radioactive water. The lightly coloured mine dust covering mine tailings, and the warm acidic water in rivers and streams in AMD areas present an attractive nuisance for children to play and swim in, oblivious of the toxicity they are exposing themselves to.
The Commission also continues to monitor rights issues related to illegal artisanal mining activities. These manual labour activities have been shown to impact on children. Children are at times involved in some processing stages of the illegally mined product – be it in breaking and grinding rock, or the chemical extraction of gold ore using mercury. Mercury usage has incredibly serious consequences for human and environmental health. In these illegal mining areas, very young children (including infants often on the backs of their working mothers) can be exposed to mining dust and chemical hazards when they accompany parents to work sites. Furthermore, a child being roped into these mining activities when they should be in school has a bearing on their education. Lastly, the Commission has heard of incidences where non-national minors are involved in illegal artisanal mining. There is no adequate provision made for these children. The quality of the physical environment affects girls’ and boys’ health and wellbeing. Inadequate living standards and degraded environments ultimately impact on the quality of life of children.
There is increasing evidence, nationally and globally, in support of the crucial role that children can and must play in environmental protection through their participation and also developing of appropriate mechanisms that protect the children’s rights to a decent environment. From the environmental perspective, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) emphasises four important principles namely Article 2, 3, 12, and 6 which specifically provides that all children have the right to adequate environmental conditions for good health and social, intellectual and emotional development, focusing on the fact that a general understanding of environmental preconditions are necessary for realising children’s rights and knowledge about and respect for the natural environment is an integral part of the development of every child.
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Environmental and other rights can only be realised in the context of adequate and supportive housing and human settlements, and facilities and infrastructure geared to the needs of children.