Reaffirming the legitimate protection of the right to a healthy environment | Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) Skip to content Skip to navigation
24 February 2022

In December 2016, two women from Veracruz decided to defend the Veracruz Reef System in court. They sought to protect the largest coral ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico from the expansion of the port of Veracruz, which would cause serious and irreversible impacts on the reef’s biodiversity and, by extension, the local population. 

Residents of the Veracruz metropolitan area, represented by the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA), filed an injunction against the project because its environmental permit resulted from a fragmented impact assessment that did not consider the full range of risks to the reefs.

AIDA supported our partners at CEMDA by filing an amicus brief with detailed information on the important services the reefs provide: sequestering carbon, generating oxygen, producing food, and protecting coastal areas from storms and hurricanes, among others.

In April 2017, the court that heard the case rejected the injunction and, with it, the request to suspend work on the port expansion. The court argued that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the project had "a real and relevant impact" on their rights and that they lacked a "legitimate interest" in the case.

Legitimate interest—also known as legal standing—refers to a person’s capacity to claim damages before a court of law, in any scope. In a traffic accident, for example, only you have the legitimate interest to claim the damages your vehicle may have suffered, which must be individual and quantifiable.

However, in matters of environmental damage, the situation is more complex. The degradation of an ecosystem affects more than one person and even transcends generations. 

The residents of Veracruz appealed the judicial setback and their case arrived before Mexico’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation.

Given the lower court’s limitations in recognizing in its ruling the right of all people to equal access to justice in environmental matters, AIDA and Earthjustice filed a second legal brief before the Supreme Court, requesting an expansion of the requirements for legitimate interest.

We provided legal and technical evidence regarding the human right to a healthy environment and access to justice, enshrined in international law. These rights mean that the Mexican government must ensure that anyone whose fundamental rights are threatened by environmental degradation has the possibility of achieving justice, regardless of whether their connection to the threatened ecosystem is indirect or remote.

The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide also contributed a brief that analyzes court decisions from various jurisdictions recognizing the right of any person, civil society organization, or local resident to file lawsuits against projects and decisions that may negatively affect the environment.

Finally, on February 9, 2022, more than five years after the original lawsuit was filed, the residents of Veracruz won an important victory for the area’s reefs.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court found that government authorities violated the right to a healthy environment of the people of Veracruz by authorizing the port’s expansion. Since it was unopposed, the ruling creates a binding precedent for all courts of the nation.

The Veracruz decision is a landmark ruling, valuable for not just Mexico but for the entire region because it:

  • Ratifies that proximity to a project does not define who the affected people are or who can claim protection of their right to a healthy environment before the courts.
  • Reaffirms that it is not necessary to prove quantifiable and individualized damage in order to have access to environmental justice; it is sufficient to demonstrate that a project or activity, by degrading an ecosystem, damages or threatens to cause damage (economic, social, cultural, health, etc.) to a community.
  • Recognizes an expanded legitimate interest, as well as the collective nature of the right to a healthy environment and public participation in environmental assessment processes.
  • Sets a precedent with the capacity to transform the way in which environmental impact assessments are carried out in Mexico, incorporating the principles of prevention and precaution.
  • Points to Mexico's international obligations, including those acquired under the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement).

As an organization and individuals, we are celebrating this important step toward strengthening the defense of the right to a healthy environment in the region.

We are proud to have contributed to this achievement, and hopeful that the implementation of the ruling will be carried out according to the highest standards.


About the Author

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Magie Rodríguez

Magie Rodriguez is Costa Rican and AIDA's attorney with the Ecosystems Program, working from San Jose. She has a degree in Law, with a focus on environmental law, from the University of Costa Rica. There she assisted with research on environmental law and agronomy, and developed various extracurricular activities related to marine biology. Through AIDA she contributes to the conservation of the marine and coastal environment of Latin America, especially in the conservation of key ecosystems such as coral reefs. 

Latin America

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