Child Rights and why they matter in environmental justice and mining

By: Josephine Chiname

Introduction and Background

In Zimbabwe, the discourse centred around environmental justice in the mining sector has developed over the years. Environmental justice has emerged as an important part of the movement calling for responsible investors who respect and promote a clean and healthy environment in host mining communities. This arose from a general understanding that environmental conditions clearly help to determine the extent to which mining host communities enjoy their basic rights to life, health, adequate food and housing, and traditional livelihood and culture[1]. The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe augmented the environmental justice movement by recognising that those who pollute or destroy the natural environment are not just committing a crime against nature and planet but instead they are violating human rights as well.

However, despite children being an important stakeholder and the most affected by negative environmental degradations, especially those in mining host communities where they are already marginalised, their specific needs and concerns never really make it into the environmental justice discourse. In Zimbabwe, it was only after the devastating Cyclone Idai that the issue of environmental degradation has been discussed in earnest. In order to tip the scales, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) with financial support from Terre des Hommes is implementing a project themed “Protecting children and youth environmental rights in Zimbabwe” with the aim of contributing to promoting and protecting the right to a safe and clean environment for children and youths living in mining communities. The overall goal of the project is to use evidence on the impacts of mining activities and existing legal frameworks on ECR to promote multi-stakeholder safeguarding of children and youths’ environmental rights in the mining sector.

Why Environmental child rights in the mining sector?

Whilst the mining sector has greater potential to provide an economic turnaround for Zimbabwe, over the years it has resulted in negative environmental impacts. Environmental degradation resulting from mining activities affect the whole community. In relation to children, environmental dilapidation can have irreversible, lifelong and even transgenerational consequences. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their evolving physical and mental development and status within society. This is particularly true for children in mining host communities and in rural Zimbabwe where most are drawn from the marginalised low-income families. 

Children rights should thus be central in environmental justice in the mining sector because there are negative environmental factors that may impact children prior to conception and these impacts can continue into adulthood and intergenerationally. For instance, a pregnant mother’s exposure to water polluted by mercury commonly used in Zimbabwe’s gold mining sector can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain, nervous system, cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills[2]. There is therefore need to ensure protect and conserve the environment for the sake of both born and unborn children.

Due to their physical and mental makeup, negative environmental impacts of mining like air and water pollution affect children more as compared to adults. The impacts of air pollution on children’s developing lungs is devastating. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution is one of the leading causes of child death in the 21st century, killing more children under five years of age than malaria and HIV/AIDS and so is water pollution which has dire effects on children. When mining companies like Marange Resources and Anjin Investments polluted Save and Odzi Rivers with untreated effluent, raw sewage, metals and chemicals, cases of skin diseases and diarrhoea were more prevalent in children.[3] To demonstrate the devastating impacts of both air and water pollution on children, in 2016 the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Hazardous Substances and Wastes prepared a report on the impacts of toxins and pollution on child rights.

Further, when it comes to land degradation which is most prevalent in chrome mining areas, Children are more susceptible than adults as there are child specific risks associated with their station. Chrome mining mostly occurs in rural areas of Shurugwi and Zvishavane where the cultural practices places a duty on children to herd cattle. There are recorded instances where children lost their lives when they fell into pits whilst herding cattle.[4] Also, land degradation results in the reduction of farming land, thus impacting on food security and physical development of children.

From the foregoing, it is apparent that deliberate efforts must be made by all stakeholders involved in the mining and environmental sectors to adopt a child rights-based approach to environmental management.

What does environmental child rights in the mining sector entail?

Given the vulnerability of children to environmental harm, duty bearers and stakeholders have a heightened obligation to respect and promote their right to a clean and safe environment. Zimbabwe is one of the countries where environmental rights are justiciable and regarded as human rights. Children are thus able to seek redress through judicial and non-judicial means upon violation of their environmental rights.

Like any other human right, environmental child rights have two categories of obligations in the context of environmental protection. Firstly, it places procedural obligations upon the duty bearers. This simply means duty bearers must assess environmental impacts; make environmental information accessible to children; facilitate child participation in environmental decision-making processes like environmental impact assessment consultations, including protecting the rights of expression and association; and providing access to effective remedies in the event of environmental harm.

Secondly, it places substantive obligations upon duty bearers to protect children against environmental harm. Specifically, duty bearers have an obligation to adopt a suitable and effective legal, policy and institutional framework that protects children against environmental harm. This obligation includes a duty to protect against such harm when it is caused by mining companies.

Conclusion: A call to action for Zimbabwe

As a result of negative environmental impacts of mining, children in mining host communities suffer violations such as the right to life, development, health, food, water, education, culture, play and other rights. There is therefore need for increased awareness among stakeholders on the relationship between children’s rights and the environment.

Government agencies dealing with child protection, child health, environmental management and mining need to coordinate and work together on matters of environmental child rights protection in host mining communities. A child friendly and effective reporting, feedback and monitoring system needs to be put in place or improved in affected communities.

Moreover, spaces for child participation in environmental management should be availed. Children have an inherent right to participate and be heard in matters that affect them. From the foregoing, it is apparent that environmental harm affects them in a major way thus they deserve space to participate in environmental management.

It is also important for the Zimbabwean government to ensure that it mandates mining companies to conduct pre and post establishment of environmental and human rights due diligence exercises that take into cognisance children rights. Mining companies should assess the impact of their operations on environmental child rights, devise mitigation measures and remedial actions where violations have occurred.

To child rights activists and defenders, we should never rest until every child enjoys the right to a safe environment.

[1] Discrimination & Protection of Minorities, Human Rights and the Environment, 248, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/1994/9 (July 6. 1994)  [UN acknowledged the link between the environment and other rights].

[2] The dangers of mercury in artisanal gold mining

[3] See Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association & Others v Anjin Investments & Others HC 9451/12 and Marange Voices Documentary

[4] Compendium of human interest cases on mining impacts in Shurugwi and Zvishavane – Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and ZELA (2016).

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