Global alliance marks 25 years of elevating environmental standards in developing nations

Growing up in the Amazon Rainforest, Paulo Olivera saw how government and private sector disregard for indigenous peoples’ rights could disrupt communities and harm natural resources.

His desire to change that led him to become Brazil’s first indigenous attorney and, over the course of 20 years, an influential advocate for tighter regulation of development finance.

Olivera said the Oregon-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, a longtime grantee of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, equipped him with the legal and technical skills he needed to better protect indigenous communities in Brazil and the lush forest that sustains them. He spent several months in the U.S., learning how to use digital technology, research and communications to more effectively address environmental issues.

“The period I spent with ELAW was a watershed in my professional career, paving the way to begin working internationally,” Olivera said. “I met environmental lawyers from other countries and learned the importance of international cooperation to support communities affected by large enterprises.”

Paulo Olivera

Paulo Olivera

The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, known as ELAW, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Mott was one of the group’s initial funders, and has provided $2,889,350 in grants over the past two decades.

ELAW is a global alliance of attorneys, scientists and advocates that supports grassroots efforts to secure clean air, clean water and a healthy planet. The group’s efforts are helping to bring environmental and civil society standards in the developing world up to norms found in developed countries.

Funding from Mott enabled ELAW to become a force for legal change on a global scale, said ELAW Executive Director Bern Johnson. The group has trained environmental attorneys in 105 countries, on every continent except Antarctica.

“The Mott Foundation was there in the very beginning, when most people had not even heard of email,” Johnson said. “We had this vision of building an electronic network linking grassroots advocates around the world and empowering them to make international financial institutions a force for building a sustainable future. ELAW partners around the world are defending local communities and guarding against ill-conceived energy and infrastructure projects that impact the environment and human rights.”

ELAW provides legal professionals with the knowledge and support they need to be effective in their own communities.

In Brazil, the group helped Olivera investigate intellectual property contracts that were supposed to protect the indigenous knowledge of a Brazilian tribe when dealing with pharmaceutical companies, which bio-prospect in the tropics.

The evolution of ELAW has been dramatic, and its work has profoundly affected many communities in developing nations, said Traci Romine, a Mott program officer who manages grants to the organization.

“When ELAW was established 25 years ago, public interest law and science to build environmental, social and governance standards for finance in the developing world was in its infancy,” Romine said. “Today, ELAW has global impact. Its model of training, supporting and building a strong community of committed advocates worldwide raises environmental and social standards to protect ecosystems and communities for generations to come.”

In its early years, before email was ubiquitous, one of ELAW’s biggest challenges was communicating with attorneys and environmental advocates in distant locales. Advances in digital technology have largely solved that problem, but the growth of the world economy has presented new challenges.

The rise of China as a global economic force and the formation of the BRICS alliance — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — have transformed international development finance. Those changes are expected to accelerate the construction of large hydroelectric dams, power plants and other energy infrastructure in developing nations.

In 2014, the BRICS nations announced the creation of a $100 billion development bank to fund those types of infrastructure projects.

Johnson said Mott’s long-term financial support and partnership with ELAW have enabled the group to adapt to emerging issues, such as climate change and tectonic shifts in the global economy that are changing the landscape of development finance.

Over the past 25 years, ELAW:

  • Pioneered the use of electronic tools to connect grassroots advocates around the world, so they could collaborate and share resources.
  • Helped launch the first public interest environmental law organization in Tanzania and many other countries.
  • Helped a grassroots activist in Mexico prepare one of the first petitions under the environmental side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to stop the pollution of Lake Chapala.
  • Taught a network of environmental leaders how to use the World Bank Inspection Panel to address concerns about unsustainable projects in developing nations.
  • Shared model practices to protect vital waterways around the world.
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