Book Reviews: Access to Environmental Justice: A Comparative Study


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Keywords: public participation, review procedures, land, water, clean air, waste, planning, environmental entitlement

The problem of environmental justice is fast becoming an important issue in environmental law and policy debates. This is true for international as well as domestic debates. In a broad sense, environmental justice deals with both distributive, social justice problems and procedural issues of public participation, access to environmental information and access to justice, usually referring to independent review procedures of environmental decisions. It is the latter of these disciplines, access to justice, which is the subject of this book, edited by Andrew Harding of the University of Victoria, Canada.

The book is the outcome of a research project undertaken in the Department of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), with the catchy title 'SOAS/A2EJ' (for 'SOAS Access to Environmental Justice Project'). The main focus of the book is on access to environmental justice in the areas of land, water, clean air and waste, while, as an inevitable consequence of this, it also covers some planning issues. The project aimed to set out to 'study the extent to which citizens can and do exert influence over their urban environments through the legal systems'.' Thus, the book does not merely deal with the technical question of legal standing and access to courts in a narrow sense. As is noted in the introduction by the editor, the original study approached access to justice by utilising Amartya Sen's entitlement theory from which the authors constructed a notion of 'environmental entitlement', referring to the 'ability of social actors to have control over or access to environmental resources and services for their livelihood, health and well-being'.2 For these purposes, the book covers primarily urban areas in Africa and Asia, such as, for instance, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, China, South West Pacific and Thailand.

The mere fact that the book deals with these countries makes it an interesting read. First and foremost, information about environmental law, policy and the actual state of affairs is not always easy to come by for scholars and students in Europe. Through its general intro-ductions to each area-specific chapter, this book gives a succinct account of the environmental law and policy framework in place in each country. In addition, it offers a fine picture of the level of priority that the environment is afforded in places where citizens and governments alike have much more urgent needs than environmental protection and conservation. Here, however, the novel approach that the authors accord to access to justice through their 'environmental entitlement' concept is important. For instance, the book's chapter on Karachi vividly describes the dreadful plight under which the inhabitants of the city's slum dwellings suffer as a consequence of lack of land tenure and coordinated planning.

At the same time, the book highlights some problems hindering access to justice, which seem well-known to European lawyers in general and British environmental lawyers in particular. For instance, the chapter on Indonesia notes that environmental litigants often face judicial unease with scientific evidence, which inevitably plays a role in environmental cases. On the other hand, the chapters on Indonesia and China describe the positive benefits that alternative dispute settlements can have in securing access to environmental justice for urban populations, which could be worth considering elsewhere. Similarly, the chapter on Malaysia holds lessons for European and British lawyers. Here, for instance, it is pointed out that the lack of legal aid is as much a result of legal practitioners not being willing to take cases pro bono as it is a failure of the official legal system.

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