Finally, some hope of a green court

THE new year started off on a depressing note; every other news alert I received went like this: 2011 – Worst year again for rhino poaching! Another Malaysia ivory seizure! Animal related diseases concern scientists! Endangered elephants suffer a bad year! Then, at last good news – our chief justice acknowledging in his speech at the opening of the legal year in mid-January that Malaysia is in need of a green court. This was certainly welcoming news particularly in light of the fact that the majority of environmental cases are not treated seriously by the judiciary and penalties imposed are minimal, and therefore fail to act as a deterrent. It is also great news to many of us who have been advocating for a green court over the past few years.

There are many advantages to having a green court including consistency in judgments, judges specialised in environmental matters, and prioritisation of environmental cases without the need to fight out whether they should be civil or criminal matters.

Many wrote in national dailies commending the chief justice’s statement and and the move as a good one to protect Malaysia’s dwindling natural resources due to rapid development and urbanisation. Unfortunately, a few said that although it is a good idea, we need to be cautious as prosecutors need more training in wildlife crime and the court’s success remained to be seen. Bah, humbug! And these comments from a couple of well-known environmental non-governmental organisations. Really guys, my main gripe is that these NGOs can’t even say something positive and encouraging, and maybe offer the judiciary some assistance. Maybe they were misquoted.

The establishment of a green court will take time and will not only address wildlife crime but also the pollution of our rivers and air, illegal logging and fishing, land clearing, etc. Its not only judges who have to go through environmental training but also the AG’s Office which must play its part in making prosecutors more aware of environmental issues. The green judges system in countries like the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia is still at the learning stage but improving all the time. There have been a number of landmark cases decided including the major clean-up of Manila Bay in the Philippines, and the Mandalawangi case in Indonesia in which the court found the Department of Forestry guilty of not applying prudence to the management of the country’s forests. These cases are important because they recognised and embraced the meaning of sustainable development – that we need to conserve the environment not just for the current generation but also the future.

A few years ago, William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, said this about current environmental issues: “Yesterday’s solutions worked well on yesterday’s problems, but the solutions devised back in the 1970s aren’t likely to make much of a dent in the environmental problems we face today.” This is so true of Malaysia, particularly as we were one of the very first countries in the region to have an Environmental Quality Act back in 1974. The green court is a vital step in ensuring our natural resources are utilised sustainably. The chief justice said his judges needed training and that a fair amount of work needs to be done to make the green court a reality. Everyone can play a role by being supportive and not dismiss it even before it is established.

Azrina Abdullah researches links between indigenous groups and wildlife trade. She was regional director of Traffic, an NGO which monitors the global wildlife trade. Comments: