Our Balancing Act – The real value of ecosystems
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Principle of Equality

Mon, 11/09/2009

History

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights arose after World War Two, in order to define and defend the rights of all individuals without any distinction between people, regardless of race, sex, or religion. Some articles and rights are particularly interesting with regards to the influence they may have on the way natural resources and ecosystems are perceived and treated.

Everybody has the right to life

There might be an indirect link between the right to life and ecosystems. All human beings need access to ecosystem services to live. Food and oxygen, for instance, are services provided by ecosystems. Without them life on earth is simply impossible. In this sense there is a link between the availability of ecosystems and the universal human right to life.

All human beings are born free and equal in rights

This article says that human rights are applicable to everybody and that it is not allowed to give certain people ‘more’ human rights than others. The link between this right and ecosystems is not evident. Ecosystems do not directly affect equality of human rights. Vice versa, however, there is a connection in the sense that ecosystems are not divided amongst individuals on an equal basis.

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food

This states that everyone has the right to those things that ensure health and well-being. With this knowledge, we can draft a direct link between ecosystem services and human rights. Without ecosystems providing ecosystem services, such as food, water, oxygen, and medicinal elements, it is impossible to fulfil the right of individuals to live their lives in health and well-being.

Impact of ecosystem degradation on human rights

If the provision of ecosystem services continues to be threatened by the degradation of ecosystems, while the demand for them continues to increase, the human right to an adequate standard of living will become difficult to keep up. The decline of some ecosystem services with a global impact (climate regulation, gas regulation and the like) affect everyone on earth. In that sense the misery is equally divided. Albeit that the rich countries are better equipped to adapt to degrading ecosystems than the emerging economies. Next to this, developing countries not only lack the funds and technologies to implement adaptation measures, they also host many ecosystems. Degradation of these ecosystems will result in lower amounts of locally available ecosystem services, essential for the daily lives of the population, such as food, fuel and clean water.

Conflict of interest

Another matter arises when property is related to human rights. Assume the situation in which a community depends on a water stream coming from a higher located forest. The water stream is used to irrigate the community land and feed the cattle owned by community members. The private forest owner can decide to harvest the forest for their own benefit, being the harvesting revenues or increased revenues from another form of land-use. The harvesting of the forest will cause the water stream to stop and eventually will jeopardise the health of the community located downstream. It is expected that this conflict of interest will occur more frequently as ecosystem services become scarcer.

Ecosystem services as human rights

The question is whether the dependency of certain human rights on ecosystem services should be formalised. If the dependency is formalised, certain benefits will be realised. The first benefit is the increased global awareness and acceptance of the need to conserve and manage ecosystems sustainably. Secondly, when it is globally agreed, known, and accepted that ecosystem services affect human rights, it will become easier to create global awareness for the need to implement valuation models and payment schemes for the use of ecosystem services. In other words, putting a value on ecosystem services will become more easily accepted. Thirdly, it will be easier to create certain forms of regulation with regards to the harvesting and conversion of ecosystems. Finally, it will become possible to take legal action against activities, related to ecosystems, which deliberately jeopardise human rights.

Principle of equality

Since only a certain amount of ecosystem services are provided to mankind and when equality is applied, the available amount of ecosystem services should be divided equally amongst all individuals. Practically speaking every individual is entitled to the same amount of clean air, the same amount of fresh water, and the same amount of food (produced by ecosystems). Given the fact that ecosystem services are not equally distributed over the planet and it is not likely that they will become distributed equally, we have to find ways to create a connection between the usage of ecosystem services and the equal rights to ecosystem services.

Payment for ecosystem services can be a method to connect usage with rights. Those who use more than they are entitled to, according to the principle of equality, would have to pay for their relatively high use, while those who use less than they are entitled should receive payment for their relatively low use. This would put equality in the heart of the economies, as they exist today.

Denis Slieker, The Forest Enterprise (9 November 2009)