Access to Information in the Early Warning System: Celebrating 25 Years of Access Rights

By Carla Garcia Zendejas, Director of the People, Land & Resources Program

CIEL and the International Accountability Project designed the Early Warning System to inform people and communities about the existence of development projects that have a high likelihood of impacting their rights. This information involves much more than simply accessing crucial data regarding project design, location, scope, etc. In fact, it creates opportunities for communities to participate in and influence decisions that could impact their lives.

Community advocates know that avoiding development-related environmental harms and human rights abuses requires not only awareness about a project, but also participation in decision-making processes and the ability to advocate for rights. This inclusive development model is grounded in the inherent rights of all people to have access to information, access to participation, and access to justice – the three pillars of environmental democracy.

Of course, this information and advocacy pipeline facilitated by the research published through the EWS is only as good as the information the system is able to capture from what is posted within the development banks’ databases. We have identified gaps in and obstacles to obtaining complete information from some banks, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank; this led us to question the banks’ disclosure policies and their responsiveness to individual requests for information. In addition to tracking project documents and materials, we advocate for improved policies and procedures that govern access to information – with some early successes.

For many years, people worldwide have struggled not only to defend their right to information about decisions and policies that may affect their environment and human rights, but also to be considered primary stakeholders and sources of information necessary make these decisions. A major success in this struggle to cement the right to access information and the right to participate in decision-making processes occurred 25 years ago when more than 170 countries unanimously agreed on the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Aside from the crucial recognition that developed nations have a different level of responsibility for the state of global environmental degradation, and that priority should be given to address the needs of the least developed and those most environmentally vulnerable; one of the most important outcomes of this agreement lies in one paragraph, namely:

Principle 10

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.

Known as the access principles, these three pillars of environmental democracy – access to information, access to participation, and access to justice and remedy when harms occur – was recognized as a way to support communities throughout the different phases of environmental decision-making, implementation, and throughout the cycle of projects.

These principles have gained new momentum as Latin America and Caribbean governments are creating a Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Participation, and Justice in Environmental Matters. The Agreement would create regional approval of Principle 10 and would legally bind governments to respect the three principles, which had previously been voluntary. The regional effort, led by 23 countries and dozens of civil society organizations, would also set higher standards for the region regarding environmental governance.

The right to information is inextricably linked to the right to participate and to seek remedy when we have been harmed by the outcomes of these decisions. These access rights are crucial for communities to be able to protect other rights, such as the rights to livelihood, food, water, property, and the right to live in a healthy environment. As communities and environmental defenders throughout the world work to defend existing rights, they are also faced with yet greater challenges and threats when they then occupy and participate in the spaces created by these rights. We are humbled by their commitment and their sacrifices, and we will continue to stand with them as they speak out on their own behalf to protect their rights.

Originally posted May 17, 2017