Flaviano Bianchini equips communities and grassroots citizen organizations (COs) with the ability to measure the harmful consequences of natural resource extraction and bring lawsuits against their perpetrators.
The New Idea
Flaviano holds extractive industries accountable for their activities by furnishing communities and environmental and human rights COs with the tools to evaluate the negative effects of mining, oil, and dam construction projects. Armed with this evidence, the COs, with Flaviano’s guidance and partners, engage in lawsuits or negotiations with large resource extraction firms that damage the environment and health of the surrounding community members.
The COs that collaborate with Flaviano become active leaders in mobilizing their communities with clear scientific proof against the degradation wrought by oil and mining companies. Flaviano first obtains scientific evidence to demonstrate the degree of contamination and document the adverse health effects that these industries generate. He performs environmental contamination studies and lab analyses of the affected population, normally costly technical procedures inaccessible to such communities. Then, the communities join forces with Flaviano to carry out their own monitoring and acquire the necessary evidence of damages to community health. Flaviano’s model helps train community members to take basic measurements that are later used in scientific studies. With this technical knowledge they helped produce, the citizens are better prepared to deal with emergencies or disasters and take on the corporations themselves.
Providing this type of evidence has empowered COs to garner significant changes in public policy to regulate the processes of the extractive industries. They have also prompted recommendations from international organizations to reposition mines and relocate adversely affected communities. To date, Flaviano has implemented his methodology in Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Argentina. He hopes to reproduce it in communities around the world that are exposed to harm caused by a mining, oil extraction or dam construction project, particularly in Asia and Africa.
In Latin America the natural resource extraction projects of oil and mining companies cause severe harm to the environment and health of nearby communities. Their adverse effects include the contamination of water, soil, and air with heavy metals and other chemical elements like selenium, nickel, lead, cyanide, or arsenic. These elements have been found in concentrations from 100 to 1,000 times the legally permitted amount. As a result, approximately 80 percent of the people that live in nearby communities possess one or more of the previously mentioned chemical elements in their blood, which causes a high rate of cancer and skin ailments, an increase of infant mortality and cases of congenital malformation. Besides direct scientific harm, the presence of extractive industries in rural areas can also yield severe trauma to the social fabric of these communities. Some sociological studies have shown that the rapid influx of male employees that typically accompany extractive projects may cause increases in alcoholism, violence, and prostitution in the local community.
The communities that have lived on this land often for generations are powerless against these industries. They have neither the technical skills to measure negative health effects or environmental contamination nor the capabilities to defend themselves against catastrophes caused by inadequate regulation or careless administration. When emergencies provoked by poor management of resource extraction or dam construction strike, they do not have the means to safeguard their communities and manage the devastation.
Although the local civil society has sought to hold oil and mining companies accountable through lobbying, political negotiation and publicity campaigns, they have not been successful. Like the local communities, they tend to lack the necessary expertise, above all in scientific investigation, to prove the damage caused by industrial activities and make a cogent argument to the public.
By way of example, of the eighty COs from Latin America that attended the World Alliance for Environmental Rights in Costa Rica in December 2010, none had scientific support to monitor extraction projects. COs cannot conduct the scientific studies proving environmental contamination or adverse health consequences, the latter through analysis of blood, fingernail and hair samples, because of the high fee to perform such tests and the requisite specialized training for their execution and analysis. Even if they could afford these samples, they can rarely access them: there is a dearth of scientists working in the area, as they have few opportunities for academic funding to support a scientific career there.
Natural resource extraction projects are likely to grow in size and number over the coming years given the rising demand (and price) of raw materials, to the detriment of environment and community health. Since there is an insufficient amount of evidence to build strong legal cases that could prove the effects of resource extraction and force companies to mitigate their impact, though, the negative environmental and health effects caused by their work are unlikely to decrease.
Rather than just providing the scientific analyses, Flaviano prepares the local citizen sector to be advocates for their communities against the damages of extractive industries. He is a member of the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), a global network of public interest attorneys and other environmental advocates. With the large demand for scientific support from COs, Flaviano picks the most motivated organizations that have engaged or plan to engage in litigation or negotiation with an extractive industry company. This assures that the scientific evidence provided will be used in court and have an impact on the decision. If the company loses the case, it is obligated to pay damages including the cost of the scientific analysis used in the court case.
Once Flaviano has identified a potential project, he secures economic resources to execute it. To date, Flaviano’s projects have been financed by other COs, banks, governments and donors, but he expects to diversify his funding streams as he expands his work. After securing funding, Flaviano creates a map to identify the zones to extract samples to secure evidence of environmental contamination or adverse health effects. The local representatives from the selected CO train alongside him and his team to learn the techniques of scientific analysis.
After obtaining results, Flaviano works with a local medical team and the CO to compare the data with national averages to determine the severity of the damages caused to the health of affected individuals. Together with the local CO, Flaviano and his network within the ELAW constructs a lawsuit, replete with the scientific data attained, to file charges against the corporation. The case is tried before the appropriate national or international court to solicit reforms in the extraction process, relocation of the communities, or compensation for damages.
Flaviano, together with ELAW and local COs, has achieved fundamental successes in public policy change and access to justice. For example, in Guatemala, as a result of his scientific support, he was able to prove the contamination caused by the Marlin mine. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights introduced precautionary measures to force the national government to demand reforms in the type of extraction. Because of his studies in Honduras, the Supreme Court required the government to amend 13 articles of mining-related law that allowed extraction projects to cause harm to public health.
After several projects, Flaviano realized the importance of communities performing their own environmental monitoring, not only to reduce the costs of the project but also to provide a means for long-term monitoring. Now, the communities learn the process to follow and which authorities to contact in case of emergency or environmental disaster caused by the extractive industries. Such was the case in the indigenous communities of Canaán de Cachiyacu and Nuevo Sucre in the Peruvian Amazon. After repeated oil spills, the community completed their own monitoring, detected contamination in the river, recorded the case, and deemed Maple Gas as the culpable party. As a result, the community was able to engage in a negotiation process with Maple Gas and with the National Environmental Ministry.
To expand his model, Flaviano is planning to launch an autonomous CO organized as a decentralized network of experts who will be selected for particular projects based on each individual’s geographic and professional expertise. This flexible structure will enable the organization to expand to Africa and Asia. In addition, he plans to have his own laboratory in order to reduce the cost of analysis by 90 percent. In five years, he expects the CO to complete 15 to 20 projects per year as well as follow up with past projects. In ten years, the CO will also have anthropologists and sociologists on staff to investigate social problems caused by the natural resource extraction projects.
Flaviano plans to receive small online donations, long-term funding from EuropeAid and funding from the natural resource extraction companies in their efforts to be more transparent and accountable. In addition, he will sign a more formal agreement with ELAW to include his scientific studies in the budget of the legal strategy of ELAW clients.
Flaviano grew up in a rural Italian town in a traditional family with modest resources. However, unlike his more traditional peers, he felt a strong connection to the outdoors and was curious about global problems. This propelled him to explore the world outside of his town.
When he was 19 when he saw news of the Prestige oil spill on television and, against the wishes of his parents, traveled to Spain to clean the beaches and restore wildlife as a volunteer. In Spain, he witnessed first-hand the negative effects of environmental disasters and contamination on communities. Moved by the experience, he dedicated himself to solving the environmental problems that affect people’s lives around the world.
While studying environmental human rights, Flaviano heard a Guatemalan woman speak about the environmental damage caused by a large mine affecting a community in Peru. However, the woman had no data to substantiate her claims. Recognizing the need, Flaviano raised his own funds and traveled to Guatemala to complete the scientific study on her behalf. Flaviano’s actions provoked a reform of the extraction processes in favor of the local community. Through working with indigenous leaders in Guatemala, he realized the severity of the problem. Since then, Flaviano has been identifying similarly affected communities, mobilizing the necessary financial and human capital, and spearheading teams to defend their environmental and human rights.
He has the aim of creating a network of communities affected by the extractive industries, which are capable of developing and facilitating their own environmental and health monitoring. In some cases, these businesses are involved in the model, in other cases, the communities act independently. The general aim is to create many models for community control of the environmental and social situation in relation to the extractive industries, as well as promoting the systemic change of business-community relations at a regional level.