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Meet the CER’s Executive Director

31 August 2015 at 10:21 am

Melissa in Sunday Times August 2015CER Executive Director Melissa Fourie was profiled in the Sunday Times’ Careers section over the weekend. We publish the original interview with Margaret Harris below.

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 government and corporates to be more open and accountable, and to implement and comply with environmental laws. We are a non-profit organisation, so we don’t charge legal fees, which also means we can only represent those who cannot afford private lawyers.

What did you study and how does it help you in the work you do?

As a teenager I was very serious about music, and so I started my university career 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 a Masters of Science degree at the London School of Economics, which exposed me for the first time to fascinating new subjects like environmental and development economics, development studies, and particularly environmental regulation.

You began your career in commercial and insolvency litigation; how and why did you make the move to environmental law?

As 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 in this early part of my career, which has proven 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 Syney, Australia in 2001-2.

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 learned 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 know that 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 with many people and organisations 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.

An ability to grasp the essence of complicated matters – what the real problem is, and possibilities for resolution or intervention – is crucial in my work, where I’m overseeing a multitude of different programmes, projects and court cases.

My 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 an organisation of which our attorneys and staff can be proud – where they feel appreciated and supported.

How does South Africa’s environmental law compare with other countries?

South Africa’s environmental law is ambitious and optimistic. We have great aspirations, but often refuse to acknowledge our constraints when it comes to implementation and particularly capacity for enforcing compliance. I think that our law could be a lot smarter, with less emphasis on regulating activities with minor impacts and focusing on those that devastate our air, our water and our land. We should also have less emphasis on criminal prosecution and more on making polluters pay sizable civil penalties that actually deter violations of the law. Above all, we need to invest far more in our compliance and enforcement units, empowering them to hold companies to the law.

How can we as consumers become more environmentally aware and protect our planet?

As consumers 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. Of course, more information also means that we have to be brave and make the right decisions, even when this is inconvenient.

What campaign have you been most proud of being part of? Why?

In 2014, after 3 years of legal action, the Supreme Court of Appeal handed down judgement in favour of one of the Centre’s community-based 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 also made it clear that corporates had obligations of openness and accountability to the communities affected by their operations. We are already seeing how this judgement from one of our highest courts is changing major corporates’ perception of their obligations to engage more openly with the public.

What advice would you give to someone keen to become an environmental rights lawyer?

Like all other fields of law, the reward you get from environmental law depends a lot on the context in which you practice. It would be hard for me to enjoy practising outside of the public interest environmental law field. Knowing the law is only a start! Using the law to protect environmental rights and to defend environmental justice is an extraordinary privilege.