Student group influences Ecuador’s constitution

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A little more than a week ago, Esperanza International, Inc., a student group focused on environmental issues in Ecuador, had its largest breakthrough to date when it introduced an article to the Ecuadorian constitution that establishes the right of nature to be preserved.

Ecuador has never had a system of legislation pertaining to environmental law, said David Poritz ’11, president of Esperanza. Because of this lack of legal obligation, the government has not been held accountable for environmental damage. The new article, which is one of the first environmental laws passed in Latin America, will lay the groundwork “for a larger piece of the constitution” granting nature the right to environmental restoration, Poritz said.

Esperanza’s aim is to “aid communities adversely affected by toxic contamination both through the collaborative development of international environmental policy and the education of students and professionals globally,” according to its Web site.

Poritz founded Esperanza four years ago. His interest in Ecuador started with a sixth grade research project on the country. Poritz was shocked to discover that companies extracting oil from Ecuador — a country with some of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world — were dumping 18.4 billion liters of waste water into the main tributary of the Amazon River, an equivalent of eight Exxon Valdezes, Poritz said. The following year, Poritz’s seventh grade teacher was actually the daughter of a famous lawyer, Cristobal Bonifaz P’87, who was working on a large class action lawsuit for approximately 40,000 indigenous people in the Amazon region. With some nagging, Poritz said he managed to convince his teacher to introduce him to Bonifaz, and began accompanying him on trips to Ecuador when he was in seventh grade.

The concept behind Esperanza is to “develop and pass progressive environmental legislation in Ecuador,” said Josh Bernard ’11, an executive staff member. In doing so, Bernard said the group hopes to “create an environmental regulatory framework for the country that didn’t previously exist.”

Esperanza created an advisory council made of a group of students from the Yale Law School’s Environmental Protection Clinic and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, in Ecuador. The council conducts research and is in the process of writing actual legislation for the Ecuadorian government.

Esperanza itself serves as an “intermediary,” providing “the impetus for starting and facilitating the entire process” and “connecting the dots,” Bernard said.

Esperanza is a relatively small group, with about 20 members on campus. It works closely in conjunction with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and hosted a lecture last week by one of Esperanza’s members, Manuel Pallares, on the social, environmental and geopolitical consequences of oil extraction. Pallares has worked in Ecuador on introducing legislation over the past seven years, and it was mainly through his efforts that the recent environmental legislation in Ecuador was passed.

By hosting events around campus, Esperanza hopes to engage students on issues in Ecuador and the Andean regions of South America.

In addition, Esperanza has led a number of student-led trips to the Ecuadorian region of the Amazon Basin.

In the year ahead, Poritz says Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa Delgado may come to Brown to speak about Ecuador’s constitution and hopes that the event will further “cultivate interest in Ecuador.”

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