2012: The Year of Mangroves

This year at ELAW–my first!–inadvertently became the Year of Mangroves. I had the privilege of visiting our partners in Belize, Panama, and Mexico, all for meetings and site visits unrelated to mangroves. But in each country, our field excursions took us past sites of mangrove destruction and human construction that appeared ill-conceived and short-sighted.

In Belize, we toured the proposed coral reef marine protected areas of Mexico Rocks, Los Bajos, and Mata Cayo Frances Lagoon. En route, we passed a new construction project in what had been a mangrove island. In order to build on this “island,” tons of rock and soil was barged in and deposited so that the houses would be above sea level. It was discouraging to see the influence of short-term profits win over long-term logic.


Destruction of Mangroves in Panama

In Panama, we planned to work on major mining and hydroelectric projects with our partners. But the night we arrived in country, we learned that a court decision had just been handed down that suspended legal protection of mangroves in Panama Bay. This decision came as a shock, as many of the mangroves were within an internationally recognized Ramsar site. While we were there, more and more evidence came to light that illegal development projects had already begun. And over the second half of 2012, the pro-development influence has increased; the remaining mangroves that protect the capital city of Panama from flooding and pollution and shelter millions of migratory birds each year are in jeopardy.

In Mexico, we were focused on mining activities but our travels took us past areas where road construction had cut tidal circulation and added landfill in mangrove areas. Mangroves are the heart of tropical coastal ecosystems, and cutting off either the freshwater or seawater currrents is like cutting off the blood supply–the forest cannot continue to function, which means none of the species around it can either. But the development pressures are spectacular in La Paz and the mangroves continue to disappear.

My field tours and focus on mangrove issues around the world have helped me understand the urgency of working to protect this critical habitat. As the scientist who will be leading our efforts in this area, I look forward to collaborating with more of our partners on mangrove protection and restoration in 2013.

Heidi Weiskel
Staff Scientist

Victory in Honduras

Construction at Infinity Bay

Construction at Infinity Bay

My biggest highlight of the year was working with ELAW partners Clarisa Vega and Emilio D’Cuire from the Honduran Environmental Law Institute (IDHAMO) to enforce environmental laws in Honduras and guarantee that future projects in critical coastal zones will be properly evaluated. During 2012, IDHAMO worked with staff at ELAW to bring a complaint before the Secretariat for Environmental Matters of the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). The complaint addresses the lack of a full environmental review for the Infinity Bay Spa and Beach Resort built on the coast of Roatan Island.

In May 2012, the Secretariat for Environmental Matters of the CAFTA-DR recommended the preparation of a factual record related with the resort development, and later that year the United States government voted to instruct the Secretariat to prepare such record. Consequently, in December the Secretariat held hearings to prepare the factual record in Tegucigalpa, Roatan, and San Pedro Sula and invited all interested persons and organizations to submit relevant information to the Secretariat.

Clarisa worked tirelessly to encourage local lawyers, scientists, activists, organizations and concerned citizens to participate and file relevant opinions. ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel submitted a report highlighting the possible negative consequences of building large resorts in fragile coastal zones without proper environmental assessment. ELAW partners from Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic also submitted legal opinions to provide the Secretariat with a regional perspective on environmental assessment of coastal developments.  I enjoyed working with so many ELAW partners and thank them for their participation in this process!

I congratulate Clarisa and Emilio for all their efforts and hope the factual record of the case reflects the importance of conducting proper environmental assessments for future projects in the region!

Pedro Leon Gutierrez
Attorney on contract with ELAW

Stopping Coal in India

In April 2012, ELAW partner Ritwick Dutta won a great victory: India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) revoked approval granted for a coal mining project proposed for Raigarah District, Chattisgarh, by Jindal Steel and Power. The NGT ruled that the required public hearing for the project was a “mockery” and a “farce” and went on to say:

“This is not a case where there are a few ignorable procedural lapses in conducting the public hearing.  This is a case of a mockery of public hearing, which is one of the essential parts of the decision making process, in the grant of Environmental Clearance.  This is a classic example of violation of the rules and the principles of natural justice to its brim.  Therefore, we consider it appropriate to declare that the public hearing conducted in this case is nullity in the eye of law and therefore is invalid.”

The ruling vindicates the petitioners in the case, Ramesh Aggarwal and Harihar Patel,who were illegally jailed for raising their voice against the proposed mine.

By rebuking a major corporation for conducting a sub-standard public hearing, the NGT affirmed the importance of respecting India’s environmental laws and holding companies accountable to the courts of India and its people.

Glenn Gillis
Information Technology Manager

Giving citizens a Voice in PNG

Advocates present seabed mining petition and legal opinion at the Pacific Islands Forum, August 2012.  Image: Cook Islands News

Advocates present seabed mining petition and legal opinion at the Pacific Islands Forum, August 2012. Image: Cook Islands News

To build a more just, sustainable future, we need to make sure communities around the world have a say in decisions about the environment. That’s why I was so pleased when ELAW partners in Papua New Guinea changed the debate about seabed mining. PNG is the first country to grant clearance for deep seabed mining, despite fierce opposition from citizens. Until ELAW partners intervened, the government refused to even acknowledge opposition to seabed mining. After advocates submitted a petition signed by more than 8,000 concerned citizens to the Pacific Islands Forum, the government of Papua New Guinea decided to hold public forums so coastal communities can make their voices heard.

Check back in 2013 for updates about these public forums and seabed mining around the world!

Michele Kuhnle
Donor Liaison

Justice for the Shipbo

Last July, I traveled to Lima, Peru. While there, I reconnected with Shipibo leaders from Ucayali whose communities are affected by oil and gas development. We helped these communities design and implement a community-based health and environmental surveillance program and I was there to give them an analysis of the results. According to the data they compiled in 2011 and 2012, waterborne diseases and pollutants are most harmful to vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women, and elder populations. The indigenous federations were thrilled to receive these results, which can be used to advance their conversations demanding justice from authorities and companies.

Meche Lu
Staff Scientist

Mining in Mongolia

A Mongolian apprentice fishing guide

A Mongolian apprentice fishing guide

Last year, I traveled to Mongolia and was shocked to witness the mining frenzy that is hitting that country: The road from the airport into Ulaanbaatar is lined with billboards advertising trucking, hauling, drilling and other mining related services; people are talking eagerly about the Oyu Tolgoi mine, which is forecast to generate 30% of Mongolia’s GNP; and I could see mines from the air as I flew over Mongolia.

While there, I worked with local environmental lawyers to prevent mining abuses. Now, one of those Attorneys, Bazarsad Nanjindorj, has traveled to Eugene for an ELAW Fellowship. While here, Bazarsad will complete the Intensive English Program at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute, and gain the capacity to play a strong role in charting a more sustainable future for Mongolia.

Bazarsad and his colleagues are doing impressive work to protect communities and wild spaces in Mongolia from polluting mines and we look forward to further collaboration in 2013!

Bern Johnson
Executive Director