The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) opened its doors in April 2010, after being established by eight environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to provide legal advice and representation to civil society organisations, community-based organisations and communities who want to exercise environmental rights. The CER is a nonprofit company and a law clinic.
Its mission is to advance environmental rights in South Africa (SA) as guaranteed in section 24 of the Constitution, and its vision is to facilitate civil society participation in environmental governance that is stronger, more streamlined, and better legally and scientifically equipped.
The CER works in the following areas:
- Access to information
Civil society experiences significant barriers to accessing information on environmental regulation and performance, and the CER uses legal and non-legal tools to promote greater transparency by government and private bodies. In April 2012, it released its report ‘Unlock the Doors: How greater transparency by public and private bodies can improve the realisation of environmental rights,’ which details 18 months of work on its attempts to access environmental information on behalf of clients, and argues for greater voluntary disclosure by both government and private bodies. The CER regularly request environmental information on behalf of clients from a range of sources using the Promotion of Access to Information Act, and have thus far twice brought legal proceedings to enforce disclosure of key information.
- Mining, environment and communities
Poor regulation of the mining sector has resulted in severe detrimental impacts on the environment and the communities reliant on it. The CER works to hold both mining authorities and companies to account, and to take legal action where non-compliance is found. It also works to ensure that civil society and communities’ concerns are taken into account in decisions about mining. During the course of 2011, it held a series of community workshops in towns across the Karoo to provide information about the proposed shale gas exploration through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It has also led joint submissions to the Minister of Mineral Resources about weaknesses in mining legislation, and the need for the declaration of no-go zones for prospecting and mining to protect areas of crucial hydrological and biodiversity importance.
- Pollution, waste and land use
In this project we work for three environmental justice organisations, groundWork, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, supporting them through legal advice and representation on issues related to environmental justice. Again, our focus is on empowering civil society, improving environmental decision-making and hold both government and industry to their obligations under the Constitution and applicable laws.
- Water governance
South Africa faces extraordinary challenges in water resource management, which challenges have been aggravated by a breakdown in water governance. The CER works for civil society organisations and communities and with partner organisations to strengthen civil society’s voice in water governance, and to ensure accountability, transparency and compliance with water legislation. During National Water Week in March 2012, it launched our report ‘Stop Treading Water: What Civil Society can do to get Water Governance in South Africa Back on Track.’
- Virgin land management
The CER works with NGOs and government agencies to improve the management of virgin land by farmers.
It maintains a lively website, which also houses a comprehensive virtual environmental law library with legislation and court judgements accessible to everyone.
The CER is staffed by a director (Melissa Fourie), three staff attorneys (Catherine Horsfield, Robyn Hugo and Dina Townsend), two legal interns (Matome Kapa and Michael Lowman) and an office administrator (Zulfa Mohammed). All its staff attorneys are refugees from government and the private sector who have in the centre found a place to realise their passion for environmental rights and environmental justice.
The CER has strong support from the environmental and environmental justice sector, and regards itself as a resource for our partner organisations. It works collaboratively and constructively with a wide range of communities and organisations, and through networks like the Mining-Environment-Communities Alliance.
Although it is not able to represent all communities and organisations that approach it, in those cases it takes on, it aims to deliver the highest quality legal services to our clients.
The CER has been fortunate to receive support from key funders in its first two years of operation, and it gives thanks to these funders for their consistent support. As it grows, it works hard to secure longer-term funding for the centre, and it is open to exploring partnerships with new donors within its stated mission.
Though much remains to be done to realise every person’s Constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being and to have the environment protected for future generations, the CER believes that it is starting to raise the profile of environmental rights in South Africa, both through our advocacy and our litigation.
For more about the Centre for Environmental Rights, refer to www.cer.org.za.