Raquel Gutiérrez Nájera, an environmental lawyer, professor, and founder of IDEA (Instituto de Derecho Ambiental)

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 Even though the environmental permit for this dam project has been revoked, lawsuits claiming reparations and damages to Lupita Lara are still pending.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.

IDEA Staff and me (third from left) at IDEA's office

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