A leading international authority on environmental law told an audience at the William S. Richardson School of Law in March that continued clearing of the Amazon jungle in his home country of Brazil has decreased but continues to have a devastating effect on native species, including many still undiscovered.
“We are losing the library of life,” visiting Justice Antonio Benjamin of the National High Court of Brazil told an audience of students, faculty and members of the public. “We can’t afford to lose what we don’t know is there.”
Benjamin is the international jurist-in-residence at the law school and a global authority on environmental courts, environmental law and threats to fragile ecosystems. What Brazil faces with its unique and threatened indigenous, and even undiscovered flora and fauna, is not unlike what Hawaiʻi has also faced with its own unique species that developed in the islands’ relative isolation.
- Related UH News story: Brazil’s national high court justice visits the UH law school, March 28, 2016
During a 10-day stay in Hawaiʻi in which he met with students, political leaders, environmental attorneys and high-ranking jurists, Justice Benjamin also spoke passionately of the importance of environmental courts to evaluate dangers to the environment. Hawaiʻi established an environmental court last year, only the second state to do so, and Justice Benjamin was one of the international jurists who helped train local judges for service on the new court.
Protecting Brazil’s native forest
In looking at threats to the Brazilian environment, Justice Benjamin noted that Amazon forest continues to be cleared at the rate of over 4,000 square kilometers a year, even though it has been reduced from 27,000 kilometers (about 16,000 square miles) annually just a few years ago.
“Four thousand is still a lot. The challenge is to bring this down,” he said. “And technology is on our side. Surveillance we used to do by planes we now can do by satellite, even at night with infrared. Also drones are being used, not just to look at places that are dangerous for rangers, but also to do a census of all elephants. This couldn’t be done even 10 years ago.”
Despite the loss of native forest and species in the Amazon, Justice Benjamin pointed out that, “The most endangered forest in Brazil is the Atlantic forest with just 7 or 8 percent of it left.” He said a single acre of Atlantic forest holds more native species than the Amazon. The Atlantic forest is where 60 percent of Brazil’s population lives, including the area around Rio de Janeiro, the site of this summer’s Olympic Games.
Justice Benjamin emphasized that environmental courts must be “paid attention to by the judiciary, just as they pay attention to courts that protect children, or the elderly, or family law regimes.” But he also noted that judges on such courts have certain limitations.
“No good ruling can save a bad law,” he said. “If we don’t have good laws this is a recipe for having bad rulings. One good ruling does not protect the environment.”
This is the fourth time the law school has hosted an international jurist as part of its mission to provide the best legal education possible for students.
“Thank you for opening the doors to the world,” Justice Benjamin said. “For bringing the world here and having the law school go out to the world. You did it in the most extraordinary manner, by putting social justice at the forefront.”