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She's a warrior for environment rights

30 August 2015 - 02:00 By Margaret Harris

Melissa Fourie is an environmental rights lawyer and the executive director at the Centre for Environmental Rights. She says her organisation challenges the government and companies to be more open and accountable What do you do?At the Centre for Environmental Rights, we work to make sure that everyone's right to a healthy environment is respected and realised. To do this, we use the law: on behalf of communities and activists, we challenge the government and companies to be more open and accountable, and to implement and comply with environmental laws. We are a nonprofit, so we don't charge legal fees, and can represent only those who cannot afford private lawyers.What did you study, and how does it help in the work you do?As a teenager, I was very serious about music, so I started studying music at the University of Stellenbosch. I soon wanted to be more involved with matters of justice, so gradually shifted into legal studies and completed my law degree at Stellenbosch in 1996. In 2002, I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to do an MSc at the London School of Economics, which exposed me for the first time to fascinating new subjects such as environmental and development economics, development studies, and environmental regulation.You began your career in commercial and insolvency litigation; how and why did you make the move to environmental law?story_article_left1As a young lawyer, you often stumble into a particular field of practice without really knowing where you should be heading. But I was fortunate to be mentored by top-notch lawyers, which has proved to be invaluable to me. Working in commercial and insolvency litigation taught me a great deal about the commercial world - particularly what motivates corporate players - learning that was enhanced during a stint at a big law firm in Sydney, Australia, in 2001 and 2002.But I was keen to make the shift to something that would be more fulfilling. I had to be brave, leave behind what I knew and spend time requalifying and re-establishing myself as an environmental lawyer. I learnt a lot about the difficulties of environmental regulation during my time in government, where my team and I had to enforce compliance with many of our environmental laws.While I love environmental law for its intellectual challenge, the privilege of working as a public interest environmental lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights is that our work actually improves the prospects of realising social and environmental justice, and of leaving a better future for generations to follow.What did you want to be when you were a child?I don't recall having particular career aspirations as a child, other than wanting to play the piano. But as I got older, I wanted to do something important with my life - something that would change the world. As you get older, you realise that your sphere of influence may be smaller than you had thought. But I still feel the same way.What do you think makes you good at the work you do?Over the years, working in the private sector, in government and in NGOs, I think I've developed important relationships in the environmental sector. I've also developed a good sense of the bigger picture of environmental regulation in South Africa, along with instincts about what to prioritise, and what levers to use to achieve a particular outcome.story_article_right2My staff may disagree from time to time, but I like to think that I'm a fairly emotionally intelligent manager of people. It is exceptionally important to me that I lead an organisation that is not only effective, but one our attorneys and staff can be proud of, and somewhere they feel appreciated and supported.How can we as consumers become more environmentally aware and protect our planet?We need to demand more information from producers and retailers so that we can make environmentally responsible decisions about what we buy - the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative is a great example of this. More information means we have to make the right decisions, even when it's inconvenient.What campaign have you been most proud of being part of?In 2014, after three years of legal action, the Supreme Court of Appeal handed down judgment in favour of one of the centre's clients, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance. The court not only ordered multinational steel giant ArcelorMittal to hand over environmental records to the alliance after many years of struggle, but made it clear corporates had obligations of accountability to the communities affected by their operations...

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