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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.

Young advocates Harriet Bibangambah and Lourdel Twinomugisha from Greenwatch in Uganda

Young advocates Harriet Bibangambah and Lourdel Twinomugisha from Greenwatch in Uganda

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.

Jennifer Gleason
Staff Attorney

Ana Lucía Maya Aguierre at the Oregon Coast

Ana Lucía at the Oregon Coast

Last week, ELAW Fellow Ana Lucía Maya Aguirre returned home to Bogotá, Colombia after nearly six months of studying English at the American English Institute (AEI) and collaborating with ELAW in Eugene. During her Fellowship, Ana focused on strengthening the Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad (Association for Environment and Society), a newly formed organization of which Ana is a member.

Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad has four programs:

1. Climate Change, human rights and poverty
2. Citizenship, access to information, and participation
3. Biological and cultural diversity
4. Socio-environmental justice

Within these focus areas, the organization employs an array of strategies: providing legal support and trainings for communities working to protect their right to a healthy environment; researching policies and regulations; and working with ELAW and other international networks to create a broader, collective impact within Colombia and across borders.

During her Fellowship, Ana worked with ELAW staff to develop a strategic plan for Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad, exchange information about climate change and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and potential for future projects in Colombia, learn more about funding opportunities, and formulate research questions for a report on mining cases in Latin America.

ELAW volunteers helped Ana study English, conduct research for the mining report,  design a brochure, and translate the website for Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad.

ELAW is eager to collaborate with Ana and her colleagues at Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad to help realize their vision of a culture that understands the interdependence of humans and the environment, promotes environmental defense and human and environmental rights, and improves environmental governance and effective participation of civil society in environmental matters.

A huge thank you goes to all of the volunteers who helped make Ana’s Fellowship a success and to AEI for its generous support of ELAW Fellows. Find more information about ELAW’s Fellowship Program here.

Melanie Giangreco
Latin America Program Assistant

Earlier this year I blogged about the looming prospect of deep seabed mining and the efforts of ELAW’s partners in the Pacific Islands to protect vital ocean resources and coastal communities from the rush to mine the sea floor.  Environmental and community rights organizations have come together to inform citizens about the risks of deep seabed mining.  Advocates in Papua New Guinea (PNG), including ELAW partner Effrey Dademo, are at the front edge of this campaign because their government issued a license approving the first commercial seabed mining project in the region – Solwara I.

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

The organizations brought their message to the Pacific Islands Forum, a meeting of regional political leaders held in late August in the Cook Islands.  Act Now!, the Pacific Network on Globalisation, and the Pacific Conference of Churches presented leaders with a petition signed by more than 8,000 people supporting a moratorium on seabed mining.  The petition was backed by a legal opinion urging leaders to employ a precautionary approach and defer decisions on seabed mining until the environmental impacts of this new technology are more clearly understood.

It seems the message is being heard.

Today, The National is reporting that PNG’s Minister for Environment and Conservation, John Pundari, is calling for public forums to discuss and debate the future of the Solwara I project.  Minister Pundari stated:

“I want these experts in oceanography, sedimentology, volcanologists, fisheries and marine ecology – including organisations such as universities, national research institutions, international and national NGOs, and other experts and leaders – to come together, present their cases, and debate the facts on aspects of the Solwara I project so we can all determine whether the government’s decision to approve the project was a good or bad decision.”

This is a remarkable turn of events because the PNG government, until now, has steadfastly refused to even acknowledge public opposition to seabed mining off the country’s coast.  Now there will be an opportunity for members of coastal communities and other ocean-dependent peoples to explain their views on seabed mining.  We look forward to these public forums!

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

ELAW is co-sponsoring the “New Directions for Human Rights and the Environment” symposium this Friday and Saturday at the University of Oregon School of Law.

Dr. Svitlana Krevchenko

Dr. Svitlana Kravchenko

The symposium is dedicated to the late Dr. Kravchenko who was a pioneering lawyer from Ukraine. Svitlana founded the non-profit organization Environment-People-Law (EPL) and inspired young lawyers around the world to protect the environment and human rights.

The Symposium– which is free and open to the public — will feature keynote speeches by: Bill Rodgers, Stimson Bullitt Endowed Professor of Environmental Law at University of Washington; Antonio Benjamin, Justice, The High Court of Brazil, Professor, Catholic University of Brasilia, and chair, IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law; Oliver Houck, Professor of Law and Director, Environmental Law Program, Tulane University Law School; and Dr. Marc Pallemaerts, Professor of Law, University of Amsterdam and Head of the Environmental Governance Research Programme at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).

ELAW is proud to co-sponsor this event honoring our partner, Svitlana Kravchenko.

We hope to see you there!

Bern Johnson
Executive Director

Last week, I traveled to San Salvador, El Salvador for Uniendo Esfuerzos Centroamericanos: el Enlace entre Género, Pobreza, y el Medioambiente (Uniting Central American Efforts: The Link between Gender, Poverty, and the Environment).  This Central American regional conference brought together ELAW partners and other grassroots advocates from a wide range of civil society groups who are working in their home countries to promote social and environmental justice.

Opening night featured presentations that set the stage for rest of the conference in which climate change and its relationship to food security, access to water and other human rights, and the impacts on women and vulnerable populations were discussed in detail.  The opening event included a speech by Herman Rosa Chávez, El Salvador’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, who, along with Salvador Nieto (the Ministry’s Legal Advisor) were part of the delegation representing El Salvador at the climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa last year.  Nieto spoke later in the week about El Salvador’s experience at the negotiations and described the “Fossil of the Day” prize, which was awarded by Climate Action Network International to whichever country most inhibited progress during the day’s negotiations.  Unsurprisingly, the U.S.  frequently won “Fossil of the Day” and was in fact awarded the Grand Poobah for slowing progress: “The Colossal Fossil.”

At least we shared the prize with Canada.

While it is important that government officials create opportunities for international dialogue, it will take a strong voice

Sign near the former Baterias Record Factory where ELAW partners Luis Francisco López Guzmán and Victor Hugo Mata Tobar are working for justice in this community which is affected by lead poisoning from the factory and the contaminated water in the nearby Rio Sucio. The sign reads: ""In this place, there are 33,000 tons of toxic materials. Therefore, we demand justice and punishment of the owners, former officials, and accomplices to the Record Factory. Communities of the Movement without Lead." (Copyright 2012 Seattle International Foundation.)

from citizens, along with mitigation and adaptation at the local level, to come up with anything resembling a solution to climate change.  With “Colossal Fossils” in power, grassroots efforts and actions are more valuable than ever.

The San Salvador meeting was an inspiration.  We had the opportunity to bring a human element to our collaboration and increase our awareness and understanding of the challenges facing us as global and regional communities.  Despite leaps in technology, meeting face-to-face simply cannot be recreated via the Internet.

However, the real work continues when we return to our own communities, the places where we experience the impacts of our efforts.  Here in Oregon we have been lucky to have escaped severe weather events on the scale faced by El Salvador.  Just last year, Tropical Depression 12E dumped almost 30 inches of rain on El Salvador in ten days, leaving 10% of the country flooded.  10%!  If 10% of the U.S.  was under water, would the U.S.  still be a “Colossal Fossil” in climate negotiations?

ELAW partners are bringing lessons from El Salvador back to our home communities- where we can make a difference, regardless of the sluggishness of intergovernmental negotiations.  One of these lessons is from Elena Caal Hub from the Red de mujeres jóvenes Q’eqchi’ (Q’eqchi’ Young Women’s Network) who spoke about her community and the impact of mining and other environmental abuses.  She challenged the term “environment,” saying that our planet is “la Madre Tierra, ” (Mother Earth.) La Madre Tierra is living and breathing and not an object or “environment” to be exploited.

Reflections from group session on women's leadership. (Copyright Seattle International Foundation 2012).

Ideas from group session on women's leadership. (Copyright 2012 Seattle International Foundation.)

Elena Caal Hub’s presentation was a turning point in the conference: it emphasized why we had gathered in El Salvador and it exposed the changes that need to be made in our collective consciousness to effectively combat climate change.  It is easy to take small steps to reduce our ecological footprints: eat local, use alternative transportation, reduce, reuse, recycle, etc.  However, the changes we need to make if we are going to live in a more just world go to the very root of how we view and interact with the planet and with one another.

The time has ended for focusing on differences between cultures, differences between our efforts, and differences between ourselves and our home, our mother, this planet.  Regardless of whether we call ourselves environmentalists, activists, feminists, or human rights advocates, todos somos seres humanos — we are all human beings.

Many thanks to the Seattle International Foundation for sponsoring this event and to local hosts Victor Mata Tobar (Instituto de Investigación y Promoción Ambiental), Luis Francisco López Guzmán (Firma Legal López Guzmán), and Carla Trillos de la Hoz (Fundación Nacional Para el Desarrollo, El Salvador).

Melanie Giangreco
Latin America Program Assistant

ELAW colleagues at the Environmental Law Workshop

I was fortunate to travel last month to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, for the first annual Festival of the Sea, held in conjunction with a Trinational Fisheries Forum and Workshops on Environmental Law and the Human Right to Water.  The Fisheries Forum was poignant, with roughly 20 fishers from Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras doing the difficult work of discussing limits on their fishing grounds, in order to restore the fishery.  Our Guatemalan partners are working with Guatemalan fishing communities in the Gulf and the Ministry of Natural Resources to help create  “recuperation zones” that would be managed jointly by the agency and the fishers in Guatemala’s waters.

The Gulf of Honduras is a complicated web of Guatemalan, Belizean, Honduran, Garifuna, and Maya culture.  Negotiations among fishers WITHIN countries is complex, and when we are trying to reach across the many layers of jurisdictions and ethnic culture present in the Gulf, the complexities are far greater.

Alongside the work, we celebrated the food, culture, and livelihood of fishing communities in the region at the Festival of the Sea on the waterfront.   Fisheries are vital to sustaining coastal communities worldwide, and the roughly 500km of coastline in the Gulf of Honduras is home to nearly one million people.  This relatively small area holds tremendous biodiversity, but both species and local economies are in decline.

Lori Maddox
Associate Director

The Mekong Region in Southeast Asia is seeing an unprecedented boom in hydropower development to support the emerging economies in China, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Laos alone, government officials are planning and rapidly moving forward with large-scale dam projects to provide electricity for export to neighboring Thailand.

Not only do large-scale dams cause significant social and ecological impacts, but these projects also require lengthy transmission lines to carry electricity through the region. One such corridor runs through the Udon Thani province in northeastern Thailand. Several years ago, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) proposed two 500-kV transmission lines to carry power from the Lao border to a substation within Thailand.

Although Thailand’s constitution guarantees the right of citizens to access information and participate in decisions that affect them, the government of Thailand approved the transmission line projects without the benefit of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and without consulting local communities. The project has generated considerable concern among local communities, where families grow rice and fruit for sustenance and income. Many people were unaware of the project until EGAT announced the final transmission line route.

Advocates at EnLAW in Thailand, a public-interest environmental law NGO and ELAW partner, are assisting community members who live and maintain farms in the path of the transmission lines. The electricity being generated in Laos and brought to Thailand is not destined for these rural communities, but for urban dwellers and large-scale development projects — like a nearby potash mine. Some families have refused to sell their land to EGAT because the company was not offering a fair price. Others do not want to leave land that has been in their family for generations and are concerned about farming directly beneath powerful electricity transmission lines.

On May 25th, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission issued a resolution asking EGAT to pause construction to allow time to negotiate with affected landowners to reach an agreement over the fair value of their land. The Commission criticized EGAT for demolishing homes without prior permission and expressed concern that EGAT’s activities were inciting violence and conflict with landowners. EGAT ignored the resolution and, just a few days later, attempted to enter onto one family’s land with heavy machinery and equipment to begin constructing a transmission line tower in the family’s rice paddy. Over a dozen people, including the landowners and a group of visiting university students, gathered to block EGAT. Regrettably, EGAT called in local police to forcibly remove the peaceful protesters and many were arrested. EnLAW attorney Montana Daungprapa was visiting the community at the time and witnessed the violence committed against people who simply want to protect their land and livelihoods, and receive fair compensation for their land rights.

Montana and her colleagues at EnLAW are assisting these individuals with their defense and with efforts to help those who are being impacted by the transmission line project gain fair compensation. The National Commission on Human Rights is continuing to investigate the situation. EnLAW’s persistence in this case is providing justice to landowners. Their work is critical to promoting greater accountability and transparency on the part of the Thai government and to protecting the rights of rural and impoverished citizens.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

Before I traveled to Liberia in West Africa as an ELAW fellow, like most people, I had no idea where the rubber that I ride around town on comes from.  The answer, of course, is that rubber comes from latex, a milky colloid that when tapped by a skilled forester, flows from the sap of the rubber tree.  The rubber tree, originally native to Brazil, is now grown in great quantities in equatorial regions the world over.

A Green Advocates member at the Farmington River in Liberia

Rubber is Liberia’s biggest product, by some accounts amounting to almost 90% of Liberia’s official revenue from exports.  By far, the largest producer is Firestone Tire Company, which leases one million acres of Liberia as a rubber plantation, equal to 4% of the country’s territory or nearly 10% of the arable land.  Since the plantation was established in the 1920s, there have been widespread allegations of forced labor, pollution and other human rights abuses.  There is an excellent summary of these issues in a recent Nation article that you can read here.

Fellow ELAW fellow Dan Kruse and I, accompanied by our hosts, Alfred Brownell and Francis Colee from ELAW partner Green Advocates, visited several sites around the Firestone Plantation, 30 miles southeast of the capital of Monrovia.  Local residents told us that Firestone has been dumping raw waste from rubber manufacturing directly into the Farmington River that locals depend on for water.  Many complain of rashes and birth defects as a result of using water from the river.

Green Advocates has in the past played a leading role in calling attention to pollution by Firestone.  In 2005, Green Advocates invited the press, lawmakers, government officials, and UN officials to an event along the riverbank.  Community members gave visiting dignitaries a tour of the community and the river.  In response, Firestone quickly arranged its own press event and declared 2005 to 2006 its “Environmentally Friendly Year!”

Green Advocates is currently planning a class action lawsuit on behalf of local citizens to force Firestone to clean up its act.  Alfred and Green Advocates see this sort of citizen legal action both as a way to protect people from pollution and strengthen Liberia’s civil society.

“When you take a company to court,” Alfred told us, “you cause the country to believe in the spirit of the law.”

James Johnston
Faculty Research Assistant
Oregon State University Institute for Natural Resources

James and Dan were selected by ELAW to participate in a joint project with ELAW Partners at Green Advocates in Liberia.  As a part of this project, Francis Colee of Green Advocates visited ELAW in February.

I began work at ELAW 12 years ago.  My daughter Emily was five years old and we had just returned to Eugene after three years in Uganda where I worked with ELAW partners at the Uganda Wildlife Society.

Today, my daughter is in Rwanda, at a summer job at a feeding center in a refugee camp.  This photo arrived today and I was swept with emotion.

Emily says there are 19,000 Congolese Tutsis in this camp.  They have fled armed militias that terrorize civilians in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.  She says more than half the population is 10 years old or younger!  She weighed more than 200 babies earlier this week and is seen in this photo measuring out a soy/corn nutritional supplement.

My passion for international collaboration and respect for the human rights of peoples in faraway places took root during Peace Corps Service in the Philippines more than 20 years ago.  At ELAW, I have expanded my circle of friends and colleagues to grassroots advocates seeking justice in 70 countries.  Most of us are on a first name basis.

Today I am inspired by the gift of good work and the possibility of passing it on to the next generation.

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

ELAW partner Thuli Brilliance Makama of Swaziland has been awarded the 2010 Goldman Prize!  The Goldman Prize is the highest honor a grassroots environmental advocate can receive — sort of like a “green” Nobel Prize.  ELAW is thrilled to have nominated Thuli and is thrilled that now the rest of the world will learn about her fabulous work.

Thuli told the Goldman Prize organizers:  “I defend the rights of local communities to participate in environmental decision-making so that future generations may benefit.”

The Goldman Foundation selected Thuli for the Prize because of her courageous efforts to fight Big Game Parks — a private corporation that owns and operates two game parks and has been granted authority to manage one of Swaziland’s national parks.  Thuli and her organization have been working to  ensure that local community members have a voice in the management of their environment.  Goldman notes that Thuli’s “success in challenging malpractices in environmental management is a huge step forward in the struggle to include local people in conservation efforts in Swaziland.”

ELAW staff members Lori Maddox, Jen Gleason and Liz Mitchell will attend the ceremony tonight — and have promised to send photos.

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