Environmental community rights

Environmental community rights

You should have a genuine say in decisions that impact nature—and you.

Every Australian deserves the right to know about, participate in and challenge decisions made about nature—but this isn't happening.

You shouldn't wake up one morning and be served a plan that tells you the place you love is now under threat. You shouldn't be forced to fight a rearguard action to prevent your slice of nature being dug up or destroyed. You shouldn't have to protest to stop your culture being trashed, or air and water polluted.

Governments and corporations come and go. The environment and communities live with their decisions for generations.

Know your environmental rights

When communities have a genuine and meaningful say in decisions about the environment, there are better outcomes for people and nature.

The United Nations first recognised the need for people to have a genuine say in environmental decisions in 1992 as part of the Rio Declaration. Europe embedded these rights in 2001, but Australia has not done the same—despite being a signatory to the Rio Declaration.

Photo: Locals protest oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight | Bill Doyle

There are three basic universal rights all communities in Australia should have to ensure they have a meaningful say in environmental decision-making:

  1. The right to know—access the information authorities hold.

  2. The right to participate—have a genuine say in decision-making.

  3. The right to challenge—seek legal remedy if decisions are made illegally or not in the public interest.

These environmental community rights must function as a system, not as a series of disconnected rights. Each right interacts with and supports the function of the others.

Why do Australians need these rights?

It is vital that Australian communities have the right to protect and manage the environment through meaningful participation in decisions about it, because:

  • Decisions made with, and by, communities result in better outcomes for people and nature.
  • Australia’s current system of environmental decision-making is not working for communities or the environment.
  • Meaningful community participation is fundamental to effective, open and accountable government.
“For years the Wilderness Society has worked with communities that are overwhelmingly opposed to destructive projects, but those projects go ahead because corporations have a more powerful voice in our system." - Victoria Jack, Wilderness Society campaigner
Beautiful one day, logged the next

Beautiful one day, logged the next

One day’s notice. That’s all Neil, whose property borders a forest in Tasmania’s Huon valley, was given before heavy machinery moved in, the sound of chainsaws rang out and wildlife began to flee for their lives.

Community rights report: Who holds the power?

Our latest report, based on legal analysis from the Environmental Defender's Office, reveals the lack of environmental community rights currently provided by governments across the country.

Key findings

  • Australia’s current system of environmental decision-making is not working for the environment or communities
  • The inconsistent and patchy application of environmental community rights ensures decision-making is weighted in favour of corporations and vested interests
  • There is no national approach to environmental community rights. Each jurisdiction provides for the rights to different degrees, yet overall the extent to which they are upheld is weak to limited
  • Across the continent, there is inadequate transparency and accountability in environmental decision-making
  • Meaningful community participation is fundamental to transparent and accountable government
“People do not have a full range of rights in relation to environment and planning decisions anywhere in Australia.” — Rachel Walmsley, Environmental Defenders Office

How the people feel

What's yours is mined

What's yours is mined

Yvonne is a fourth-generation farmer in Queensland’s Southern Downs. When the state government granted a five-year mining exploration permit on her property earlier this year, she was the last to know. Now, she’s in a fight for her future.

What's wrong with our rights?

In July 2022, the United Nations General Assembly declared that everyone on the planet has the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. But Australia’s current failure to properly ensure a consistent and fair approach to community participation in environmental decision-making is leaving a legacy that is harming communities, driving a wildlife extinction crisis, and allowing the destruction and degradation of Australia’s globally iconic nature.

The absence of strong environmental community rights means that governments are able to make decisions that are harmful to the environment, contrary to pleas from the community. Instead of listening to the community, governments are influenced by corporations that profit from the destruction of the environment.

Decisions made by governments and corporations that affect the environment are often focused on a short-term goal or single project proposal, without considering the cumulative impacts of multiple proposals through time.

Strong environmental community rights will require governments to be transparent and accountable when making decisions about the environment, resulting in better outcomes for people and nature.

Rylstone rises against coal

Rylstone rises against coal

Locals in New South Wales have been forced to protest a new coal on the doorstep of Wollemi National Park

Recognising First Nations' rights

Photo: Mirning Senior Elder Uncle Bunna Lawrie and the local community oppose oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight

First Nations people have unique consent-based rights that should be recognised in Australian law and practice, as set out by the internationally recognised United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

UNDRIP established a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the First Nations peoples of the world—a declaration which Australia endorsed in 2009 but is yet to implement.

The destruction of Juukan Gorge sacred sites highlights the systematic failure to embed consent rights, as listed in the UNDRIP, in relevant Commonwealth and state laws and practice.

The UNDRIP principles need to be embedded in the laws and practices of all jurisdictions of Australian governments, corporations and organisations.

Traditional Custodians want a frack-free Kimberley

Traditional Custodians want a frack-free Kimberley

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains the images and words of a deceased person

How can we right this?

To ensure communities have genuine and meaningful input into decisions that affect them and the environment, the Wilderness Society is calling for governments across Australia to enshrine and activate community rights in environmental decision-making.

The three universal environmental community rights need to be consistently embedded and implemented in Australia’s laws and policies—at all levels of government—to ensure transparency, accountability and public participation are integrated in government and corporate decision-making about the environment.

If all communities across Australia are empowered with a nationally-consistent standard of strong environmental community rights and are able to have a genuine say in decision-making, we’ll see better outcomes for people and nature.