Justice for people living in one of the most polluted places on earth
Argentina / Freedom for Justice / 22 mar 2018
In July 2004 a group of residents living in “Villa Inflamable”, one of the worst-polluted informal settlements in the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, filed a lawsuit against the Argentinian Government, the Government of the city of Buenos Aires and 44 businesses for damages to their health suffered as a result of the pollution of Matanza-Riachuelo River. The case reached the Supreme Court of Argentina and its landmark ruling generated one of the most important socio environmental cases in Latin America. The first step towards access to justice for all is for everyone to know and be able to use the law. But protection of the law remains out of reach for 4 billion people– more than half of the world.
The people of the Matanza-Riachuelo river basin in Argentina live in one of the most polluted places on earth. Many suffer from severe health problems associated with the polluted air, water and soil. The river has served as Buenos Aires’ dumping ground for the last two centuries, with residents and businesses - including tanneries, chemical plants and factories - using its waters to drain away their waste. 90,000 tons of heavy metals and other harmful substances are currently dumped into the river every year. This profoundly affects the more than five million people who live in the river basin, where many reside in squatter settlements lacking basic services such as clean water, sewage and safe housing. Dangerous levels of arsenic, chrome, mercury and lead are found in the river basin. Residents suffer from diarrhoea, respiratory problems, skin-diseases, cancer, allergies and anaemia and blood samples often show alarmingly high levels of lead.
For more than 1,500 families living in Villa Inflamable, industrial pollution affects every aspect of their lives. Their homes are precariously built on top of soil contaminated with toxic waste, and their water sources are contaminated too. Most of the residents of Villa Inflamable felt they had no power to change their horrendous living conditions, or halt the on-going polluting by industrial factories in the area.
In 2004, a group of health professionals and residents of Villa Inflamable filed a lawsuit in defence of their rights of living in a suitable habitat. They were supported by many different civil society organisations who helped the process gain momentum. By 2008, a landmark ruling was made: the government and city authorities were sentenced not only to clean the river basin, but to also prevent future environmental harm, remove industrial pollution, clean up landfills, clean riverbanks, expand clean water networks, construct working sewage sanitation systems, put together an emergency health plan and inform the public about the measures taken.
The Supreme Court acknowledging the right to a healthy environment, set an important precedent in environmental law and laid the foundations of so-called ‘environmental citizenship’. However, ten years after this judicial ruling, implementation remains a challenge.
The Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ) helped the people of Villa Inflamable to understand and use the law to achieve their rights. Currently, ACIJ continues to work with them, assisting with legal cases and training leaders in rights and advocacy. They advocate to the Supreme Court on behalf of Villa Inflamable, to ensure that the implementation process was inclusive, so that the people of Villa Inflamable’s future was not defined without their participation.
Ten years on, it is clear that more work is required to ensure that the legal decision is translated into sufficient action, to protect the rights of Villa Inflamable’s residents to safe living conditions, and the rights of all the people of Buenos Aires to a clean environment. ACIJ continues to work with the residents of Villa Inflamable towards this goal.