Environmental Law Alliance Blossoms

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), May 12, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Environmental Law Alliance Blossoms


Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

The call for help came in through the electronic ether from Mexico. An environmental lawyer working to update the nation's water protection laws needed to know what other countries were doing.

She e-mailed the query to the Eugene-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, and before the day was over, she'd heard from peers in Colombia, Costa Rica, Spain, Peru and Argentina.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the alliance works. The nonprofit network electronically connects about 400 public interest environmental lawyers in 60 countries to protect fragile ecosystems.

The give-and-take plays out daily in a clutch of offices tucked back among graceful bamboo and enormous sequoias in east Eugene.

It also plays out at an annual conference, where the network's participants meet to brainstorm, build relationships and recognize emerging challenges. E-LAW's Executive Director Bern Johnson leaves Thursday for Ukraine to meet with about 30 of the network's participants at this year's session.

Unlike typical law conferences where experts in a field give prepared speeches, E-LAW's gatherings feature "project circles" with lawyers sharing their current work.

"Nobody has prepared anything," Johnson said. "Nobody's going to give a speech. One lawyer's going to say, `I'm working on challenging a pulp mill and I need help,' and everyone else is going to say, `Oh, really? I did a case like that last year.' ' Pretty soon, the experienced lawyers are passing on the wisdom they've gained.

UO conference sparks alliance

E-LAW was born in 1989 when lawyers from 10 countries met at the University of Oregon's annual environmental law conference, recognized common ground in their individual struggles and realized that they probably could help each other out.

Their timing couldn't have been better. The Internet had just given birth to e-mail. It's hard to imagine now, but back then the notion that lawyers in Sri Lanka could communicate almost instantly with lawyers in the United States, Japan or India was heady stuff.

UO law professors Michael Axline and John Bonine helped found E-LAW in 1990 with a $500,000 start-up grant from the environmentally focused W. Alton Jones Foundation. Members in eight countries agreed to share information, but back then, the biggest challenge was just getting the offices wired.

"For a long time we were schlepping modems around the world," Johnson said.

Once they were hooked up, E-LAW participants could share relevant case law and science that focused on the common ground of similar environmental problems rather than on the different laws and court proceedings of individual countries.

For example, when Tanzanian lawyer Vincent Shauri challenged efforts to establish prawn farms in Rufiji Delta, which would have cut down almost 25,000 acres of mangroves in wetlands providing habitat to migratory birds, E-LAW partners in India and Latin America described negative environmental impacts from prawn farming projects in their countries to help him buttress his case.

That was in 1997 and represented Shauri's first environmental lawsuit in Tanzania, Shauri said in an e-mail interview.

More recently, E-LAW contacts have helped Tanzanian activists challenge the conversion of a fertilizer plant to a petroleum depot. Shauri and other activists want the project to include environmental safeguards.

"The detailed legal and scientific responses that you get are incredible," he said. "When a network is driven by people with passion for their work, you expect and get the best."

In Chile, environmental lawyers recently sought help blocking rainforest logging, said Jose Pinochet, executive director of a public interest environmental agency there.

That isn't the only kind of help E-LAW provides, Pinochet said by e-mail. The network brought him and a colleague to Eugene to study English for three months here.

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