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Mendoza Beatriz Silva et al vs. State of Argentina et al on damages (damages resulting from environmental pollution of Matanza/Riachuelo river). File M. 1569. XL

Country: 
Thematic Focus: 
Forum and Date of Decision: 
Supreme Court of Argentina
2008-07-08
ESCR-JUST@yahoogroups.com
Nature of the Case: 

Residents of the Matanza/Riachuelo area filed a suit arguing they had suffered damages due to the pollution of the Matanza/Riachuelo river; Environmental Rights; (right to) health; (right to) water and sanitation; (right to) adequate housing; (right to) quality of life; (right to) safe environment.

Summary: 

In July 2004, a group of residents of the Matanza/Riachuelo basin filed a suit before the Supreme Court of Argentina against the national government, the Province of Buenos Aires, the City of Buenos Aires and 44 companies seeking compensation for damages resulting from pollution of the basin, stoppage of contaminating activities, and a remedy for collective environmental damage. In July 2008, the Court issued a decision in which it required the national government, the Province of Buenos Aires and the City of Buenos Aires to take measures to improve the residents' quality of life, remedy the environmental damage and prevent future damage. The Court established an action plan requiring the government agency responsible for the Matanza/Riachuelo basin, ACUMAR[1], to fulfill specific measures, including: a) producing and disseminating public information; b) controlling industrial pollution; c) cleaning up waste dumps; d) expanding water supply, sewer and drainage works; e) developing an emergency sanitation plan; f) adopting an international measurement system to assess compliance with the plans goals. In order to ensure adequate enforcement, the Court delegated the enforcement process to a federal court, Juzgado Federal de Primera Instancia de Quilmes, to monitor enforcement of the decision. Furthermore, the Court created a working group formed by the national Ombudsman and the NGOs[2] that had been involved in the case as non-litigant parties, seeking to strengthen and enable citizen participation in monitoring enforcement of the decision.

In its decision, the Court did not expressly adopt a human rights perspective. However, the Court stated that the action plan's objective should be improving the residents' quality of life, and required specific sanitation programs to be adopted to meet the needs of the basin's population. The wording of the decision leaves open the possibility of promoting the human rights issue in the execution stage.  Furthermore, the NGOs, in their submissions as third parties to the case, held that in this case several economic, social and cultural rights are directly affected. The main affected right is the right to health, which covers basic health factors, including but not limited to access to clean and drinking water, and to adequate sanitation conditions, and a healthy environment.

Keywords: Mendoza Beatriz Silva et al vs. State of Argentina et al on damages (damages resulting from environmental pollution of Matanza/Riachuelo river). File M. 1569. XL, Right to Life, Property


[1] This multijurisdictional agency, including authorities of the National Executive Power, the Province of Buenos Aires and the City of Buenos Aires, is in charge of executing a comprehensive environmental remedy plan covering the whole basin (Plan Integral de Saneamiento Ambiental de la Cuenca Matanza Riachuelo). For more information, see http://www.acumar.gov.ar/causamendoza/?tipo=fallo

[2] Asociación Ciudadana por los Derechos Humanos, Asociación de Vecinos de la Boca, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Fundación Greenpeace Argentina.

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

The Court ordered the government authorities found responsible to fulfill the objectives and schedules given in the decision. Throughout enforcement of the decision, the court in charge has sought ways to single out concrete actions and expand the said objectives, and ACUMAR, through the Plan de Saneamiento Integral submitted in February 2010, has expanded the objectives even more.  In spite of such efforts, throughout this process the enforcement court has requested the Ombudsman to issue an opinion on the adequacy, quality and sufficiency of the measures established by ACUMAR. In the months following the sentence, the working group has stated that, although ACUMAR made efforts in 2010 to work towards fulfilling the terms of the decision, it has not yet wholly met any of the obligations set forth in the decision and in the plan established by ACUMAR. Therefore, there have been several requests for fines against responsible officials. The process has also included the establishment of indicators (http://www.acumar.gov.ar/pagina/204/indicadores-informes, 2011 and 2012), hearings, timetables, and the responsability of specific governmental authorities, in order for the enforcement court to define terms missing in the decision and to understand the stage of progress of certain individual measures.

Beyond enforcement, this decision changed the way politics are done in the basin by establishing that the authority in charge of executing the clean-up plan be ACUMAR, an inter-jurisdictional agency, whose function is to correct the issues of poor coordination among agencies and applicable regulations, and to improve the oversight of polluting activities. Furthermore, the decision opened spaces for civil society participation in policy making and monitoring processes. The working group is involved on a permanent basis in monitoring Supreme Court orders, replying to court requests and organizing meetings with grassroots organizations to promote and expand citizen awareness, and to channel the concerns of the basin's residents.

Significance of the Case: 

This case showed the importance of expanding the drinking water and sewage network, of an emergency sanitation plan and relocation plans for residents of contaminated areas. Although the Court did not review the issues of water, sewage sanitation, health and housing with the specificity required by international human rights treaties, the Court did refer to these key issues, setting as a main objective the improvement of quality of life and the needs of the population in general. Furthermore, the Court acknowledged the existence of an abuse of a collective environmental right requiring actions by the authorities. The Court also created a system of enforcement monitoring, and recognized and tried to address the difficulties often preventing effective enforcement of obligations imposed on public agencies, ordering coordinated interjurisdictional compliance and setting up an alternative, creative model of court intervention.

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Groups involved in the case: 

Asociación Ciudadana por los Derechos Humanos, Asociación de Vecinos de la Boca, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Fundación Greenpeace Argentina, and Asociacion Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ).