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In 1994, I had the pleasure of traveling to Africa for ELAW for the first time. ELAW was looking for lawyers working to protect people’s right to live in a healthy environment. We wanted to learn how we could support their efforts and help them connect with their colleagues around the world. During that trip, I met inspiring young lawyers in Kenya and Tanzania who, like me, had recently graduated from law school and were passionate about protecting communities and the environment.
Nearly 20 years later, I returned to work with those pioneering lawyers, now the experienced generation, to connect with the next generation of advocates representing the public interest through law. In the face of massive investments by extractive industries in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, these advocates are needed now more than ever.
Communities in Turkana County are among the most marginalized in Kenya. Hydropower projects in the Lake Turkana watershed have displaced communities and threatened the region’s already limited water supplies. Now, multinational corporations are beginning to pursue oil in this remote region, threatening to displace more communities and pollute water supplies. Communities in Kitui County, Kenya are facing eviction from their lands so companies can extract coal. As demand for resources grows and the price for resources increase, the pressure to extract resources intensifies, and stories like these become more common.
That’s why ELAW is working with partners in these three East African countries to support lawyers working to help communities understand their rights and defend and protect those rights.
Just over a week ago, ELAW and partners at the Institute for Law and Environmental Governance (ILEG) in Kenya, the Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team (LEAT) in Tanzania, and Greenwatch in Uganda hosted a workshop to help lawyers in the region meet the challenge of protecting communities impacted by natural resource extraction. We hoped 20 lawyers would attend the meeting. We were thrilled when 50 lawyers asked to join us: Through this work we are building a global corps of grassroots advocates who will protect communities and the environment for years to come.
ELAW thanks the Ford Foundation for making it possible for us to reconnect with partners in the region and reach out to new lawyers.
Just over a week ago, ELAW partner Audrey Matura and her colleagues at Oceana won an important preliminary decision from a Belizean judge in their challenge of six contracts to explore for oil offshore. The judge threw out the government’s attempt to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds. The judge has one more preliminary issue to consider before the case can finally be heard on the merits. This is a fantastic step forward for protecting Belize’s critical coastal ecosystems and the people dependent on them.
Earlier this summer, Audrey Matura and her colleagues had another legal victory that paves the way to protecting Belizeans and the Mesoamerican Reef from damage caused by oil exploration and extraction. In June, a Belizean judge granted Oceana permission to proceed with its case against the government for improperly throwing out signatures on a petition to ask Belizeans to vote on whether to ban offshore oil exploration. Audrey and Oceana, joined by a coalition of environmental organizations, go back to court on September 25, 2012 for a full hearing.
ELAW is supporting Audrey’s efforts and we congratulate her and her colleagues for the success so far on these ground-breaking cases!
“Fracking” made the short list for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011 for the U.S. It joined “Tiger mother,” “Arab spring,” and “The 99 percent” (though it lost top honors to “Squeezed middle”).
The dictionary entry notes that fracking is “the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas. [Shortened < hydraulic fracturing.]” However, some may prefer the explanation provided in the popular video “My Water’s on Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song),” which was produced by NYU journalism students in collaboration with ProPublica.
On a more serious note, fracking poses a substantial risk to drinking water supplies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a draft report in early December that linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination in the drinking wells of families living in the small town of Pavilion, Wyoming. Samples from the EPA’s own monitoring wells detected synthetic chemicals that are used during the fracking process in the underground water aquifer.
Hydraulic fracturing is not confined to the U.S. ELAW partners in countries like Ukraine, South Africa, and Australia are monitoring new proposals that involve fracking to extract natural gas from underground rock formations. Sharing information from the U.S. will help leaders in other regions take appropriate measures to protect precious drinking water supplies. Good news emerged from Bulgaria just this week, where lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to ban fracking, effectively halting a plan by Chevron to use the process to drill for natural gas in that country.
I recently traveled to Belize to help a local lawyer who is working to develop a set of recommendations to strengthen the country’s petroleum laws. During the 20-minute ride into Belize City, the taxi driver told me all about Belize’s morning talk shows on Love TV and Krem TV, two of Belize’s cable stations. He urged me to watch the next morning, saying that viewers phone in to air their opinions on all kinds of issues. “Interesting,” I thought, but I didn’t really plan to watch. In my mind, I imagined a Belizean version of Regis and Kelly presenting cute news stories and bantering back and forth. Little did I know how wrong I was!
Oil development has been controversial in Belize and several years ago, the government opened virtually the entire country, including offshore areas and protected areas, to oil exploration. Long-term exploration and development contracts were forged with oil companies behind closed doors. The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, which formed in 2010, has been very effective in educating the public about the petroleum industry and advocating for a ban on oil development in offshore and protected areas, such as national parks. Earlier this year, the Coalition gathered enough signatures to allow the public to vote on a referendum about the future of oil development in Belize.
While I was in Belize City, fresh controversy erupted over oil exploration activities in Sarstoon-Temash National Park in the southern part of the country. Word emerged that USCapital Energy was conducting seismic testing activities in the park. Seismic testing is a process used to map underground rock formations to predict where oil may be found. To create the map, explosive charges are set off along transect lines to create underground seismic waves that are recorded and analyzed. The transect lines are cut into the forest, creating a scar many miles long – in this case stretching all the way across the park. Seismic testing fragments habitat and is very disruptive to nearby Maya and Garifuna communities. Poachers and illegal loggers use abandoned transect lines to enter remote areas to kill wildlife and remove valuable tree species. SATIIM, the local indigenous environmental organization, sent a team out to monitor the exploration activities and posted a report describing the environmental damage and evidence of illegal logging that the team found.
I was working one afternoon when ELAW partner Candy Gonzalez called and said, “Quick, turn on the television to Channel 51!” It was Love TV’s rebroadcast of that morning’s talk show and the guests were Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido, and Geology and Petroleum Department Director, Andre Cho. They were there to answer questions about why they had granted permission for the seismic testing to occur in a national park and without prior evaluation of the potential environmental impacts. The talk show hosts asked many pointed questions and frequently referred to calls that they had received from the public expressing concern about the exploration activities. Sabido and Cho defended their decision and the hosts were rather gentle in their follow-up questioning, but it was nevertheless engaging and interesting to watch the interview. I gained a new appreciation for this form of “talk show democracy” and will be sure to tune in the next time I visit Belize.
ELAW Staff Attorney
The New York Times and media around the world are reporting on the court decision ordering Chevron to pay $9 billion in damages for polluting remote areas of Ecuadorean jungle. The decision was announced on Monday by Judge Nicolás Zambrano in Lago Agrio, Ecuador.
ELAW partner Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, has fought a long, hard battle to win this victory against oil giant Chevron. I am thrilled that ELAW has been able to help Pablo with legal and scientific support. Pablo traveled to Eugene for an ELAW Fellowship in 2009. Over his three months in Eugene, he was able to gain valuable skills and all of us at ELAW in Eugene, Oregon, enjoyed working with Pablo. He has boundless courage and speaks truth to power.
When Pablo announced his victory on the ELAW network, people all over the world joined in the celebration. Through the ELAW network, Pablo has received heartfelt congratulations from colleagues in more than 20 countries. His victory is inspiring ELAW advocates all over the world, at the same time ELAW advocates are rallying in solidarity with Pablo.
This court decision from Ecuador is a huge step forward, but the struggle for justice is far from over. As Pablo continues onward and upward, the ELAW network will be supporting him every step of the way.
Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide
Just last weekend state and municipal elections were held in most of Mexico. Here in Baja California the turnout was not very high, perhaps this accounts for the upset, the message has been heard I think. All mayoral seats went to the PRI or Institutional Revolutionary party, even though the state had been a stronghold for the National Action Party since the late eighties. This result, as many others in Mexico, point to dissatisfaction, to concern and to fear. The insecurity felt in many cities in central Mexico and on the border is nothing new. The military presence though questioned and criticized continues. We read and listen to news daily about more arrests on the heels of additional violence and reactionary tactics from drug cartels. Aside from the feelings of genuine distress, there is also a deep sense of weariness, of wanting to evade all bad news and think of something else, in order to go forward.
These past months Mexicans have joined millions of others around the world in doing precisely that, concentrating on something totally different, away from the normalcy of daily life, financial difficulties and all. Yes we are thankful for the distraction of the World Cup in South Africa. And without delving into the philosophical importance or shallowness of this pastime, we can all agree that it is indeed an escape. But then againit is this escape which is keeping many of us from going mad, the expectation and commitment to our countrymenon the field is a welcome catharsis every four years. I even think that a good amount of U.S. citizens maybe thankful this time, to change the subject at the end of the day, to hear that team X made an impossible goal and team Y has advanced.
Whether you are one of the privileged inhabitants of one of the countries who can boast having reached the semi-finals, we are all paying attention now. It is in fact the final stretch, and televisions and computers will be at the ready on Sunday, you may wear orange or blue, or even red, but we will take the opportunity to watch what we hope to be another beautiful game till the end, and toast those players who have made it, those countrymen and women with their painted faces, those crying eyes.
So please bear in mind, it is not that we are not concerned about the now 120,000,000 gallons of oil in the Gulf, we are more than aware, and will be spending hours during each day hearing about ongoing efforts and reactions and how that oil is expected on Mexican coasts by the end of the year, by conservative estimates. We will think of other countries that are facing natural disasters and political strife. We will think of Haiti and wonder how they are faring, how much construction has been achieved. We cannot stop thinking about this hurricane season and what that will mean to all of us around the world. Yet in our constant state of concern, of involvement or blind commitment to news cycles worldwide, we may still pause once in a while, take a breath and search for the good news, the brilliant news which does happen every day, in every country, in every city, and just maybe on soccer fields.
Carla García Zendejas
Tijuana, Baja California, México
In today’s Eugene Register-Guard, ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik writes about the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and the oil spill unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico:
As this catastrophe unfolds, it is important to ask: Could we have anticipated this? Could we have taken more effective steps to prevent it? What lessons can we learn?
Unfortunately, government regulators were negligent, and citizens missed their opportunity to voice objections to this oil drilling project. Regulators and citizens need to do a better job!
You can read the whole essay here: Oil spill: Regulators and citizens missed their chance
The above photo shows the coast of Guimaras Island, Philippines, after a tragic 2006 oil spill. So far, the oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion has not reached and despoiled beaches — but this is what we could be looking at all along the Gulf.
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a profound tragedy and offers an opportunity to start taking better care of marine ecosystems. We know that rigorous environmental analysis before projects are approved, with input from citizens, holds the best chance of preventing more disasters like the BP tragedy. ELAW works with our partners around the world to do just that. As Mark concludes his essay:
ELAW’s work demonstrates that the environmental impact assessment process can help avoid environmental disasters. By critiquing EIAs and identifying flaws in projects, we have helped partners halt plans for seismic oil exploration in a river in India that would have jeopardized endangered river dolphins, a poorly designed island resort development in Jamaica, and a risky nuclear power reactor in South Africa.
The United States pioneered the notion of assessing environmental impacts and identifying ways to reduce them before they occur. This common sense approach can help avoid disasters. But as the case of the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and oil spill illustrates, the EIA process can protect us and the environment only when environmental agencies and citizens take their responsibilities seriously.
This summer, I have the privilege of sharing my office with ELAW partner Pablo Fajardo who is in Eugene to attend the American English Institute and consult with ELAW staff. The other day, Pablo showed me his copy of the book Crude Reflections — an amazing photographic essay documenting the people behind the lawsuit that he is leading against ChevronTexaco on behalf of 30,000 indigenous people in Ecuador. I was struck not only by the environmental devastation but also by the cancer and other illnesses among the people living in the area.
The people’s suffering is horrifying. The photographs in this book are difficult to look at — but the captions are even worse: they chronicle case upon case of stomach cancer, ovarian and uterine cancer, and mis-formed limbs — especially noticeable is the impact on the women and children.
I asked Pablo, Why?
He pointed to a photograph of a group of women and girls standing in the water, washing their clothes. “They stand for hours, every day in that water” he said. “Then, the cancer.”
The lawsuit is ongoing in Ecuadorean courts. But ChevronTexaco says that even if it loses in Ecuador, it will turn to U.S. courts to avoid paying damages to people in Ecuador.
Pablo told me that his children are interested in becoming lawyers like him. Why? “So that they can be there to enforce the judgment.” That’s how long, he says, it might take for any judgment to be enforced.
“Ye gads” I thought — how long will these Ecuadorian people have to wait for justice? And how many more women will die of uterine cancer, how many more children will be born with birth defects, how many more fathers won’t live to see their children grow up before the toxic contamination is cleaned up? It is an outrage.
Sitting next to this amazing man (whose back story is fascinating — I can’t do it justice here, but you can read more about him in Vanity Fair) for the summer, I am again grateful that there are people like him who dedicate their lives to protecting their communities from environmental disasters.
We hope that the people of the Ecuadorean Amazon will soon get the justice they deserve, and the land will be cleaned up before more generations suffer the consequences of the toxic contamination.
by Rita Radostitz