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Earthjustice: When the Environment Meets the Law

I like to think I do my part for the environment, or at the very least, try to remain in a state of internal green balance. I have one friend that was arrested for sneaking into the Democratic Convention wearing a trench coat, capital dome bra, and American stripes short-shorts with dollar bills tucked into her garter, her way of sounding off about Campaign Finance Reform. I was also stuck on the Golden Gate Bridge the day Woody Harrelson climbed to the top to hang his banner about saving the Redwoods. I later flirted with an invitation via the capital dome activist friend to go hot-tubbing with environmentalists, Paul Hawken, and Rainforest Action Network founder, Randy Hayes. Yet all during this time in my twenties, none of the above causes pushed me toward a greener life.


Now in my thirties, I take action. The other day, I called Majority Leader Reid in Nevada (who I had never even heard of) to urge amendments to the current Farm Bill in Congress since Food and Water Watch informed me by email of the health safety concerns in the current farm industry. I chose to live the city life without a car, but then inherited a twenty-year-old van with a rebuilt engine. By donating to NRDC, I justify burning the van’s fuel. Who could ignore Robert Redford’s email campaign to save the polar bears slipping off those ice slabs in the Artic? Yesterday, I flashed a smile to the Greenpeace volunteer outside my office building when he tried to woo me with his self-composed Greenpeace “rap.” I told him about my monogamy with NRDC, and then to avoid further entanglement, I left him with a question to ponder: maybe Greenpeace could be my new partner in the New Year?


It’s true, for me, green living inflicts both thoughtfulness and guilt; as Americans, we are so deserving.


But when my editor put a torn page from The New York Times Magazine on my desk with the words “Look into this,” scribbled beneath some ad copy, I moved like the green flash. The copy read, Earthjustice: because the earth needs a good lawyer. Once again, like Redford in my inbox, an environmental organization had grabbed me at first glance. And while I had previously thought Greenpeace and Paul Watson were just a ship-full of crazed pirates, by talking to Anna Cederstav, a passionate scientist in a sea of earth loving lawyers at Earthjustice, I finally learned some truths that the environment has been dying to share.


Earthjustice started during the seventies, when a group of lawyers formed Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund after losing in the Supreme Court to Walt Disney. Disney wanted to turn Mineral King Valley in the Sierra Nevada in California into one of the world’s largest ski resorts. The lawyers pressed further and Disney pulled out, which preserved Mineral King and initiated a citizens’ right to fight environmental disputes in a court of law. Twenty years later the environmental caseload grew, the lawyers took on more clients, and Earthjustice formed out of the Legal Defense Fund as a separate entity.


Cederstav, a ten-year veteran, said that being the sole scientist in her organization, in a field where there aren’t enough scientific experts in the world, is partially what keeps the environmental problems lingering.


“I do find myself teaching on a daily basis, teaching people in government. When I taught in university, only 10 percent of the students were interested. It’s not the same for people working in governments, they are already committed, but most governments lack resources, both physical and human, “Cederstav explained in a phone interview from her home in Berkeley. “They can’t pay much, so jobs are revolving doors … Government jobs are stepping-stones to private paid U.S. corporations.”


Cederstav’s focus is to develop international legal strategies and facilitate international collaboration on casework in both Latin and South America, which formed the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA). Her best victory to date came from the mining village of La Oroya, Peru.


“The contamination there was profound; 99 percent of kids have lead poisoning, with average levels that would send U.S. kids to the emergency room. You would take a couple of breaths and your lungs would burn. Now there are twenty organizations and community groups looking at the issue.”


But the way La Oroya and AIDA came to their victory was part of Earthjustice’s specialty.



“We filed the case as a human rights violation. The last time I was in Peru, I got into a taxi fix or six times, and four of those times, they were talking about La Oroya. Ten years ago, no one knew that the town existed.”


During the interview, she reiterated that global warming was still the environment’s biggest threat, but then there were the oceans. I told Cedestav about a night I camped on the beach in a fishing village in Michoacán, Mexico. The anglers shared how little they were catching, and how they felt the effect of Japanese fishing boats poaching their territory.


“What we did to the Bison in the West is what we are now doing to the ocean,” Cederstav acknowledged. “If we suggested that the entire population could sustain themselves on hunting land animals, we can’t sustain ourselves with wild fish in the ocean. [A fisherman] used to be able to fill up a boat in a couple of hours, now it’s a three-day tour.”


So how could I, a self-appointed pescatarian, keep up my protein intake without participating in the depletion of our oceans? According to Cedarstav, I couldn’t.


“The idea is to incorporate solutions from different countries, then present them in the countries. With greater awareness of problems, you can find solutions. Use the Monterey Bay Aquarium card. When you go to the fish market, choose the fish that they are buying.”


And what about farmed fish, which I hated the taste of, but figured was better than taking away more of the Grizzlies’ Coho salmon. Within moments, Cederstav took sushi off my menu.


“As countries’ fishery resources are disappearing, there is an incredible increase in agriculture. Tuna farming is resource intensive and incredibly harmful because we’re running out of tuna. With agriculture of tuna, they eat many times their rate and strip mine the oceans by bringing in every small fish they can find so they can feed their tuna, then they sell to Japan and the U.S. for sushi. So they just caught all the small fish for the tuna and depleted the oceans.”


Cederstav and Earthjustice are trying to get foreign governments to create better controls on these harmful activities and then to enforce those controls, but she said that it’s in the education of consumers, and enforcing the American law which states that markets are supposed to label where fish come from, that a difference can be made.


And where it can start, Cedestav believes, is with American women.


“Women can play a productive role. Nothing makes a politician more fearful than a mom with an email list. Women can flex their power and make our leaders accountable. Make our leaders understand that the environment is an issue, that it can take away their office.”


I thought of MomsRising and other female-led email chains that had looped me into their politicizing.


“Moms are naturals at protecting the planet. Women are not just smart, it comes from their heart, and they are the most effective lawyers. But giving women choices about shopping green is not going to save the planet. You need them to become activists, get them involved in politics, and then talk to the people in power.”


Photo courtesy of Jessica Parsley


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