Is the process of environmental protection still moving ahead of its times in terms of democratic forms of expression, as was the case during the Latvian national awakening, or is it presently involved in a process of “putting out fires”? Latvia has begun to ratify the Aarhus Convention, which specifies that there is a need for ongoing dialogue between the state and its society when environmental issues are on the table.
The green road to democracy
If the public is aware of and play an active role in the decision making process in the area of environmental matters, this provides certain guarantees of success in environmental policy and in our ability to enjoy a healthy way of life. If the principles of the Aarhus Convention were really put on the political agenda in Latvia, and if they became a part of the everyday lives of Latvia’s citizens, this might well be an important step toward democratic and transparent decision making procedures which promote civic activity and public support for dealing with environmental problems.
Human rights, democracy and environmental protection - to what extent are these areas related? We know that they cannot be kept separate. This was demonstrated comparatively recently in Latvia. In the late 1980s there was a battle against the building of a metro in Riga and a hydroelectric station at Daugavpils. The Environmental Protection Club organized these campaigns, as well as an effort to close down a paper mill at Sloka. It proved itself not only as an influential force in dealing with environmental protection issues, but also as a mass political movement that could be accessed in the pursuit of Latvia’s independence.
We won independence, but what happened to democracy? Can we still say that the process of environmental protection is moving ahead of its times in terms of democratic expression? Is it not instead true that participation in environmental debates often reminds us of “putting out fires”. The “greens” protested against a car park in Kronvalda Park and at the Jacob’s Barracks complex, against the siting of a waste facility near Zilais Hill, against the building of a hydroelectric power plant on the Staicele River, against the construction of a new cellulose factory, against the installation of a Latvian Mobile Telephone tower on Mt. Gaizins, in favor of a moratorium on construction in Old Riga, etc. Would it not have been more effective if all of the people who were interested in the issue had been given an opportunity to take part in the drafting of the relevant decisions or documents? They could then have expressed their views, and those views could have been accepted or rejected.
Over the last few years, a number of democratic norms have been adopted in Latvia which speak of the rights of residents and the obligations of state and local government institutions. To what extent, though, can these opportunities be enjoyed in real life? There are various reasons why many of our rights often remain on paper. Sometimes the rights are described in such general terms that the application of those rights opens up unbelievably broad opportunities for interpretation among state and local government institutions and officials. The society for openness Delna proved this when doing its study on information accessibility. In many other cases we do not even know about our rights and abilities, and so we do not take advantage of them. In still other cases, state and local government officials do not know about their obligations.
The Aarhus Convention is a document which says that there must be active and regular cooperation and dialogue between government institutions and the widest reaches of society when it comes to environmental issues. Latvia signed the convention in 1998, and ratification has begun. Once Latvia has acceded to the convention, it will be another binding legal act which places specific demands on state and local government institutions in terms of ensuring that the public is informed and involved, and that views are heard and taken into account when environmental decisions are taken and when all relevant plans, programmes and norms are drawn up.
How could the Aarhus Convention help us to be active participants in decision making processes and to affect the results of these processes?
First of all, the convention puts several specific demands on participatory states when it comes to keeping the public informed - publishing information, informing people about their rights to obtain information about the environment, appointing coordinators for this process, determining places where people can receive information when they need it, etc. We hope that this will ensure that Latvia’s environmental institutions and local governments will very soon have responsible officials or structures where anyone will be able to receive a quick answer to his or her question instead of being shuttled around from office to office, as is frequently the case today.
Secondly, the convention speaks to the most important parts of public participation - informing people, providing enough time for debate, listening to various views, allowing people to submit proposals, taking their views into account, and keeping people informed about decisions that have already been taken. Latvia already has laws which specify some public participation procedures in the environmental field. There must be evaluations of environmental impact, there are territorial development plans, construction projects undergo public consideration, etc. If we look at these processes and at the Aarhus Convention, though, we find that very seldom are all of the demands of the convention really in place. This means that laws and regulations must be updated and amended so as to set out more precise procedures in ensuring that the demands of the Aarhus Convention are met. There must also be appropriate investments of finances, time and human resources in every one of the phases of public participation.
Third, the Aarhus Convention stresses the need to establish regular and coordinated cooperation with all of the public organizations that are interested in environmental issues. They are to be seen as partners, not opponents in the handling of environmental issues. There are many examples in Latvia of successful ways in which government institutions and public organizations work together, but these are mostly related to the initiative of individual specialists, not to policies that have been established and are supported by the state. There are many different forms of ongoing cooperation - consultations with representatives of public organizations, involvement of people in working groups and consultative councils, meetings, debate forums, publication of the working plans of institutions and local governments, joint discussions of planned activities, etc.
Democracy, to be sure, is not an inexpensive process. It requires knowledge and skills, finances, time and human resources. Still, we should all remember an idea that can be read between the lines in the Aarhus convention - government institutions exist to provide services to people, and people finance their operations. This means that information which they handle is public property. It has been obtained and must be used in the interests of the public, and decisions that are taken must also serve the public interest.
 The Aarhus Convention was approved by the United Nations European Economic Commission on 25 June 1998, and it speaks to public participation in the taking of decisions that are related to environmental matters. It also allows people to petition the courts about environmental issues. The convention has been in force since 30 October 2001.