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If you’ve been following our recent news, you’ll know that we’ve had ELAW Fellows visiting from Mexico, Panama, Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary, Ghana, and Liberia with us over the past couple of weeks. The ELAW office is quieting down, and I’m taking this opportunity to (finally) write about the amazing visit of these young, inspiring attorneys. And, for those of you who could not attend, I will highlight presentations they gave at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC).

Heceta Head Lighthouse overlook

These advocates were here to work with the ELAW team on issues directly related to their work at home protecting communities.  They also learned ways to be more involved and contribute to the ELAW network. And, of course, we couldn’t bring environmental advocates to Oregon and not show off some of our natural wonders, like the coast.

This year’s PIELC was Thursday, March 3 – Sunday, March 6 and it was a hit! The theme was Turning the Tides: Creating a Clean and Green Future. Our gratitude and congratulations go out to the student group, Land Air Water (LAW) that helps organize this amazing annual conference. Each year, ELAW times it  so that our visiting Fellows are able to attend and present their work at PIELC. One theme that resonated through each Fellow’s presentation this year was how closely they work with local communities who are deeply affected by environmental abuses.

On Thursday, Lovesta Brehun, who works with Green Advocates in Liberia, kicked off the conference with the first panel, Challenging Firestone Liberia’s Environmental Abuses, describing the practices of one of the world’s largest latex rubber processing facilities along the Farmington River, discharging poorly treated effluent, and emitting toxic pollut­ants. Green Advocates represents the interests of the public and are demanding that Firestone clean up its act!

On Friday afternoon, Lovesta shared another panel, Ghana and Liberia Forestry and Mining, with Rockson Akugre, an attorney with the Center for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) in Ghana, as well as local lawyer Dan Kruse of Cascadia Wildlands. Dan traveled to Liberia to work with Lovesta and Green Advocates as a part of an ELAW exchange program, and together they shared information about the logging that threatens family land and livelihoods in much of Liberia. Lovesta spoke passionately about her country, whose people are still struggling to overcome decades of civil war. She detailed examples of how multinational corporations are exploiting people as they attempt to get back on their feet.

Rockson spoke of the extractive industries in Ghana, particularly gold and copper mining companies, and the need for strong enforcement of environmental laws. He described how multinational corporations often promise jobs and an improved economy to local communities, but the reality is much different. Rockson has visited villages near the mines and they are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in Ghana.

Friday evening, ELAW hosted a reception in honor of our ELAW Fellows. It was a chance for ELAW supporters, past and present ELAW employees and volunteers, and other PIELC participants to connect. Bern introduced our visitors and announced ELAW’s 20-year anniversary!! Everyone enjoyed wine donated by Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe, Oregon and beer provided by Oakshire Brewery here in Eugene.

Svitlana Kravchenko, of EPL and the University of Oregon, School of Law introduces Aimee Code of NCAP and Olena Kravchenko of EPL

On Saturday morning, Olena Kravchenko, Executive Director of Environment-People-Law (EPL) in Ukraine, shared a panel with members of the Eugene-based group, Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides. During the panel, Pesticide Pollution is a Danger for Life, she described how EPL has worked with the government to oversee and ensure tons of leaking pesticide dumps were cleaned up, and the dangerous chemicals shipped to Hamburg for proper disposal. Members of the audience were impressed to learn how Olena’s group gained the confidence of the local community by being present every step of the way to hold the government accountable and ensure the cleanup was safe.

At the same time, Pedro Leon, an attorney at Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA) in Mexico, and Tania Arosemana, an attorney at El Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM) in Panama, discussed the complications of extractive industries in their home countries. Seats filled, people lined themselves along walls and sat on stairs to attend the panel, Latin America: Impacts of Mining and other Natural Resource Extraction. Pedro focused on one of IDEA’s current projects: ensuring indigenous communities have a voice and maintain control of their traditional lands when threatened by rock/gravel extraction from a local riverbed.

Tania spoke fervently of green washing used by companies to convince community members of commitment to education and community well-being. CIAM is demanding a moratorium on mining in Panama. They believe that Panama needs to enact stronger regulations and demonstrate more oversight before large-scale mining is allowed in Panama.

Szilvia and Kart answer questions after their presentation

The last of the ELAW panels took place first thing Sunday morning. Kart, the founder and Executive Director of Estonian Environmental Law Center (EELC) and Szilvia, an attorney with Environmental Management and Law Association (EMLA) gave a presentation entitled Environmental Impact Assessments in Estonia and Hungary, providing examples of how their organizations are working to make the approval process for proposed projects that threaten the communities and the environment transparent. Kart discussed her work with a local community affected by the noise from crushing and blasting at a nearby limestone quarry. Szilvia’s organization worked with a local community, re-routing a major road expansion away from their town and around a protected green space.

After the closing keynote address, we agreed that the perfect way to wind down after a very busy conference was to venture out to a local winery. We had lunch on an overlook, where we could admire the gorgeous scenery and taste Oregon’s famous Pinot Noir. It only took about one glass each before we were all ready to call it a day. We were looking forward to another field trip the next day.

ELAW Fellows at the Oregon coast

On Monday, we accompanied our Fellows to Oregon’s coast. We could not have asked for better weather – the sun was shining and visibility was great. Sea lions swam near the shore, and a gray whale was just visible in the distance. Before returning home, we went for a walk on the beach at low tide – Tania even took off her shoes to play in the surf!

Now that our recent Fellows have returned home, we will continue to work across the internet, but nothing can replace face-to-face meetings. Not only is time spent in each other’s company productive and efficient, it is when we learn the most about on another and our reasons for doing what we do. We find motivation and encouragement in the stories of people around the world, whose work we can relate to, as they face unique challenges and struggle against the odds protecting the environment and human rights.

If you’d like more information about how you can help support ELAW’s Fellows Program, visit our website.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Liberia has been reeling from a scandal that came to light early this summer involving a UK-based carbon trading company and allegations that the company bribed Liberian officials to secure a forest carbon contract. The situation was first brought to light by Global Witness, which discovered evidence of irregular payments to a Liberian government official and a Liberian politician while investigating the environmental, social, and economic implications of the proposed contract.

The proposed deal was between the Liberian government and Carbon Harvesting Corporation (CHC). CHC sought a 400,000-hectare forest concession, or one fifth of Liberia’s forests, from which to sell carbon credits. One news report explained that this deal could have bankrupted Liberia, which is still recovering from years of violent civil war. According to The Guardian, not only was the contract based on flawed and exaggerated emissions estimates, but

“[u]nder the contract, if Liberia’s forests had failed to deliver the full estimated number of carbon credits, based on a minimum target price of around $13.5 per tonne of CO2, it could have been liable to make up the difference to a maximum of $2.2bn. The west African country…had an estimated GDP last year of $1.6bn, according to the IMF.”

Shortly after the alleged contractual improprieties came to light, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf established a Special Presidential Investigative Committee to look into the problem. The Committee issued its report and recommendations, and President Sirleaf issued a strong statement on October 12th clearly outlining the course of action she plans to take against the individuals involved in the scandal. Nine current and former government employees have been linked to the fraudulent carbon-trading plan with CHC. Reuters recently reported that the Liberian government plans to prosecute British citizen and CHC Chief Executive Officer, Michael Foster, under Liberia’s anti-corruption laws.

ELAW Partners around the world are also expressing concern about fraud and corruption associated with forest carbon deals. Commenting on news about the Liberian government’s investigative report, a lawyer in Papua New Guinea (PNG) wrote to ELAW:

“There are similar deals being done by what we term as ‘carbon cowboys’ with local landowner leaders and some politicians in Papua New Guinea. They are promising local landowners millions of dollars for voluntary carbon trading.”

Last September, a scandal similar to that in Liberia broke in PNG with allegations that fake carbon certificates were being sold to local landowners. The head of PNG’s Office of Climate Change was implicated (and removed from office), along with private carbon trading firms from Australia.

According to Peter Younger, an Interpol environmental crime specialist: “Organized crime syndicates are eyeing the nascent forest carbon credit industry as a potentially lucrative new opportunity for fraud. . . . Alarm bells are ringing. It is simply too big to monitor. The potential for criminality is vast and has not been taken into account by the people who set it up.”

Alfred Brownell, a long-time ELAW partner from Liberia, tells us that scandals in the country’s forest sector are not a new phenomenon. In 2006, more than seventy timber concessions in Liberia were canceled after an investigation revealed widespread non–compliance with laws and pervasive mismanagement in the forest sector. During that review it was discovered that only 14 percent of the taxes owed to the Liberian government were actually collected, there were over US$64 million in tax arrears accumulated by concession holders, and the combined land area allocated for logging concessions over the last twenty-five years was two and one-half times the forested surface area of the entire country.

A primary reason that these current scandals are emerging is because forest carbon trading is a relatively new frontier with few existing laws to guide implementation and prevent corruption. Some have described forest carbon trading as the new gold rush. As policies and laws are developed to address forest carbon trading, ELAW is working with its partners to ensure that these frameworks are fair for local communities and will effectively contribute to global carbon emission reductions.

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.

ELAW partners summit Mt. Pisgah last spring

Every year, many of our partners travel for hours and hours on planes, trains and automobiles to reach the Eugene office just in time for the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference.  This year, we have visitors from six countries on five different continents who will be speaking at the PIELC!

Rizwana Hasan of Bangladesh is a keynote speaker at the PIELC (Sunday at noon). Rizwana is a 2009 Goldman Prize winner for her work challenging human rights and environmental abuses in the shipbreaking business in her home country of Bangladesh.  She was also a 2009 Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment.”  You can read more about her on the PIELC website.

Agnes Gajdics has been in Eugene since January, studying English at the American English Institute at the University of Oregon — and blogging about her experiences!  She will speak at the PIELC on Friday afternoon on a panel entitled “Giving the Public a Voice:  Procedural Environmental Rights.”  Joining her on that panel is Merab Barbakadze, who just missed a Lufthansa pilot’s strike to make it to Eugene.  He is an environmental attorney in the Republic of Georgia.

Calvin Sandborn will take the train to Eugene, arriving Thursday afternoon (if Amtrak is on time!). He is the Legal Director of the Environmental Law Center at the University of Victoria in Canada.  He will be speaking Friday afternoon on the topic of “Collaborative Partnerships for Livable and Sustainable Communities.”

Francis Colee works with Green Advocates in Liberia helping to amplify local voices as they speak out about environmental issues, especially those involving mining and forestry.  He is working to ensure that Liberia creates and maintains sustainable practices as those industries develop.

Kwesi Intsiful is a public interest environmental lawyer in Ghana.  He works with ELAW partners at The Centre for Public Interest Law (CEPIL) in Accra on environmental and forestry issues.

Kwesi and Francis will speak on a panel at the PIELC on Saturday morning entitled “Liberia, Ghana and the U.S.: Collaborating for a Clean Environment.”  ELAW Staff Scientist Mark Chernaik will be the moderator for this panel.

And, attending from the fifth continent, is Andrés Pirazzoli, a partner from Chile who worked with ELAW as an extern during his LL.M. program at the University of Oregon.  Andres will also speak on Saturday morning, discussing “The Energy Trilemma:  Environment, Costs and Reliability,” a panel that will be moderated by ELAW Staff Attorney Jen Gleason.

ELAW Staff member Rita Radostitz will moderate and speak on a panel Saturday morning with Kelly Matheson of Witness.org and Kelli Mathews of Verve Northwest.  The panel will address “Communications that Move People to Act (or Give).”

We are thrilled to welcome these ELAW partners to Eugene and look forward to hearing them speak.  The entire schedule, including exact times and locations, is available on the PIELC website.  We hope to see you there!

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