Giving Communities a Voice

Miskitu spiritual guide
A Miskitu spiritual guide uses a conch to call the community to a meeting.

Many indigenous peoples around the world live on their traditional lands, which are often the most biodiverse places on earth. Sadly, indigenous communities are under more pressure than ever from governments and corporations seeking oil, minerals, timber, and cheap electricity. This "development" wreaks havoc on ecosystems and often leaves a toxic legacy. ELAW is working with indigenous leaders throughout Latin America and around the world to give communities a voice, protect natural resources, and challenge polluters. A few examples of our recent work illustrate how ELAW is leveling the playing field and helping win victories for communities, human rights, and the global environment. Protecting indigenous lands in Nicaragua Miskitu lawyer Lottie Cunningham Wren is the founder of the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. She is working in 33 remote communities to help indigenous peoples exercise their legal rights to protect natural resources. Lottie was an expert witness in the Awas Tingni vs. Nicaragua case, before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This case resulted in a tremendous land rights victory for indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. Lottie`s goal now is to implement that decision and help communities on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua demarcate and title their lands. "I want our communities to have ownership," she says. Lottie traveled to Eugene in October to participate in a Working Exchange Fellowship. She worked one-on-one with ELAW staff and tapped the legal and scientific support she needs to face new threats posed by energy corporations eager to explore for oil off the Atlantic coast. She also learned about Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers and how the communities she works with can use GPS receivers to expedite government efforts to demarcate native lands. ELAW scientists helped Lottie purchase a GPS receiver and are now working to design a GPS training program for local leaders.

Lottie Cunningham at Warm Springs
Lottie Cunningham Wren at the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.

While in Oregon, Lottie traveled to the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and met with Nelson Wallulatum, Chief of the Wasco tribe. The Chief spoke with Lottie about the challenges facing his people. Lottie said: "The tribes here face similar problems to those faced by our people. I will take this story home to our leaders." Protecting indigenous lands in Panama Hector Huertas is a Kuna attorney with Centro de Asistencia Legal Popular in Panama. He works to defend the human rights of the Kuna, Ngobe, Bugle, Embera, Wounan, Naso, and Bribri peoples. Hector traveled to Eugene in October to participate in a Working Exchange Fellowship where he worked with ELAW staff to challenge ill-advised hydropower projects. Panama`s environmental agency has approved the environmental impact assessments for three proposed hydroelectric dams on the Rio Changuinola in western Panama. The Rio Changuinola watershed is adjacent to La Amistad International Peace Park and Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes territories of the Naso and Ngobe tribes. ELAW provided Hector with a hand-held GPS receiver that the indigenous communities will use to map the territory that would be impacted by the dams. Hector has a wealth of experience protecting indigenous communities and their lands. He helped draft Panama`s first environmental law and chaired the Indigenous Caucus at the Organization of American States, where he is helping to draft the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He is also working with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples to defend the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide. Protecting indigenous lands in Belize from oil development

Sarstoon-Temash National Park
Sarstoon-Temash National Park. Photo: SATIIM

In Belize, the Ministry of Natural Resources has granted permission to a Texas-based energy corporation to prospect for oil in Sarstoon-Temash National Park. Sarstoon-Temash was designated a protected area in 1997 and joined the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance in 2005. For the last decade, the indigenous Maya who live around the park have restricted their use of the Park’s resources, in accordance with the law governing protected areas. ELAW partner Antoinette Moore is a part of the legal team working with the Sarstoon Temash Institute of Indigenous Management (SATIIM) to challenge the oil exploration in court. SATIIM filed a legal challenge to the oil exploration after learning that the oil corporation had been granted a permit to conduct seismic testing in the Park. ELAW secured expert affidavits about seismic testing and its potential environmental impacts. The Supreme Court of Belize cancelled permission for seismic testing in the Park, requiring the defendants to assess the environmental impacts of such testing in a transparent manner before they reapply for permission. Protecting Ecuador`s Choco Forests

Child collects water
A child collects water in La Chiquita.
Photo: Meche Lu

ELAW is working with partners in Ecuador to help communities in the Choco region protect themselves from polluting oil palm plantations and palm oil processing facilities. ELAW scientist Meche Lu traveled to the African-Ecuadorian and Awa community of La Chiquita to see the problem first-hand and help the community understand the dangers of pesticides and factory effluents. ELAW scientists helped partners at Corporacion de Gestion y Derecho Ambiental (ECOLEX) monitor the factory effluent and interpret test results. ECOLEX used this information to file a court case to halt the factory`s polluting activities. This was the first time that a local community in Ecuador has pursued legal action to clean up polluting palm oil plantations and mills! In September 2006, the court in Pichincha required the Ministry of the Environment to act within 30 days to remediate the damage caused to rivers contaminated by palm oil factory effluents in the Choco Region. In his ruling, the judge cited technical information provided by ELAW showing that an environmental audit conducted by the Ministry of the Environment was flawed.

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Indigenous communities across the globe are under more pressure than ever from governments and corporations seeking oil, minerals, timber, and cheap electricity. ELAW is working with indigenous leaders around the world to give these communities a voice an