The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

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Katie Redford and John Novak
by John Novak
Professor of Biology

Our paths did not cross until this past June when Katie Redford '90, and I met for the first time halfway around the world in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Although we had not formally met while she was an undergraduate at Colgate, it was Colgate that made this encounter possible. I was returning to Thailand for a second time; this time to serve primarily as a consultant to two summer law interns whom Katie had recruited to work for EarthRights International (ERI).

While still a University of Virginia law student, Katie's career calling became solidified after what many of us would consider an unusual field experience. She had spent three months volunteering as an English teacher in a Karen refugee camp along the Thai/Myanmar border, even enduring an artillery attack from the Myanmar's military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). (The Karen are one of the ethnic minorities of the Myanmar in conflict with its military government. Currently about 70,000 Karen civilians have fled their homeland and reside in a series of refugee camps.) This experience proved to be life-changing for her. In an interview she did for her hometown paper (The Boston Herald) in February of 1995, she said "I wanted to be in public interest law, but I didn't know what field." Her experience with the Karen supplied her with a focus.

After graduation from law school and after passing the Massachusetts Bar exam, she returned to Kanchanaburi as a practicing attorney and quickly became an advocate for the Burmese minorities. She, a fellow law school classmate and a Karen friend of theirs founded EarthRights International (ERI), a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization. The idea of EarthRights arose from the concepts of environmental justice, environmental racism and eco-justice. Its goals are to provide nonviolent alternatives for indigenous peoples in their struggle to control their natural resources and simultaneously promote environmental protection. At present, ERI's efforts are focused on one region, the Thai/Myanmar border, where the SLORC is involved in teak logging, mining of gems, natural gas pipelines and hydroelectric projects -- carried out in ways that opponents say exploit Burma's natural resources.

"We're in the intersection between human-rights abuses and environmental degradation," stated Katie. "In Burmese there is not even a term for human rights! We're really starting from the ground level." She believes that ERI must take a long-term approach in this geographical region by helping empower ethnic minorities and by guarding their rights. "It is a very long process but it has to be done. If people don't have an idea of what they can reasonably expect, then they're never going to demand it."

[IMAGE] Cultivating rice in Kanchanaburi, Thailand In the rainforest of southern Myanmar, the U.S. Company Unocal and its French partner Total have begun construction of a billion-dollar pipeline to carry natural gas from offshore fields in the Andaman Sea across southern Myanmar and over the border to Bangkok. Opponents say the SLORC has ensured the pipeline's construction through the use of slave labor, massive relocations of villagers, and practices that degrade the environment. Although the SLORC have been in power only since 1988, Myanmar has had a military regime for 30-odd years. According to Katie, "unlike most of these brutal, dictatorial regimes which have fallen, this one is still around. And it's not getting weaker; it's getting stronger."

During the last quarter of 1995 much of the work by ERI's staff of nine was in the field advising people how to document the SLORC activities in the pipeline area. The ERI and SAIN (another nongovernmental organization) have compiled data against the SLORC in a 60-page document titled Total Denial. The report was sent to the annual stockholders' meeting of both oil companies, leading to Unocal's CEO agreeing to support an independent fact-finding mission to investigate forced labor practices and to document the situation of the indigenous people around the pipeline zone.

Last June I was consulting for ERI on tropical forests, with two law school interns recruited by Katie from the University of Virginia and Harvard Law Schools. One of their tasks was to document the teak deforestation in Myanmar that had taken place since the 1988 ban on teak harvesting in Thailand. Since then, Thai truck loggers have gained logging concessions from Myanmar and now continue their work across the border on the last remaining intact teak forest in southeast Asia. Myanmar's rapid deforestation has denuded hills and eroded thin topsoil. In addition, logging interests have provided the wherewithal for the SLORC to wage war against the Karen and other ethnic minorities who inhabit these forests.

ERI wants teak loggers in the Myanmar region to take measures to implement sustainable forest management policies. "It's an uphill battle to save some of these most verdant forests and natural habitats in Myanmar," states Katie. "We've said we'll be there until there's democracy in Myanmar. Democratization is one means to erase social injustices."


Colgate professor of biology John Novak traveled to Thailand to continue his own work with the Karen refugees, begun in Mae Sot and the Shoklo Refugee Camp in 1995. He also served as a consultant to ERI to teach members of the group ecological principles about tropical forests, traveling to a Thai teak plantation, a sawmill, and Sai Yok National Park. In the future he hopes to have students accompany him to Thailand, when their safety can be reasonably assured.