Rachel's Precaution Reporter #49, August 2, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In 2004, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico passed an exemplary law embodying the precautionary principle. Law 416 shows how precaution can go beyond narrow uses, such as municipal purchasing policies and control of pesticides, to embody a rich, well- rounded philosophy for conducting human affairs in a respectful manner.]

By Peter Montague

On Sept. 22, 2004, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico adopted the precautionary principle in Law 416, which is Section 4 of the Environmental Public Policy Act. The law requires all govermnental entities in Puerto Rico to use the precautionary principle in decision-making.

Law 416 originated with a young lawyer, Esteban Mujica-Cotto, who was then the head of Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board. Mr. Mujica-Cotto is now active with the Coalicion para el Desarrollo Sostenible, Inc. (Coalition for Sustainable Development).

From our web site, you can retrieve the full 87-page text of Law 416 in Spanish (10 megabytes PDF), or just the first 5 articles of the law in Spanish or English.

We asked Carolyn Raffensperger, a lawyer and the world's leading advocate for the precautionary principle, to give us her assessment of Puerto Rico's Law 416. Here is what she told us:

1) Law 416 is quite wonderful. It embodies a fully modern version of precaution, including reversing the burden of proof (this appears twice -- actual reversal and polluter pays), alternatives assessment, and democratic decision-making. It asserts a responsbility to future generations. Note that it blends the Wingspread Statement and Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration. It uses the democracy language and the other how-to steps from the Wingspread statement, combined with the Rio definition of precaution.

2) In spite of its anthropocentric language, it specifies the necessary science as a) interdisciplinary and b) ecological. This is refreshing, not to rely only on toxicology.

3) It includes the notion of restoration as well as preventing harm and eliminating harm. These are three strong concepts. It's not just preventing but also eliminating the harms we already have and restoring the environment.

4) It identifies multiple sources of harm, including human population and technological advances, not merely toxic chemicals. The implication is that population and advanced technologies both have the potential to disrupt the harmony between humans and the environment. So perhaps Puerto Rico and Europe are going to be the leading jurisdictions paying attention to new developments such as nanotechnology!

5) It recognizes the right to enjoy (and to some extent the obligation to maintain) a healthy environment.

6) It specifies cultural and aesthetic values -- not just the scientifically established toxicological values (e.g. it goes way beyond "let's not poison people"). This means that people can be clear about what they love. This enlivens the democracy clause.

7) The progress desired under the goals is SOCIAL progress. The economic driver is employment -- not just making corporations rich.

8) It requires the long view, as well as the short term perspective. This reinforces the obligation to future generations.

9) It situates Puerto Rico within the larger world. The language "to maximize international cooperation by anticipating and avoiding the deterioration of the quality of the worldwide environment" is wonderful. Can you imagine all 50 states adopting that language and then acting on policies to mazimize international cooperation to anticipate and avoid deterioration?

10) And it drills down to the smaller political entities -- municipalities, institutions and individuals -- embedding precaution in the smallest units of action.

Like California's Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA), the city and county of San Francisco, and other early adopters of the precautionary principle, Puerto Rico must now fully implement the principle -- and that's the hard part.

If Puerto Rico takes this law seriously, it will become a world leader in environmental protection. We are eagerly watching their next steps. All together, Puerto Rico has written and adopted an exemplary set of far-reaching principles embodied in the precautionary approach, Raffensperger said.