Ecosystems Get Their Day in Court: Specialized Judges and Lawyers Will Tackle Complex Environmental Cases

Article excerpt

Forests and animals can't hire lawyers, but they can still get representation under the law in many countries, thanks to new courts that specialize in environmental matters, according to the World Resources Institute.

"Environmental courts" were few in the 1970s, but they have since grown to more than 350 tribunals distributed across 41 countries.

China created 15 such courts in 2008-2009, while the Philippines redesignated 117 existing general courts as environmental courts within that same time frame.

According to George Pring, law professor at the University of Denver's Environmental Law Clinic, China established its courts due to citizens' mounting opposition to air and water pollution.

"In China, you have a situation where the local lake, river, or reservoir oftentimes becomes so polluted by factories that the fishing economy is destroyed and people can't use water for washing or drinking," Pring told THE FUTURIST. "The situation got so bad that local authorities insisted on environmental courts."

Pring's Environmental Law Clinic trains law students to be environment-specific lawyers. Student-instructor teams representing plaintiffs in environmental lawsuits on a pro-bono basis have won cases to protect many endangered wildlife species, and they successfully sued to thwart construction of a natural-gas terminal at a biologically diverse area in the Coronado Islands, near Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The United States has very few environmental courts, while Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, Sudan, and Thailand have all created environmental courts in recent years.

Sweden has local environmental courts, as well as national courts to which plaintiffs can appeal the local decisions. A windmill company received approval from the Umea Environmental Court to build 19 mountaintop windmills near Umea, Sweden, but the county government opposed their construction and re-filed suit with the national Environmental Court of Appeal. This appeals court approved 14 of the 19 windmills, concluding that the remaining five posed too many environmental risks.

"Environmental courts are such a great way to ensure that your country has sustainable development that doesn't affect the social or health futures of later generations," says Pring. …

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