Amazonia Conference Tackles Latin American
Environmental and Legal Challenges

High in the clear blue sky sits the eternal disk of the sun, shining down on the Mediterranean landscape of Southern California, nourishing it with light and life energy. Visibility is excellent; looking toward the horizon, one can almost imagine seeing Catalina Island in the distance. Only a few thousand miles south along the winding coast is Ecuador, an emerging Latin American economy and fertile ground for new developments in the field of international environmental law.

In this beautiful corner of the planet, at UCSD's La Jolla campus, a diverse group of world-class scholars gathered on a sunny Friday morning in early May 2010 at the Institute of the Americas for the "Amazonia: National Politics & Interests - Environment & Law" conference. Co-sponsored by California Western School of Law's ECO ACCESO and the Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies at University of California, San Diego, this event features renowned legal and environmental experts from the United States and Latin America.

Conference presenters included California Western professor and conference organizer James Cooper, Assistant Dean for Mission Development and Director of Proyecto ACCESO, a California Western program for legal education and development in Latin America; Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow, President of the Institute of the Americas and 34-year State Department veteran; Professor Richard Finkmoore, California Western's expert on global climate change; and California Western Associate Dean William J. Aceves, a legal expert specializing in human rights and international law.

The agenda covered such transnational issues as globalization, conservation of the Amazon, hemispheric politics, and U.S. policy in Latin America. The conference opened with Ambassador Davidow's remarks on the nature of democracy and its relationship to environmental policy. Only one true form of democracy exists, he suggests, rejecting claims made by some South American governments in recent years to have developed new definitions of democracy. Speaking on another internationally relevant topic, The Alien Torts Claim Act, Associate Dean Aceves detailed the latest developments in international legal legislation and the ongoing battle between Amazon peasants and Chevron, a company they accuse of generating environmental pollution via their operations on the rainforests in Ecuador.

Professor Cooper offered an account of the Yasuní Initiative in Ecuador, which in August 2010 became the first deal of its kind made between the United Nations Development Programme and the Government of Ecuador to protect a biosphere reserve from oil drilling and fight climate change. Additional presentations focused on deforestation of the Amazon, the Soy Moratorium in Brazil, the evolution of international environmental agreements, regional economic integration, and Bolivian President Evo Morales’ controversial development policies.

Remarkably, the scholars agreed, a successful approach to tackling environmental issues like these will require precisely the sort of multi-dimensional and compassionate thinking shared by the graduates of the sponsoring institutions. Not only will in-depth knowledge of national and international law prove invaluable, but the key to effectively addressing environmental problems will ultimately lie in creative problem solving, an art central to the California Western philosophy of legal education.

As the world becomes more and more globalized and the international connections between academicians and practitioners continue to grow, events like this will no doubt prove instrumental in helping shift the focus to prevention of - rather than reaction to - ecological disasters. This can form the backbone of a newfound awareness of globally relevant environmental issues as well as the associated local challenges faced by indigenous groups.