Activists Pledge to Fight for Their Water - Tribunal Declares Governments, Companies Guilty

World Water Forum: Activists Pledge to Fight for Their Water


Tribunal Declares Governments, Companies Guilty

Diego Cevallos

*MEXICO CITY, Mar 21 (IPS) - The companies and governments declared guilty by the Latin American Water Tribunal (TLA) at a "trial" held in Mexico will not be fined or otherwise punished, but the plaintiffs hope that they will "at least" admit responsibility and take appropriate action. *

Among the verdicts it handed down in cases from 10 countries, the non-governmental TLA blamed a paper pulp factory in Chile for polluting a protected wetlands system, and censured the national authorities for failing to prevent the disaster. It also called for the immediate suspension of construction work on a huge hydroelectric dam in Mexico, which would displace 25,000 small farmers.

"The Tribunal resolutions are a real moral triumph, and we would like governments to feel somewhat ashamed," Bidulfo Rosales, legal adviser to a group of small farmers from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, told IPS. Rosales presented the case against the construction of the La Parota dam.

The verdict stated that work on the dam, being built at a cost of 850 million dollars, "should be suspended, since there is no evidence of any benefit to the local population, nor any contribution to regional development or the protection of the environment and natural resources."

Furthermore, the decision indicated that, in their zeal to carry out the project, authorities in Mexico have committed deliberate acts to divide the small farmers' communities.

The TLA found for the plaintiffs - environmentalists, activists, or affected community organisations - in all of the cases it heard between Mar. 13 and Mar. 20

In the Chilean case, the Tribunal requested that in the "light of the Precautionary Principle," operations at the pulp mill "be suspended immediately and indefinitely, until new environmental impact studies have been carried out which lead to granting a new, appropriate environmental permit."

The Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco) company opened its Valdivia pulp mill on the Cruces River in southern Chile in February 2004. The plant was located 32 kilometres southwest of a wetland, which was home to the largest colony of black-necked swans in Latin America - between
4,000 and 6,000. Starting in 2004, around 500 swans died, and the rest migrated.

A study by the Austral University in Valdivia concluded that waste from the pulp mill destroyed a waterweed, known locally as luchecillo, which is the swans' main food source.

The TLA held Celco directly responsible "for inappropriate use of water resources, polluting the surrounding area, loss of biodiversity, damages and risks to public health, and damages to other human activities."

It also censured "national and regional authorities for a lack of commitment to their duties and for taking contradictory decisions to the detriment of life, health, nature and traditional communities."

The Costa Rica-based Tribunal was expected to hand down guilty verdicts, which were supported by "very powerful arguments" and evidence, TLA spokesman Gilberto López told IPS.

The work of the Tribunal should be seen not only as passing judgements, but "as cooperating to reach solutions," he commented.

The TLA is a non-compulsory ethical tribunal created in Central America in 1998, which expanded to the rest of Latin America in 2004.

According to López, "the verdicts have significant political weight, so their consequences are unforeseeable, and they will be followed up, with the aim of finding solutions."

Of the 13 cases before the Tribunal, the defendants in the cases of the La Parota dam and the Chilean pulp factory were the only ones not to have responded to the TLA's summons to present arguments in their defence.

In the other cases there were reactions from the accused parties, who generally responded by letter, although two appeared personally at the hearings involving cases of river pollution in Mexico.

The "trials", which have moral force only, have taken about a year, including presentation of the charges, evaluation of the cases and sentencing.

The cases reviewed in the Mexican capital were from Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru.

The Brazilian case involved a plan to fill in part of a lagoon in the southern state of Sao Paulo with contaminating sludge. In Bolivia, the complaint focused on seven years of poor service from a private water company in the working-class city of El Alto, near La Paz.

Denunciations in Ecuador were against the construction of dams on the Pacific coast, and the cases from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua complained about pollution and diversion of rivers due to mining activities. In addition to La Parota, Mexico had five water pollution cases.

The Peruvian case involved the environmental impact of mining, and Panama's suit was against the transport of radioactive materials through the canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The "judges" who passed sentence were Alexandre Camanho de Assis, a regional prosecutor from Brazil, Argentine architect Alfredo Valladares, Mexican political scientist Patricia Ávila, and Philippe Texier, a Supreme Court magistrate from France.

Also on the bench were Cuban architect and sociologist Selma Díaz, Guatemalan human rights lawyer Augusto Willemsen, Mexican social scientist David Barkin, and Oscar González, former president of the non-governmental Mexican Academy for Human Rights.

As TLA director Javier Bogantes explained to IPS, the "judges" were chosen for their proven track record and moral prestige, and were advised by a committee of experts.

The trials took place in the context of the 4th World Water Forum, which has brought together 13,000 delegates from governments, non-governmental organisations and business from Mar. 16 to Mar. 22. (END/2006)

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Informant: Teresa Binstock


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