Our Environment and Land Court has set pace for Africa

In adjudicating disputes, the ELC has benefited from Kenya's robust legal framework that supports its adjudicatory mandate. [iStockphoto]

Climate change is one of the most pressing global challenges of the 21st century, posing threats to ecosystems, human livelihoods, and socio-economic development.

Across Africa, nations are grappling with the impacts of climate change, from rising temperatures to unpredictable weather patterns and water scarcity. These challenges call for robust legal and institutional frameworks to mitigate, adapt and build resilience. One pioneering institution in this regard is the Environment and Land Court of Kenya (ELC), which serves as a model for climate adjudication in Africa.

Established under the 2010 Constitution and operationalised by the Environment and Land Court Act of 2011, the ELC is a specialised court with jurisdiction over disputes relating to environment and land, including those arising from climate change. It is the first specialised court in Africa focused on environmental matters. ELC judges possess expertise and focus on environmental law, allowing for a deeper understanding of complex climate change issues and ensuring justice is served.

In adjudicating disputes, the ELC has benefited from Kenya's robust legal framework that supports its adjudicatory mandate. The Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) of 1999, the Land Act of 2012, and the Climate Change Act of 2016 provide foundation for ELC's decision-making processes in climate related disputes. These laws create a comprehensive and progressive legal framework for environmental protection, land management and climate change mitigation and adaptation. The ELC's ability to apply these laws in its judgments has set a benchmark for other African countries in developing and implementing similar legal frameworks.

The ELC has been proactive in recognising the nexus between climate change and human rights. In several landmark cases including the Dandora Dumpsite, and Friends of Lake Turkana Trust cases, the court has acknowledged that environmental degradation and climate change threaten the rights of Kenyans to a clean and healthy environment, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

This recognition has enabled ELC to consider climate change impacts on a wide range of human rights, from the right to life and health to the rights of marginalised and vulnerable communities. The court has encouraged public participation in environmental impact assessments and climate change policy development, fostering a more inclusive and democratic approach to environmental governance in cases such as the Uhuru Park and Central Park renovation, Owino-Uhuru village, and Dumping of Asbestos in Maluma (Kitui County) cases.

To enhance adjudication of environment matters, Chief Justice Martha Koome has, upon request from the Presiding Judge of the ELC Justice Oscar Angote established separate divisions to deal with environment and land matters from June this year.

Filing of environment degradation cases as part of battling climate change effects will give the Judiciary an opportunity to make orders and directives that will promote a clean and safe environment.

As climate change impacts the continent, the ELC's jurisprudential leadership in climate adjudication should serve as an inspiration and model for African countries.

-The writer is a legal advisor in the Office of the Chief Justice