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CEMDA logoCongratulations to ELAW advocate Alejandra Serrano and her team at the Mexican Environmental Law Center for their work defending communities and Mexico’s Riviera Maya!

ABC News reports:

“Mexican environmental authorities have levied a $555,000 fine against a project to build a massive trade center south of Cancun to showcase Chinese products. The Attorney General for Environmental Protection said late Thursday the fine was for building roads through wetlands and affecting coastal ecosystems without authorization.”

“The communities are saying enough is enough with out-sized development on the coast,” says Alejandra.  “This fine is a good first step. Our case is pending and we hope the Ministry of Environment will apply the new law of environmental responsibility and follow up on the criminal acts exposed in this case.”

Last year, ELAW Staff Scientist Meche Lu reviewed the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and revealed that the EIA lacked information about the scope and size of the project, the location of coastal wetlands within the project area, the impact of paving on the water quality of coastal wetlands, and more.

For more information, see:

We will keep you informed of our progress protecting the Yucatán Peninsula. Thanks for your interest!

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director


We are pleased to announce 10 years of collaboration with Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN) — an inspiring organization of dedicated environmental leaders working to protect Mexico’s Baja California.

DAN attorney Maria Llano stopped by our office last week to celebrate our partnership and discuss the threat of an enormous open pit gold mine proposed for Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve.

Maria Llano (center) meets with ELAW staff

The proposed project would include a desalination plant, a 40-km aqueduct from the coast to the project site, and water-filled ponds for disposing of high volumes of cyanide soaked waste rock.

“The disposal method poses serious risk,” says Mark Chernaik, ELAW Staff Scientist. “The tailings ponds could contaminate water supplies and the local habitat with acid mine drainage, and once the mining operation is over it will be impossible to return the site to its former condition.”

SEMARNAT (Mexico’s EPA) denied permission for the project twice, but a third Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been submitted for an even larger project.

“The new version is worse than the original, calling for disposal of wastes in a thinner slurry that will impact a even larger area of undeveloped land,” says Mark.

ELAW’s science team worked closely with Maria and her colleagues at DAN to review the series of EIAs for the proposed gold mine.

“Now we have to wait until SEMARNAT makes a decision, hopefully rejecting the project again,” says Maria. “If not, we will continue the struggle to promote the rule of law, and protect the biodiversity and the quality of life in the region.

We will keep you informed of our progress in Mexico and around the world to level the playing field for grassroots advocates and local communities.

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director
& Fellows Program Coordinator

Our new ELAW Fellow arrived Saturday night!

Minerva Rosette is an environmental engineer with the Southeast office of Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA, Mexican Center for Environmental Law).  We are collaborating with Minerva to protect communities and coastlines on the Yucatán Peninsula.

During her Fellowship, Minerva will meet with ELAW Staff Scientists to learn about the dangers that herbicides pose to waterways, model protocols for protecting marine fisheries, and protecting fragile soils in Quintana Roo.

Waste management in Mexico is an enormous problem.  Minerva will learn lessons from Eugene’s waste management system on tours of NextStep Recycling, the Glenwood Transfer Station, and Short Mountain Landfill.

Before joining CEMDA, Minerva worked with local communities to conserve the biodiversity of the Sierra Tarahuamara.

We look forward to collaborating with Minerva and connecting her with the global ELAW network!

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

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

ELAW Partner Raquel Gutierrez-Nájera has dedicated her life to protecting Mexico’s ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. She and her team at the Instituto de Derecho Ambiental (IDEA, the the Institute for Environmental Law) recently celebrated a victory for a natural protected area in Zapopan, Jalisco.

Barranca del Rio Santiago

Barranca del Rio Santiago

Zapopan is part of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area and home to approximately one million people. Its government website highlights ecotourism as one of the city’s appealing features. The Barranca del Río Santiago, a 3.5 km wide, 700 meter deep canyon through which the Santiago River flows, is one of Zapopan’s natural attractions.

Recently, the municipality was considering a change in land use designation that would have allowed sludge from the Agua Prieta Residual Water Treatment Plant to be stored within the natural protected area in which the Santiago River is located. According to the project proponent, the Agua Prieta Plant is to be completed in 2013 and will generate an estimated 178 tons of sludge daily.

Raquel Gutierrez Nájera and reporter

Raquel Gutierrez Nájera speaks with a reporter in the Tempizques

IDEA consulted with public service officials who were concerned that the sludge could pose a threat to water quality and biodiversity within the protected area. To accommodate the sludge storage area, buildings within the Tempizques community of Zapopan were leveled and 30 families were displaced.  On August 30th, Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources issued a resolution denying the land use change, stating that it would be inconsistent with the municipal decree that created the protected area and would not be in accordance with the management plan.

Raquel hopes that this victory will set a precedent for protecting the natural environment in Mexico.

Congratulations to the IDEA team!

Melanie Giangreco
Latin America Program Assistant

This week I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, Oregon. In 2004, the ESA, a group of several thousand U.S. and international ecologists, met in Portland, OR. The theme of the conference was “Lessons of Lewis & Clark: Ecological Exploration of Inhabited Landscapes.” Eight years later, we are back in Portland and the theme is “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining our Ecosystem.” One does not need to be a Ph.D.-ecologist to notice the difference in tone.

The bad news is that we are in trouble. We are no longer studying habitats as a kind of curiosity or academic exercise. That was a luxurious time and it is over. Instead, we are focused on life itself: how to preserve and sustain it so that we can survive in the world we have created. The good news is that ecologists know this shift has occurred and, in increasing numbers, are heeding the call to make our research relevant beyond academic circles. This year’s meeting was full of that message.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a world-renown marine ecologist (who studied snails for her PhD, just as I did!), is currently the head of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. During the keynote address, she gave a call to arms, telling audience members that ecologists should not only make their science relevant, but also become politicians, lawyers, teachers, and activists. It was wonderful to hear those words of enthusiastic advice, since Jane has long been a mentor of mine. By coming to work for ELAW I am following her wisdom.

While at the conference, I attended a session entitled, “Linking Ecological Science & Public Policy: Case Studies in Latin America.” The first speaker, Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, a Mexican ecologist at the University of California, Riverside, told the story behind the recent conservation victory in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. A Spanish company received a permit to construct a massive development with 34,000 new rooms in a spectacular marine park. All the other development in the region only totaled 10,000 rooms. This one new permit would have destroyed the marine park, and the fisheries, corals, and incredible biodiversity found within.

Scientific studies have shown that protection of the park since the mid-1990s has enabled fisheries to rebound to levels higher than anyone envisioned. The Park itself has become a kind of diving and tourist shrine and sustainable ecotourism has provided the surrounding community with economic stability. In short, protecting the marine park, which has the only living coral in the Sea of Cortéz, was a brilliant success story about to be lost with a single building permit.

But Dr. Ezcurra and many, many others—among them ELAW partner organizations Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) and Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN)—kept the issue in the media, and kept the fight constant, and in June 2012, the permit was revoked. It was a day to rejoice.

Dr. Ezcurra reminded us that, as scientists, we have an opportunity and an obligation to go beyond publishing cool papers about snails eating algae. Though current academic and social systems may not reward us for protecting wild lands rather than publishing important papers, we can and must pay attention to what is happening around us.

That sense of responsibility—and excitement about our new role in society—was palpable at this year’s meeting. It would be a mistake for ecologists to give up, and this meeting left me with hope and certainty that we never will.

Heidi Weiskel
ELAW Staff Scientist

Mangroves in Belize

The Mesoamerican Reef is shared by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  ELAW  is working with grassroots advocates in each of these countries on a coordinated effort to protect marine resources.

“Our partners in Belize and Guatemala are on the verge of permanently protecting hundreds of square miles of important marine habitat,” says Lori Maddox, ELAW Associate Director. “Their good work is creating a linked chain of diverse, biological storehouses that will help revitalize a dying fishery and sustain the flow of tourist dollars to the entire region.”

Lori and ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel traveled to Belize this month for a workshop with partners to advance this initiative.

Read about their visit in Ambergris Today, a Belize newspaper.

Maggie Keenan
ELAW Communications Director

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

Raquel Gutiérrez Nájera, an environmental lawyer, professor, and founder of IDEA (Instituto de Derecho Ambiental)

I am in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico working on a very large mesquite table that this office has inherited from its previous owner. The large beautiful wooden table which would take at least ten strong men to move sits in the middle of the office. There are lovely paintings and hand carved wooden masks on the walls from Mexico and Bolivia; art from Central and South America intermingles with the computers, files, phones, and printers, making this more than a welcoming place to work. This was the home of Dr. Raquel Gutiérrez Nájera, an environmental lawyer, professor, writer, theorist, and idol to many old and new activists in Mexico and abroad. She has provided this house to IDEA (Instituto de Derecho Ambiental), the public interest environmental law group which she founded in 1997. Now they have a rent free existence and the security to continue working in Jalisco, as well as other Mexican states. While her role at the organization has evolved, she is still acting President of the organization and plays key roles in important litigation efforts.

Today is one of those days; most of the lawyers including Raquel are out on an official court visit to Arcediano, the site of a proposed dam project which they have been fighting for more than six years on behalf of Señora Lupita Lara, the plaintiff in this case. By now Lupita Lara has seen neighbors bought out and relocated, the historic Arcediano Bridge destroyed and her own home demolished. Yet she is firm in her commitment to this fight against this badly planned, environmentally detrimental and politically charged state project. Even though the environmental permit for this dam project has been revoked, lawsuits claiming reparations and damages to Lupita Lara are still pending.

The goal of today’s field work in Arcediano is not only to assess the current condition of the site where construction for the dam was halted last year. But also to bring scientific experts to assess the viability of the project within the river basin as originally set forth, to provide evidence in the lawsuit challenging the expropriation of Lupita Lara’s land. This case is still ongoing and thus payment of damages and reparation to Señora Lara has yet to be decided. A phone call just came in; they are driving back from the river, tired and a bit dusty but optimistic about the outing.

IDEA Staff and me (third from left) at IDEA's office

This is just one aspect of the many things IDEA and Raquel have done regionally to defend people’s rights to water and property, while also creating policy and the necessary awareness of all environmental issues. I am here because I was invited to speak at the First International Conference on Environmental Health (I Congreso Internacional de Salud Ambiental), a four day event which brought together scientists, activists, defenders, government, students and citizens. The main goal of this conference was to understand the deep link between the environment and public health, and the tools necessary to achieve this in practice. Mainly, how environmental devastation has direct and long-lasting effects to ecosystems and habitat, but also direct consequences to the health, livelihood and well being of individuals, their families and communities.

In presenting five international litigation cases from ELAW, I was able to show how activists around the world have called on ELAW for crucial scientific support to provide evidence in their litigation. From community workshops, sample collection and analysis, to giving critical assessments and testimony, the work of scientists Meche Lu and Mark Chernaik has supported focused community efforts. These cases include: untreated sewage in Chacras de la Merced, Argentina; pesticides and agrochemicals from palm oil production in San Lorenzo, Ecuador; arsenic and lead poisoning waste in Arica, Chile; industrial waste and pollution from paper mills in Webuye, Kenya; and air contamination from steel production in Cherepovets, Russia. While this represents a sample of very diverse legal strategies by local advocates, it is clear how environmental justice issues move forward when we have the science to back them up, no matter which legal avenue is taken. The many students from the school of Health Sciences as well as those from Law school were nodding while I spoke; the seeds which IDEA and Raquel have been planting in Guadalajara and Mexico have definitely fallen on fertile ground.

Carla García Zendejas
Tijuana, Baja California, México

No matter what your line of work, I bet you wish you had a group of colleagues you could always count on for professional advice, support and brainstorming.  In this day and age, it seems we all have ‘friends’ online who we can call on for opinions through Facebook, Twitter, etc.  But years ago, in the age before Google and social networks, ELAW was using email to make these connections. And still is.

Email had the power –and still does– to connect continents. This was incredibly useful for fledgling environmental attorneys all over the world in the 90’s.  Having this technological marvel at our disposal was one thing, one great thing, but counting on environmental attorneys from around the world for advice was quite another. This was ELAW.

Sometime in the fall of 1999 I was immersed in grassroots work to enact our new environmental legislation in Baja California.  This was a daunting task, not only resulting from the number of community groups involved, or the meetings at the Capital with congressional officials, but mainly because we wanted to cement our law in new principles: access to information, access to participation basic right to know mechanisms for all within the law.

No one knew that I had a secret weapon at my disposal: attorneys from around the world going through the same sweeping changes in legislation, just an email away, through ELAW.  And yes they came to my rescue, with language, with ideas, and concepts which should be included in the law, including a marvelous manual on Good Practices in Access to Information written by a lovely and giving attorney from Spain named Fe Sanchis Moreno.

Fe’s document became our bible and pointed us in the right direction.  It took as much political will as the many hours we spent in meetings all over the state, and the law was passed a year later.

Last Wednesday, the Baja California Legislature finally approved reform to our State Transparency Law, which had also faced much resistance.  Although Mexico has gone through deep evolution regarding transparency and accountability which are now fortified in our Constitution, individual states have struggled with the details, the practicality, the tools and the will to implement these rights.

We are delighted to be celebrating this new generation of transparency laws but I cannot help but remember the beginnings.  Overarching changes come from many sides; grassroots efforts and political alliances throughout Mexico created our Transparency Law in 2002, yet each state, each municipality, has experienced a different path.  Environmental legislation and Right to Know principles have gone hand in hand since the Rio Declaration* so it is no surprise that I am reminded of these times years ago when countries around the world were pushing for transforming legislation.

The certainty that external factors and pressure are essential to change is clear, but the importance of global networks sharing information and critical concepts to provoke this change is just as valuable.  So, now as the power of the internet is scrutinized for its ease to damage and hurt people deeply, which I will not deny, we should not forget that this marvelous tool can be a profound instrument of change.  If the question of how we can all do better with this great instrument also depends on a social networking revolution, then let us begin!  Because there is no time to prepare for it, we are late in meeting this technology with the maturity it demands from us.

Carla García Zendejas
Tijuana, Baja California, México

*UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro 1992, also known as The Earth Summit.

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