Fighting for China's environment, one court case at a time
MANILA, Philippines – In a small office space in a simple apartment block in Beijing, a man and his team of pro bono lawyers are working to save the lives of over a billion people – one court case at a time.
You see, China's extreme campaign for economic growth has taken its toll on the environment and its citizens. A study by Chinese and American researchers shows that more than a million deaths in China can be attributed to smoke pollution alone every year.
Led by renowned environmental lawyer Wang Canfa as director, the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV) in Beijing gives legal help to victims against companies that cause pollution in one of the most populated countries in the world. It has been doing so since 1998.
In its 17 years, the center has handled more than 13,000 complaints and filed more than 500 cases. These cases mostly involved big players in the industry. Its several victories led to the termination of projects deemed to be dangerous to the environment.
Wang's unfailing work for the people of China has earned him the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed as the Asia's Nobel Prize. (READ: Educators win big in 2014 Magsaysay awards)
Bumpy advocacy track
For the center's director and Wang Canfa, fighting for the environment and its stakeholders was an easy decision upon seeing the state of his country. After obtaining a law degree in the early 1980s, he decided to pursue his passion on protecting Mother Earth and its children.
“I saw that environmental law protects the welfare and interest of the entire human being,” he explained. “This really matched my passion in pursuing social justice and welfare.”
But while CLAPV's advocacy track is paved with good intentions, it has not been a smooth ride from the start. With the type of power and influence the “perpetrators” in their cases have, it was expected that there would be bumps on the road.
“The enterprises we're trying to fight are taxpayers to the local economy,” Wang told Rappler. “The government sees the economic growth as a priority, so they go out of their way to pressure us from suing them.”
The first environmental protection law of the country was passed in 1979 and since then has led to several ordinances and regulations aimed at supressing the pollution crisis.
In the first few months of CLAPV’s operations, however, Wang noticed that a handful of those in power were aware that these laws existed. This proved to be a challenge, as it became a problem for them to prove their point.
"The government sees the economic growth as a priority so they go out of their way to pressure us from suing them."
“Very few of them have knowledge and background in environmental law,” he told Rappler. “It was very difficult to prove the connection between the health risks and pollution in a legal manner.”
Because of this, Wang saw an opportunity by raising awareness on a relatively untouched field in China. He started training thousands of lawyers, judges, and several stakeholders on the environmental law.
This initiative proved fruitful. In 2010, he established a public interest law firm on environmental cases. More than 30 lawyers volunteer to work pro bono to expand the center’s efforts.
The Philippines’ strong point
Still, the CLAPV director pointed out, that there's little support – both financial and moral – from organizations and even their own government for efforts to attain environmental safety. Sourcing the needed money from international funders is not possible since the center has its own restrictions on this.
“Our civil society in China isn’t well-developed, so they couldn’t provide funding to organizations like us,” he explained. “Our heart is to contribute to environmental protection in the global scale but our current capacity hinders us.”
The Philippines, like China, is a developing country with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, some economic priorities can possibly cause damage to other aspects of the society.
“You put a lot of emphasis on the economy so this causes a lot of pollution in the environment,” Wang said. “Luckily, one of the strong characteristics of the Philippines is its civil society.”
According to him, the impact of civil society is a proof that the Philippines can succeed in its own fight against environmentally-destructive projects.
It would be easier in the Philippines to establish an organization similar to CLAPV, said Wang. The citizens just have to see its importance.
“I hope Filipinos will have more environmental lawyers who will stand up to provide help and assistance to pollution victims,” he emphasized. “This will definitely send a clear message to those in power that there is a need to stop harming our environment even more.” – Rappler.com