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Cancun is a poster child for coastal development gone awry, but nearby ecosystems can still be saved.

ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel was in Quintana Roo last week, collaborating with ELAW partners at the Southeast office of Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (Mexican Environmental Law Center). CEMDA is working hard to protect marine and coastal ecosystems from short-sighted development schemes.

Heidi and Minerva
L to R:  Minerva Rosette, Heidi Weiskel

Heidi teamed up with CEMDA’s new Staff Scientist, Minerva Rosette, to review plans for a major housing development near a protected mangrove forest, and an enormous tourism complex proposed for Holbox Island.  The tourism complex would cut channels through pristine mangroves to increase waterfront acreage and build hotels, villas, condominiums, offices, shopping plazas, and roads, to service thousands of visitors.  The project would devastate Holbox’s rich fisheries and stunning landscape, and likely harm the whale shark population.

Heidi and Minerva evaluated different strategies for measuring the carrying capacity of Holbox, and the most effective way to communicate the true impacts of the proposed tourism complex to the Holbox community.

Minerva is an engineer by training and spent the past three years using GIS and other tools to help communities protect the Urique-Batopilas biological corridor.  “Minerva is a wonderful addition to the CEMDA team and ELAW community,” says Heidi.  “I look forward to working with her to protect the extraordinary beauty and rich biodiversity of the Yucatán.”

While in Cancun, Heidi also worked with CEMDA Staff Attorneys Raquel Campo and Ximena Ramos. Ximena is a former ELAW volunteer and recently received an LLM in environmental law from the University of Oregon School of Law.

The key to ELAW’s work is identifying strong local partners, because they know best how to protect local communities and the environment. We provide our partners with the tools and resources they need.

We celebrate Alejandra Serrano, the director of the Southeast office of CEMDA, and her whole team for their hard work protecting the Yucatán.

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay (PHOTO: the_tahoe_guy)

My wife, seven year-old son Aidan and I recently returned from a vacation to Lake Tahoe.  On the border between California and Nevada in the Western United States, Lake Tahoe is in the middle of U.S.  Forest Service land and bordered by numerous ski resorts.  Lake Tahoe is one of the clearest lakes in the world and, at about 1900 m above sea level, is the largest alpine lake in North America.  The freshwater lake is 500 m at its deepest point, second deepest in the United States after Oregon’s Crater Lake.

Lake Tahoe storm drain pipe transporting polluted road runoff into Lake Tahoe (PHOTO: Tahoepipeclub (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons])

I relished the opportunity to share my love of the Pacific Northwest’s wild places with my son.  The city in which we live, Eugene, Oregon is very progressive in terms of environmental sensitivity.  Aidan has already learned about the importance of conserving our natural resources in school.  He regularly points out things that are “wasting water” or “hurting the planet.”

Upon arriving, our first stop was the lakeshore to dip our feet in the icy-cold snowmelt-fed water and marvel at the spectacular sunset over the mountains to the west.  Along the water’s edge we could see a steady decrease in the remarkable clarity of the water – a result of lakeside development and urban stormwater runoff.  On submerged rocks we could see algae, which was not there ten years ago.  Aidan and I talked about how, even with efforts to export sewage and garbage generated in the Tahoe basin, the lake could someday lose its legendary purity because of human impacts.

I like to think that my work at ELAW has had an impact on the way he sees the world.  It was gratifying to see Aidan interact with nature and develop an appreciation for clean water and a healthy planet.

Glenn Gillis
Information Technology Manager

A recent headline in my news reader caught my eye – “Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids.”  I thought for a moment that the article might be a joke.  It wasn’t.

The rising price of metals and rare earth minerals is driving a global mining frenzy, so it is not surprising that people are looking to exploit potential mineral resources in space.  Here on earth, ELAW is working with partners in at least 15 different countries on projects related to mining.  We review mining laws and provide recommendations for strengthening environmental and community protections, we conduct technical reviews of new mining proposals, and we provide assistance to advocates who are helping communities affected by mine pollution.  It seems that not a week goes by without a new mining-related project landing on someone’s desk.

Although asteroid mining only exists in imaginations of billionaires at this point, there is another new frontier for mining — deep seabed mining — which poses an enormous and imminent risk to our oceans.

It turns out that there are deposits of metals, such as gold and copper, near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.  One expert describes these vents as undersea hot springs where superheated, mineralized water rushes through the seabed and reacts with cold seawater to form chimney-like towers.  Only recently discovered in the last several decades, these vents are unique and relatively unknown ecosystems that flourish with life despite the lack of sunlight.  With improved technology, scientists are now able to explore and document the incredible creatures that live near these vents and they are discovering new species of fish, tube worms, crabs, and microorganisms.

There is still much to be learned about hydrothermal vents, but that is not stopping a handful of mining companies from rushing forward to mine metal deposits from the ocean floor.  ELAW partners in Papua New Guinea are opposing the world’s first commercial seabed mining operation by Canada’s Nautilus Minerals, Inc. that would strip deposits off the floor beneath the Bismarck Sea.  Other countries in the Pacific have issued seabed mining exploration licenses, or are about to.  Local communities are very concerned that seabed mining activities will cause significant harm to water quality, fisheries, and their economic livelihoods.

ELAW partner Effrey Dademo, and the non-governmental organizations Act Now! PNG and the Pacific Network on Globalisation, are hoping to mobilize public support for a petition that will be presented to Pacific leaders later this year asking them to take a precautionary approach to seabed mining.  Leaders in Australia’s Northern Territory have already heeded the call and issued a moratorium on seabed mining in coastal waters until 2015 so the impacts can be more closely studied before projects are considered.

Asteroid mining may seem unrealistic to some, but seabed mining is a real and imminent threat to our precious ocean resources.  It deserves global attention and concern before it is too late.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

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

And now for the third and final post about my exhilarating trip around Belize. I’m ending with the lively town of San Pedro. Read the previous two posts about Belmopan and Placencia.

The morning I was scheduled to leave Placencia, I woke up early and took one final stroll down the street, and watched the vendors put out their fresh fruit for the day’s customers. Did I tell you there was only one street? One street, that used to mark the edge of the lagoon, but where dredging has helped to increase the size of the peninsula. I walked back along the sidewalk, the only other paved strip on the sandy peninsula. I saw very few tourists at this time, mostly locals sweeping their steps and working outside before the temperatures got too high.

the view from Ak'Bol

The flight to San Pedro was not direct. I instead flew back to Belize City and then back and forth from the municipal and international airports. At times, it was only me and the pilot, and I could imagine what it would be like to take flying lessons. The view coming into San Pedro was breathtaking. Small islands, shallow waters, and reefs visible from the air signaled we were close to the main island.

After arriving, I found a water taxi and sped northward along the shores to the Ak’bol Yoga Retreat, a simple and stunning collection of cabins and rooms on the beach. I hastily swapped my luggage for a swim suit and inquired about snorkeling. One hour later a boat arrived to take me and four others to Mexico Rocks. Although I didn’t have an underwater camera, I have linked to photos online of some of the beautiful fish I saw there, like angel fish, trumpet fish, rainbow parrot fish, queen parrot fish, sergeant major, squirrel fish, barracuda, some kind of small puffer fish, and a green moray eel. I was so thankful to have such a great guide to point them out and who was capable of articulating each name with a snorkel in his mouth! (Later in the week, I stayed at the Palms, where I was much closer to town and could more easily wander around at night looking for fresh pupusas to munch on.)

ACCSD Office under construction

The following morning, my energy level was high and it was easy waking up early, renting a bike and riding 10 minutes into town to find the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development (ACCSD) office. When I arrived I found Coqui, the new Administrator, working hard to catch up with work after the long holiday. I received a very warm welcome and a tour of the new space. ACCSD is sharing the office with an architecture and design company, and although it was not finished yet, it was clear that the space would be fun and stylish. They have even found ways to incorporate mangrove plants into the design of the space. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s done!

Coqui, ACCSD's Administrator, and I work together on a fresh look for the office and the web.

Coqui is using the move as an opportunity to give the organization a fresh look. When I was there, she was busy collecting and reorganizing files, useful documents, and maps. Currently, she and I are collaborating on a new website for the organization that should be launched soon, once the new logo is chosen. In addition to staffing the office and fielding calls and visits from concerned citizens, Coqui works closely with the ACCSD board members to achieve the goals of the organization.

ACCSD acts as a watchdog group, monitoring new developments and reporting any irresponsible behavior to the government. ACCSD is working towards a master development plan that would include ways for developers to better protect the local environment and be held accountable to the local community. They also work to increase the area protected in the Hol Chan Marine reserve.

I would have liked to stay in Belize longer, as I couldn’t see all the beautiful sites. I will just have to visit again – and when I do, I look forward to catching up with my new friends.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

If you haven’t already, make sure you check out my previous post from Belmopan, Belize to get you up to speed.

View of the Belize coast line from the prop plane

So, after spending three days in Belmopan, where brush fires and forest fires were spreading like…well…wildfire, I was making plans to take me to my next destination. The smoke in Belmopan was heavy, and it was clear that the lack of rain and the extreme heat were contributing factors. Even the pilot at the Belmopan airport was expected to arrive late due to the poor visibility early that morning. However, boarding the 12-passenger plane didn’t take long, and I was back on schedule in no time – although “schedule ” is kind of a loose term in Belize.

The other half a dozen passengers and myself made our way southeast across the Maya Mountains, where large patches of burned forest were visible from the air.  The prop plan flew through the clouds, but not above them, which made for a bumpy ride and an incredible view of the countryside. After about 45 minutes, I spotted the coastline and the sparkling blue water off of Belize’s shores!

Many of these condos are still for sale. Other lots have been divided and sold, and now wait for investors.

Stop 2: I landed in Placencia and was met by another Candy, who sits on the board of the Placencia Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD). Placencia is at the southern tip of a long, narrow peninsula that runs down the mainland. This forms a beautiful and lively lagoon where people have played and fished for generations. Placencia is a very small community that is growing rapidly. Growth is partly due to an influx of Belizeans and foreigners attracted to the beautiful location and the relaxed pace, and who are often establishing full-time residency on the peninsula. Unfortunately, much more of the growth is in the form of tourism developments and condos for part-time residents and vacationers. This hasty development is particularly worrisome, as many of these developers do not live in Belize year-round and are detached from the local needs: the local community, the local economy, and the local environment. Although the recent economic crisis has slowed investments, Placencia is threatened by short-sighted development.

Adrian Vernon (like Amelita at BELPO) is the only staff member at PCSD. He offered to work on a Saturday by welcoming me to Placencia with a boat tour of the lagoon. Adrian’s family has lived on the peninsula for generations. His knowledge of the area and its ecosystems, particularly the valuable mangrove forests, has made him a well-known and highly-respected man in the community. Joining us on the tour was a member of the Placencia Town Council, the local government body responsible for approving proposed development projects, and students from Belize University studying cumulative impacts of tourism in Placencia.

Adrian (at the wheel) captivates his audience with knowledge about mangrove forests. You can see a mangrove buffer behind him.

Adrian was at home on the water. It was clear that he could talk for hours about the benefits of mangroves and sea grass, proper restoration techniques, the threats from development and dumping that are facing the lagoon, and the solutions he is promoting to help developers understand the value of protecting the local ecosystem. The group buzzed constantly with questions and answers. Before I knew it, we had been on the water for three hours and were on our way back to the dock. With the wind whipping by, I was enjoying the sun and proudly recalling memorable facts of the lagoon, when a sputtering noise signaled that the previous boat guide had forgot to refill the gas tank. We floated for only a couple of minutes until a gentleman, someone Adrian knew and recognized from at least 100 yards away, pulled up and offered us a gallon or two. I learned a new trick for siphoning gas, and only minutes later, Adrian and I were ordering lunch. What a great afternoon!

PCSD Office

Later that day and most of Sunday, Adrian and I managed to confine ourselves to the new PCSD office, where we collaborated on ways to make his work more efficient, since he is now sharing time between the office and the field. Adrian is also leading the campaign to organize community support for PCSD and ensure that the goals of the organization are determined and led by locals, who need a voice on proposed developments – a unified voice that will protect individuals and amplify their demands.

Adrian and I said good-bye on Sunday evening and I headed back to Dianni’s Guest House (which I would highly recommend) and prepared to leave Placencia on an early morning flight to San Pedro. I planned to take the day off and go snorkeling!! No underwater photos, but I have managed to remember many of the names of the gazillion fish I saw, so check back soon.

Also, check out our Facebook page for more photos from the trip.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

A few weeks ago, I was asked to visit partner organizations in Belize for one week. I reluctantly left dreary and wet Oregon for a week in the tropical paradise of Belize. Of course I was thrilled!! The visions of Mayan ruins and picturesque beaches were calling my name. More exciting for me was the opportunity I had to meet the members of our partner organizations, with whom I had been working over the past months via email, and who are doing fabulous work in Belize! Electronic tools and web-based work makes collaborating across continents easy, but the face-to-face meetings cannot be replaced. And now I was headed to Belize for a whirlwind tour of three organizations in three towns in nine days!

Amelita Knowles, BELPO's Administrator

Stop 1: I was met at the Belize International Airport by the Administrator at the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO), Amelita Knowles. Mel was warm and welcoming, and I settled in easily for the 45-minute commute from Belize City to Belmopan, Belize’s capital and home to the BELPO office. We shared stories about our families and our background, particularly how we got into environmental work.

Belize is a tiny country, with a unique history and strong ties to both the Caribbean and Central American regions. Although small in size and population, Belize is growing quickly. The diverse population makes for some interesting dynamics among its people. Not unlike the US, these dynamics are highlighted by environmental and social issues affecting local communities.

BELPO office in Belmopan, Belize. See the avocado tree peeking out from the backyard?

We arrived at the BELPO office, painted with bright colors, like the other houses in the neighborhood. Amelita showed me the avocado tree in the backyard with dozens of small, very green fruit. I expressed my envy and we bonded over our mutual love for avocados in the summertime. I met Candy Gonzalez, the President of BELPO with whom I have been in the closest communication with over the past year, and it is like we’ve met before. I assisted Candy when she published the Guide to Public Participation in Belize and have collaborated with her on other leaflets and newsletters meant to raise awareness of environmental issues among the local communities.

BELPO focuses on four main issues: the Macal River, Indigenous Rights, the Belize Barrier Reef, and Coastal Development. Being in the country’s capital gives them access to the Belize Parliament and other law-making and enforcement bodies, with whom they are in regular communication. Amelita is the only full-time and paid staff person at BELPO. While together, we worked mostly on ways to increase the impact of BELPO, with only her time and energy. Two main strategies emerged: volunteers and web-based communication tools, both of which are very exciting ideas for Belmopan and fun for me, as I got to draw from my background in community organizing.

Mel envisions a strong, committed group of student volunteers who will be trained to give presentations in local schools and at community events regarding environmental concerns and how public participation can help ensure that local input is taken into consideration. Mel also recognizes that the BELPO website and Facebook page could be improved to offer more dynamic information and ways to engage interested community members.

Check out the current BELPO website at www.belpo.org. I hope to post the updated website and Facebook page soon, so check back often! I’ll also be posting more about my second and third stops in Placencia, working with the Placencia Citizens for Sustainable Development, and in San Pedro with the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development. I promise photos of the gorgeous Belize coastline that these three groups are working to protect.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

In February, I had the pleasure of traveling to Haiti for ELAW.

AHDEN Members

I went to work with friends and partners at l’Association Haitienne de Droit de l’Environnement (AHDEN).  Haiti has faced enormous challenges in recent years, but the commitment and enthusiasm of our Haitian partners left me inspired and hopeful.

During the first few days, I participated with AHDEN members in a meeting hosted by the MacArthur Foundation, which brought together its grantees who will be working in Haiti over the next three years to see how we could support each others’ efforts, build synergies, and ensure that we’re all successful in our work in Haiti.  The meeting was fantastic, largely due to the inspiring conservation work that people are doing in Haiti.  ELAW and AHDEN learned about the legal needs of organizations working to conserve key biodiversity areas in Haiti and looking for alternative livelihoods for people dependent on exploiting natural resources to put food on their tables.

AHDEN and INSAPROMA members

After the meeting of MacArthur Foundation grantees, we welcomed ELAW partners from the Dominican Republic who came to help AHDEN with its inaugural public event.  INSAPROMA’s President Euren Cuevas and Director Jorge Verez traveled all day by bus to share experience strengthening and enforcing environmental law in the DR with their colleagues in Haiti.

On February 11, 2011, l’Association Haitienne de Droit de l’Environnement (AHDEN) and the Faculte de Droit et des Sciences Economiques (FDSE) hosted the Colloque International sur la Promotion du Droit de l’Environnement en Haiti. The event was advertised as a place to discuss environmental law as an instrument in the national reconstruction and as a tool for sustainable development in Haiti.  The all-day workshop went from 8:30 am until 7:30 pm, and nearly all of the 108 registered participants remained with us to the end of the very long day.

It was a phenomenal event with informative speakers and a highly engaged audience.  Representatives from many government agencies, university professors, students, aid organizations, and local NGOs came to discuss environmental law in Haiti.  People were thrilled to hear about the establishment of AHDEN and the role it will play in shaping Haiti’s environmental policy and contributing to the country’s reconstruction.

The colloquium consisted of five panels.  The first described environmental problems in Haiti from a technical perspective.  A panelist from the Ministry of the Environment described recent studies, including one showing high levels of pollution in breast milk.  One of the panelists focused on problems related to land registration.  Land registration is clearly an important issue in Haiti, as it came up in each of the five panels and was the focus of at least half the questions posed to panelists.  This was also an issue discussed frequently in the meeting of MacArthur Foundation grantees, where grantees working on conservation noted a need for clarity regarding land ownership.

I joined INSAPROMA’s President Euren Cuevas and Director Jorge Verez on a panel where we described environmental law in our respective countries and described citizens in the DR and around the world successfully using law to protect the environment.

Many speakers explained environmental law in Haiti, including AHDEN President Jean André Victor during the last session.  Earlier in the day, he distributed the index to his compilation of Haitian environmental laws, which served as a list of existing laws.  He then used his position as the final speaker of the day to respond to questions that had been raised throughout the colloquium by providing specific legal answers, historical context, and other relevant information.

One speaker described the need to give environmental law a life beyond the textbook in Haiti.  She happily acknowledged that AHDEN was filling two of the needed components she identified – advocacy and education.

Jean André Victor (AHDEN) talks with reporters

AHDEN’s President, Jean André Victor, was absolutely mobbed by reporters from television and radio stations and newspapers.  Many of the reporters stayed for much of the morning and filmed or recorded several sessions, including AHDEN presenting a guide that ELAW recently published (and an AHDEN member translated) to help communities and NGOs prevent mining abuses.

I was thrilled by the interest in the colloquium and the energized, active participation by everyone in the room.  The level of enthusiasm for the work and the amazing discussions following each panel were truly inspiring and gave me incredible hope for what AHDEN can accomplish in Haiti — even as I sat in the city center of Port au Prince, surrounded by constant reminders of just how hard things are in Haiti right now.

On my return home ELAW launched a website for AHDEN where we will gather presentations from the colloquium and publish other material relevant to AHDEN and environmental law in Haiti: http://www.ahden.org Check out the site and know that AHDEN is making history – it is helping shape environmental protection in Haiti while educating and involving Haitians in the decision-making processes.

Jen Gleason
ELAW Staff Attorney

Destruction of the Palisadoes Spit, September 2010

“An environmental victory is in some ways an absence – a road not built, a mine averted, a hotel relocated, a golf course avoided. We are used to the presence of a natural resource – while it persists, it’s unremarkable. An environmental victory is always temporary – no matter how solid the case, how overwhelming the public support – at some point in the future, an attempt will be made to reverse it….

“Environmental defeats, though, are glaring – forests razed, rivers “trained,” sand dunes destroyed, beaches scraped clean, wetlands laid waste. And despite the promise of the relatively new science of restoration ecology, such defeats are mostly permanent.

“On the doorstep to the city of Kingston in September 2010, you can see an environmental defeat. The Palisadoes spit, that jointed arm that holds Kingston Harbour in loose embrace, has been bulldozed…  At this point, it appears that the entire spit will be denuded of all vegetation, its beaches compacted, sand dunes destroyed, the few struggling strands of mangroves obliterated in order to construct or expand (it’s not entirely clear which) an utterly unnecessary road.

Diana McCaulay
Founder, Jamaica Environment Trust (JET)
ELAW Partner

Read the full story on Diana’s blog, where she beautifully captures the emotions of a heart-breaking environmental loss.  Jamaica Environment Trust created a YouTube video about this project. Click on this link for the video with further information about Palisadoes and photos of what is taking place.

Lignite Power Plant - wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons

What a lignite power plant looks like (this one's in Germany)

Communities in Hungary are up in arms about a state-owned company that wants to build a 440-megawatt power plant near Visonta, close to a protected area. The power plant would be fueled by lignite, a soft brown fuel that falls somewhere between coal and peat.

A lignite mine, serving a smaller power plant at the same location, has already depleted groundwater supplies. An expanded mine to supply the new plant would only make things worse. On top of that, the current plant is already Hungary’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. The new plant would increase CO2 emissions by 2.5 million tons/year.

ELAW partners at the Environmental Management Law Association are working to shelve this bad project before it leaves the drawing board.  EMLA attorney Agnes Gajdics was in the U.S. earlier this year on an ELAW Fellowship. She worked with me and other ELAW staff to help strengthen her case against the power plant.

Agnes Gajdics of EMLA

Agnes Gajdics from EMLA

Agnes sends good news: Authorities have revoked permission to build the plant and have required a new environmental impact assessment!

This is good news for the climate and good news for communities, including the residents of Csinsce who live atop the lignite field that may need to be tapped to feed the proposed new power plant.

Congratulations to Agnes and everyone at EMLA for this inspiring win!

Mark Chernaik
Staff Scientist

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