Guide for increasing participation in democratic environmental governance

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Guide for increasing participation in democratic environmental governance

May 19th, 2021

Climate change and environmental degradation affect everyone, but droughts, floods, deforestation, food insecurity, and climate-related displacement often fall disproportionately onto vulnerable communities in lower-income countries, whose livelihoods are intertwined with the use of land and natural resources. Environmental policy drafted at national levels must be representative of and responsive to the views, needs, and concerns felt by these communities. To ensure this, people need to be able to participate in green governance.

Participatory green governance can improve the quality of policymaking by incorporating local knowledge while enhancing democracy, expanding civic space, and increasing informed public debate and scrutiny of governmental action (or lack thereof). Indeed, principle 10 of the Rio Declaration clearly states three fundamental environment rights – access to information, access to public participation, and access to justice – as the key pillars of sound green governance.

WFD’s Guide for Participation in Democratic Environmental Governance identifies challenges and entry-points to promote dialogue with everyone who has a stake in environmental governance, especially those who are most vulnerable. It offers policymakers a framework for stakeholder engagement and provides civil society organizations (CSOs) with a checklist of dos and don’ts in their work of engaging with vulnerable communities.

Download the guide for participation in democratic environmental governance

The guide considers two approaches: one with government as an initiator of dialogue  and the other with civil society organisations engaging with policymaking processes as representatives of vulnerable communities’ concerns.

Safeguarding environmental rights: international and national responses

Action to protect the environment can sometimes generate negative consequences that are disproportionately felt by vulnerable stakeholders. One such example is the construction of the Barro Blanco dam, a hydroelectric power plant located in the Tabasará river, Panama, envisioned to contribute to sustainable development as a source of clean energy. The dam was financed in large parts by international development banks and registered under the Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism, however it ended up flooding indigenous lands and forcefully displacing vulnerable communities.

Most of the safeguard frameworks to ensure that people’s rights, livelihoods, and cultural heritage are not negatively impacted by environmental action come from multilateral financing bodies such as the World Bank, the Green Climate Fund, or the Green Environmental Facility. They are project-oriented and do not guarantee the improvement of communities’ capacity to voice their views, needs and concerns. In addition, such safeguard frameworks do not enhance vulnerable communities’ influence over environmental programmes and policy. Project-oriented safeguards cannot be relied on to enhance environmental democracy practices and the overall civic space, as they are not designed to increase vulnerable communities’ political voice.

Major international agreements – including the Paris Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification – fail to ensure that communities have access to justice and grievance mechanisms when they are affected by environmental projects or policy. This leaves communities with no option but to rely on national legal systems, which are expensive and/or difficult to access, or project and donor-specific mechanisms for seeking redress, the transparency and effectiveness of which vary according to who implements them.

Individual countries also have different provisions and frameworks for environmental democracy, not to mention the wide variation in whether or not they effectively implement them. High and upper-middle income countries are more likely to have robust institutions that safeguard political pluralism and civil rights, including freedom of speech and of association, providing the democratic pathways for vibrant civil societies and representative organisations to influence policymakers. Low-income countries, meanwhile, face growing democratic deficits, low degrees of confidence in government, and restrictions on civil liberties and political pluralism. So, citizens and CSOs are often deprived of ways to exercise their environmental rights or the capacity and resources to make existing frameworks work for them.

Expanding the political participation of the most vulnerable

Going forward, there are a four entry points to expand vulnerable communities’ political participation in environmental governance:

1. Establishing effective participatory pathways from the community level to centre-stage policy-makers at the national level.

Community-based organisations have privileged access and information on the needs of local communities and can represent their interests, but often they are not integrated in larger CSO platforms. This diminishes their influence and hinders the integration of communities’ concerns into environmental policy. National CSOs often have more resources, more media visibility, and better access to parties, parliaments, and government. Their knowledge and visibility can be leveraged, building the capacities of community-based organisations, and therefore increasing their legitimacy as representatives of vulnerable communities. These partnerships will also increase the influence of vulnerable communities in environmental policymaking, expand civic space, and strengthen democratic culture: a win-win situation.

2. Establishing external, independent watchdogs to monitor and report on stakeholder engagement

Watchdogs or oversight bodies that are independent from government, political parties, project implementers, and industry interests (particularly in the energy and extractive sectors) can ensure objective and transparent monitoring and reporting on the reach, quality, and effectiveness of stakeholder engagement throughout parliamentary work and policymaking.

3. Fostering a culture of collaboration between CSOs and the Government

CSOs are frequently perceived as adversaries by policymakers (and vice versa). However, both governments and CSOs would benefit from a more collaborative approach, which would allow CSOs a more permanent seat at the decision-making table and the government a more effective way of reaching several groups of stakeholders, including the most marginalized.

4. Expanding civic education at all levels, but particularly targeting the most vulnerable groups

Greater knowledge of electoral processes, political parties and parliaments’ governance structures, their democratic responsibilities, and political outputs, will allow citizens to leverage their political voice to ensure that policies are responsive to the issues they face. This will increase accountability over political action or lack thereof. Moreover, greater knowledge of their own civic and environmental rights may increase the demand of marginalized stakeholders and civil society for political actors to make do on those rights.

Finally, this guide provides general principles and best practices for stakeholder engagement with vulnerable communities, as well as specific tools and techniques to engage with indigenous peoples, women, youth, people with disabilities, and people living in poverty.


Photo by Sadiq Nafee on Unsplash 

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