MEET OUR MEMBER: Estonian Environmental Law Centre – social entreprise focusing on “exit” from oil-shale mining and better-protected Natura 2000 areas
The Estonian Environmental Law Center (EELC) was founded in November 2007 as a successor of the environmental law activities of one of Estonia’s biggest environmental NGOs - the Estonian Fund for Nature. EELC, based in Tallinn, is a nonprofit non-governmental organization, the aim of which is to provide legal expertise for creation and application of environmental laws, speaking out for the public interests. Activities of EELC include legal analyses in the field of environmental law, collection, dissemination of information and training about environmental law, environmental legal services and participation in environmental legislative processes and other environmental decision-making processes. Our staff is made up of four lawyers, a communication manager and an assistant.
Our activities are partly funded by several donors, e.g. Estonian National Foundation of Civil Society, Environmental Investment Centre and NGO Fund (EEA Grants) but we also provide paid services as a social entrepreneur. This means that we use profits from our services for achieving our statutory goals.
Although we act in several environmental areas, five represent our special interest focus in terms of advocacy:
● Planning of large-scale infrastructure objects and industrial facilities
EELC has played part in several large-scale planning projects recently or currently running in Estonia. For example, we have provided legal advice to other NGOs on the Rail Baltic railway, LNG terminal, bridge building planning processes between the mainland and Estonia’s biggest island, etc. Recently, we mounted a successful court case against the Estonian Road Administration on the evaluation of environmental impacts during highway construction.
● Mineral resources
Mineral resources and climate change are among the advocacy topics in EELC’s 2014-2020 strategy. EELC has worked cooperatively on several projects, e.g. “Involvement of society into decisions of mineral resource use“, which aimed to raise the decision-makers’ awareness of the public interest concerning mineral extraction in Estonia (including oil shale) and suggest the best legal solutions for better civic engagement. EELC has also been involved in analyzing mine-planning practices, providing local communities with legal assistance and participating in legislation by amending the drafts.
● Environmental noise
In 2019 we started a project with the Estonian Ministry of the Environment and an independent noise expert. By January 2020, the project team is tasked with providing two guidelines that will help practitioners implement noise mapping-related legislation in Estonia.
● Protection of Natura 2000 areas
Together with the Estonian Fund for Nature we provide free of charge legal and nature protection advice mostly to landowners and local governments on issues related to nature protection restrictions. For example, if a landowner who has land on Natura 2000 protection area would like to build a house there or cut forest, we provide clarification on what legal conditions apply to the situation. We also offer help in situations where state or local government officials and landowners struggle to find common ground on environmental restrictions issue. The overall aim of the project is to foster among the general public the understanding of Natura 2000 areas as valuable and to break related myths about these areas and/or nature protection in general. EELC also aims to foster mutually more respectful and considerate communication between environmental officials and local people (mostly landowners, etc).
● Climate change
See below: “Tackling climate change and Estonian energy policy – facilitating meaningful dialogue about the future”
Being a member of the Estonian Council of Environmental NGOs (EKO) gives us the opportunity for closer substantive cooperation with other environmental organizations, helping to increase both EELC’s and EKO’s impact on environmental advocacy. As EELC is a social enterprise, we are also a member of Estonian Social Enterprise Network.
We have a diverse range of partners, mostly NGOs such as the Estonian Green Movement, Estonian Fund for Nature, BirdLife Estonia. We also have close partners in the public sector, e.g. the Ministry of Environment and the Estonian Environmental Board – we meet on a regular basis to keep us posted on plans and possible cooperative ideas. Local governments, too, play an important role for us as partners; local and state-level officials account for the main participants in our trainings.
What are the highlights of your organisation in recent years?
Our team has grown from two to four lawyers, and added a comms person. Our biggest successes have been raising several environmental issues for the decision-makers – for example, the need to mitigate climate change via a planned „exit“ from oil shale mining and use, and the need for proper assessments of impacts of different activities on Natura 2000 areas. Although these issues are not solved yet, they are no longer ignored by politicians and authorities. Hopefully, our continuing work in these two areas will lead to both reduced carbon footprint of Estonia as well as better-protected Natura 2000 areas.
What is the major change you are striving for right now?
AnEUKI-financed joint-project with the Estonian Fund for Nature and the Estonian Green Movement “Tackling climate change and Estonian energy policy – facilitating meaningful dialogue about future” (est / eng) is the most change-driven initiative for us right now. The project aims to support dialogue about future energy scenarios by 1) building the capacity of NGOs, 2) facilitating dialogue with the creation of a discussion platform to include NGOs, the general public, local governments, business and labour unions, 3) carrying out studies to fill information gaps in current climate policy and explore possibilities for the currently monofunctional oil-shale Ida-Viru region in north-eastern Estonia, 4) raising public awareness about climate change and challenges in the energy sector. Additional insight into the topic can be found here: “Discussions of Estonia’s energy and climate future pick up momentum”.
How does Justice and Environment contribute to achieving the objectives of your national organisation?
J&E gives us access to information affecting decision-making at the Brussels level. Much of Estonia’s environmental regulations come from the EU: knowing how and why the rules are in place is invaluable for fighting for their best possible implementation. Regarding the latter, the ability for comparison with other EU member states is also very valuable.