Online, lawyers fight for the Earth

Sunday Oregonian Online, lawyers fight for the Earth

March 3, 2002


EUGENE -- Kenyan environmental lawyer Nixon Sifuna wanted to fight his government`s plan to log a massive chunk of the country`s woodlands. Indian attorney M.C. Mehta wanted to clean up pollution along his country`s revered Ganges River. Residents on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, wanted help fighting a proposed hazardous waste incinerator. Although separated by language, culture and thousands of miles, these individuals and hundreds more have found crucial scientific and legal counsel via their membership in E-LAW, a Eugene-based nonprofit that has set up an electronic communication network that links public interest environmental lawyers around the world.

Begun in 1989 with members from 10 countries, the nonprofit`s on-line network now links more than 300 lawyers in 60 countries. The closed network serves as a daily conference room where members -- they refer to each other as "amigos" -- request assistance from each other on cases that involve issues such as auto emissions, waste disposal, water contamination, mining practices and power plant construction. The amigos also use the network to post updates, answer queries and celebrate legal victories.

"It was a horizontal network from the beginning," said E-LAW executive director Bern Johnson. "The lawyers end up collaborating with each other, not just turning to the U.S. for help. The idea is, you help your colleagues; they`re going to help you."

Rather than fight globalization, Johnson said E-LAW`s response is to help create a parallel global movement that helps individuals create and strengthen environmental laws in their own countries. Using the Internet to foster this effort, Johnson said, "is fast, cost-effective and high-impact."

The idea for the network was conceived by a group of international lawyers who met at the annual public interest environmental law conference at the University of Oregon.

John Bonine and Mike Axline, two UO law professors who ran what was then the school`s Environmental Law Clinic, and local Eugene activist Mary O`Brien then sought funding. A $500,000 grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation financed the program for its first three years.

E-LAW, now with a $1 million annual budget financed through private foundations and donations, does not itself approach member countries to offer aid. Requests for help come from individual members. The approach, Johnson said, "strengthens lawyers in their home countries. They can tap legal and scientific tools from all over the world to make their work more effective."

The network provides a constant stream of news about cases involving toxic contamination, threats to bio-diversity and other assaults on the environment, often in countries that are beset by other social and political problems. The relentless news can be depressing, Johnson said. "But the victories trickle in."

E-LAW members in Belize used information provided by the network to persuade the government to abandon plans to build a landfill in an environmentally fragile area. South African members were able to derail plans to build the waste incinerator outside of Cape Town.

This past December, members in Nepal won a legal battle protesting garbage disposal along the banks of the Bagmati River.

"With the help of E-LAW I was able to convince our Supreme Court that the right to healthy environment is a fundamental right of the citizens," wrote Prakash Mani Sharma in an e-mail. Sharma is senior staff attorney with a public interest litigation group in Nepal. "The network is very unique as, besides our professional work, we share personal feelings and support each other. It is a big international family."

E-LAW`s eight-person staff -- including office personnel, computer technicians, two attorneys and a biochemist who is also a lawyer -- researches legal issues, provides technical help and helps members link up with scientists around the world. The office answers about 400 requests for help a year.

In addition, high-tech "circuit riders" in Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Uruguay teach members in their continents how to use electronic communications equipment and help keep it running smoothly.

E-LAW`s Eugene office has hosted more than 60 work exchange fellows in the past several years. Each spends from one to six months in Eugene studying English, receiving technological training and meeting with environmental non-profits. They also travel around the Northwest and see environmental successes and failures. "Sometimes they are disappointed and surprised," Johnson said. "They learn that we have some of the same challenges that they have."

Victoria Jamali, an Iranian citizen activist who is launching that country`s first environmental law program, was a recent fellow.

Raquel Gutierrez Najera of Guadalajara, Mexico, came to Eugene last year to tap resources to help in her work to protect Lake Chapala, one of Mexico`s most significant watersheds.

This winter, E-LAW is hosting Mutuso Dhliwayo, an environmental attorney from Zimbabwe who is setting up that country`s first environmental law organization. Mutuso will be speaking at the upcoming Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon, March 7-10.

The E-LAW network, said law professor Tom Ankersen, "has led to the development of a shared international jurisprudence of environmental law -- the use of legal theories and even case precedents across political boundaries." Ankersen teaches at the Center for Governmental Responsibility at the University of Florida`s Levin College of Law.

Network amigos also look out for each other. Environmental activists are seen as trouble-makers in some countries, and the network is able to react quickly when one of its members is subject to harassment by state or local authorities.

Environmental law is gaining more power globally as people begin to realize that human rights and a healthy environment are inextricably linked, Johnson said: "People have a basic right to breathe air that doesn`t make them sick, to have water they can drink and to have their children grow up free from toxic contamination."

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