Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 158 | Septiembre 1994



Laws and Electronic mail: an Alternative of Struggle

An international network begins to coordinate effectively the lawyers and scientists who support struggles for the environmental law and the rights of poor people.

Byron Real López

Traditionally, laws have neglected both community interests and the interests of nature and the environment. Their role has thus been viewed with mistrust by social activists throughout the world. Laws have guaranteed the permanence of unjust systems by which wealth is distributed, the incorrect use of natural resources, and tense relations among social and racial groups and between the sexes. Under the auspices of existing laws in different countries throughout the world, great injustices have been done against peasants, workers, women and indigenous peoples. Law has also gone against nature.

This longstanding negligence is being rectified through alternatives uses of the law: lawyers on the side of grassroots causes are creatively using legal norms to favor those social groups that have previously had few possibilities of gaining access to justice.

A Ghost Traveling the Third World

The anguished rush of third world countries to achieve "development" has resulted in the palpable destruction of the economies of natural processes and of human survival.

Over history, our countries have ceded their natural and social resources in the belief that, in exchange, the capitalist system would provide the much heralded "economic development" in the wake of which would come social, cultural and technological development, along with much, much more. In this process, exaggerated privilege has been given to the unequal distribution of wealth, the exploitation of man by man and the destruction of nature, all seen as requisites to achieving progress. There has thus been a break with the planet's ecological harmony and with the social harmony of traditional human groupings. By ignoring or underestimating these two vital economies that of natural process and that of human survival development has become a threat to the equilibrium of the ecological system and the survival of the human race.

The natural ecosystems existing in the countries of the South and the harmonious native peoples who inhabit those countries are exponents of these two vital economies. Due to a life style based on the pillaging of resources and energy, these two aspects of planetary life are being fatally threatened by a feverish exploitation of natural resources, incorrect use of the elements and environmental resources and the subsequent destruction of nature.

Along with the destruction of these two harmonious forms of natural and social organization, our countries' entire political and economic system is being threatened as well. Our countries are seeing their cities degraded, along with the countryside, their waters and the general quality of life. A number of other critical situations also affect our countries, caused by what are referred to as "hidden externalities" of the capitalist system: pollution, deforestation and desertification; the loss of biodiversity; the accumulation of toxic wastes; and other calamities that, day by day, poison and strip the poor countries of the world.

Common Crises, Separate Efforts

The concrete results of the economic and technical aggression that the capitalist system exercises over diverse countries around the planet are similar. The foreign debt, overexploitation of resources, deforestation and the destruction of the environment of life of indigenous people's lives are just a few of the problems our countries face today.

Unfortunately, the struggle to oppose these forms of economic aggression has been waged in an isolated form, without the needed knowledge about the scope of the environmental and social impact they cause at both the local and global levels. On one of the levels of struggle at which this threat can be challenged the judicial, with lawyers working in the public or popular interest there has not been yet an international experience of bringing it all together or coordinating efforts.

The difficulties in coordinating popular struggles with similar objectives among the different countries are, among others: the high cost and slowness of communications; lack of participation in these efforts by people really familiar with the legislation and policies of each country and the virtual impossibility of finding concrete legal, scientific and/or economic evidence that irrefutably demonstrates the legitimacy of the struggle being carried out by a given grassroots group.

Lawyers and Law in the Public Interest

As a strong force for social change, lawyers are beginning to appear who represent those who defend the environment or women's rights, those who promote civic rights as well as those of the dispossessed. They are called "lawyers in the public interest" and act under the assumption that citizens' lives must be defended, avoiding social situations that cut it short, degrade it or threaten it, such as physical and psychological attacks on women, the destruction of indigenous peoples' habitats, contamination of water resources, deforestation, the installation of industrial contaminants and many others.

These lawyers defend those social groups that lack adequate legal representation or the opportunity to consult technical experts who can evaluate the social, economic and ecological impact that an event or situation would have on the environment.

The law is an effective weapon in grassroots struggles or in the defense of public and/or common interest if utilized at the right time and in the right place to impede actions that directly or indirectly work against the physical base of people's well being. Four recent examples illustrate the effectiveness of public interest law:
* Ecuadorian environmental activists from the Corporation for the Defense of Life (CORDAVI) sued TEXACO at the International Water Tribunal in Amsterdam, Holland, for its negligent attitude in the Ecuadorian Amazon region. The trial, held in 1992, condemned TEXACO's activities, which had led to ecocide in the Amazon with the spilling of millions of barrels of oil and water mixed with toxic residue over a two decade period. This case is a precursor to others recently introduced in the United States.

* Texas Crude, a US petroleum company, requested permission from the Peruvian government to exploit petroleum in an ecological reserve in that country, violating Peru's recently promulgated environmental code. This reserve, known as Pacayas Samiria, is one of the last refuges of the Amazonian sea cows and has an extraordinary variety of fish, turtles, dolphins, birds and other species, many of them native to the area. Peruvian lawyers requested information about the company's environmental record, and thus discovered numerous violations of the law. They used those violations to demand that the government prohibit the company's planned exploitation in the forest reserve. As a consequence of their actions, Texas Crude abandoned its project in the Pacaya Samiria reserve.

* Imminent lumber activity in the Chaelundi state forests in South New Gales, Australia threatened the habitat of 23 already endangered animal species. A group of Australian public interest lawyers did a study of the dangers of extinction to the species living in the forest where the lumber activity was planned. Using irrefutable scientific proof, these lawyers got the courts in the area to stop both the lumber project and a road that would have cut through the Chaelundi forest, since both projects would have violated legal provisions regarding endangered species.

* In exchange for a loan from Taiwan, the Nicaraguan government gave a private Taiwanese company a huge forestry concession, permitting it to cut a million acres of tropical lumber and export it to Asia. Lawyers for the Nicaraguan public interest, representing citizens of that country, opposed the concession. An investigation into the company's environmental background made it clear that the company lacked the experience to adequately carry out such a project. This generated international opposition, which forced the Nicaraguan government to reject the project, thus saving the tropical forest.

In all of these examples, the alternative use of law allowed situations contradictory to the public interest to be corrected or avoided. And it was all done peacefully, using the same mechanisms used by political and economic power.

Environmental Law: A Specialty

One of the most important components of law in the public interest is environmental law. This legal specialty has, over the last three years, undergone an interesting experience involving the participation of grassroots lawyers from more than 30 countries across all the continents.

It is well known that environmental and ecological destruction respects no borders; its threats transcend countries, regions and continents. Nevertheless, lawyers working to confront these problems in different parts of the globe are often unable to obtain the legal and scientific information necessary to neutralize even those cases of destruction in which the causal factor can be identified.

The polluting and degrading effects on nature are frequently suffered mainly by peasant, indigenous, marginalized and poor populations whose leaders or lawyers have no access to legal or scientific proof to condemn these activities. Such organizations and legal professionals working for grassroots causes are isolated and without sufficient scientific foundation to take on an oppressive legal apparatus, fatally opposed to the interests of the majorities.

World Lawyers' Alliance

The need to break this isolation and also allow public interest lawyers to gain access to scientific and specialized legal information that transcends political borders sparked the creation of the Worldwide Environmental Law Alliance, or E Law.

Through E Law, lawyers thoroughly familiar with local legislation and policies can share and request legal and scientific information or legal precedents; publicize charges and denunciations; create solidarity networks; exchange experiences with lawyers from other parts of the world who share their environmental and legal perspective.

E Law today has offices in 13 countries: Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and the United States. The E Law network is complemented by associated lawyers, scientists and professors throughout the world: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, England, Germany, Guatemala, Holland, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Africa and Uruguay, among others.

The 13 E Law offices, as well as the associated scientists and lawyers are brought together through electronic mail, which allows them to receive and send rapid information at very low cost.

Thanks to E Law, a number of legal processes have been followed up on, including a number of victorious ones, in places including Australia, Ecuador, Malaysia, Peru and Sri Lanka. By the same token, attempts to destroy national parks and indigenous territories in a range of countries have been denounced through the organization's electronic network, which has allowed for the mobilization of public opinion against this kind of activity.

How Does E Law Work?

The Worldwide Environmental Law Alliance works through various electronic "conferences" designed so that each member or network user can communicate simultaneously with the others. One such conference, elaw.amigos@conf.igc.apc.org, is used by lawyers, professors and scientists in over 20 countries around the world.

The heart of this network is elaw.amigos, which is one of E Law's conferences. Individual lawyers and organizations in over 30 countries communicate through this conference. If someone wanted information about a specific topic for instance toxic waste trafficking they would have to write letters to a number of people. But, on the E Law conference, a message can be posted and potentially read in 30 countries, so that a concern about toxic waste trafficking would receive responses from a wide range of people reading the conference.

How to Request Information

Requests for scientific and legal information are always welcome. We require the following information in order to research a requested topic:
* Explanation of the environmental issues around which your organization is working.

* Explanation of the meaning that the topic to be investigated has for environmental law in your country: how will the requested information be used legal processes, administrative petition to authorities, etc.

* Will the information legal or scientific that you are trying to obtain make the difference in winning your case?
* What scientific or technical information are you requesting? Be as specific as possible.

* Any background on the case you are able to provide.

* How would you like the requested information?
A list of documents from which you can choose the
articles that you need.

General information.

Advice or ideas from experts on these matters.

Names of experts that you may contact.

Articles, documents or separata that the E Law office
feels will be of use.

An E Law research document summing up the best
available information.

Testimony for court use.

* Date by which you would like to receive the information.

* What other organizations you are working with on this matter.

* Name and address (electronic and postal) of the institution, as well as of the requesting organization's lawyer and scientific adviser.

For more information, you may contact:
E LAW Ecuador,
Casilla Postal 17 12 309
Quito, Ecuador.

Telephone: 221 791 225 029.

Fax: 593 2 225 029
Electronic mail: elaw.public.interest@conf.igc.apc.org

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