Speech by Judy Chalmers during the debate on the National Environment Laws Amendment Bill

22 September 2008

Madam Speaker, Honourable Minister, Members of this House

The Bill in front of us today, the National Environmental Laws Amendment Bill, is a crtitically important piece of legislation with far-fetched consequences to this country. It represents a major and positive step in the challenge to protect our environment for the benefit of present and future generations of South Africans - a requirement set out with absolute clarity in Section 24 of our Constitution.

Madam Speaker, it is an acknowledged fact that our human species has a long and unfortunate history, indeed, going back to our very beginnings, of using the resources of this our amazing and beautiful planet in a careless, wasteful and often abusive fashion. It has been said that our relative indifference to our impact on the environment springs from somewhere deep within human nature, that this short sighted view of the future is a hard-wired part of our Paleolithic heritage.

So what do we do about increasing our ability to protect and preserve our environment? Madam Speaker, South Africa has some of the finest environmental legislation in the world, most of is having been promulgated since 1994. However, a major problem has existed with regard to making offenders who transgress these laws take them seriously. And that's another unfortunate characteristic of our human species. It is, unfortunately, an absolute fact, that if we think we can get away with committing a wrongdoing, we carry on doing it, especially if we profit by said offence. And that is why the Bill in front of us today is so important.

It is important because now, for the first time, it is really going to cost those who degrade and abuse the environment very dear. No longer will the big companies and corporations, who are also usually the big polluters, be able to ignore the effect they are having on air quality; no longer will they - or anyone else - be able to dump their hazardous waste wherever they please causing significant damage to soil and water supplies and putting the health of communities as risk. If they continue to commit these offences, and they are caught - and certainly, we do have to tighten up our ability to police and catch offenders - they will now have to pay massive fines or serve substantial times in prison.

Madam Speaker, the old Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act of 1965 set out that a first conviction of an offence would incur a fine not exceeding R500.00. Now R500.00 would not even be the equivalent of tea money in a large company and certainly would be no deterrent to dumping hazardous waste. Now, a first offence will cost the offender, on conviction, the amount of R2m or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 5 years. In the case of a second or subsequent conviction the offender would be liable for a fine not exceeding R5m or imprisonment not exceeding 10 years. Certainly enough of a deterrent to focus the mind - and the minds of Directors of Companies - on environmetally friendly alternatives to their current modus operandi.

In addition, the Bill proposes a standardisation of penalties across various types of environmental crimes taking into acount the financial gains generated by illegal activities, the financial cost of the damage to the environment and the cost of investigation and prosecution of the alleged offence.

In the past it has hardly been worth while for the Government to spend substantial amounts of time, energy and money prosecuting offenders when a successful prosecution would yield such a small reward. Indeed theoffender, whether abalone smuggler, hazardous waste dumper or air polluter would smugly pay the small fine and go on his or her wicked way. Madam Speaker, this will no longer be the case.

A second critically important aspect of this Bill and - given the limited time at my disposal - I cannot cover all amendments contained in it, is the increased jurisdiction power it gives to the lower courts. Access to justice is another fundamental principle contained in our Constitution and in NEMA and this can only be achieved if courts are sufficiently accessible to the public. Accordingly, in this Bill, it is proposed that this objective will be better served by providing for magistrates courts to hear appropriate environmental cases, notwithstading their normal jurisdictional limitations. And, in order to increase capacity and knowledge in the lower courts, DEAT has, in collaboration with Justice College, been offering awareness-raising workshops for magistrates in environmental crimes.

Madam Speaker, this Bill is an exciting addition to the impressive suite of Environmental Laws now operating in South Africa. It is now up to us to implement them in order to find a way to esure the intergrity of this beautiful planet and the magnificent life it harbours.

I thank you!