In an era of global environmental problems and complicated international treaties designed to address them, many lawyers need to understand not just the laws in their own countries but also those that govern resources shared by several nations or the entire planet. The environmental law program of the University of Florida College of Law and the law school of the University of Costa Rica have designed a course that offers students a chance to learn about the legal systems in other countries and the sometimes Byzantine regulations that control rights to land, air, and water claimed by multiple nations.
During the summer of 2001, the program brought 26 students and recent law school graduates from the United States and Latin America to Costa Rica for classroom and field courses in several transnational legal issues. They tackled transboundary water rights — a familiar issue in Costa Rica, which continually grapples with Nicaragua over rights to the San Juan River that divides the two countries; joint watershed management, as deforestation in one country can degrade the drinking water in another; and sea turtle protection, particularly important in Central America, where the endangered reptile swims the seas and nests on the shores of several nations. Ten of the participants — from the United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, Belize, Colombia, and Brazil also participated in the program’s Conservation Clinic, led by professor Thomas Ankersen. Their goal was to provide free technical assistance to governments and conservation groups by studying and preparing briefs and research that will advance actual cases and policy initiatives in the region.
According to Ankersen, the caseload involved the young lawyers and students in environmental controversies, parks policy, and the murky intersection of environmental and human-rights law with politics and drug trafficking. Working with the Costa Rican nonprofit group, Justice for Nature, they submitted comments to an environmental impact statement filed by the Houston-based Harken Energy, which plans to drill for oil off the Caribbean coast. The coastal waters are rich in mangroves, coral reefs, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, and some 130 species of tropical fish. Conservation Clinic participants also worked with the conservation group, Programme for Belize, to prepare an application to have the Río Bravo area of Belize, some 152,000 mostly-forested acres, declared a Biosphere Reserve. This United Nations designation would give the Río Bravo, home to jaguars and many other rare species, globally recognized protection against logging and development.
Another clinic assignment was to help FUNDEPUBLICO, a nonprofit group in Colombia, do research for a possible petition to the InterAmerican Court on Human Rights protesting Plan Colombia, a United States-backed campaign to destroy Colombia’s coca crops via aerial spraying of herbicides. The research outlines Plan Colombia’s violations of environmental laws, since the herbicides kill flora and fauna and poison rivers and streams, and of human-rights laws, as residents whose crops, homes, drinking water, and livestock are sprayed were never given an opportunity to comment on an activity that clearly is affecting their well-being. The 1999 Salvador Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights, which was ratified by Colombia, establishes a human right to a healthy environment, a right also guaranteed by the Colombian constitution.
Nicole Kibert attended the law schools’ program and is now in her final year at law school at the University of Florida. Her interest in international law stems, she said, from her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia. “I saw how the former Soviet Union countries are trying to figure out how to deal with each other as different nations, and how to regulate their natural resources.” She was impressed with how well Costa Rica has integrated international principles into domestic environmental law. For example, the small Central American nation grants citizens a constitutional right to a clean environment. “That’s something we would love to see throughout the United States,” she noted.
Kibert discovered, however, that Costa Rica hasn’t done the best job in enforcing its excellent laws. She saw that first-hand in Tortuguero, on the northern Caribbean coast. “I had read all the laws related to sea-turtle protection in Costa Rica,” she explained. “Then in Tortuguero I heard about how sea turtles are caught and butchered. So on-the-ground is a lot different from on-paper.” At least, she added, the laws are in place. “The country just needs the funds to enforce them.”
Giovan Reyes, from Guadalajara, Mexico, is just concluding his legal training. He said the Conservation Clinic had given him a chance to compare environmental laws in Mexico with those in the United States and Costa Rica. “This has really opened my eyes to the reality in Mexico,” he said. “Although we think we are doing well in terms of environmental protection, we have much to learn. Many modern legal instruments exist that we must apply. But it’s not easy applying international concepts at the local level.”
While he was impressed by the Costa Rican government’s interest in Environmental laws, Reyes points out that there are so many regulations that “they could cause a great deal of bureaucracy and make decision-making difficult.” He and the other participants from Latin America attended the Conservation Clinic thanks to grants from the MacArthur Foundation.
University of Florida law professor Richard Hamann, one of the program’s instructors, hoped the U.S. participants can bring home an increased level of insight into how other countries and cultures practice law. The experience, he said, would benefit anyone planning to work with foreign investors in the United States or for companies working abroad. “You would need to know who can go to court, what rights citizens have, and what kind of resolution they can get to particular problems,” he explained. “Different countries deal with environmental issues in very different ways.”
In the final days of the program, students gathered in a University of Costa Rica classroom for a moot court. Ankersen noted that the exercise helped them prepare for an international competition to be held in Tampa later this year. Kibert and Reyes were among those arguing before the “Intergalactic Deforestation Bank,” which Ankersen described as a “multilateral lending institution whose motto is: “Log the Earth First; Then We’ll Do the Rest of the Planets.” Among the issues argued was whether or not the Salsa Negra oil company, based in the mythical country of Guaterica and operating with a $25 million bank loan, had the right to expand their activities in the territory of an ethnic group known as the Chicchones.
The atmosphere was decidedly casual, bordering on the slapstick as evidenced by a hearing panel comprised of Hamann, as the Honorable Gray Eminence, and two guest attorneys posing as Princess Leah and Queen Rama. Nonetheless, the law students argued with intelligence and more than a touch of competitiveness. The case, the country, the oil company, and the indigenous group might have been make-believe, but there was enough reality resonating in the issues to cause them to plead their case with passion and eloquence, in spite of the aluminum foil antennae sprouting from Hamann’s head.
After the panel’s momentous decision to further study the case, Reyes mused about his future. His dream is to be an advisor of international environmental regulations for all of Latin America, a particularly important responsibility, he thought, if the Americas are going to integrate economically. “We will have to be extremely careful about exploiting our natural resources in the region,” he said, “and about meeting the needs of all the people, including the indigenous.”
University of Florida Conservation Clinic
Frederic G. Levin College of Law
University of Florida
230 Bruton Geer Hall
PO Box 117629
Gainesville, FL USA 32911-7629
Dr. Rafael Gonzalez
professor, Facultad de Derecho
Universidad de Costa Rica
Read more about this project in the Eco-Index.