Women for the World

Fighting for enviro justice from Turkey to Uganda

Pictured: Harriet Bibangambah, Luisa Araúz, Gonca Yilmaz, Baigalimaa Nyamdavaa

The May 2013 protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park were about freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and about concerns the Turkish government was becoming more religious and less secular. They were also, at the core, a land-use dispute.

While the millions of protesters in Turkey drew worldwide attention, environmental attorneys across the world like Gonca Yilmaz usually find themselves working alone with little media attention and few resources to support them. Yilmaz is one of the attorneys working to save the last green space in Taksim Square against a government redevelopment plan to raze Gezi Park and build a mall and residential area. She and several other international women fighting to save the environment have come to Eugene through the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).

Yilmaz is joined in Eugene during the University of Oregon’s Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) Feb. 27-March 2 by Luisa Araúz of Panama, Harriet Bibangambah of Uganda and Baigalimaa Nyamdavaa of Mongolia, who are all fighting for environmental causes in their nations and all linked through ELAW. They meet and sit around a wooden table chatting about their experiences in ELAW’s tree-shrouded offices across the street from the UO.

Defending the environment and the people who depend upon the land for survival — and often angering businesses and governments alike — is not a big money-making proposition either in the U.S. or abroad. And being a female involved with legal battles has its challenges, as well as its advantages.

Araúz, staff attorney at El Centro de Incidencia Ambiental, says, “One of the main advantages of being a woman in environmental law is the ability to connect with the suffering of other women and children in vulnerable communities, which are being impacted by environmental degradation, which gives me a lot of motivation to pursue these causes until justice is finally achieved.” According to Arúaz, many women in Panama pursue a career in the law, and practicing environmental law is gaining popularity.

Bibangambah, program and research officer for the nongovernmental organization Greenwatch, says that in Uganda “If there are few environmental lawyers, then there are fewer women environmental lawyers.” But she says that in the field, when going out to talk to people in rural areas about environmental issues they are facing, it can help to be a woman. “The approach we have used as women has worked to our advantage,” she says. “You understand what a woman goes through,” and she points out the male-dominated system has not been working.

Nyamdavaa, program officer for the Human Rights Advocacy Program at the Centre for Human Rights and Development in Ulaanbaatar, says there is a similar trend in Mongolia, where women tend to work on human rights and environmental issues while men tend to work on criminal law. She adds that overall, in Mongolia, women tend to be better educated than men in order to get jobs.

Yilmaz adds that in Turkey there are maybe 50 or 60 environmental lawyers total and about half are women. “There is no money in that area, so you have to be kind of idealistic.” She adds, “It is also a challenge because you have to challenge government.”

In addition to challenging the government on its policies, Yilmaz says another obstacle she faces is going into rural areas where some men won’t communicate with her for cultural reasons.

These women coming to Oregon from across the globe under the umbrella of ELAW face similar challenges in their cases. They use comparable terminology and deal with familiar frustrations: deceptive or confusing environmental impact statements, a lack of access to good science, international corporations willing to sacrifice the environment and poor, rural people for their gain. Though the outcry against the coal plants, dams and mines these women battle is usually not as loud or as far-reaching as the uproar over Turkey’s Gezi Park, perhaps it should be, as the impacts upon the environment are huge.

Mining is booming in Mongolia, and its people are facing the massive environmental impacts. A recent article on Mining.com features a photo of colorfully dressed Mongolians dancing with the caption “Mongolians could be jumping for joy soon” over a proposed $6 billion-plus underground expansion of Oyu Tolgoi, Rio Tinto’s copper-gold mine the size of Alaska in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. However, environmental attorneys such as Nyamdavaa aren’t celebrating because the mine threatens the fresh water supply of the area’s nomadic people and the money isn’t worth the damages. Those nomadic people often don’t know the laws or even who to talk to about the issues such as mercury and arsenic contamination, Nyamdavaa says.

The fight over mining in Mongolia is complicated, Nyamdavaa says, by the fact the scientists collecting the data are employed by the government “and are afraid to lose their jobs,” making access to accurate information difficult.

Access to information, and protecting water supplies, is another area that links these four women. Yilmaz and Arauz are fighting hydroelectric projects that would not only affect ecosystems but also deny water to the people who live along the river who, like the nomads of Mongolia, often lack access to legal resources to fight the entities building the dams. Yilmaz says one river in Turkey is slated for five or six separate hydroelectric projects that could cut local people off from their access to water because the cumulative impact of all the projects is not being looked at. ELAW provides scientific and legal help on their cases, as well as emotional support in times of stress.

In Uganda, Bibangambah has been working to stop the pollution of Lake Victoria, the world’s largest freshwater lake, by flower farms such as Rosebud, which has been accused of adding soil to a wetland to increase its farmlands. Flower farming is land and chemical intensive.

Bibangambah’s organization has also been fighting for access to information. She says the government of Uganda signed oil and gas agreements on behalf of the people of Uganda, but the agreements haven’t been made public, citing confidentiality clauses.

These worldwide battles mirror environmental fights here in the U.S. “The companies and government are always against you,” Yilmaz says. “And just to feel that someone is behind you is very important.”

Gonca Yilmaz, Luisa Arauz, Harriet Bibangambah and Baigalimaa Nyamdavaa will attend the PIELC conference Feb. 27-March 2; Arauz and Bibangambah will present on “Seeking Justice Through Access to Information and Public Participation” Thursday 4 pm at the EMU. For a brochure and panel times, go to pielc.org.