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Central America is home to breathtaking beaches, islands, mountains, and forests.  Unfortunately, proposed mining threatens many of these natural treasures.

Panama river

Sediment laden water flows from the river to the reef.

ELAW Board Member and mining expert Glenn Miller traveled to Panama and Honduras last week to collaborate with ELAW partners at the Environmental Advocacy Center (Centro de Incidencia Ambiental, CIAM) and the Environmental Law Institute (Instituto de Derecho Ambiental de Honduras, IDAMHO) to protect communities and the environment from mining industry abuses.

In Panama, Glenn flew by helicopter to see first hand the destruction caused by copper and gold mines.

We followed the erosion to the coast and saw a large plume of sediment that was being sent to the coral reef…  We also saw a reportedly bankrupt gold mine that had ponds that were near overflowing and no real management of the excess water,” said Glenn.

Open mine

Open pit mine

In both countries, Glenn met with regulators, public health experts, NGO staff, and community members interested in learning about the real impact of mining operations.  Photos from his helicopter tour make clear the hazards of unregulated mining.

It has been amazing and a great success to have Glenn in Panama,” says Sonia Montenegro.  “CIAM staff and the conference participants keep talking about how much they learned.

Public interest attorneys communicating with the government and affected communities are key to protecting the environment through law and key to ELAW’s work.  Courageous ELAW partners like the team at CIAM are working to prevent and remedy mining abuses and ensure that all Panamanians and Hondurans have access to a healthy, clean environment.

Michele Kuhnle
Donor Liaison

When tourists visit Panama, they enjoy the beaches, islands, and mountain forests.  ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel was in Panama this month with a different agenda.

Heidi used her marine ecologist’s eye to take in what’s threatening Panama’s natural environment.  She joined ELAW partners to tour a new highway project that has cut through Panama Bay, the site of a proposed mega-port near Colon, and the site of a gold and copper mine that threatens the Tonosi and Quema Rivers on the Azuero Peninsula.

 
   Heidi (right) and ELAW partners in Panama

“The coral reefs and mangroves in the area where ‘Puerto Verde’ is planned are showing very important signs of recovery from oil spills in the 1980s,” says Heidi.  “If this ‘green port’ — a miserable misnomer — goes forward, the mangroves will be cut and the seabed, including the reefs, will be dredged.  We met with subsistence fishermen and farmers in the area and none of them want the port.”

ELAW is working with partners at El Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM), Centro de Asistencia Legal Popular Programa para Refugiados, MarViva Panama, and Derechos Humanos, Ambiente y Comunidades to ensure that communities and grassroots advocates have the information they need to make their voices heard and protect Panama for future generations.

In February, we will welcome CIAM Staff Attorney Luisa Arauz for a two-week ELAW Fellowship.  Luisa developed an interest in nature and international issues at a young age from her father, a nature guide, and her mother, a diplomat.  Luisa will work one-on-one with ELAW staff and participate in the 2014 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference where she will speak about access to information and participation in environmental impact studies of proposed hydroelectric dams and genetically-modified salmon projects.
Maggie Keenan
ELAW Communications Director
& Fellows Program Coordinator

Visiting the landfill construction zone

When our partners at the Centro de Incidencia Ambiental in Panama (CIAM, called “the Environmental Advocacy Center” in English) emailed to ask what size rubber boots I wear, I was thrilled. As a marine ecologist, rubber boots mean fieldwork! Tromping around in the mud investigating marine species–fishes, crabs, birds, mangroves, and other great stuff–I could hardly wait to explore Panama’s rich marine biodiversity with our CIAM colleagues.

But upon our arrival into Panama City, Felix Wing and Tania Arosemena, (CIAM Executive Director and Legal Coordinator, respectively) met my colleague (ELAW Executive Director, Bern Johnson) and me with some tough news: all of Panama Bay’s mangroves–those spectacular, valuable species that Panamanians are fortunate to have growing right in their city–had just lost their protected status per order of a court. The court cleared the way for tourist and commercial development that would destroy one of the greatest places for birds to gather in the world. We would still be going to the field but we weren’t going to see protected biodiversity or natural wonders. We were going to a massive mangrove destruction and landfill construction zone that CIAM is working to challenge.

Bulldozers remove mangroves

It was striking, walking through piles of trash with the bulldozers tearing down mangroves in the distance, and looking down to see crab claws and dead fish under our feet–evidence that only a short while ago a tidal creek, with mangroves stretching high into the sky, had flowed where we stood.

We’ll be writing more about what we learned from our CIAM colleagues and what we (and you!) can do about protecting Panama’s mangroves…and why mangroves are such important species for humans and nonhuman species, alike. Look for our Summer newsletter, coming out soon.

Heidi W. Weiskel
Staff Scientist

World Water Day was established at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. It is a day to focus international attention on the factors contributing the world’s safe drinking water and sanitation crisis.

This year’s theme, Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge is highlighting the staggering increase in urbanization among the worlds poorest population, and how lacking city infrastructure is not meeting the clean water needs of communities.

According to the United Nations:

“Today, one in two people on the planet live in a city. 93% of the urbanization occurs in poor or developing countries, and nearly 40% of the world’s urban expansion is growing slums. The central problem is therefore the management of urban water and waste. Piped water coverage is declining in many settings, and the poor people get the worst services, yet paying the highest water prices.”

According to the Coalition for World Water Day“one out of every eight people lacks safe drinking water and two out of every five people lack adequate sanitation.” We all know water is fundamental to life and that access to clean water is a basic human right. And while some contributing factors are certainly related to poor sanitation, we must remember that there are other reasons that people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water.

Gold mine tailings disposal

Over the years, ELAW has worked with partners around the world to perform water quality tests that provide communities with the information they need to seek justice and win access to clean water.

Last year, ELAW worked with partners in Panama to test water quality downstream from a large gold mine.  ELAW partners in Belize are fighting to protect the Macal River, a source of drinking water, from the effects of a large dam. With surface water quality analysis, ELAW partners in Guatemala, are helping community members understand the science behind community health problems associated with nearby mining activity. ELAW worked with partners in the Philippines in 2008 to close illegal connections to a storm drain that were allowing raw sewage into drinking water. As in other parts of the Amazon, multinational oil companies have been drilling for oil and dumping by-products into Peru’s Corrientes River since the 1970s. ELAW helped perform the first independent water quality analysis, and in 2006, the largest offending oil company signed an agreement to stop dumping in the river and invest in cleanup.

Achuar march for clean water (PHOTO: FECONACO, Racimos de Ungurahui)

These are just a few examples of how numerous industries and multinationals are polluting and privatizing our earth’s freshwater supplies, and many times, in poor communities where regulations are weak and access to clean water is already at risk.

ELAW joins communities around the world calling for swift access to clean water for everyone. We will continue to support the work of local advocates who are fighting for the right to clean air and water for everyone.

Lauren Ice
Office Manager

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

Tropical Broadleaf Evergreen Lowlands Forest, Panama, Aerial View (Cobre Panama project EIA)

The Canadian-owned Minera Panama S.A. (a subsidiary of Inmet Mining) has plans to develop a 5,600-hectare mine in the middle of dense tropical forest in the province of Colón, Panama. The company is now waiting for the green light from the Panamanian government. If approved, the Cobre Panama project would be the biggest private venture in the country, and with an initial $5 billion investment estimate, it could be even more costly than the Panama Canal expansion project. According to Inmet Mining’s press release, once operations begin in 2015, the project is expected to produce “289,000 tonnes of copper and 108,000 ounces of gold per year (open pit) during the first 16 years of a 30 year mine life.”

Although the government has not approved the EIA for the mining project, it has granted the mining company other permits and on November 8, 2010, Inmet announced on its website that it had awarded a contract to an engineering and construction group for work on the Cobre Panama project. Inmet seems optimistic, but ELAW partners at Centro de Incidencia Ambiental de Panama (CIAM) are fighting back. They have called on me and Meche Lu to review the 14,913-page, 40-volume Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and offer our critique. The EIA was prepared for Minera Panama at a cost of $19 million by over 100 contractors. We have until the end of this month to submit our comments!

From our initial review, Meche and I agree that the project is a wretchedly bad idea – among other things, mining activities will permanently uproot several thousand acres of tropical forest in the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. We are not alone in our concerns. In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) passed a resolution warning of the grave social and environmental impacts of open-pit mining in the Mesoamerican region and calling on Central American governments to “cancel current open-pit metal mining exploration and exploitation.”

ELAW Partners Mariana Mendez and Joana Abrego, an environmental engineer and lawyer (respectively) with CIAM, visited ELAW this year and worked closely with Meche and me. They are part of the team that has worked with concerned community groups in Panama challenging the nearby Molejon Gold Mine, which is contaminating rivers and destroying biodiversity. They are confident that the Cobre Panama project, if approved, will have similar devastating effects on the environment and local communities.

We remain hopeful that if decision-makers in Panama understand the long-term costs of permanently uprooting several thousand acres of tropical forest, they will set aside the Cobre Panama project.

Mark Chernaik
ELAW Staff Scientist

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