The Right to Life: Is it a fundamental human right?

Image courtesy Colombo Telegraph

“We don’t want the right to vote, just the right to live” the villager said, holding his dying child in his arms.

This is the simple truth that seems to elude most development work. The right to life is more intrinsic to humanity than democracy or suffrage.  The more we look to science to validate modern society, the more evident becomes the conclusion that humans share the same evolutionary heritage as all other life on this planet: sustaining genetic information through environments that vary in time. This tells us that adaptation can only be made slowly and within finite limits.  All living things stressed beyond these limits die.  It is as simple as that.

Heat or cool a bacterium, algae or elephant beyond a certain threshold and they die.  The same holds true for all elements of the environment whether they be as innocuous as salt or as toxic as strychnine. The right to sustain conditions that are benign to life is the most fundamental right that can be recognized for any human or any other living thing.  Until this right has been recognized, how can we answer the plea of that parent? Freedom from conditions hostile to life must become a basic right. A right to life!

We address the human condition so eloquently these days, but is it not time to address the human being?  For instance, we are ready to spend billions on the war on poverty.  But, will poverty be defined as a lack of clean water, food and access to health care?  Will it be recognized as an erosion of the right to life? Or will it be defined in handy economic terms pretending that a change in settings will address the problem?

It is in this context that we should examine the right to life. Access to clean drinking water, clean breathable air and clean, non-toxic food must be non-negotiable and fundamental.

Food security and food sovereignty is the basis of sustainable development, and the production of food has been the domain of the farming and fishing communities from pre-history. However, the strong links that farmers had to their land was severed by the introduction of industrial farming and the ‘Green Revolution’ technological package. The traditional knowledge and genes that has sustained humanity for over three thousand years was discounted and replaced with a high energy dependent, biodiversity poor, toxic method of farming, supported and financed by the international banking system.

The tragedy is clearly outlined in the statement from The National Farmer Federation of Sri Lanka who made the following declaration to the Consultative Group in International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in 1998. They said:

“ We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security.  In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence.  We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world.  We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input.  We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed.  The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia.  The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence.  In addition we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings.”

Today we are faced with the spectre of ever widening circles of poisoning that affects the kidneys of farmers and rural folk.  Everyone agrees that it is a toxic cause, but as there is no clearly demonstrable causal link, the application of the suspect materials continue unabated.

The precautionary principle is not invoked. There is no discussion of synergistic effects, bioconcentration and other processes that can render the agroecosystems toxic to the farming populations. Can the erosion of a benign traditional agricultural system to a exotic toxic agricultural system, be seen to be ‘developed ‘?

The three basic substances of our biosphere, Air, Water and Soil share the characteristic that they are all dynamic and vary in quality and quantity from place to place on this planet. However there is what is generally recognized as the ‘optimal range’ of values for each one of these substances, to render the environment hospitable to life.  While my comments today, are focused on water, it should be kept in mind that they apply equally to the other two.

Water is a critical element of all living things and it is the medium through which much of life is expressed, all animals and plants including humans are made mostly of water. Water is an essential material for the maintenance of global ecosystems; it is required in the right quality and quantity for each purpose that it is used for.  Water enters a landscape as rain or fog and moves across a landscape responding to gravity and heat.  It flows both above and below the soil level in every terrestrial ecosystem increasing its load of suspended and dissolved solids, organic and inorganic compounds as it flows. The ability to clean groundwater is demonstrated by active soils, wetlands and by evapotranspiration, this critical consideration is important, not only for human sustainability but also for the sustainability of our life support systems.

For us in Sri Lanka, Where 90 % of household water came from wells or springs, the condition of the surface and shallow aquifer is of critical importance.  The internal renewable groundwater resources are estimated at 7.8 km3, most (estimated at 7 km3/year) returning to the river systems and being included in the surface water resources estimate.  The current trend of polluting the surface water, if not checked would place us in a situation similar to Honduras where almost all surface and shallow aquifer water is polluted and people have to depend on bottled water for drinking.

To protect this national resource there should be a National Water Resources policy, but it should emerge from the broadest public discussion as possible. In that spirit the framework below is submitted:

A Framework National Water Resources Policy

Today we witness a radical change in the practice of agriculture.  Both the ‘Green Revolution’ and  ‘Industrial Agriculture’ with their emphasis on energy subsidies to overcome constraints in production have brought about enormous change in the biodiversity and sustainability status of agriculture.  The impact of this high-energy input, low biodiversity, and agriculture has not only been felt on the sustainability of ecosystems, it has also impacted the sustainability of cultural systems.  Ethics is loose currency in a world justified only by ‘objective’ science.  The Ethics of such changes have largely gone unaddressed in the ‘objective’ development of this type of agriculture. But as Mr.Upali Senanayake pointed out at the first conference on Agricultural Sustainability. “If you are completely ‘objective’ and place no value in ethics, then how can I trust you?” It is this very blind faith in ‘objectivity’ sans ethics that has contributed to the collapse of social relations as seen in the ever-increasing rates of crime and social dislocation in ‘developed’ societies.

The misuse of objective science was seen recently in respect of the statement put out by the company and by the government.  The entire argument was on the acidity (pH) of the well water.  The symptoms that the communities complained about go way beyond the acidity of the water. It suggests one or more chemicals contaminating the well water and affecting the residents. Testing for just one chemical will not help either. Chemicals thought to be harmless have turned toxic when brought together with other  ‘harmless’ chemicals. A study in the US that looked at the effects of Sodium Cyclamate   (a sweetener), FD&C Red No. 2 (a food colouring agent) and  polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate, (a food emulsifier). In animals tested, each substance given individually did not produce ill effects, but given in combination resulted in the deaths of all test animals within fourteen days.

Thus in the case at Weliweriya four basic questions have to be asked of the company:

  1. What is the range of chemicals used in the glove manufacturing process?
  2. Do any of them have potentially toxic or toxic breakdown products?
  3. Is there a wastewater monitoring record?
  4. Has the well water been tested for any of these chemicals?

What is affecting the water of those unfortunate households may not be only acidification. It may be a dangerous cocktail of industrial chemicals and all this talk about acidity just a red herring !

All this comes down to a single question. Does the erosion of the quality of life given by the water and air at any place and enjoyed by any person at that place constitute a violation of his or her fundamental human rights ?