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Leveraging on innovation to enhance environmental justice: Envirobot

Written by Richard Ncube, Rodrick Moyo and Josephine Chiname  (Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association)

Introduction

As the world drives towards the fourth industrial revolution, innovation, information and communication technologies (ICTs), have become indispensable to our daily lives. In that regard, it is becoming almost impossible for any service provider to achieve any meaningful results without embracing the technological wave. Strikingly, the provision of legal services has not been spared as technological innovation is challenging the way interaction with clients and acquiring legal advice is being administered globally. We now live in a global village where it has become necessary to utilize innovation and technology even in enhancing access to justice for the poor and marginalized communities who cannot afford interface services of a lawyer. Interestingly the government of Zimbabwe is already under tasked by its innovation “priority” programme dubbed: “Education 5.0” otherwise known as “Government of Zimbabwe Innovation, Science and Technology Development 2019-2030 Priority Programme”.Such a policy thrust, can only be realised through implementation of robust “innovation and ICT driven approach to all sectors of the country. This is the challenge facing various workplace environments in a bid to efficiently address issues affecting communities they are working with in this decade of fast approaching African Digitalization

New ideas to tackle current bottlenecks for citizen participation has become more than necessary and a top priority for funding partners. The Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association participated in the GIZ Innovation Challenge code named “Promoting and Enforcement of Human Rights and Good Governance”. Under this last decade of the developmentary goals where ‘Action’ expected from different individuals including governments, Civil Society Organizations, None Governmental Organizations, Community Based Organisations such challenges are imperative. As Zimbabweans innovation can allow us to leverage on our abundant natural and people resources by using them to our advantage in developing an inclusive economic system that benefits all Zimbabweans.

The problem

In the Zimbabwean situation mining has not brought fortune as expected but rather it has worsened the livelihood and damaged the environment. The negative impacts of mining activities in communities are far reaching and immense. In Zvishavane the community has been left to deal with water, dusty, air and noise pollution and land degradation. This has exposed the community to poverty, loss of lives, deaths of livestock and loss of property which frowns upon their rights provided for in the Constitution. Looking at the negative impacts of mining activities in Zimbabwe one wonders were the problem is and why communities would allow the mining companies continue unabated. ZELA, developed a chatbot embedded in WhatsApp named ENVIROBOT to increases access to environmental justice by mineral hosts communities in Zimbabwe. While chatbots have been of much use in the customer service sector (e.g Steward Bank’s Batsi), the extent to which they could be utilised in enhancing access to justice has not been explored. Zimbabwe’s abundant natural and mineral resources, which we boast of, can only change our economic situation drastically if we are innovative enough to make these resources work to our benefit.

Innovation and technology in the environmental justice sector.

The rationale behind the use of technology in seeking for environmental justice is  not only for moving with times but also bridging the gap of information access and deficit on environmental law and mining related. Timeously address the impacts of the negative impacts of mining on the environment requires real time access to legal information which will enable mineral host communities to assert their rights. In as much as the organization also regularly conducts mobile legal clinics in areas affected by mining, there was need to create a platform that allows the community members to report cases and talk to a lawyer. Further, the need to use technology was also borne out of the realization that the are considerable number of the communities that are affected by mining often report matters to lawyers or to relevant authorities late. There was therefore the need to come up with a platform that allows mineral host communities to access legal information in the comfort of their homes and tto be able to report cases as their happening.

The product

According to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), a body mandated to issue licences in the postal and telecommunications sector, Zimbabwe now has a mobile penetration of 97. Ironically, mining communities like Zvishavane, where big mining and business corporations are in operation, there is a high mobile internet connection. Furthermore, the number of those who use these mobile phones for social media especially WhatsApp which is considered affordable has been on the rise both for urban and rural areas. Popularity and familiarity of WhatsApp across all age groups promoted the embedment of the chabot on WhatsApp. The chatbot allows the community to get legal information in the comfort of their homes. It further allows the communities to speak to a lawyer and report cases happening in their communities. For most Zimbabwe information access is a priority least to mention in mining community with so much suspicions, even if they don’t act on information communities prefer to be on the light of events rather than living in total darkness. Dissemination of news updates happening in the mining sector is an effective tool in capacitating communities to participate in decision making. The Zvishavane community received the chatbot with open arms as the area has a massive chrome mining which has had negative effects on the environment.

The benefit of using technology to enhance justice

The benefit that comes with the use of technology and in this case ENVIROBOT is that the communities get legal information when they actually need it.  The affected communities do not have to wait for lawyers to come to their area and advise them on the law. The law should come to their doorsteps. This helps them resolve the challenges associated with mining before they escalate.  Further, most mining communities are located in the remote and rural areas as such they do not have access to legal information. That being the case, the chatbot comes in to bridge the information gap. Unlike people in urban areas who may be on a favourable financial position, most people in the rural areas cannot afford the services of a lawyer.

It has been accepted as a fundamental principle of human rights law that justice delayed is justice denied, ENVIROBOT thus seeks to ensure that communities hosting mining activities are not denied justice due to accessibility and economic challenges.

Conclusion

Innovation can change the face of environmental justice in Zimbabwe and bring about change in a relatively short period of time or in the most extraordinary difficult situation. The “Zimbabwe we want” can only be achieved if we think afresh and come up with innovative ideas, plans and models that disrupt the conventional ways of doing things

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