group on mountain cropped

2012 ELAW Annual Meeting Goa, India

2012 has been a great year for ELAW. We have so much to look back on that it is hard to compile a year-end review of ELAW’s work in 2012. So, I challenged ELAW staff to pick at least one personal highlight from the past year to share with our readers.  Through these “staff picks” you can join us in celebrating victories from around the world, learn a little about what goes on behind-the-scenes at ELAW, and share in a few of the many moments that make ELAW so unique.

We couldn’t fit all of our picks into this week’s post. Check back next week for more!

From everyone at ELAW, we wish you and yours a wonderful 2013!

Michele Kuhnle
Donor Liaison

ELAW in Central America and a Ban on Mining in Goa, India

It is HARD to pick a favorite ELAW moment in 2012, as there were MANY – but it is fun to reflect on them!  My year started organizing a conference on Climate Change, Gender, and Poverty in El Salvador, where inspiring feminists and environmental leaders from  Central America shared strategies and affirmed our common goals:  to protect and respect this fragile planet and all of her inhabitants.  We left with hope, and determination and new friendships.

Also this year my colleagues in Belize and Guatemala forged community-based agreements to protect parts of the vibrant Mesoamerican Reef:  In Guatemala, this takes the form of fisheries recovery zones, where fishers have agreed not to fish, in order to restore the fishery.  In Ambergris Caye and the Placencia Lagoon in Belize, communities have defined marine reserves, where fishing and other activities will be restricted to protect vital ecosystems.  These initiatives represent people taking charge of their future, and bringing their governments along with them.

But my top pick for 2012 has to be this:  Listening to ELAW advocates Claude and Norma Alvares describe the moratorium on mining activities they and their colleagues achieved in the state of Goa, India.  The Supreme Court of India, with the help of our determined and inspiring partners, said ‘no more.’  I grew up in West Virginia, where “coal is king,” and the mining industry has torn the tops off the mountains that I once called home to get at the last of this dwindling, dead-end resource.  I tried to imagine what it would be like for the Supreme Court of the United States to shut down all mining activity in West Virginia, exercising the precautionary principle.  Like West Virginia, Goa is a relatively small state, but it holds 60% of India’s iron ore, which is in high demand for construction.  Shutting down the entire industry in the state is no small thing.  But if we want to leave a liveable planet for our children, the first step is to stop damage that is currently under way.

Lori Maddox
Associate Director

EIA Law Matrix (ELM)

elmOne of my highlights from 2012 was achieving a long-time goal of creating an electronic tool to evaluate and compare environmental impact assessment (EIA) laws around the world.   The EIA Law Matrix, known as “ELM,” has been a complete success!  ELM currently provides information about EIA laws from 43 countries.  Users can view key features of a country’s EIA law, easily compare EIA laws to see trends, and find specific excerpts of legislative provisions.

We are getting wonderful feedback from our partners who have been using ELM in their advocacy efforts.  ELM has not only benefited our partners, but has proven to be a valuable resource for our legal staff.  During the past year, we reviewed proposed amendments to EIA laws from a number of countries, including Pakistan, Mongolia, and Cambodia.   We were also called on to evaluate the EIA procedures and opportunities for public participation in the development of infrastructure projects in Brazil, Uganda, Peru, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  ELM proved to be indispensable for these projects, enabling us to quickly pull up exemplary language from EIA laws and to highlight regional trends.

We are looking forward to expanding ELM in the coming year by adding information in Spanish and building our library of EIA laws!

Liz Mitchell
Staff Attorney

Bringing the World to Eugene

Host Family Program

Betty Smith (second from right) joins ELAW Fellows at Sahalie Falls.

My hands down highlight from 2012 was the ELAW Fellows Program.  We hosted grassroots advocates from Mongolia, Russia, Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, and Swaziland. Fellows collaborated with ELAW staff on everything from protecting watersheds on the Monglia/Russia border to strengthening civil society in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Every visitor gave his or her Fellowship a big thumbs up. The “ELAW House” was re-configured to include a bedroom/office suite for visitors and community members  enjoyed helping Fellows explore the Coast, Cascades, and other wild places in Oregon. Many thanks to everyone in the ELAW Host Family Program!

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

Volunteer Power

From left to right: Eric, Zoe , Logan, Derek, Melia, Michael.

From left to right: Eric, Zoe , Logan, Derek, Melia, Michael.

As I reflect on 2012, the number one highlight for me was not an international legal victory of good triumphing over evil, right over wrong. Rather, this highlight has been quieter, subtler, locally based, and has stretched the course of the year. Throughout 2012, I have been endlessly grateful and humbled to witness the dedication of the more than 50 volunteers who contributed more than 1,800 hours of their combined time to ELAW. These individuals range in age from 15 to 50+ and have translated documents and websites into multiple languages; completed data entry projects; spread the word about ELAW at community events; hosted ELAW Fellows at their homes and brought them to see other parts of Oregon; designed logos, websites, brochures, and workshop materials, and much more.

Having the opportunity to work with these talented volunteers has made 2012 a year to remember. Our volunteers have brought new perspectives, skills, and expertise to ELAW and are a constant reminder that even in a digital age where so much of our communication takes place electronically, there is no substitute for a collective force of humanity coming together for common good. Some volunteers bring years of knowledge and experience as environmental and human rights advocates. Many are young and are well on their way to becoming leaders working toward a more just and sustainable global culture. If I had to pick one word to highlight 2012, it would be: GRATITUDE.

Melanie Giangreco
Office Manager

Victory in Mexico

With the astronomical price of gold, and the price of other metals near all-time highs, places around the world with even marginal grades of ore are imperiled.  Because the vast majority of mining projects involve stripping the land of all vegetation and creating vast open pits and mine waste disposal areas, any land that is mined is doomed to lose its natural characteristics for decades,  and perhaps centuries.  The lust for mining is a particular menace for land in developing countries that is home to the world’s biodiversity.

With this in mind, I am particularly happy about a victory at the end of 2012 – the withdrawal of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Los Cardones gold mining project in south Baja California. Near the Sierra de la Laguna, the project would have ruined several hundred hectares of land bordering a UNESCO designated global biosphere reserve replete with xeric shrubs transitioning to pine-oak forests. While the company’s decision to withdraw the EIA is not necessarily a permanent end to this project, it provides hope to environmentalists that Mexico’s new Presidential Administration, which assumed office in December 2012, will irrevocably reject the Los Cardones project.

Congratulations to ELAW partners at  Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN) and Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) for this victory!

Mark Chernaik
Staff Scientist

Victories Years in the Making

Two of my favorite moments from 2012 have almost nothing to do with the past year.  In 2012, ELAW partners in Uganda and Chile shared great news on long-awaited decisions related to cases filed a decade ago! That is one of the challenges of using the law to protect the environment and human rights – justice sometimes takes time.  In both of these unusually lengthy cases, the result was worth the long wait.

In 2002, lawyers with Greenwatch in Uganda first asked ELAW for legal and scientific information to support a petition asking Ugandan courts to ban the use of polythene (micro-thin plastic) bags in Uganda.  In 2012, the High Court of Kampala finally agreed with our partners’ assertion that the use of the bags violates the right of citizens to live in a clean and healthy environment!  This case took ten years in part because the government attempted to issue a ban that would have negated the need for a judgement.  To learn more about this, read the Environment News Service article that tells more of the story.

Remains of an ancient alerce tree.          Photo: Carlos Poblete

Remains of an ancient alerce tree. Photo: Carlos Poblete

In 2003, Chilean lawyer Miguel Fredes began investigating the illegal logging and export of the Chilean Larch/Alerce (known as the “Chilean redwood tree”).  In 2005, a Chilean court agreed that the tree was being exported illegally with devastating effects for ancient forests in southern Chile.  Although illegal exports of Alerce were stopped as a result of the court decision many years ago, the people responsible were never held publicly accountable.  However, on September 11, 2012, we were pleased to hear from Miguel that the Supreme Court of Chile affirmed decisions from lower courts finding former Fresia right wing Mayor Nelson Schwerter, guilty of illegally trading an endangered tree species.

As we welcome the new year, I look forward to more wonderful news from our partners who are pursuing justice and protecting the rights of communities around the world!

Jen Gleason
Staff Attorney