In Swaziland, a lawyer named Thuli Brilliance Makama is working to protect indigenous people who are being pushed off their traditional hunting lands by a company called Big Game Parks, which caters to tourists seeking a trophy kill. In La Oroya, in the high Andes of Peru, lawyers are fighting to hold Doe Run Peru liable for dangerously high lead levels in the blood of local children who live near a smelter set up without pollution control measures. And in Mongolia, a team of attorneys is fighting to protect nomad communities from pollution and destruction of natural resources due to an unprecedented boom in mining.
Though scattered around the world, these advocates for environmental justice don’t have to fight their battles alone because they’re part of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW),a global alliance of 300 public interest lawyers, scientists, and other advocates in eighty-seven countries who share strategies and support in efforts to protect the earth.
Based in Eugene, Oregon, ELAW has strong UU connections: its associate director, Lori Maddox, is a 20-year member of the UU Church in Eugene (UUCE), at least four other ELAW staff members attend the church, and the congregation strongly supports the organization’s work, including by home-hosting visiting ELAW fellows from other countries.
“Environmental law is our entry point, but what we’re talking about, really, is the right to life,” said Maddox, who helped launch ELAW 25 years ago and sees her work as deeply tied to UU values.
ELAW’s Eugene office includes four staff lawyers, three staff scientists, and others who offer strategic, substantive, and moral support to its environmental partners in thousands of cases around the globe. ELAW does not get involved in cases in the United States because it achieves bigger impact working outside the country, where fewer lawyers are working to protect the environment through law in any given country, Maddox said. The ELAW Annual International Meeting, which it hosts every other year, brings several dozen partners to Eugene to collaborate on cases and seek sanctuary from work that is difficult and often dangerous.
Maddox often brings these visitors with her to UUCE services. “I enjoy introducing our partners to our liberal faith community, and talking with them about the role of religion in our respective societies and cultures, especially how our spiritual values influence our work,” said Maddox. “They enrich our congregation, and the members of our congregation are kind and welcoming.”
The Rev. Sydney Morris, minister at UUCE, added, “When these people come, they hopefully feel strengthened and supported by being here and meeting people in the church who support their values. We are building international networks in Unitarian Universalism through people like Lori. These committed lay members are the backbone of our faith movement.”
Last year, at Morris’s invitation, Maddox preached a Sunday service about ELAW’s work and its nexus to her UU faith. Maddox eloquently described the link between climate justice and issues of human rights and human dignity, Morris recalled, and “the congregation was so enthusiastic.” The UUCE has also dedicated a Sunday offering to ELAW.
Maddox, a native of West Virginia, lost her father to cancer when she was 11 and he was 48. At the time, “I didn’t know why, but a part of me worried that the companies that dominated my valley—Union Carbide, Dow, FMC, DuPont—were somehow responsible for his death,” said Maddox, who moved to Eugene in 1985 to become an environmental activist.
In 1989, ten public interest lawyers from around the world gathered in Eugene to discuss environmental cases they were litigating against corporations on behalf of marginalized communities. Realizing they could be far more effective collaborating across borders, ELAW was born, and Maddox was asked to head the network. The idea “was to level the playing field—to help communities in the developing world, and the lawyers that represent them, have access to the same tools and information as the big multinationals who seek to develop have,” said Maddox.
ELAW doesn’t direct the cases but defers to its local partners who are “experts in their own legal, social, and cultural contexts,” she said. “What we share is a commitment to protecting the planet and human rights.” In many countries, the work can be dangerous, even deadly, she noted, and an emerging part of ELAW’s work is “defending the defenders.” In March, a woman working in Honduras with one of ELAW’s partners was murdered, she said. “That piece of our work is really important to our partners because they are challenging powerful interests and need the solidarity and support afforded to them by their affiliation with an international network,” she said.
A big part of Maddox’s focus is on helping lawyers to protect the Mesoamerican Reef, which runs along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, past Belize and Guatemala, and along the north coast of Honduras, since the future of those countries depends on the health of the reef. In Belize, she worked with non-governmental organizations and lawyers on a lawsuit that resulted in a moratorium on offshore drilling.
Maddox planned to go to law school before she was offered the ELAW job, and is deeply grateful for the course her life has taken. “It’s been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received,” she said.
An earlier version of this story stated that lawyers are fighting to hold U.S. company Doe Run liable for dangerously high lead levels in the blood of children in La Oroya, Peru. As of 2007, Doe Run Peru is no longer a subsidiary but is now a sister company of U.S.-based Doe Run Company.