E-LAW’s Big Impact

When a multinational oil company sends natural gas flares into the air in Nigeria, or a factory dumps chemicals into Mexico’s Lake Chapala, will local environmentalists be able to harness the legal clout to get the pollution stopped? They will if they work with the Eugene, Oregon-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW).

E-LAW partners in South Africa at the Legal Resources Centre are representing members of a community who oppose a proposed toxic waste incinerator.© Peter Upfold/Caxtons Newspapers Group

E-LAW’s nine staff members have a disproportionate impact around the world. Since its founding in 1989 by grassroots lawyers from 10 countries, the organization has grown into a network connecting 300 lawyers and scientists in 60 countries.

"The idea was that lawyers should stop reinventing the wheel," says E-LAW Communications Director Maggie Keenan. "It made sense to pool our resources internationally to go up against big polluters, which often have large legal teams. The science is universal. The effluent from a tannery’s drainpipe has the same health effects on drinking water anywhere in the world."

E-LAW’s two staff attorneys collect a huge amount of frequent flyer miles traveling to countries where local lawyers need legal help. The lawyers are aided by "circuit riders" with expertise in technology and science.

Staff attorney Jennifer Gleason, a 10-year E-LAW veteran, says she became a lawyer specifically to help countries abroad fight the depredations of multinational corporations. She recently returned from a trip that took her to Rwanda, Liberia, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya. Finding environmentally oriented attorneys wasn’t always easy. "There were so many lawyers killed in Rwanda’s ethnic war that the country has very few left, even 10 years later," says Gleason. "We ended up walking around Kigali, looking for green stickers in windows." Just such a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sticker led Gleason to Richard Mugisha, a Rwandan attorney interested in water issues.

E-LAW gets results. In Mexico, it helped draft petitions to compel the government to enforce environmental laws. In Chile, its work helped cancel three dams that would have flooded old-growth forests. In Peru, it works to reduce children’s exposure to lead emissions from a U.S.-owned smelter.

In India, E-LAW helped force a polluter to clean up mercury waste, and aided attorney M.C. Mehta (a subsequent winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize) in his efforts to phase out leaded gasoline. Overcoming the government’s argument that such a switch would be ruinously expensive, Mehta was able to provide U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents demonstrating that the cost is only pennies per gallon.

E-LAW Executive Director Bern Johnson helped the University of Teheran create the country’s first environmental law program. Later, E-LAW provided Iranian environmental activist and professor Victoria Jamali with information about the threat posed by the gasoline additive MTBE. "I can’t imagine a culture more different from ours, but you get there and see that the Iranian people have a deep concern about the environment," Johnson told the Harvard Law Bulletin.