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ELAW Partner Raquel Gutierrez-Nájera has dedicated her life to protecting Mexico’s ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. She and her team at the Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA, the the Institute for Environmental Law) recently celebrated a victory for a natural protected area in Zapopan, Jalisco.
Zapopan is part of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area and home to approximately one million people. Its government website highlights ecotourism as one of the city’s appealing features. The Barranca del Río Santiago, a 3.5 km wide, 700 meter deep canyon through which the Santiago River flows, is one of Zapopan’s natural attractions.
Recently, the municipality was considering a change in land use designation that would have allowed sludge from the Agua Prieta Residual Water Treatment Plant to be stored within the natural protected area in which the Santiago River is located. According to the project proponent, the Agua Prieta Plant is to be completed in 2013 and will generate an estimated 178 tons of sludge daily.
IDEA consulted with public service officials who were concerned that the sludge could pose a threat to water quality and biodiversity within the protected area. To accommodate the sludge storage area, buildings within the Tempizques community of Zapopan were leveled and 30 families were displaced. On August 30th, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources issued a resolution denying the land use change, stating that it would be inconsistent with the municipal decree that created the protected area and would not be in accordance with the management plan.
Raquel hopes that this victory will set a precedent for protecting the natural environment in Mexico.
Congratulations to the IDEA team!
Latin America Program Assistant
This week I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, Oregon. In 2004, the ESA, a group of several thousand U.S. and international ecologists, met in Portland, OR. The theme of the conference was “Lessons of Lewis & Clark: Ecological Exploration of Inhabited Landscapes.” Eight years later, we are back in Portland and the theme is “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining our Ecosystem.” One does not need to be a Ph.D.-ecologist to notice the difference in tone.
The bad news is that we are in trouble. We are no longer studying habitats as a kind of curiosity or academic exercise. That was a luxurious time and it is over. Instead, we are focused on life itself: how to preserve and sustain it so that we can survive in the world we have created. The good news is that ecologists know this shift has occurred and, in increasing numbers, are heeding the call to make our research relevant beyond academic circles. This year’s meeting was full of that message.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a world-renown marine ecologist (who studied snails for her PhD, just as I did!), is currently the head of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. During the keynote address, she gave a call to arms, telling audience members that ecologists should not only make their science relevant, but also become politicians, lawyers, teachers, and activists. It was wonderful to hear those words of enthusiastic advice, since Jane has long been a mentor of mine. By coming to work for ELAW I am following her wisdom.
While at the conference, I attended a session entitled, “Linking Ecological Science & Public Policy: Case Studies in Latin America.” The first speaker, Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, a Mexican ecologist at the University of California, Riverside, told the story behind the recent conservation victory in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. A Spanish company received a permit to construct a massive development with 34,000 new rooms in a spectacular marine park. All the other development in the region only totaled 10,000 rooms. This one new permit would have destroyed the marine park, and the fisheries, corals, and incredible biodiversity found within.
Scientific studies have shown that protection of the park since the mid-1990s has enabled fisheries to rebound to levels higher than anyone envisioned. The Park itself has become a kind of diving and tourist shrine and sustainable ecotourism has provided the surrounding community with economic stability. In short, protecting the marine park, which has the only living coral in the Sea of Cortéz, was a brilliant success story about to be lost with a single building permit.
But Dr. Ezcurra and many, many others—among them ELAW partner organizations Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) and Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN)—kept the issue in the media, and kept the fight constant, and in June 2012, the permit was revoked. It was a day to rejoice.
Dr. Ezcurra reminded us that, as scientists, we have an opportunity and an obligation to go beyond publishing cool papers about snails eating algae. Though current academic and social systems may not reward us for protecting wild lands rather than publishing important papers, we can and must pay attention to what is happening around us.
That sense of responsibility—and excitement about our new role in society—was palpable at this year’s meeting. It would be a mistake for ecologists to give up, and this meeting left me with hope and certainty that we never will.
ELAW Staff Scientist
The Mesoamerican Reef is shared by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. ELAW is working with grassroots advocates in each of these countries on a coordinated effort to protect marine resources.
“Our partners in Belize and Guatemala are on the verge of permanently protecting hundreds of square miles of important marine habitat,” says Lori Maddox, ELAW Associate Director. “Their good work is creating a linked chain of diverse, biological storehouses that will help revitalize a dying fishery and sustain the flow of tourist dollars to the entire region.”
Lori and ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel traveled to Belize this month for a workshop with partners to advance this initiative.
Read about their visit in Ambergris Today, a Belize newspaper.
ELAW Communications Director
If you’ve been following our recent news, you’ll know that we’ve had ELAW Fellows visiting from Mexico, Panama, Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary, Ghana, and Liberia with us over the past couple of weeks. The ELAW office is quieting down, and I’m taking this opportunity to (finally) write about the amazing visit of these young, inspiring attorneys. And, for those of you who could not attend, I will highlight presentations they gave at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC).
These advocates were here to work with the ELAW team on issues directly related to their work at home protecting communities. They also learned ways to be more involved and contribute to the ELAW network. And, of course, we couldn’t bring environmental advocates to Oregon and not show off some of our natural wonders, like the coast.
This year’s PIELC was Thursday, March 3 – Sunday, March 6 and it was a hit! The theme was Turning the Tides: Creating a Clean and Green Future. Our gratitude and congratulations go out to the student group, Land Air Water (LAW) that helps organize this amazing annual conference. Each year, ELAW times it so that our visiting Fellows are able to attend and present their work at PIELC. One theme that resonated through each Fellow’s presentation this year was how closely they work with local communities who are deeply affected by environmental abuses.
On Thursday, Lovesta Brehun, who works with Green Advocates in Liberia, kicked off the conference with the first panel, Challenging Firestone Liberia’s Environmental Abuses, describing the practices of one of the world’s largest latex rubber processing facilities along the Farmington River, discharging poorly treated effluent, and emitting toxic pollutants. Green Advocates represents the interests of the public and are demanding that Firestone clean up its act!
On Friday afternoon, Lovesta shared another panel, Ghana and Liberia Forestry and Mining, with Rockson Akugre, an attorney with the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) in Ghana, as well as local lawyer Dan Kruse of Cascadia Wildlands. Dan traveled to Liberia to work with Lovesta and Green Advocates as a part of an ELAW exchange program, and together they shared information about the logging that threatens family land and livelihoods in much of Liberia. Lovesta spoke passionately about her country, whose people are still struggling to overcome decades of civil war. She detailed examples of how multinational corporations are exploiting people as they attempt to get back on their feet.
Rockson spoke of the extractive industries in Ghana, particularly gold and copper mining companies, and the need for strong enforcement of environmental laws. He described how multinational corporations often promise jobs and an improved economy to local communities, but the reality is much different. Rockson has visited villages near the mines and they are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in Ghana.
Friday evening, ELAW hosted a reception in honor of our ELAW Fellows. It was a chance for ELAW supporters, past and present ELAW employees and volunteers, and other PIELC participants to connect. Bern introduced our visitors and announced ELAW’s 20-year anniversary!! Everyone enjoyed wine donated by Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe, Oregon and beer provided by Oakshire Brewery here in Eugene.
On Saturday morning, Olena Kravchenko, Executive Director of Environment-People-Law (EPL) in Ukraine, shared a panel with members of the Eugene-based group, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. During the panel, Pesticide Pollution is a Danger for Life, she described how EPL has worked with the government to oversee and ensure tons of leaking pesticide dumps were cleaned up, and the dangerous chemicals shipped to Hamburg for proper disposal. Members of the audience were impressed to learn how Olena’s group gained the confidence of the local community by being present every step of the way to hold the government accountable and ensure the cleanup was safe.
At the same time, Pedro Leon, an attorney at Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA) in Mexico, and Tania Arosemana, an attorney at El Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM) in Panama, discussed the complications of extractive industries in their home countries. Seats filled, people lined themselves along walls and sat on stairs to attend the panel, Latin America: Impacts of Mining and other Natural Resource Extraction. Pedro focused on one of IDEA’s current projects: ensuring indigenous communities have a voice and maintain control of their traditional lands when threatened by rock/gravel extraction from a local riverbed.
Tania spoke fervently of green washing used by companies to convince community members of commitment to education and community well-being. CIAM is demanding a moratorium on mining in Panama. They believe that Panama needs to enact stronger regulations and demonstrate more oversight before large-scale mining is allowed in Panama.
The last of the ELAW panels took place first thing Sunday morning. Kart, the founder and Executive Director of Estonian Environmental Law Center (EELC) and Szilvia, an attorney with Environmental Management and Law Association (EMLA) gave a presentation entitled Environmental Impact Assessments in Estonia and Hungary, providing examples of how their organizations are working to make the approval process for proposed projects that threaten the communities and the environment transparent. Kart discussed her work with a local community affected by the noise from crushing and blasting at a nearby limestone quarry. Szilvia’s organization worked with a local community, re-routing a major road expansion away from their town and around a protected green space.
After the closing keynote address, we agreed that the perfect way to wind down after a very busy conference was to venture out to a local winery. We had lunch on an overlook, where we could admire the gorgeous scenery and taste Oregon’s famous Pinot Noir. It only took about one glass each before we were all ready to call it a day. We were looking forward to another field trip the next day.
On Monday, we accompanied our Fellows to Oregon’s coast. We could not have asked for better weather – the sun was shining and visibility was great. Sea lions swam near the shore, and a gray whale was just visible in the distance. Before returning home, we went for a walk on the beach at low tide – Tania even took off her shoes to play in the surf!
Now that our recent Fellows have returned home, we will continue to work across the internet, but nothing can replace face-to-face meetings. Not only is time spent in each other’s company productive and efficient, it is when we learn the most about on another and our reasons for doing what we do. We find motivation and encouragement in the stories of people around the world, whose work we can relate to, as they face unique challenges and struggle against the odds protecting the environment and human rights.
If you’d like more information about how you can help support ELAW’s Fellows Program, visit our website.
ELAW Office Manager
I am in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico working on a very large mesquite table that this office has inherited from its previous owner. The large beautiful wooden table which would take at least ten strong men to move sits in the middle of the office. There are lovely paintings and hand carved wooden masks on the walls from Mexico and Bolivia; art from Central and South America intermingles with the computers, files, phones, and printers, making this more than a welcoming place to work. This was the home of Dr. Raquel Gutiérrez Nájera, an environmental lawyer, professor, writer, theorist, and idol to many old and new activists in Mexico and abroad. She has provided this house to IDEA (Instituto de Derecho Ambiental), the public interest environmental law group which she founded in 1997. Now they have a rent free existence and the security to continue working in Jalisco, as well as other Mexican states. While her role at the organization has evolved, she is still acting President of the organization and plays key roles in important litigation efforts.
Today is one of those days; most of the lawyers including Raquel are out on an official court visit to Arcediano, the site of a proposed dam project which they have been fighting for more than six years on behalf of Señora Lupita Lara, the plaintiff in this case. By now Lupita Lara has seen neighbors bought out and relocated, the historic Arcediano Bridge destroyed and her own home demolished. Yet she is firm in her commitment to this fight against this badly planned, environmentally detrimental and politically charged state project. Even though the environmental permit for this dam project has been revoked, lawsuits claiming reparations and damages to Lupita Lara are still pending.
The goal of today’s field work in Arcediano is not only to assess the current condition of the site where construction for the dam was halted last year. But also to bring scientific experts to assess the viability of the project within the river basin as originally set forth, to provide evidence in the lawsuit challenging the expropriation of Lupita Lara’s land. This case is still ongoing and thus payment of damages and reparation to Señora Lara has yet to be decided. A phone call just came in; they are driving back from the river, tired and a bit dusty but optimistic about the outing.
This is just one aspect of the many things IDEA and Raquel have done regionally to defend people’s rights to water and property, while also creating policy and the necessary awareness of all environmental issues. I am here because I was invited to speak at the First International Conference on Environmental Health (I Congreso Internacional de Salud Ambiental), a four day event which brought together scientists, activists, defenders, government, students and citizens. The main goal of this conference was to understand the deep link between the environment and public health, and the tools necessary to achieve this in practice. Mainly, how environmental devastation has direct and long-lasting effects to ecosystems and habitat, but also direct consequences to the health, livelihood and well being of individuals, their families and communities.
In presenting five international litigation cases from ELAW, I was able to show how activists around the world have called on ELAW for crucial scientific support to provide evidence in their litigation. From community workshops, sample collection and analysis, to giving critical assessments and testimony, the work of scientists Meche Lu and Mark Chernaik has supported focused community efforts. These cases include: untreated sewage in Chacras de la Merced, Argentina; pesticides and agrochemicals from palm oil production in San Lorenzo, Ecuador; arsenic and lead poisoning waste in Arica, Chile; industrial waste and pollution from paper mills in Webuye, Kenya; and air contamination from steel production in Cherepovets, Russia. While this represents a sample of very diverse legal strategies by local advocates, it is clear how environmental justice issues move forward when we have the science to back them up, no matter which legal avenue is taken. The many students from the school of Health Sciences as well as those from Law school were nodding while I spoke; the seeds which IDEA and Raquel have been planting in Guadalajara and Mexico have definitely fallen on fertile ground.
Carla García Zendejas
Tijuana, Baja California, México
No matter what your line of work, I bet you wish you had a group of colleagues you could always count on for professional advice, support and brainstorming. In this day and age, it seems we all have ‘friends’ online who we can call on for opinions through Facebook, Twitter, etc. But years ago, in the age before Google and social networks, ELAW was using email to make these connections. And still is.
Email had the power –and still does– to connect continents. This was incredibly useful for fledgling environmental attorneys all over the world in the 90’s. Having this technological marvel at our disposal was one thing, one great thing, but counting on environmental attorneys from around the world for advice was quite another. This was ELAW.
Sometime in the fall of 1999 I was immersed in grassroots work to enact our new environmental legislation in Baja California. This was a daunting task, not only resulting from the number of community groups involved, or the meetings at the Capital with congressional officials, but mainly because we wanted to cement our law in new principles: access to information, access to participation basic right to know mechanisms for all within the law.
No one knew that I had a secret weapon at my disposal: attorneys from around the world going through the same sweeping changes in legislation, just an email away, through ELAW. And yes they came to my rescue, with language, with ideas, and concepts which should be included in the law, including a marvelous manual on Good Practices in Access to Information written by a lovely and giving attorney from Spain named Fe Sanchis Moreno.
Fe’s document became our bible and pointed us in the right direction. It took as much political will as the many hours we spent in meetings all over the state, and the law was passed a year later.
Last Wednesday, the Baja California Legislature finally approved reform to our State Transparency Law, which had also faced much resistance. Although Mexico has gone through deep evolution regarding transparency and accountability which are now fortified in our Constitution, individual states have struggled with the details, the practicality, the tools and the will to implement these rights.
We are delighted to be celebrating this new generation of transparency laws but I cannot help but remember the beginnings. Overarching changes come from many sides; grassroots efforts and political alliances throughout Mexico created our Transparency Law in 2002, yet each state, each municipality, has experienced a different path. Environmental legislation and Right to Know principles have gone hand in hand since the Rio Declaration* so it is no surprise that I am reminded of these times years ago when countries around the world were pushing for transforming legislation.
The certainty that external factors and pressure are essential to change is clear, but the importance of global networks sharing information and critical concepts to provoke this change is just as valuable. So, now as the power of the internet is scrutinized for its ease to damage and hurt people deeply, which I will not deny, we should not forget that this marvelous tool can be a profound instrument of change. If the question of how we can all do better with this great instrument also depends on a social networking revolution, then let us begin! Because there is no time to prepare for it, we are late in meeting this technology with the maturity it demands from us.
Carla García Zendejas
Tijuana, Baja California, México
*UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro 1992, also known as The Earth Summit.
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