Speech by Sophie Prize winner Romina Picolotti

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 15, 2006

(Translated from Spanish)

 Exactly three months ago, in the midst of the southern summer, I was writing when the telephone rang. On the other end of the phone line, an unfamiliar female voice, announced to me from this beautiful city of Oslo, that I had been chosen to receive the Sophie Prize.

I was truly amazed, my legs trembled. I could not believe what this foreign voice was announcing. Even today, I am still not fully convinced, that I have been chosen to receive this honor. Later would come the official announcement, and the international and national media, confirming indeed, that I had received this prestigious prize.

My disbelief gave way to the awe of having been chosen amongst such qualified candidates. The Sophie Prize came abruptly, and with spiraling vertigo.

Today I am before you, again, legs trembling, feeling the same emotion I felt at the moment of that initial announcement three months ago.

I take a moment to make an unavoidable allusion to Sophie’s World, the philosophical novel that gave birth to the Sophie Prize.

This wonderful philosophical by Jostein Gaarder, the generous author and ideologue of this award, accompanied me during one of my most intense and most fondly memorable eras of my life. In 1995, my father indulged me with a Spanish translation of Sophie’s World, just before I left for Cambodia, where I contributed for nearly two years, to the reconstruction of Cambodia’s judicial system.

Sophia, the main character of this novel, represents the existential worries that trouble humankind. She incessantly searches for responses to these worries. This search, which I undoubtedly share, is the reason you and I are together, here today.

I would like to take this unique opportunity to convey to you, in synthesis, my thoughts as they relate to my struggle, a struggle to promote environmental protection from a perspective of human rights.

Every struggle, every action, is preceded by an idea, which in turn, gives birth to the action. The idea motivates the action. Without this idea, no struggle, no action, would ever be conceived.

I am referring to what I call, “actions from thought”.

With regards to the specific action that I am addressing, that is, the defense of the environment, from a human rights perspective, in my most difficult moments, when one doubts one’s own strengths, I have reflected, with my heart in my hand, striving to understand what idea inspires my actions?

I have reached the conclusion, whose synthesis I will present here today, for the very first time, which consists of the following:

Generally, when we refer to our Planet Earth, we say that it is “our” planet, that it “belongs” to us, and as such, that we have rights over our Planet.

Yet, when we make reference to other species that live on our planet, we generally say that these species “belong to the Earth”. It wouldn’t occur to anyone to claim that the sea belongs to the fish, or that that the jungle belongs to the lion. On the contrary, we always affirm, that the fish belongs to the ocean, the lion to the jungle, the polar bear to the Artic, never the Artic to the bear.

Why then, when we refer to human beings, do we affirm that the Earth belongs to Man and not the inverse? Why do “we”, not belong to the Earth?

While this may seem to be merely a simple play on words, it has very profound and important implications, and in a legal sense, implications which are diametrically opposed. If the Planet belongs to us, we have rights over the Planet, however, if we belong to the Planet, what we have, are obligations to it. Here lies the importance of the concepts we are considering, and the judicial implications of these opposing views are indeed of great significance.

If “we” belong to the Planet, our only right or obligation to it, is our right to inhabit it, just as other species inhabit the Planet. We must inhabit our Planet, with the consequent and inevitable obligation to preserve its habitat.

If we consider this argument in the Animal Kingdom, we can categorically observe that animals, which we assume to be a less intelligent species, utilize their habitat, which the Planet generously provides, respecting and preserving their environment, certainly, without causing it any harm.

It is difficult to imagine that any living being, aside from human beings of course, could or would want to damage its natural habitat. Imagine the un-imaginable, a fish contaminating the ocean, or a condor destroying mountains.

Only humans are capable of such contradiction.

This is due, I believe, to this erroneous perception of the concept of pertinence, that we as a society, have developed respective to our Planet Earth.

Humans, we cannot longer be conceived independently from the environment.  Ourselves and the environment are part of a greater whole. For this reason, the defense of human beings, of human dignity, of human rights, inevitably implies the defense of the Earth. And the defense of the Earth, is in fact, in turn, the defense of human beings.

If we continue to destroy the vital resources which our Earth provides; if we fail to recognize our pertinence to the Earth, we can only anticipate a social dicord.

We must seize and incorporate in our way of thinking and acting, that human life depends on nature and not, on the power of human thought. Belief and acts to the contrary, can only lead society on an irresponsible path, to infinite contradictions.

We have constructed our societies on systems that foster massive squandering of natural and material resources. We spend millions of dollars to satisfy human vanity, yet dangerously fail to introduce reforms, within our reach, that could make our societies more sustainable, and our consumption and production patterns, less harmful to our Planet, and to its inhabitants.

In just a few decades, in our extreme zeal to consume and attain superfluous comfort, we have contaminated and continue to contaminate our Planet at an alarming and accelerating pace, and in so doing, we are placing our own existence in danger.

These social systems which are built upon extreme consumption, can only sustain themselves, through the irrational exploitation of natural resources, offered principally, and evermore so, by countries of the developing world.

In a world such as this one that I am describing, a world in which we now live, an inherent paradox is inevitable. The abyss that separates those which access, from those which do not access the benefits of this exploitation, would seem to suggest that Humanity is composed of more than one species.

While billions of persons, barred from accessing precious natural resources, amongst which they live, are dying of hunger and thirst, and faced with a disproportionate burden of environmental contamination, many other millions are dying of spiritual hunger, thirsty of authentic culture, and contaminated by their superfluous consumption. As such, Humanity, is torn between its anxiety and its misery.

What can we do before this tragic circumstance? There is no doubt in my mind, that we must not remain idle. There is too much to lose.

To “the irrationality of collective suicide”, we must respond with “the rational will to survive”.

Yet, such a large challenge requires collective action, solidarity, and coordination. We must elevate ourselves above our selfish interests. The situation is urgent, and we must act now!

To begin with, we must understand that we cannot replace nature, that technology is not an answer, nor a solution, but only a tool, that can help us to choose a path, and that the happiness and the success that captivates our hearts, does not depend on “how much one has” but rather, “what one is capable of contributing to Humanity”.

We will be “successful” as a society, to the extent that we leave to our children a better world to live in, socially more just, and environmentally more habitable. We will be happy if our grandchildren can swim without fear of contamination in the same rivers and lakes in which we have swam as children.

Such action, necessary by the individual, the State, and by commercial enterprise, cannot occur in the margins of the law, simply, because the law is the medium, which we have chosen to govern the way we relate to ourselves, and by which we live in community. At the height of the normative pyramid, we find Human Rights. Human Rights must guide our action. We must interpret and claim our Human Rights and protect the rights of others, in conjunction with our environment.

The right to health, for example, is not merely reduced to the right to access medication, or to have access to medical treatment, but rather, it implies our right to live in a healthy environment, with access to safe drinking water, with access to proper sanitation systems. The right to food, is not to be reduced to providing a plate of food to a hungry peasant, but rather, it implies the guarantee for that peasant to access land and to be able to use this land, in a sustainable way.

We must always remember that Man belongs to the Earth, and not the Earth to Man.

The protection of the environment, from a Human Rights perspective, presupposes limits. This means that individuals, companies, and States, have limits on their actions, and cannot base their actions solely on self interested economic reasons. All actors, public or private, are legally bound by, and must respect, the full spectrum of Human Rights. Public policies, and corporate conduct, in this context, must be founded on equity. Public and private actors must propend to the dignity of persons, to the respect for diverse cultures, and to the protection of the environment. Public and private actions and policies, must integrate all of these elements.

Development is not development if it does not reduce poverty, and if it does not procure the present and future protection of natural and cultural resources. For this, it is the inexcusable obligation, of the State and of the Private Sector, to include in all development processes, a Human Rights framework, recognizing that individuals need work and economic opportunities, but not, at the expense of the air they breathe, the biodiversity they enjoy, or the culture that they value.

Human Rights and Environment, in the poorer sectors of society, has to do with such essential human necessities as having access to land, to agricultural water supply, and to environmental services like safe drinking water, sewage systems, and waste collection. To each of these basic necessities, there is a corresponding human right: the human right to food, the right to health, the right to identity, the right to a decent standard of living, and so on.

At the Center for Human Rights and Environment, the non-profit organization of which I am founder, we work daily to revert situations of socio-environmental inequity, to promote the visibility of victims of human rights violations, caused by environmental degradation, to insist on the respect of human rights of children facing environmental harm, to foster public policies that equally distribute the burden of environmental degradation and ensure equal access, to environmental public services.

Environmental degradation has very identifiable consequences. One of these, is the violation of the human rights of its victims. We have grown accustomed to live with environmental crisis, as if it were an inevitable by-product of progress. This erroneous view, has not only eliminated all critical thinking about our present models of development, and about public and private behavior relative to this view, but it has resulted in almost absolute impunity, for the biggest contaminators, contaminators that are responsible for human rights violations.

Environmental crisis have irrupted in our present lives, provoking grave consequences and a complete transformation of the social fabric. Human rights violations, caused by environmental degradation are severe and collective, displacing persons and entire communities, increasing poverty, eroding culture and language, heightening food insecurity, obstructing access to safe drinking water, and bringing new violent socio-political and economic conflict. These are only a few examples of the grave consequences of environmental degradation.

For this reason, to address “environmental issues” cannot be limited to a single State Ministry or Agency. On the contrary, to properly address the environment and its problems, we must look at various aspects of public policies and corporate behavior. The environment is absolutely inseparable, from the social and economic sectors.

What can we do to address this emergency?

As individuals, we must reduce our wasteful consumption patterns to a minimum, we must replace leisurely consumption, with education and debate amongst ourselves about the problems that are facing us. We must invest only in companies and consume the products of companies, showing respect for the environment and for its inhabitants.

Companies must be aware of, measure, and progressively strive, to reduce their social and environmental impacts, always acting in conformity with national and international obligations, to human rights, to environmental law, and to ever-growing industry standards of corporate social responsibility. Companies must avoid operating with double standards, and always seek to protect and comply, with the highest and universal standards of social and environmental norms.

States must ensure that their environmental policy possesses a distinct social content. Environmental Ministries and Agencies cannot be conceived and function divorced from Social, Health, Economic, Development, or Foreign Ministries. Public environmental agencies must possess specific sections devoted to Environmental Health addressing the health problems that stem from environmental contamination.

States must focus on Corporate Activity and its relation to the Environment, monitoring Corporate Behavior. The State must provide economic and financial incentives to promote cleaner production, as well as the re-conversion of obsolete contaminating technology. It is fundamental that the State guarantee corporate respect for the environment, human rights of workers, and of impacted communities. This sometimes means that States must make difficult decisions to limit corporate activity, if it does not comply with the law.

States must also ensure that their Social Ministries, in collaboration with their Environmental Agencies, attend to the environmental needs of the most vulnerable groups and sectors of society. This responsibility must also be coordinated with other ministries that are responsible for activities that degrade the environment, affect natural resources and impact local communities.

Individual attitudes, public policies and programs, and corporate behavior, are merely the reflection of a collective will and ideology. Through these collective and separate actions, as a society, we administer our resources, we set our priorities, and determine our destiny.

In a human rights context and framework, the State, corporations, and individuals have the obligation to act in respect of nature and its inhabitants. These are not conceded rights to the individual, but a judicial obligation.

In the event such obligations are ignored, affected persons and communities must have the possibility of access to a judge that can guarantee the compliance of these obligations. Without such access to justice, to guarantee human rights compliance, in the face of environmental degradation, all of our efforts are lost.

Well, let´s then work now together to eliminate poverty and towards sustainable development.! I am convinced we can do it!

I would like to thank the founders of the Sophie Prize and of the Sophie Foundation, Jostein Gaarder and his wife, the jury who favored this simple women, in a far away land, Argentina, my gentle country. I would like to thank Norway and its people, that have warmly and affectionately received me and my family. I would like to thank my husband, my children, my brother and my parents who are with me here today, and to whom I am profoundly thankful, for their permanent support. Special thanks is due to the many many energetic souls who have come through CEDHA, the organization to which I belong, my dream, sharing their constructive energy and social commitment to advancing human rights and environmental protection. Surely this prize is for all of us.

I would also like to especially thank Durwood Zaelke, that not only nominated me to receive this award, but who has been an inspiration, a life model to follow, and who has always, at the most critical moments of this adventure, unselfishly offered his assistance and guidance.

To all of these very special people, and also to my grandmother,

Thank You.