The city of Cordoba is located near the geographical center of Argentina. It is a city marked for its colonial architecture and a well-preserved Jesuit Block from the 1600s which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cordoba is also the country’s second largest industrial center and in recent decades has continued to grow in size. A twenty minute bus ride away from the bustling center, the poor suffer the consequences of a growing city. Relegated to the extreme east, inside the municipal border, the barrio of Chacras de la Merced is home to one of the cities eight waste treatment plants, shanty towns and government housing for the poor.
As the population of Cordoba has grown in recent years, the amount of waste taken in by the processing plant has continued to increase. The waste treatment plant works over its intended capacity and as a result cannot fully treat the waste that it accepts for processing. The excess waste contaminates the water sources in the area. To make matters worse, the southern border of the Chacras is enclosed by the polluted Rio Suquia. The city’s private water company, Aguas Cordobes, refuses to provide water to the people of the Chacras. Consequently, the residents of the neighborhood have had to use contaminated ponds as their water source.
For years, community activists have filed complaints to municipal agencies in order to improve the functioning of the waste treatment plant and the local water quality. Their complaints fell on deaf ears until Centro de Derechos Humanos y Ambiente (CEDHA), Spanish for the Center of Human Rights and Environment stepped in to litigate in 2003.
One of CEDHA’s institutional goals is to link the debate between environmental protection and the enforcement of human rights. For those who live in poverty, the nexus between environmental conditions and human rights is all too clear. The consequences of unsanitary living conditions are felt disproportionately by the poor. They live near polluted waterways and toxins. Then, they suffer poor health as result of these living conditions. Thus, the linking of these debates is natural for the marginalized in society. At the same time, judicial systems are generally hesitant to identify or define new obligations for the state that would result in the enforcement of environmental and human rights.
Fortunately, for the community of the Chacras, the Argentine legal system has an important tool, an action of amparo, to guarantee constitutional rights. It provides for a shorter litigation process when there is an overt violation of a constitutional right. Argentina is party to numerous international resolutions that seek to establish a right to a clean environment. These resolutions are incorporated into the Argentine constitution. In the Chacras community, the lack of clean water laid the foundation for the use of the amparo action. In order to assist the Chacras community in receiving potable water, CEDHA worked creatively to craft a right to water through existing legal jurisprudence. The CEDHA lawyers argued that without clean water, the community was deprived of the right to health, a clean environment and a dignified quality of life (these are enumerated in the Argentina constitution). In its amparo action, CEDHA linked the right to a clean environment and health to the right to water. Through their work in the Chacras case, CEDHA has developed provincial jurisprudence for a right to water. This sets the stage to push further litigation through the legal system and expand the ‘right to water’ to a national and international reality.
While CEDHA won its amparo action, the results in the community are indicative of the layers of bureaucracy and general inefficiencies of the cities municipal organizations. Through the work of CEDHA, the people of Chacras received water delivered by a municipal agency. However, after a recent change in the city’s governing political party, the agency charged with providing water ceased to provide water regularly due to a lack of funding. Furthermore, through the work of CEDHA the community was able to get a tap for underwater pond for in-home use. However, in order to avoid costly drilling, the pipe for accessing underground sources of water was not drilled deep enough. As a result, the water from the perforation drilled by the municipal agency has high levels of arsenic. While improvements are being made to the waste treatment plant, they are painstakingly slow. Social workers, community activists and CEDHA continue to assist the Chacras del Merced in their struggle with day-to-day functioning of municipal services.
SABRINA HASSANALI is a law student at the University of Maryland School of Law who is spending the spring semester 2008 working as an extern for the Center for Human Rights and the Environment (CEDHA) in Cordoba, Argentina.