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Q&A with Astrid Puentes, AIDA Co-Director

From offices in Mexico City, Astrid Puentes serves as co-director of Earthjustice’s sister organization, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA). Founded in 1998, AIDA is a nonprofit environmental law firm that works across international borders to defend threatened ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them.

Latin American countries are facing serious environmental degradation, but governments in the region are working to silence activists and advocacy groups, making AIDA’s work even more critical. We recently chatted with Puentes to discuss AIDA’s mission and the outlook for environmental advocacy in Latin America.

How did you develop your interest in environmental issues and come to AIDA?

I have enjoyed being in nature all of my life. I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia and although I was born and raised in the city, as a child we would travel outside of the city to go hiking or visit farms. So, I feel that love of nature was always with me. When I started law school I didn’t have many environmental law classes. During school I started looking for a job and I found an NGO (non-governmental organization) that used to practice environmental law in Bogotá. That organization, along with Earthjustice, later founded AIDA. I worked with them as a student just doing whatever they needed me to do, but because I spoke and read English, I started working on international issues, which I immediately fell in love with. I felt that international law was what I wanted to do as a career. I left Colombia to get my master’s degree in law from the University of Florida. I stayed in touch with Earthjustice during that time and later came back to work with Earthjustice’s international program before being named the co-director of AIDA in 2003.

What is AIDA’s mission?

AIDA works in the Western Hemisphere for the protection of the environment, specifically concerning human rights and the right to a healthy environment. We help communities and organizations improve protections for the environment, mostly using international environmental laws or strengthening national laws. We focus our work in five areas: climate change, human rights and the environment, marine ecosystem protection, environmental governance, and freshwater preservation. We take on strategic litigation where we can make a lasting impact and really set legal precedents for the region. A good example of our work is the Doe Run Peru smelter case in La Oroya, Peru, which is the most polluted place in the region. Because national litigation was not enough, we brought the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Hopefully, the case will set a precedent for the region, forcing states to be responsible for controlling pollution.

Is AIDA unique in Latin America?

I think it is unique. There are some other organizations that do international environmental law, but AIDA is the only organization staffed primarily by Latin American lawyers. There are very few Latino lawyers based in Latin America doing this kind of work. So, in addition to working on legal cases, it’s also very important for us to create capacity in the region. That’s why the majority of our staff is based in Latin America, and, aside from one lawyer in Colombia, all of AIDA’s lawyers are originally from Latin America. It’s also unique in that we use international law both internationally and in national cases, and have done so with great success.

The situation for environmental advocates in Latin America is pretty dire, what gives you optimism?

Sometimes, if you talk to people who have been in Latin America since the 1980s or 1990s they will say the situation is worse for the environment, and I think it is in a lot of ways, but at the same time it’s not. Because, at least in some instances, if you talk about environmental degradation and talk about a situation like the La Oroya smelter, it’s now one of the most known cases in the world and in Peru there’s nobody really who can deny how bad the situation is. Before, the extent of the damage was unknown, but now people are aware. And what we are finding is that these are not isolated cases, they are systematic in nature. But I do think that because there are more legal precedents and because information travels so fast now, it’s making it easier to work in coalition with other groups in Latin America. I think that as bad as the situation is, there are solutions and alternatives that are beginning to be implemented.