Sickening violations

February 23, 1996

HEALTH AND HUMAN RIGHTS Edited by Jonathan Mann Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health, quarterly, $24.00 (students), $36.00 (individuals), $80.00 (institutions) ISSN 1079 0969

When a health problem related to chronic water shortage was identified in an Israeli village lying outside the state's urban planning scheme, the case was taken to the International Water Tribunal in Amsterdam, where, Health and Human Rights reveals, the jury found itself unable to countenance any government action that uses denial of water as a means of enforcing zoning or urban planning. Press coverage soon ensured all villages in the same predicament were given assurances by the Israeli government that they would be connected to the national water system and given primary health care.

Equally interesting is a piece on oil development in Ecuador. Here the trouble began in 1967 in the Oriente region - where 40 million hectares of tropical rainforest are home to many indigenous populations - when a Texas-Gulf consortium discovered oil beneath the forest. Deforestation followed at nearly a million acres a year for 20 years and, as a result of oil extraction keeping pace with the tree felling, the region was left not only with a vast network of roads, pipe lines, and shanty towns, but also with the likelihood that the oil reserve would soon be exhausted. At first there was an increase in per capita income and gross national product coinciding with an oil boom. But the bubble soon burst and by 1992 the national debt had increased 60-fold, and the poverty rate had risen from 50 to 65 per cent.

Only large-scale investors and the military had any lasting benefits from the oil development; both the new settlers and the indigenous populations experienced steadily worsening conditions. The settlers found themselves in squalid townships with little or no running water, sanitation or health facilities. The indigenous populations were even worse off since they were not allowed to claim ownership of land and a government policy of granting land to anyone who could afford to clear and cultivate greatly aggravated an ugly form of racism. In addition, a corrupt legal system rendered constitutional declarations on human rights inoperative and put claims for compensation out of reach of most people.

The crude oil caused chronic skin diseases; failed crops and wildlife shortages caused semi-starvation; and leaching of toxic brine from waste pits added to the already high risk of premature death. There were no attempts to discover the diseases caused by the pollutants and, for lack of any agreed definition of what is meant by a normal, healthy environment, international laws relating to human rights lacked any bite. Three state laws were promulgated but none was of any use: the first required oil companies "to prevent pollution of the water, the atmosphere and the land" but included no specific standards to give it substantive content; the second dealt with water quality and was equally ineffective for the same reason; and the third, which was meant to conserve the forest and wildlife, was circumvented by oil companies to show it could be interpreted as granting permission for subsurface exploitation of minerals.

In short, though well intentioned and still holding dominion over all mineral rights, the Ecuadorian government has done untold harm to thousands of citizens. It has also exposed the weaknesses of human rights and public health frameworks, and shown the world the true position of governments that have neither the expertise nor the resources to recognise and prevent specific types of environmental degradation.

These are only two of the 17 articles in the first volume of Health and Human Rights, but they show the journal is making a determined effort to expose violations of human rights and discover appropriate remedies. They also show that it is one thing to say that harmful activities of large consortiums should be curbed and quite another to achieve change .

Alice Stewart is a senior research fellow, University of Birmingham.

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