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Eugene Weekly : 3.1.07

China Rising to Environmental Challenge

Wang Canfa forges new connections with E-LAW

BY CHUCK ADAMS

The distance between Eugene and Beijing just got a bit closer. Besides Eugene hosting next year's Olympic Trials, and the Olympic Games set for Beijing, there's another connection, and he checks in at under 5 feet tall. Chinese law professor Wang Canfa may be short, but he packs a commanding presence in the circles of environmental law. Recently featured in the Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as well as a segment of The New York Times-produced television documentary China Rises, Wang is breaking waves in the global fight against environmental polluters, if only because he's doing it in one of the world's most populous, complex and ecologically ravaged nations. And now he has spent the past week networking with the Eugene-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW), a grassroots network of environmental lawyers from more than 60 countries, to help him with his crusade.

 

Wang Canfa founded the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in 1998 in Beijing
The "Erin Brockovich of China" Zhang Jingjing
Though a handful of runners were hospitalized — and two died — from dehydration, the 2004 Beijing Marathon was staged with relatively few hitches
Handkerchiefs and surgical masks help limit exposure to one of Beijing's "high alert" days, when nitrogen dioxide levels are at their peak
Desertification is driving agricultural workers to cities — like Shanghai — in droves

Together with associates like Zhang Jingjing (who was dubbed the "Erin Brockovich of China" by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for her victory against the Rongping Lianying Chemical Factory in China's Fujian province), Wang formed one of the leading environmental watchdog and legal advocacy groups in China, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV). He is pragmatic about his choice to start the center: In college Wang studied law, then teaching and then environmental law. He taught for over 20 years at the China University of Political Science and Law before recognizing China had environmental laws in the books — but no lawyers willing to enforce government compliance with them.

But Wang's impetus to start CLAPV may be as personal as it is professional. Born in the countryside, Wang grew up impoverished and malnourished (he jokes on the China Rises documentary that he is short because he didn't have enough to eat as a child). Living next to polluted lakes and rivers most of his life, he now refuses to eat lotus roots because they grow underwater. This makes him a firsthand witness to the environmental catastrophe that has followed on the heels of China's rapid economic expansion. He sympathizes with the victims, not the cash cows.

The simple components of Wang's non-governmental organization (NGO), tucked away in a modest two-room apartment building on the campus of his university, include a telephone hotline (which has received more than 9,000 calls since the center's founding in 1998) and stacks of notes, legal documents and transcribed complaints from citizens fed up with local industries' effects on their health and food supply. CLAPV receives the complaints; a grad student logs them in and then passes the files on to the 269 lawyers working on a primarily pro bono basis for the center. Even if the odds of victory are miniscule, the simple act of getting citizens involved in a lawsuit yields its own benefits, Wang says.

"When [CLAPV sues] the polluters, the media like to report on it," Wang said at a Feb. 23 conference hosted by federal Judge Ann Aiken at the new federal courthouse. Wang is then sure to give the press the center's toll-free hotline. "A lot of people know their rights" because of this publicity, says Wang, whose center has won a third of its 80 cases. When the victories do come, they are watershed moments.

Zhang's win in the Fujian province, which compensated over 1,600 villagers for toxic chromium and chlorate spills into their water supply and agriculture, garnered media attention around the world and compelled the victims to form their own environmental watchdog groups. Jilin Petrochemical, the company responsible for the November 2005 benzene spill into the Songhua River in northeastern China — which received copious international press, including in the pages of EW — was fined the maximum penalty allowed under law (one million yuan, or about $125,000 USD) in January. In addition, the state has promised over $1.2 billion to clean up the river and prevent future accidents.

But the citizens who were exposed to toxic water and who may later fall ill were not factored into the settlement, according to a BBC news report. Moreover, critics of the settlement say that the fine was too low, considering the victims' projected health care costs over the next several years, and the state should not have to pick up the tab for private enterprises' damages. The Xinhua News Agency wrote that some "companies find it's cheaper to pay a fine than to improve their pollution controls."

E-LAW's China programs coordinator and director of philanthropy Stephen Barnes, who has taught law at China's Harbin Institute of Technology, says that for many of China's citizens, "that's just the reality they have to live with." Even so, Barnes is optimistic that people like Wang can educate the people as well as the state on the dangers of unchecked pollution. Wang, he says, "is pioneering one of the leading institutions training future generations of environmental lawyers." CLAPV has its volunteer lawyers and has sought out the international networks available, like E-LAW and the National Resources Defense Council, to stir cross-cultural exchange. "He has the numbers," Barnes says, "and he's got the benefits of being immersed in the government, academia and NGO environments, and he uses each of them to get the word out."

Getting the word out used to be difficult for people like Wang, but recently even the Chinese government has warmed up to the cause. In 1997, China enacted criminal penalties for environmental polluters, giving teeth to the much-beleaguered State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). But those teeth have been more like dentures, sometimes willing to bite but more likely to lie dormant in a water glass. For example, last month the state cracked down on local governments and large energy providers in China. It was seen as a bold move, though SEPA's vice-minister Pan Yue later warned, "some projects could still be running without approval … ignoring SEPA's warning." And Ken Lieberthal, an expert on China at the University of Michigan, explains: "Much of the environmental energy generated at the national level dissipates as it diffuses through the multi-layered state structure, producing outcomes that have little concrete effect."

That's where CLAPV comes in: as the go-between.

Unlike its relations with Chinese lawyers who take on governmental corruption (and sometimes end up imprisoned for their stand), the Chinese government has no reason to hinder the goals of CLAPV, since the state openly acknowledges it has struggled to put an end to illegal industrial practices. Zhang insists that the government won't shut down the hotline because it "wants to solve this problem, too."

The major obstacle, she says, lies with the local government officials, who are supposed to enforce pollution regulations, but whose salaries are fed by the taxes received from local industrial polluters. Making the entire process more of a headache are the judges themselves. Finding little incentive for enforcement, local judges often side with the polluters. Zhang noted that the "higher courts are better, more independent," and thus will give a more favorable ruling. But getting to the higher court depends on the local courts' rulings, and plaintiffs have only one chance at appeal.

Putting it more bluntly, a SEPA official said, "In some areas, corrupted officials protect local polluting industries to gain personal profits. Without clean officials, there will be no clean water." Barnes calls it a "urban and rural gap," where the "the very enterprises that might do the most damage to the environment, represent — in the short term — the most prosperity."

But when both the government and the local industries won't listen, the people are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. According to the China Daily, more than 50,000 protests were documented in 2005 alone, with 50.6 percent related to water pollution and 40 percent to air pollution. In June 2006, SEPA officials acknowledged that environmetal pollution has become "a main factor affecting China's national security and social stability." Fearing mass protests and public discord, Zhang says the state judiciary has — at least for the near future — prohibited class action lawsuits. This prohibition, however, runs contrary to the state's own lofty goals.

SEPA recently released its "Guideline for Strengthening Environmental Education and Enhancing Public Awareness on Environmental Protection during 2006-2010." One of the guideline's edicts is to "set up and improve mechanism of public participation into environmental protection. The volunteers and NGOs are encouraged to organize and take part in environmental protection activities in various forms." With the class action muzzle in place, the best tools CLAPV has are civil suits and increasing international pressure for China to take responsibility for its citizens' health.

 

AN OLYMPIC-SIZE PROBLEM

The last time the Summer Olympics were held in a developing nation was Mexico City in 1968. That city's air pollution had not yet reached its choking toxicity of today, but the high elevation did make some runners short on breath. The jumpers, of course, had a field day. The same can't be said of Beijing, which sits in a plain and collects thick sea air or desert dust depending on what direction the wind blows, trapping air particulates in carbon-rich smog.

China set its target of cutting energy consumption by 20 percent per unit of GDP and major pollutants by 10 percent from 2005 to 2010. But it flunked its first test last year. Its sulfur dioxide emissions grew by 2.4 percent, according to SEPA figures.

Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, wrote in The Washington Post, "Beijing won its Olympics bid with the promise of the world's first 'green' games. Five years later, there is no talk of a green Olympics, only of how extensive a shutdown of industry and transportation will be needed in Beijing and surrounding provinces just to ensure that the athletes can breathe."

Zhang says that the government is trying its best but it "worries Beijing's air quality won't meet [the International Olympic Committee's] standards" for athletes. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, even if Beijing "shuts down all its factories, bans all nonessential traffic and orders everyone to turn down air conditioning, Chinese and foreign scientists say there is no way to keep the winds from carrying pollution across the borders." This makes it clear how important it is to find national — and global — solutions to local problems.

In 2008, Beijing will be the bellwether for China's hope for a clean future. Barnes has been traveling to China for the past two years and says each time he arrives in Beijing, there are dramatic improvements, such as more options for recycling, more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road and natural gas powered buses. Barnes believes the Olympics are of incomparable magnitude. "In terms of national pride," he says, "it touches on every Chinese citizen. This represents the 'New China' … they're going to extraordinary efforts."

If the IOC has enough clout to push Beijing to cut air pollution, surely it would behoove Eugene to increase its air quality in time for the Olympic Trials. Lisa Arkin, executive director of the Oregon Toxics Alliance — the group instrumental in lobbying for a ban on field burning in the Willamette Valley — says she's been trying to contact the Olympic officials but so far hasn't heard back. "We want to alert them to the health impact of particulate matter [caused by field and slash burning]," Arkin says. "We hope they would be concerned enough to support these measures."

The 2008 Olympics may bring Beijing and Eugene closer, but 2007 brings more opportunities to learn from each other. New this year, E-LAW will add two Chinese lawyers to its established fellows program. The fellows will be working with E-LAW staff scientists and attorneys in addition to taking a ten-week English course at the UO's American English Institute. Barnes says that E-LAW has been trying to connect with China for years to make this happen and finally found the "real deal" with CLAPV. He says that the two fellows will stay for about 11 weeks and then return to China. "We want them back in their home countries, working on their [country's] issues," says Barnes. In addition to the two fellows, a special guest is usually invited for a shorter period of two weeks to give community lectures and work on networking. This year, Wang is that guest.

Are Chinese citizens more aware of environmental law? Even 10 years ago there was no mention in the media of these issues. As recently as 1998, Wang was the only professor teaching environmental law. Now there are more than 10. With his position as a respected professor and practicing lawyer, Wang has had the opportunity to write new environmental legislation for the People's Congress; cases CLAPV have won are now used as precedents to argue new cases; the eco-ball is rolling. Barnes says, "I believe the progress of the rule of law combined with folks like Wang at CLAPV really offers hope to China."

 

 

PIELC Begins This Week

Wang Canfa's visit to Eugene with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW) coincides with the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) that begins on the UO campus Thursday, March 1, and runs through Sunday afternoon. Many of those attending the E-LAW conference are also attending the PIELC and speaking as keynoters or panelists.

CRAIG WILLIAMS MARTA BENAVIDES
JEROME RINGO MARY C. WOOD
ANNE KAJIR SHEILA WATT-CLOUTIER
LONNIE DUPRE & ERIC LARSEN WINONA LADUKE

Nearly all the seats for the opening night talks by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Vandana Shiva in the EMU Ballroom have been reserved by those who registered early, but closed-circuit TVs will be set up outside the room for those turned away at the door. A full schedule for the conference is available online at www.pielc.orgor at the registration tables at the law school on Agate Street.

This year marks the 25th year for the PIELC, and the 2007 theme is "Cultivating Corridors for the People." Organizers say they hope to "inspire a renewed commitment to collaboration and outreach" among conference attendees and help "create a unified movement for justice with a booming voice and unprecedented political power."

Eco-sabotage has made headlines in Eugene and across the nation in recent years, and has been a hot topic in previous conferences, but conference organizers say they are organizing a separate conference on the topic to be held in the fall. Sam Gaugash, one of the four coordinators of the PIELC, say he hopes to see a conference that will bring together environmental activists with judges and U.S. attorneys. The PIELC will, however, have a Saturday morning panel discussion titled "Direct Action Is Fun" and a Saturday afternoon panel on "Challenging the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act."

About 1,500 attorneys, students and activists are registered, and many more are expected to show up for the keynote talks, more than 100 panels and workshops and a variety of special events including parties with live music and an interactive multi-media art installation at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (see Saturday Calendar). Tables on environmental and political topics will be set up in the law school lobby all during the conference.

Workshops and panels will cover dams, the federal judiciary, wildlife and energy development, forest biomass, creating momentum for environmental solutions, global warming, conservation easements, transboundary pollution, omnibus public lands legislation, expert witnesses in environmental cases, acquatic habitat protection, roadless areas, oil and gas leasing, Public Trust Doctrine, farmworkers and toxics, wolf conservation, genetic engineering, field burning, rails to trails, ATV recreation, Endangered Species Act, offshore drilling, SLAPP suits, wild horses, the precautionary principle, fish vs. hydro power, biotechnology, sacred sites, election fraud and many other topics.

Keynote speakers in addition to Kennedy and Shiva include Dinah Bear, general counsel for the Council on Environmental Quality. She has also served as chair of the Standing Committee on Environmental Law of the American Bar Association. Marta Benavides is a minister and peace worker from El Salvador who serves as president of Women International League for Peace and Freedom; and teaches peace, ecology and sustainability in El Salvador. Lonnie Dupre and Eric Larsen are polar explorers who who lecture worldwide on global heating and its effect on the Arctic.

Anne Kajir is an attorney who uncovered widespread corruption and complicity in the Papua New Guinea government, which allowed illegal logging and environmental destruction. Winona LaDuke is a two-time vice presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader. She is currently working on environmental and energy policy and Native American land issues.

Zyg Plater is a professor at Boston College Law School and an expert on environmental, property and land use law, both in the U.S. and around the world. Jerome Ringo chairs the board of the National Wildlife Federation and has been cited as "the most interesting environmental leader in the U.S. right now" by The Nation magazine. He is also president of the Apollo Alliance working on energy policy.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier has been an active spokesperson for the Inuit for more than a decade. She is the former chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, representing the 155,000 Inuit of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Russia. Mary C. Wood is a resident scholar at the UO law school and founding director of the school's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program. Craig Williams is a Vietnam War veteran who has been campaigning to stop the unsafe incineration of weapons stockpiles around the country. — Ted Taylor