Environmental Protection: The Relationship with Human Rights

Exempt Organization Tax Review

This we know, the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the Earth. This we know, all things are connected, like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the sons of Earth. Man does not weave the thread of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.

--Chief Seattle, Leader of the Duwamishan Squamish Peoples of Puget Sound, North America (1855)

Five-hundred-fifty grantmakers assembled at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula in California on October 25-27, 1999 for the Environmental Grantmakers program to discuss and seek solutions to the problems facing the relationship between the environment and humanity as so eloquently described by Chief Seattle.

On October 13, 1999, President Clinton announced an initiative to add 40 million acres to the national forest wilder-ness. Under President Clinton's 'lands legacy program,' $1 billion a year would be provided for local, state, and federal agencies to preserve more open lands. Efforts are being made by governments and donors to preserve the last best places on earth. Environmentalists are working in advocacy coalitions and partnerships, not only with hunting and fishing organizations, but with state and local governments, businesses, and private individuals in an effort to turn America back to its tradition of conservation not only in the United States but worldwide. What is causing this worldwide movement toward conserving the world's biodiversity?

Instinctively we know that ecological degradation has had profound effects on our health, access to food and water, civil, and political rights, our very livelihoods, our quality of life, and our ability to survive. We also know that the more species of plants, animals, and other life forms in a given region, the more resistant the area is to destruction of the ecosystem and the better it can perform its environmental function of cleansing water, enriching the soil, and maintaining habitat and stable climates.[1]

While the United States has been active in preservation of its resources, many fragile areas go unprotected. The most promising sources of support to preserve these areas now come from the private sector and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which receives roughly $200 million in offshore oil and gas royalties. However, the price of saving the Okefenokee Swamp, one of the world's last intact fresh water ecosystems, can be as high as $90 million to purchase and retire existing mineral rights owned by commercial companies on this land. The Ancient Redwood Millenial Forests of California's Headwaters Grove are another example. While the government purchased 7,500 acres of this land, the Mannix Lumber Corporation retained 8,500 acres of old growth redwoods that are slated for cutting. The arrangement protected 13 endangered species, but it allowed logging to continue.

International law has increasingly recognized that human rights and environmental rights overlap. The universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1998[2] The Declaration recognizes the right to life and personal security, freedom of expression, a decent standard of living, nondiscrimination, and the right to a fair trial. In 1972, 114 nations declared that man's environments, natural and manmade are essential to his well-being and to the enjoyment of basic human rights[3]

In 1992 the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio DeJaneiro was the largest intergovernmental gathering ever assembled. One hundred seventy-eight nations signed the Rio Declaration proclaiming that human beings are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature and that environmental protection is an integral part of sustainable development and cannot be considered in isolation from it.[4]

Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens at all levels -- national where the public has access to information on hazardous conditions and opportunity to participate in the decisionmaking process. Effective public access to judicial and administrative proceedings and redress.

--Principle 10 Rio Declaration

What Led to the Rio Declaration?

The root causes of the abuses that have led to worldwide violations of human rights and environmental degradation, in both industrialized and less industrialized countries, are similar. They can be traced to neglect and the lack of access people have to the democratic participatory process. We will look at examples that have led to the tandem denial of human rights and the degradation of the environment. It is a truism whether it's Burma, Nigeria, Indonesia, or the United States, indigenous communities are inextricably connected to their ecosystems on which they depend for material and spiritual sustenance.

The following examples of problem areas come from 'Earth Rights' published by Earth Rights International, Washington, D.C.

Burma (Myanmar)

Burma is an environmentally rich land of natural beauty endowed with minerals, trees, gems, oil, gas resources, and animals. It is a land of large ethnic diversity with its own languages and cultures. Burma is ruled by a reactionary military government that has committed acts of atrocity and confiscation against its minority populations with no room for dissent. On the environmental side this regime, which ousted the elected government, has entered into contracts with large transnational companies that have mined the ground, defoliated the hardwood forests, and constructed oil and gas pipelines that forced the relocation and destruction of minority populations and which destroyed in the process the habitat of endangered species of elephants, tigers, and rhinos.

Central and Eastern Europe

The countries of central and Eastern Europe are blessed with a rich biodiversity of beautiful rivers, mountains, and forests. However, following the Second World War these countries suffered under the control of totalitarian communist regimes that caused gross neglect of the environment. In the Ukraine, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl caused harmful radiation effects throughout the region. The death of the Ariel Sea in Russia -- the largest fresh water lake in Europe -- was caused by improper water projects and pollution from farms and mining. The critical nature of this environmental degradation is seen in the following facts. One- third of the forests in Bulgaria have been seriously damaged. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, 70 percent of the rivers are polluted, 40 percent of the sewage is untreated, and 50 percent of the forests are dying. In Poland, 95 percent of the rivers are polluted. These effects have caused serious health problems resulting in elevated cancer incidence and lung diseases that has reduced the life expectancy of the inhabitants of this region.


For decades Nigeria's ruling government has depended on the export of oil and gas from lands occupied by the Ijaw, Ilage, and Ogoni. The government's misuse of the land has caused environmental degradation and human rights violations. When the Ogoni organized mass protests against the drilling companies, Nigeria's army and police forces launched a wasting operation against the Ogoni, sacking villages, shooting and killing, burning houses, and raping women -- reminiscent of the Kosovo horrors that we have witnessed as 'ethnic cleansing' in the former Yugoslavia.


Convent, Louisiana, was faced with the construction of a new $700 million facility for the creation of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) a highly toxic substance. Slated to become one of the world's largest producers of PVC, the plant would have provided hazardous air emissions that had already been the reputed cause of human health problems, including cancer and harm to the reproductive systems of inhabitants in other Louisiana and Texas communities. This plant, like others, was bitterly contested by the local community. Because of community resistance, many PVC plants are being moved to less developed countries -- causing the same degradation and violation of human rights of the people residing there.

In Alberta, Canada, once rich in boreal forests, nearly 75 percent of the forest land has been leased for oil and gas drilling and mining. This mining, drilling, and destruction of forest lands has had a crushing impact on the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation, which has lost a major portion of its hunting and trapping grounds.

'What we have experienced is a slow genocide,' says Chief Bernard Omivayk.


The Cofan, who live in the Amazon forest, have declined from 15,000 to 300 people as pollution from drilling and disease, brought in by the oil workers, have either destroyed the local population by evacuation or death.


A country with a population in excess of one billion people is building with the aid of the World Bank massive dam and water projects on the Mekong River with potential devastating results to 50 million people who live on its shores.

What are the forces that are causing this degradation to the environment and the corresponding violation of human rights?

Some would place the blame at the foot of globalization and deregulation of commerce. Others fault multinational free trade agreements that restrict the power of the nations to preserve their resources and cultures. Still others cite the fact that 200 of the world's transnational corporations control one quarter of the world's economy. Or is the blame for these worldwide problems due to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have permitted the huge debt burden that forces nations to seek investments to pay off old debt?

The answer may be all of the above. There is no one cause because each of these factors can be effected in a positive way. For example, countries can agree to eliminate third world debt, as was recently done by the World Bank and the Group of Seven Countries. Countries can work with NGOs and companies to preserve the environment and limit harmful effects to the nation's ecosystems and the people who are attempting to protect their way of life. It is becoming more and more obvious that the environmental movement must search out partners in these endeavors, partners who are willing to take the risk of innovative measures that protect the environment and sustain the people who live in their communities. The answer must also lie in programs and partnerships between government, business, and environmentalists who believe that there is a better way than to destroy our earth and thereby destroy humanity. The issue will come to a head at the World Trade Organization meeting as environmental and human rights groups will raise questions about detrimental trade and commercial policies of member nations.

The Future

The environmentalists came to Asilomar to discuss the challenges and opportunities that must be met by both environmentalists and governments worldwide. Ted Turner, vice president of Time Warner, Inc. and chairman of the UN Foundation and the president of the Turner Foundation set the tone for the conference when he said:

There are those who believe in the environment and there are those who believe in individual welfare. I say if you destroy the environment there won't be any welfare to worry about because the people won't be here anymore.

The session was opened by Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and chair of the David and Lucille Packard Foundation's Conservation Program Committee. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has become a world class aquarium featuring the underwater ecology of the Monterey peninsula. The Packard Foundation has committed $175 million over five years under the California Land Initiative program to protect critical natural and agricultural lands in California through innovative programs that have resulted in the conservation of 15,000 acres and in leveraging two dollars for every one Packard has spent through partnerships with government and private partners.

Workshops discussed opportunities for funders to support environmental advocates in working with international partners in economic based programs to change adverse impacts. Byron Rushing, a Massachusetts legislator, discussed his state law that selectively limits the government's purchase of goods from companies doing business in Burma to only those corporations that are not participating in the derogation of human or environmental rights. Certain companies and the National Foreign Trade Counsel filed suit against the state of Massachusetts claiming interference with the federal government's power to regulate trade. A Massachusetts state and appellate court held the law to be unconstitutional and the case is now headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Other socially desirable investments by private foundations only in companies that do not violate the environment can be a strong inducement: for example, the recent action by Home Depot not to sell wood products made from ancient rain forests. Other examples include the work being done by the Certified Forests Products Council that certifies only companies that utilize socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable forestry practices. Buyers groups have worked with large buyers of wood products in changing environmentally destructive forestry practices, but at the same time providing for sustainable development.

An interesting panel discussed foundations created as a result of hospital conversions that promote the advancement of health care, creating opportunities for network links with environmental organizations in attempting to preserve the environment by focusing on human and environmental health. Another key to this conference was the reaching out to new constituencies of labor, business, the poor, and faith-based communities. John Moyers, executive director of the Florence Fund is attempting to encourage mor e people to get involved and join the debate through paid media strategies including a Web site production of the Tom Paine news alert.

At the same time there are creative initiatives by various transnational corporations to fulfill the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Canadian energy companies have paid Iowa farmers to refrain from tilling their property thereby retaining carbon dioxide in the soil. This creates a credit that is purchased by the energy companies to fulfill their obligations regarding greenhouse gas emissions. These carbon emissions sequestration credits have also spawned in Australia companies that have forged alliances with state forests in New South Wales to form a future exchange trading market in Sydney in these credits permitting buyers to offset carbon emissions with credits generated by planting forests to absorb carbon dioxide.

I think what we are seeing is a confluence of capital and environmental markets.

-- Richard Sandor, Environmental Financial Products Company

The problem is that there are no general rules on limits or how these provisions for trading will be applied worldwide. Thus, tensions exist between industrial countries, like the United States, and developing countries. In Europe, if these countries trade away their emission credits they will not meet the EU mandated emission levels through domestic measures.

Ironically, the beneficiaries of this trading would be the Ukraine and Russia because their already reduced industrial base has reduced their emissions. Thus, the trading of these credits to wealthy productive companies may have the reverse effect of raised emission levels in developed countries, providing windfall profits and in the process undermining the Kyoto Protocol. This is an area that environmentalists and NGOs must closely monitor if they are going to have any real influence on reduction of carbon dioxide that will effect the environment and climate change.

On the tax front there was extensive discussion of the creative use of advocacy and the tax law in order to have grantmakers more involved, consistent with the code, to further the activities of advocate organizations. (For the outline of Cerny's speech to the group see Conference Notes.) The use of program-related investments, environmental tax shifting, and fundraising opportunities were prime topics. Peter Hero, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, presented a profile of the new philanthropists of Silicon Valley who are giving hands-on, result oriented, efficient, and business-like motivated guidance. They are, on average, providing a larger percentage of their total income to charity as compared to general donors. Several examples of program related investments include:

Below-market loans to promote sustainable development. For example, a private foundation could lend funds to a Equador charity that seeks to reduce the destructive impact of industrialization on endangered peoples and ecosystems. The funds would be used to promote sustainable development in fragile environments, such as tropical rain forests, creating a livelihood and promoting economic self-sufficiency for poverty-stricken indigenous peoples living in economically depressed areas.

Below-market loans to enable a bank in the United States to engage in environmental lending. A foundation could provide low-cost funding for a bank to capitalize a revolving loan fund for environmental lending where the economics would not otherwise prompt the bank to enter the field. The bank would use the fund to lend money to businesses seeking to clean up contaminated property or to make environmentally sound capital improvements, such as installing a smokestack scrubber to reduce air emissions.

Below-market loans to enable a company to construct and equip a facility that promotes sustainable timber use practices. A foundation could lend money to a company to construct and equip a modern efficient facility in Alaska for the drying, processing, storage, sales, and distribution of lumber that will promote sustainable timber use practices. The company would train local sawyers in harvesting and timber stand improvement techniques that enhance the growth of merchantable lumber while protecting biological diversity, soils, and residual vegetation.

Specific examples of partnerships between environmental groups -- like the Nature Conservancy -- government, and corporations attempting to save the last great places of the Earth are discussed below.

Greater China

The government of China has invited The Nature Conservancy to assist in the creation of natural reserves and national parks on the Great Yunan River in one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions in the world. The Conservency is working with local partners to develop strategies for replacing wild reef fish with sustainable farm-raised fish that are cyanide and ciquatera-free farm raised fish.

The Andes

The Nature Conservancy is working with community-based conservation groups helping 40 communities in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Chile working on fishing cooperatives, turtle release, conflict resolution, ecotourism, and watershed management projects.


The Nature Conservancy is working with a local partner to bring 260,000 acres under protection and to study how forestscan relieve global warming.

The Dominican Republic

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, working with the Minister of Education for Dominica and the Dominica Conservation Association, provides educational programs on the coral reefs, dolphins, and whales to protect the habitat of the Caribbean Sea.


The Conservation Fund, working with the Richard King Mellow Foundation and leveraged funds from the state of Maryland, helped to save Chapman's Landing, a nesting area for bald eagles.


The Conservation Fund, receiving financial aid business corporations including Cargill Inc., Dow Chemical, General Motors, and Eastman Kodak, has provided technical assistance and linkage to groups to preserve the Saginaw Watershed.

South Pacific

The Nature Conservancy, in a highly innovative program in Papua New Guinea, is developing a commercial scale sustainable forestry project. Working with local communities and the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility, it is helping to create a conservation trust fund to finance Papua top conservation priorities.

New Mexico

The Nature Conservancy signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Defense to assist in the protection of thebiologically diverse 2.2 million acre White Sands Missile Range.

Virginia Coast Reserve

The Nature Conservancy has launched an ambitious conservation program to serve as a model to achieve ecosystem conservation and biodiversity under a three step process: first, to save the barrier island ecosystem; second, to demonstrate a world model of compatible development through a separate taxable subsidiary working to preserve the ecology of the area and providing sustainable employment based on the culture of the area; and finally, to provide education and instruction to other partners and groups in the preservation of the environment.

I was immediately impressed at how the Nature Conservancy uses partnerships to get things done. Through their information technology initiative, they are working with lenders of the industry to leverage the power of technology for conservation. Here at Cisco, we like knowing that our support benefits not just the Conservancy, but helps connect hundreds of conservation partner organizations and the world.

-- John Morgridge, chairman, Cisco Systems


We have reviewed the current state of the environment and its effects on the human community. We also surveyed the problem areas and the potential causes for the world's eroding quality of life. We looked at what the environmental community is discussing and finally we reviewed the scope of the worldwide projects that are addressing these problems in an innovative way. If there is anything I hope you will remember from this article, it is (1) that there are ecosystems and cultures whose existence is at stake in the global economy; (2) there is a need for the environmental movement to be an advocate for the cause of improved environmental conditions and humanity; (3) that by working in partnerships with governments, business, and like-minded nonprofits we can preserve and protect the environment and provide for the sustainability of the human species, animals, and marine life; and (4) that we must act now before irreparable damage is done to the environment and ourselves in the process.

It was during this conference that the announcement of the death of that great champion for clean water and air -- Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I.-- was made. The somber fact is that the environmental movement will need to accelerate its efforts to educate and persuade a new generation of congressional leaders of the need to take principled action to protect our environment and habitat -- before it is too late.

Habitat destruction is the leading cause of species extinction. How much extinction is occurring? It is hard to establish an exact figure, but most scientists agree that worldwide the rate is somewhere between 100 and 1,000 times greater than before the appearance of humanity.

-- Edward O. Wilson, Curator of Entomology, Harvard University Museum


[1] See Human Nature and the Ants by E.O. Wilson, two Pulitzer Prize winning books on the environment.

[2] See United Nations General Assembly Res. 217 III.

[3] United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment (1972) C/N Doc. A. Conf. 48/14.

[4] U.N. Doc. A/Conf./151/5 Rev. 1 (1992). (An Equadorean environmental group is suing Texaco for damages caused by oil waste in a class action suit, Aguinda v. Texaco , claiming $1 billion in damages because Texaco allegedly dumped oil and toxic waste water in the Amazon rain forest ignoring industry standards. The U.S. district court judge must decide whether the case should be tried in Equador or New York.

This article first appeared in the Exempt Organization Tax Review, December 1999, p. 395,
and was reprinted with permission.

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