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Have you heard the news? The Nicaraguan government has revealed the route for a canal it plans to build across the country with help from a Hong Kong-based company.

The proposed canal would stretch 173 miles, about three times the length of the Panama Canal.  It would originate at Punta Gorda in the Caribbean, pass through Lake Nicaragua, and end at Brito, a port on the Pacific Ocean.

Nicaragua workshopELAW partner Lottie Cunningham Wren is a Miskito attorney from Nicaragua who has worked for decades to defend the land rights of indigenous people .

“I am concerned about the impact the canal will have on indigenous communities,” says Lottie, who has called on ELAW for help.

New laws have severely limited public participation in the decision making process and may allow the project to bypass environmental reviews.

For more information, please see the following:

New York Times
Nicaragua Approves Building Its Own Canal

Nicaragua canal route: Atlantic-Pacific link unveiled

National Geographic
Nicaraguan Canal Could Wreck Environment, Scientists Say

We will keep you posted on our work with Lottie. Many thanks for your interest!

Michele Kuhnle
Donor Liaison

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

I recently traveled to Belize to help a local lawyer who is working to develop a set of recommendations to strengthen the country’s petroleum laws.  During the 20-minute ride into Belize City, the taxi driver told me all about Belize’s morning talk shows on Love TV and Krem TV, two of Belize’s cable stations.  He urged me to watch the next morning, saying that viewers phone in to air their opinions on all kinds of issues.  “Interesting,” I thought, but I didn’t really plan to watch.  In my mind, I imagined a Belizean version of Regis and Kelly presenting cute news stories and bantering back and forth.  Little did I know how wrong I was!

Oil development has been controversial in Belize and several years ago, the government opened virtually the entire country, including offshore areas and protected areas, to oil exploration.  Long-term exploration and development contracts were forged with oil companies behind closed doors.  The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, which formed in 2010, has been very effective in educating the public about the petroleum industry and advocating for a ban on oil development in offshore and protected areas, such as national parks.  Earlier this year, the Coalition gathered enough signatures to allow the public to vote on a referendum about the future of oil development in Belize.

While I was in Belize City, fresh controversy erupted over oil exploration activities in Sarstoon-Temash National Park in the southern part of the country.  Word emerged that USCapital Energy was conducting seismic testing activities in the park.  Seismic testing is a process used to map underground rock formations to predict where oil may be found.  To create the map, explosive charges are set off along transect lines to create underground seismic waves that are recorded and analyzed.  The transect lines are cut into the forest, creating a scar many miles long – in this case stretching all the way across the park.  Seismic testing fragments habitat and is very disruptive to nearby Maya and Garifuna communities.  Poachers and illegal loggers use abandoned transect lines to enter remote areas to kill wildlife and remove valuable tree species.  SATIIM, the local indigenous environmental organization, sent a team out to monitor the exploration activities and posted a report describing the environmental damage and evidence of illegal logging that the team found.  

I was working one afternoon when ELAW partner Candy Gonzalez called and said, “Quick, turn on the television to Channel 51!”   It was Love TV’s rebroadcast of that morning’s talk show and the guests were Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido, and Geology and Petroleum Department Director, Andre Cho.  They were there to answer questions about why they had granted permission for the seismic testing to occur in a national park and without prior evaluation of the potential environmental impacts.  The talk show hosts asked many pointed questions and frequently referred to calls that they had received from the public expressing concern about the exploration activities.  Sabido and Cho defended their decision and the hosts were rather gentle in their follow-up questioning, but it was nevertheless engaging and interesting to watch the interview.  I gained a new appreciation for this form of “talk show democracy” and will be sure to tune in the next time I visit Belize.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

Last fall we shared the twists and turns of a David and Goliath lawsuit in Papua New Guinea to prevent a Chinese mining company (MCC) and its Australian partner (Highlands Pacific) from discharging millions of tons of toxic mining waste near community fishing grounds off the country’s northeastern coast.    After a long and complicated trial early this year, in which noted marine and environmental scientists described the devastating environmental impacts of the company’s plan to pump a slurry of mine waste into Basamuk Bay, the National Court announced that it would issue its decision on May 23.  Over 1,000 landowners are plaintiffs in the case.  Along with their lawyer, Tiffany Nonggorr, they spent several months anxiously awaiting the judge’s verdict.  Everyone’s patience was tested when the Court postponed judgment day — twice.  Finally, July 27 arrived.

With the significant time difference between the U.S. and PNG, I knew that news would be breaking just about the time I’d be going to sleep.  I had my laptop open on the bedside table and periodically checked for news while nervously reading an article (that I now can’t remember) in The New Yorker.  I could barely stand it.  Soon, I started seeing updates from Effrey Dademo, an ELAW partner and attorney with Act Now! PNG.

At first, the ruling sounded as though there would be a clear victory for the landowners.  Effrey continued to report intermittently for over two hours, as the 67-page opinion was read aloud.  The Court rejected the mining company’s assurances that the waste would be “benign” and agreed with the plaintiffs that the waste would not stay deep below the water’s surface, but would likely be brought towards the surface by upwelling.  Turning to the legal issues, Justice Cannings concluded that the toxic mine waste would cause a private and public nuisance.  He also declared that the government’s decision to approve the mine waste disposal plan:

“amounts to an abuse and depletion of Papua New Guinea’s natural resources and environment – not their conservation – for the collective benefit of the People of Papua New Guinea and for the benefit of future generations, to discharge into a near-pristine sea (a widely recognised hotspot of biodiversity), mine tailings at a rate of 5 million tonnes of solids and 58.9 million cubic metres of tailings liquor per year. It constitutes unwise use of our natural resources and environment, particularly in and on the seabed and in the sea. It amounts to a breach of our duty of trust for future generations for this to happen.”

And then, the devastating news came.  Justice Cannings refused to permanently stop the mine waste disposal in part because the company had spent a considerable amount of money to build the system.  The decision had many people scratching their heads in shock and dismay at the final outcome of the case. (You can hear a Radio Australia  interview with Tiffany Nonggorr immediately following the judgment here).

The landowners were not deterred.  They immediately asked Tiffany to file an appeal with the country’s Supreme Court, which she promptly did.  On Monday, the Supreme Court blocked MCC from discharging mine waste into the bay until it could hear the appeal later this month!

The determination of communities along the Rai coast to protect their coastal environment is inspiring.  During the trial, several landowners described the sea as a “garden” that their daily lives depend on.  Their fight has prompted Green party legislators in Australia to push for legislation that would prevent Australian mining companies from engaging in practices, like deep sea mine waste disposal, in foreign countries that are illegal at home.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

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