Environmental and Climate Justice

Environmental and Climate Justice

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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"Detroit Shall Burn No More!" Incinerator Fight Heats Up

On the final day of the 2010 United States Social Forum scores of local activists and several hundred of their allies from across the country held a series of rallies targeted at the city’s municipal waste incinerator. The Social Forum had chosen Detroit because the city represents all the vast failures of corporate industrialism and immense possibilities for renewal. The closure of the incinerator four months later, temporary though it may be, showed the prescience of the Forum in its choice of target.

Given the wide range of themes discussed at the forum—from immigration to gender to militarism to media justice—and the broad set of issues facing Detroit—from evictions to utility shutoffs to unemployment rates of up to 50 percent—the focus on the waste incinerator for the forum’s closing action was significant.

As the marchers made their way through the nearly vacant neighborhoods of this once thriving metropolis, one chant evoked a complex web of memories. To locals, “Detroit shall burn no more!” brought to mind the 1967 race riots that resulted in thousands of buildings being burned, as well as the inner city arson incidents of the eighties, when property owners would burn down their unmarketable homes for insurance under cover of Devil’s Night (the night before Halloween). This time around, however, the metaphor served to connote the burning of waste and rising global temperatures.

A Fiery Symbol of Despair
A remnant of industrial development that should have been relegated to oblivion long ago, the Detroit municipal waste incinerator serves as a clear example of the ways in which emitters of point-source pollution target low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. It is also a classic target for the growing climate justice movement. Speaking at the rally, City Council Member Joanna Watson admitted that there is no more important issue facing Detroit. Indeed, the fight over the incinerator—the largest such facility in the country, owned by Covanta, the world’s largest incinerator company—is one of the most iconic environmental and social justice fights in the U.S. today.

The word “consume” means “to destroy or use up, as by fire or disease.” So, incinerators represent the very definition of toxic and unsustainable consumption. They emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) per unit of electricity than even the dirtiest coal-fired power plants and the incineration process drives a climate-changing cycle of resources extracted from the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and eventually, burned. In truth, more than 90 percent of the materials disposed of in incinerators and landfills could be reused, recycled, and composted, creating both jobs and community resilience.

Like every other incinerator in existence, the Detroit facility stands squarely in the way of green jobs, vibrant communities, and environmental justice—a fact evidenced by the frontline presence of the Teamsters Union at the march and rally. The Teamsters also issued a strong statement, saying, “The facts are clear. Recycling creates six to 10 times more jobs than incinerating or landfilling. By recycling waste we can recover valuable materials and limit hazardous pollution.”

Paid to Pollute
When Detroit’s incinerator was proposed in the 1980s, it aroused strong community opposition. A group called the Evergreen Alliance organized direct actions, including blockades of the site, which led to many arrests and significant public attention. But racial tensions and the strong support enjoyed by Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, contributed to the failure of the mostly white Evergreen Alliance to block the plan. (Young’s administration, it later turned out, was riddled with corruption and the incinerator is just one piece of his troubled legacy.) The Alliance did succeed on a broader front, however, by raising early awareness that helped galvanize a national movement.

Most notably, Detroit’s incinerator came with a staggering debt load. Clean air policies enacted immediately after it was built demanded the addition of costly pollution controls. And although the city sold the facility to private investors in the early 1990s, taxpayers were saddled with the construction costs. In its 20 years of operation, the incinerator has cost Detroit taxpayers over $1.1 billion; in exchange, it generated toxic pollution causing asthma rates three times the national average.

A recent news report stated: “Detroit doesn’t just outpace the state in pollution levels. Forbes Magazine, analyzing EPA data, last year named the Detroit-Warren-Livonia area the second most toxic city in the nation, with 68 Superfund sites and 281 facilities releasing toxic chemicals.”1 The cumulative impact of this pollution is literally killing people.

Roland Wahl, a resident of the Oakland Heights section of greater Detroit, states: “We live in the most polluted zip code in the state. My doctor told me ‘this environment is killing you.’ People are selling their homes for as little as $300 to get out of [here].”

March organizer Sandra Turner-Handy, a community outreach director for the Michigan Environmental Council said, “My granddaughter attended the Go Lightly Educational Center, right near the incinerator. She got asthma and had to use her inhaler every single day. [But] from the time she left there… she has not used her inhaler once.”

Detroit Says: “Give Me Your… Wretched Refuse”
To operate efficiently, the incinerator needs to burn about 800,000 tons of trash a year; and as long as the incinerator is licensed to operate, its owners must find ways to ensure a steady supply of mixed waste, by the ton. In recent years, however, because of Detroit’s drastic drop in population—from around 1.5 million in the 1980s to about 750,000 today—the amount of trash produced in the city has declined. Consequently, the city has had to import trash from its more affluent neighbors.

Pending the incinerator’s permanent shutdown, Detroit’s inner city residents pay up to $150 a ton to import garbage from wealthier areas so that the incinerator can burn its daily quota of 2,858 tons of garbage and release its annual allowed quota of up to 2,251 tons of regulated pollutants.
Not surprisingly, the incinerator is deeply implicated in Detroit’s budget crisis as well. According to Brad van Guilder of the Detroit Ecology Center, “[The] facility has brought Detroit to its knees three times… first in 1991, when the scrubbers had to be added. [Next], when the city sold the facility to a private consortium—it was valued at $643 million, but Detroit received only $54 million. The majority of the funds were actually borrowed from the city, and had to be paid back over the next 20 years.”

The third instance is the crisis occurring right now: Detroit’s contract with the facility’s owners has expired but closing the incinerator now could cost the city more in the short-term than keeping it open. That’s because the incinerator is a Waste to Energy (WTE) facility, meaning heat from burning trash is used to generate electricity, which is sold to Detroit Edison, the local power utility, which in turn sells it to the city. Detroit Edison’s city contract stipulates that even if supply from the incinerator stops, the utility is guaranteed payment through 2024.

WTE or the Great Carbon Boondoggle
Incinerators have long been a key target of environmental justice struggles in the U.S.—with great success. Massive public opposition and community advocacy have led to a tremendous rise in alternative waste reduction practices, such as recycling and composting, over the past several decades preventing any new incinerators from being built since 1997. In response, the waste industry has taken to promoting the dubious “Waste to Energy” idea, using misleading claims about burning trash offering a “clean energy source.” Actually, it is an absurdly inefficient source of energy because incinerated waste includes a large percentage of organics.

Incineration is based on the false assumption that there is a large, nonhazardous portion of the waste stream that cannot be avoided through source-reduction and cannot be reused, recycled, or composted. In truth, most municipal waste can be recycled except for hazardous materials, such as PVC, batteries, and electronics—precisely those that are the most hazardous to burn.

“We need to get trash out of the renewable portfolio standard entirely,” says Brad van Guilder of the Ecology Center. “The Obama administration is supporting cap and trade, which will allow these facilities to continue. But if we allow for these cap and trade schemes, we’re going to continue to concentrate the dirtiest facilities in those neighborhoods that can least resist them.”

A healthier and more practical alternative would be the practice of zero waste—designing products and processes to minimize toxicity and waste and conserving and recovering all resources in a closed loop cycle. It would help to conserve three to five times more energy than is produced by waste incineration. “We know land-filling is bad and we know incineration is bad,” says Turner-Handy, who is also a founding member of Zero Waste Detroit, a coalition of environmental organizations, community groups, and individuals working to move Detroit toward recycling. “So we need to have full materials recovery. If the city wants to save money and create jobs, they need to create a materials recovery center.”

An environmental task force set up by the Detroit City Council determined that closing the incinerator would eliminate about 50 jobs, but creating a materials recovery facility would create 123 new jobs, and an additional 300 jobs would be created through recycling-based manufacturing.
However, at present Detroit recycles only about three percent of its waste stream, as opposed to Boston (15 percent), Chicago (23 percent), and San Francisco (over 70 percent)#.2 According to van Guilder, the city signed a contract committing the Department of Public Works to pick up household waste and bring it to the Greater Detroit Resource Recovery Authority, which would then bring it to the incinerator. “It basically locked out any kind of recycling,” van Guilder points out. “You would literally be fined for hiring someone to pick up your recycling.”

An End to Smokestacks Everywhere
Recycling is widely acknowledged to be the most climate-effective waste management strategy because it reduces emissions throughout the economy, not just at the waste facility (landfill or incinerator).3# Which is why Zero Waste Detroit and the other organizers of the June 26 march and rally determined to focus on “smokestacks everywhere, in the backyards of the poor,” and not merely in Detroit, according to Ananda Lee Tan, who is the U.S. and Canada coordinator for the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA) and works with communities worldwide to end incineration.

“To stabilize the climate we need to stop burning oil, coal, forests, crops, and waste,” says Tan. “For most eco-conscious cultures, fire is sacred—only to be used for life-support functions like cooking food and carefully maintaining ecosystems with controlled burns. We need to reconsider the use of fire in destructive processes like burning for energy.” In October 2010 the incinerator abruptly ceased operations as the owners couldn’t come to terms with the buyer for their overpriced steam heat. "This facility has never been essential to the city of Detroit. It has just been extremely costly," said van Guilder on news of the shutdown. Now that the incinerator has been taken off line, environmentalists are organizing to keep it closed and launch curbside recycling in earnest. According to van Guilder, this is not just a local issue: “Detroit’s struggle is very important to how this plays out nationally, just like the fight of the Evergreen Alliance back in the late ‘80s. They lost the fight in Detroit, but it played out in other incinerator struggles around the country.”

“Historically there are a lot of barriers to organizing different constituencies around an issue like this,” admits Tan. “The fact that frontline EJ communities and their allies from around the country were able to come together with unions to fight this incinerator shows a real shift in the political landscape.”
“Ultimately,” he adds, “it sends a signal to communities across the U.S. that not only can we shut down polluting industries in the backyards of the poor, but we can replace them with green jobs that have tangible benefits. This is a tremendous story that’s still unfolding.”

1.    http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2010/06/must-read_report_detroits_4821.html
2.    http://www.sfenvironment.org/our_sfenvironment/ press_releases.html?topic=details&ni=482
3.    USEPA, Solid Waste Management and Greenhouse Gases: A Life-Cycle Assessment of Emissions and Sinks, 3rd Edition. 2006.

Jeff Conant is an independent journalist, activist, and educator, and author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and
A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Detroiters Find a Way Out of No Way

Former autoworker Rich Feldman began working in Detroit’s auto plants in 1970 with a belief that labor unions were the driving force of revolution in the U.S.  Like other young activists at the time, he joined the factories to organize workers after having been involved in the radical student movement of the 1960s. Today, globalization has decimated the autoworkers. (Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in this decade alone, the number of autoworkers in Michigan has decreased from 320,000 to 109,000.)

At the old abandoned Packard plant just outside downtown Detroit, Feldman reflects: “It’s the end of the economic American dream, which was also very destructive. On one level we have to grieve, but we also have to welcome it. Now we can move on to create another kind of American dream that is based on quality of life versus a standard of living.”

Out of necessity, the people of Detroit are shaping alternatives to the urban wreckage left by the collapse of the auto industry. And new possibilities are emerging across the city: Eastside residents have transformed their neighborhood into an outdoor public art exhibit with waste materials collected from vacant lots.  Just a short drive away, a group has purchased storefronts, planted fruit trees along a few city blocks, and renamed the area “Hope District.” Elsewhere, another group has reclaimed two acres of unused and underutilized land in the city to grow produce that feeds community members. In short, the movement in Detroit is putting forth a model for creating solutions rooted in frontline communities and place-based relationships.  

Nurturing Community Leadership
The Boggs Center has been at the heart of the rebuilding process happening amidst the ruins of a deindustrialized Detroit. Founded in 1995 by friends of lifelong activists James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, the center supports grassroots leaders who create and implement innovative strategies for transforming communities from the ground up. In 2007, the Boggs Center and 32 endorsing organizations commemorated the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s anti-war speech and the Detroit rebellion of 1967—an event that inspired the creation of the Detroit City of Hope campaign.

The campaign focuses on expanding urban gardens, connecting education to community-building, establishing cooperatives to meet local needs, and creating Peace Zones to stem violence as put forth in the article, “Love and Revolution” by Grace Lee Boggs.1 Earthworks Urban Farm, which provides produce for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, Avalon Bakery, which employs and sells baked goods to local residents, Back Alley Bikes, which provides affordable repairs and used bikes, and the Boggs Educational Center and Live Arts Media Project, are all supported by Detroit City of Hope.

From Urban Decay to Public Art
Artist Tyree Guyton watched his neighborhood on Heidelberg Street gradually deteriorate through the deindustrialization of the 1960s and ‘70s. By the 1980s, Heidelberg Street was a neighborhood of vacant lots and abandoned homes littered with refuse. In 1986, with the help of his grandfather Sam Mackey, his former wife Karen, and neighborhood children, Guyton began cleaning up trash from vacant lots in the area, which led to the creation of the now famous Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art project made entirely from collected waste materials.

Nowadays, Guyton’s neighborhood block contains an assortment of brightly colored houses and outdoor art sculptures made entirely from car tires, telephones, old shoes, plastic bottles, auto parts, store carts, television sets, metal barrels, and other discarded items. Even so, Guyton’s “Dotty Wotty House” stands out on Heidelberg Street with its bright polka dotted exterior representing the diversity and unity of all people.

In 1991 and again in 1999, the city demolished parts of the Heidelberg Project but neighborhood residents fought back with a successful civil lawsuit asserting their First Amendment rights of “political speech.” So, the Heidelberg Project continues to evolve artistically and provide arts education programs to neighborhood youth. And art installations, such as “Building Bridges One Step At a Time” and “Meet Me Halfway,” assert the transformation process currently underway in Heidelberg and throughout Detroit.

Revitalization through Reimagination
Within walking distance from the Boggs Center, decorated billboards occupy a corner lot in the Hope District. But instead of the usual product advertisements, these makeshift billboards publicize the thoughts, aspirations, and concerns of local residents facing mass unemployment and home foreclosures. The idea is a brainchild of Lillie Wimberley and her son Mike Wimberley, longtime residents and founders of the group, The Friends of Detroit and Tri-County. Local residents are encouraged to use the signposts as part of the neighborhood’s community engagement and revitalization project. Reimagining a better future plays a vital role in the efforts to rise above the grinding poverty and despair of the Hope District.
 The Friends of Detroit and Tri-County purchased neglected commercial storefronts and residential properties to create long-term job opportunities and affordable housing in the area. Residents have established Peace Zones—public spaces for conflict resolution and alternative pathways to violence—where mediators, rather than police, are called in to help resolve disputes among neighbors and families. Produce harvested from the community gardens is used to feed the neighborhood. (Future plans include making jams and other value-added products from harvested fruit.) Weekly classes provide residents an opportunity to acquire training in community entrepreneurship, computer skills, culinary arts, sewing, and craft-making. The courses are intended to spur the creation of cooperatives that can produce local goods for local needs.

“[The neighborhood needs] more people involved in what we do around here,” says one middle-aged resident working on turning over the soil for a vegetable garden one humid afternoon in the Hope District. “Me, here by myself, doing this everyday—I can use some help. What we need is more volunteers because we don’t have the money.”

He himself plants the garden every year to help people in the community, he says. “They’re welcome to come and get what they want out of the garden. I’m just staying busy… just trying to keep up the neighborhood.”

Generating Food from Fallow Land
One glaring impact of deindustrialization has been the disappearance of grocery stores from the neighborhoods. Since the economic decline there has been an exodus of supermarkets and grocery retailers away from the city to the more lucrative suburbs. No national grocery chain currently operates within the city limits, which makes access to healthy fresh food difficult for Detroit’s predominantly African American residents.

Over half of the city’s population has to travel twice as far to get to a grocery store than to a fast food outlet or convenience store, according to a study by Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher whose focus is “food deserts”—areas without grocery stores and other healthy food resources. Consequently, there has been an urban agricultural movement underway in Detroit. Empty lots and unused land throughout the city are being reclaimed for growing vegetables and fruits to feed city residents. One of Detroit’s biggest urban farms is the D-Town Farm, a two-acre site established in 2006 by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Chairman Malik Yakini described D-Town Farm as a “community self-determination project” on Democracy Now. “We’re showing how unused and underutilized land in the city of Detroit can be put to productive use both to create greater access to fresh produce [and] to mobilize people to work on their own behalf.”

 The farm incorporates fruit and vegetable plots, beehives, composting, and a hoop greenhouse for year-round food production. It uses sustainable and organic farming methods to grow produce that is sold at local farmers’ markets, food cooperatives, and to restaurants. Jackie Hunt, D-Town’s assistant farm manager, views the site as part of a citywide collective effort. “It’s not like our organization can grow enough produce to feed everybody in Detroit,” she observes, “but we can start a movement that will get people interested in providing produce for themselves.” 

At present, there are close to 900 urban gardens and farms in Detroit, and the urban agriculture movement continues to expand, according to the Detroit Agricultural Network. “Things need to be done,” says Hunt, “and it seems that when you start, people just help. Spirits get moved. Events happen.”
Where Hope Stays Alive
And so, Detroit’s long-term residents are transforming the city’s desolation into new opportunities. Hope stays alive in Detroit through small organizations cultivating place-based relationships to meet people’s needs and create a profound sense of community. Autoworker Rich Feldman, who now serves on the board of the Boggs Center, finds his inspiration these days in the growing number of community groups working together in Detroit. “It’s all about the relationships,” he says excitedly. “Relationships of hope come from the people we work with and the people we dream with.”

1.    In These Times, July 30, 2009. www.inthesetimes.org/article/4686/love_and_revolution/

Jose Flores is a freelance journalist and works at the Movement Strategy Center. He has previously worked as a reporter for Pacifica Radio, producing news segments and features for KPFK in Los Angeles and KPFA in Berkeley.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Connecting Struggles Across Issues and Borders

The roots of the environmental justice movement lie in an archetypical struggle between low-income communities of color and industrial polluters—refineries, incinerators, landfills, and dirty ports, to name a few. In the last few years, leaders of this movement have worked ardently to infuse an environmental politic into racial and economic justice campaigns and to underscore local control of common resources and community-based solutions to social and ecological ills.[1]

Now the fruits of this labor are becoming evident. What was seen as isolated pockets of noxious industrial impacts are now being viewed as symptoms of larger phenomena that create other social inequities. People are connecting the impacts of toxic industry to other injustices, such as forced migration and poverty jobs, and coming together to address these multiple crises.   

On a hot July afternoon in Detroit last summer, over 300 movement organizers from across the United States gathered to plot a course for ecological justice as part of the U.S. Social Forum. “We come from environmental justice communities who have been on the frontlines of the effects of polluting industries like waste incineration. But [we] also come from economic justice struggles... and immigrant [communities that] understand the connection between land and life,” said Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, strategy initiatives director for Movement Generation based in Oakland, California.

The gathering was an important moment in cohering movements across different sectors in the United States to deal with the root causes of all struggles. Foremost on everyone’s mind was the connection between environmental health, forced migrations, and the recent Gulf Oil disaster. What do the three things have in common? The economy.

Pitching Jobs against Lives
The tradeoff facing working class communities between environmental and ecological health and sub-par jobs has become starker in this recession.Panelist Roland Wall pointed out that he lives in the most polluted zip code in America, but the concerns of Detroit residents have been routinely brushed aside by city and state officials because jobs are considered more important than health. Recounting his experience in Louisiana right after Katrina, he noted that the air force base had people from Mexico, Nicaragua, and other places that were part of the guest worker program, doing cleanup without masks. “They were putting up blue tarps on roofs for Halliburton—which charged $1800 a piece for the tarps—and being paid less than minimum wage.” Jose Brava of the Just Transitions Alliance in San Diego pointed out that having an incinerator is not the same as having a job. “You can paint the incinerator as green as you want, but it will never be a green process.”

Environmental Devastation Forces Migration
The worsening environment in Mexico has resulted in the dislocation of vast numbers of people who are forced to take actions and jobs that are, in effect, life-threatening. Addressing the interrelationship between environmental and social justice movements, Carlos Marentes from the Border Agricultural Workers Project, said:  

“When we began to organize [migrant farm workers], the farmers were our enemies. [They were] the ones exploiting us and paying us low salaries. We also saw American consumers as [our enemies] demanding cheap food… But over the years we started to learn how the agricultural system works. We learned that the farmers, the producers, the consumers, all of us were victims of the North American commercial agricultural system.”
The industrial agricultural system of production in the United States is based on the exploitation of migrant farm workers in the fields and the displacement of small producers off their land. Its purpose is to create profits and wealth that is concentrated in a few hands. Two hundred corporations control the food system of the world, of which a third are U.S. based.

“Today, eight out of 10 farm workers in the U.S. are from Mexico,” Marentes pointed out. “Campesinos displaced from their communities, who are forced to cross the border, to risk their lives in order to survive.”

The program director for the Gulf Coast Fellowship for Community Transformation, Colette Pichon Battle agreed that the debate about immigration is really a debate about displacement. And it is not just an issue for the global south.[2]

“After a painful five years people have just rebuilt and started [to] come back... now we’re being displaced again,” she said. “It’s happening in the Gulf Coast because of oil, because of industry. It’s time for us to stand up and stop what is happening.”

Livelihoods vs. Environmental Disasters
The recent BP oil spill highlights how negligent business practices can cause massive shocks to people’s jobs and loss of life. There has been a wetland loss the size of Rhode Island in the Gulf with wetlands being destroyed by development and fossil fuel exploration even before the BP disaster.

According to Jon Hueng, a youth organizer in the Gulf’s Vietnamese community, 80 percent of the 40,000 Vietnamese Americans living in the area used to survive by fishing, which they have not been able to do since the oil spill.

“BP pays up to $500 per month, which is not enough when you have families to feed, boat loans to repay, and housing debt,” Hueng said. “There is also a serious problem of risk to mental health, including depression and suicides [among] people who can’t work anymore.”

Jamie Billiot, a representative of the 17,000 indigenous members of the United Houma Nation who have lived and fished in the marshes of Louisiana for many generations, said: “We are forced to work for BP and ExxonMobil. We have to force these companies to take responsibility for the damage they are doing.”

There is little doubt that the many years of dredging in the wetlands by the oil industry has made Louisiana vulnerable to hurricanes, says Battle. “These storms—Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike—that hit us all in the last five years caused so much damage because wetlands have been absolutely decimated.”

Marentes gave voice to the real challenge facing the Gulf and the movement at large when he said: “To deal with climate change, we need to deal with the system. It’s not only about imposing million dollar fines or putting CEOs in jail. We should do that, but it will not bring back the oil rig workers who died or the life that has disappeared in the Gulf because of this tragedy. We need to replace [the entire] destructive system because our lives are in danger and Mother Earth cannot take it anymore.”

A Call to Coordinated Action
Alejandro Villamar of the Mexican Network for Action against Free Trade made a strong argument for transnational solidarity in the wake of cooperative international agreements like NAFTA that have no enforceable labor or environmental statutes. It has become quite clear that free trade agreements have caused grave deterioration of the environment, of communities, and their health all across Mexico, especially in rural and industrial areas.

“My brothers and sisters in Detroit sometimes complain about the dirty jobs that were exported,” said Villamar. “Back home, we complain about the dirty jobs and exploitative labor practices that were brought to us! What is becoming incredibly clear is that we need international solidarity from the south to the north in direct response to this faulty model that is wreaking havoc.”

The first step toward a cross-issue and cross-border approach was taken in Detroit when leaders collectively planned mobilizations against Arizona’s SB 1070, actions to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and strategies to push proposals on ecological justice from last April’s Climate Conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia. But they also emphasized the need to empower locals to have more control over their environmental and economic destinies. “If you give the land back to land-based people, they will fix the problems,” observed Jamie Biliat, executive director of the Dulac Community Center.

Since the meeting in July, communities have been crossing borders and issue lines to stand together in solidarity. Folks from the Gulf Coast participated in an immigration action in Arizona to show that the struggle against big oil is the same as the struggle to allow people to move freely. With climate talks in Cancun planned for this December, various groups are committed to building a grassroots cross-issue analysis of what needs to be done to compel the U.S. government to radically change its fossil fuel-based economy and start paying its ecological debt.
“Resistance is key, but resilience is also key,” says Mascarenhas-Swan. “We want to build communities that can work in cooperation with one another, restore our relationship to place, and shift out of this me-based way of living.”

Virali Gokaldas is a writer, radio producer, and business consultant focused on ecologically sustainable economic development.

1.    See RP&E Journal, Fall 2009, “Building Community Control in a Shifting Climate.”
2.    “Gulf activists say: Corporations must pay for environmental damage.” Workers World, July 15, 2010.

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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"We need international solidarity from the south to the north in direct response to this faulty model that is wreaking havoc.” – Alejandro Villamar

Young Activists Revitalize EJ Movement

On an Eco-bus tour of Detroit during the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, 17-year-old Janice Nyamakye strives to capture everything with her video camera: the tour guide’s comments, the city sights, as well as the ‘sites’—a dirty incinerator, salt mining operations, and power plants—all located in low-income communities of color. The tour informs Nyamakye’s own work in environmental remediation back home in Worcester, Massachusetts where she has been involved with Toxic Soil Busters (TSB) for the past four years.

As an organization, TSB effects improvements in the lives and environments of urban youth by employing them to first test local soil for lead levels, then remediate and redesign affected environments as needed. “We are a youth-led cooperative business,” says Nyamakye proudly. “The youth do everything.” As a videographer, she uses media to connect different EJ communities and amplify the message of youth working for environmental justice. From California to Massachusetts, groups like TSB, Grind for the Green (G4G), and Third Eye Unlimited are using new outreach methods to successfully reach a new generation of information-seeking cyberkids. And increasingly, youth interested in acting for environmental change are finding outlets through national organizations like It’s Getting Hot In Here (itsgettinghotinhere.org) and SustainUs: US Youth for Sustainable Development (sustainus.org).

The Kids are in Charge
A Gallup Poll conducted this year shows that the U.S. population’s concern for the environment has hit a 20-year low. But you wouldn’t know it from the level of interest and activity among youth-focused and youth-led environmental organizations around the country. According to WireTap Magazine, more than 600 youth-led community organizations are creating green jobs, removing toxic waste, combating corporate pollution, and getting the message out on environmental issues affecting them.

At TSB, there is minimal adult involvement as Nyamakye and 16 other youth do everything, from fundraising and accounts management, to interviewing new recruits, to creating and launching marketing materials, to providing lead testing and remediation services.
Since 2005, TSB has cleaned 36 properties using phyto-remediation, a process whereby lead-absorbing plants are grown in contaminated soil and removed after a certain period, effectively ridding the soil of its lead. In 2006, TSB was honored for its work by the city of Worcester with the mayor declaring June 20, Toxic Soil Busters Day. TSB also weighs in on other local youth organizing efforts.

“We are part of the Save our Pools Coalition, a team of people that have come together to get Worcester neighborhood pools open,” explains Nyamakye. TSB uses Facebook, YouTube, print, and television to amplify its environmental work, educate the public on youth-related issues, encourage more youth activism, and make tangible to them their power to improve their environment.

Social Media, Hip-Hop Help Rally Youth
Like TSB, Oakland-based G4G also uses a range of online and offline media to tap youth and adults. With a commitment to moving youth of color from the margins to the epicenter of the environmental movement in a culturally relevant way, G4G convenes hip hop and other musical events—entirely coordinated by youth staff—using Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and printed leaflets.

A typical G4G event may include an enticing line-up of local talent and known performers like Talib Kweli and Dead Prez with their socially conscious lyrics, alongside bike-powered machine displays, local food, aquaponics demonstrations, and information on environmental resources to address current challenges. “We put on events that aren’t billed as green and use hip-hop culture as a carrot to get a different segment of young people in the room,” says Zakiya Harris, founder and executive director of G4G. “Once there, we give them a lot of other information. So if they’re not already in the youth empowerment field, our events are one way for them to engage.”

Founded in 2007, G4G follows five strategies for developing the youth workforce on its team: reconnection to the earth, eco literacy, leadership development, new media, and cultural relevancy. It is a way to ensure that the environmental justice movement includes youth of color and is rooted in inspiring solutions.

“Though communities of color may care about the environment, they are often dealing with meeting their basic needs,” points out Harris. “Pressing issues like Oscar Grant and survival issues like food accessibility take precedence over melting ice caps. But when you talk about health using innovative ways rooted in our own indigenous legacy [and] new media, young people get it.” Ozone, the outreach director for G4G, works with four other youth members handling logistics and doing research, marketing, and outreach. Their focus is to ensure that their peers attend G4G’s solar-powered youth hip-hop festival. “Everyone is interested in a free concert in their community,” says Ozone. “And once there, they learn.”
In addition to Facebook and Twitter, G4G members rely on text messaging and blogs at their own and partner websites, such as GetFresh.net, to do outreach.

In Bits and Bytes, the Movement Grows
In a world where computers are essential tools, Internet searches outnumber library visits, and cell phones are indispensible, the youth naturally are motivated not only to integrate media-making into their work but to push the media boundaries.

Ben Gilbarg is a hip hop artist who runs Third Eye Unlimited, a youth media group in New Bedford, Massachusetts that has evolved from YouTube music video production to documentary and DVD creation. Third Eye’s mission is to teach young people to develop their own rhymes and tell their own stories. More recently, the organization has started focusing on the environment and environmental justice issues using hip hop.
In 2008, Third Eye earned its ecological media stripes with the hip hop hit “Green Anthem,” which highlights climate change and the need for green jobs. After Van Jones showcased it at the Good Jobs are Green Jobs Conference in Washington, D.C., people all over the country started using it, according to Gilbarg.

Since then, Third Eye has created a documentary on climate change and global warming—by young people, for young people. “We hit the right frequency with young people by creating something cool and savvy, something they can feel,” says Gilbarg. The documentary has been used in assembly presentations throughout southeastern Massachusetts, with up to 1,000 kids at a time. The overwhelmingly positive feedback has prompted Third Eye to produce and distribute a video for educators that includes climate change and green economy teaching tools.

In the course of amplifying environmental concerns, organizations like Third Eye are creating friendly environments where youth have outlets to record their music, organize and perform at events, and carry out environmental work.

Harnessing Youth Power for EJ
From Oakland to Detroit to Worcester, youth-led organizations are empowering the environmental justice movement. These organizations are promising in their ability to motivate audiences that the environmental movement has thus far been unable to reach. By integrating youth into campaigns as producers, creators, and changemakers instead of consumers, bystanders, and audiences, they are harnessing the power of media and the ability of younger generations to adapt quickly and utilize technological advances efficiently.

Youth like Nyamakye are at the forefront of this budding movement. Her narrative about the work done by youth in cleaning up Worcester, Massachusetts provides a stark contrast to Detroit’s overwhelming dirty facilities.“Youth can do anything,” says Nyamakye. “As long as you’re motivated, you can do anything you put your mind to.”

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Transforming the Land-- One Garden at a Time

Raheem Payton used to think nothing of littering streets until he discovered his community garden. Now he is angry that he and his friends ever did such a thing. “I’m an advocate for putting your trash in the right place now,” he says, “and I try to keep my friends on the straight path, too.” Payton discovered his calling earlier than other youths through a program called Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) in the Bayview district of San Francisco. Founded in 1998 by a coalition of youth, educators, and community leaders, LEJ addresses the ecological and health concerns of Bayview-Hunters Point and surrounding communities of southeast San Francisco.

The project that Payton participates in operates a native plants nursery at a former dumpsite near Candlestick Park. The garden is the primary supplier of plant stock to two major restoration projects in San Francisco—Candlestick Point State Recreation Area and Heron’s Head Park.
Payton works three hours a day in the garden transplanting starter plants into larger pots to be taken to one of the restorations sites. Already, the 18-year-old is hooked on gardening.

“I want to major in landscape architecture [and] design gardens to encourage cities to be healthier and better looking,” he says. Community organizer for Green Action, Marie Harrison says, “These children are gaining knowledge that is quite valuable. If there ever was a disaster these children would know exactly how to sustain themselves.”

Food Security with a Local Twist
The community gardening initiative has also been a real boon to other South San Francisco neighborhoods like Visitacion Valley that have no grocery store, hence no access to fresh produce. Rather than wait for city officials to do something about it, this community of 20,000 took matters in their own hands and created one of the largest urban farming plots in the city.

“We have hundreds of thousands of [plots] in this city,” says Patrick Rump, Bay Youth Program Manager for LEJ. “It’s really important that we hold on to our native plants and transform the land into something we can be proud of.”

Rump specializes in environmental education in a program that is part of an initiative to save California’s state parks. Over the last six years, Rump and his youth group have helped create a plant nursery that is home to over 50 species of native plants, including coyote grass and purple needle grass. Contrary to popular belief, plants and grasslands give out more oxygen than trees and help the environment. “Climate change is threatening food security,” says Rump. “We are part of a group of people who want to change this situation.” So, the program grows vegetables and fruits, which are given to local residents on a first-come, first-served basis.

Eating locally produced food reduces fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and a variety of other negative environmental consequences associated with the transportation of food,” says David Seaborg, evolutionary biologist and founder of the World Rainforest Fund. In the U.S., a meal travels about 13,000 miles on average before reaching your plate, according to the Iowa State University Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Amidst the Pollution, the Best Tasting Fruit
Bayview-Hunters Point has a number of environmental concerns. It is home to over 80 percent of San Francisco’s waste, it is a superfund site, and it has two major freeways running through, which exposes residents to serious air pollution. Now it has its own community garden.
“The kids really benefit from these gardens first hand because they can take the vegetables home to their parents and cook them,” says Jackie Williams, head of the community garden at the Alice Griffith Public Housing project in Bayview.

Eighteen-year-old Victoria Bryant who works in the garden is convinced that the fruits they grow there are a lot tastier than the ones she gets at the grocery store. The children are also paid to help in tending to the garden where they grow cabbage, collard greens, squash, cucumbers and strawberries among other things. Williams helps the children understand all about harvesting and replanting with seeds from the harvest, so the seeds don’t have to be purchased each time. “The best thing about the garden is the people that I work with,” says Bryant. “It’s somewhere I can go to relax and also get educated and be a leader.”

A 2009 report on community gardens by the Local Government Commission in California said that gardening is a recommended form of moderate physical activity. Community gardens can encourage more active lifestyles by providing children and adults the opportunity to do physical work outdoors.

“To see something grow is extremely important in an urban community like ours,” says Sophie Maxwell of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “It’s a wonderful way to connect people with the earth.”

The absence of grocery stores in the southeast sector of San Francisco forces people there to travel to other parts of the city to buy groceries, which results in less money being circulated within their own community. Furthermore, the convenience stores in low-income areas sell fresh food at higher prices than chain stores like Safeway or Albertsons. A single banana—selling at 67 cents per pound elsewhere—may cost 75 cents at a local liquor store.

“I think the community garden initiatives open a door to help the Bayview community’s food access issues,” says Pandora Thomas of Grind for the Green, a hip-hop music project by the Global Exchange. “Gardening was a way of life for our ancestors and this is a great way to connect with our history as well.” 

Crystal Carter is an independent journalist based in the Bay Area. She is currently working on a documentary film about the politics that surround a superfund site's redevelopment in the Bayview-Hunter's Point district. Find more of her work at www.popscampaign.blogspot.com. 

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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Urban Agriculture in Cuba

What will it mean to our oil-steeped economy when we run out of cheap oil? Will it mean the ruined warlike world of Mad Max or the peaceful post-industrial tribalism of Ursula LeGuin? Is there a model for a modern urban post cheap oil society? How, for example, will schools and hospitals provide nutritious meals when there is not enough fuel to haul produce to urban markets. The answer is urban cooperative farming.
Utopian though it may sound, the idea is actually Cuban. Cubans are actively using urban gardening—an after-work hobby—to help them shed an oil-dependent plantation economy and create long-term sustainability.

Building a Post–Plantation Cuba
The small island nation of Cuba has been exploited in the world economy since Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1492, beginning a process of extermination for the native populations and sowing the seeds of a plantation economy based on slave labor. For most of the last 500 years, Cubans have grown sugar, coffee, and tobacco for foreign markets: first Spain, then the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

During the 1980s, Cuban ecologists started talking about sustainable development using environmentally sound techniques to become self-sufficient in food. Although few changes were actually made in that decade, some fundamental concepts of organic agriculture and integrated pest management were studied.

Cuban farming was based on Soviet-style megafarms and U.S. agribusiness. Massive quantities of Soviet petroleum products were used to operate tractors, make chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel trucks to bring agricultural products from distant farms into the city. Cuba exported sugar and imported food. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cuban economy collapsed with it.  Gross domestic product fell by half and oil imports by 80 percent. Without subsidized Soviet oil and petroleum products, the cities faced a food and transportation crisis. Even though Cuba maintained basic food rationing so that no one would go without, calorie and protein intake fell below minimum levels as defined by the United Nations.

Scrambling to feed themselves and their families, some began planting food in vacant lots. Many early gardens failed for lack of knowledge, but the grow-your-own idea took hold. Through trial and error, ecologists and agronomists began establishing organoponicos, the distinctive raised bed organic gardens of Cuban urban agriculture today. Harvard ecologist Richard Levins, who worked with the Cubans in the 1980s, says “The rest of us [the ecologists] saw it as a process of converting ecologists-by-necessity into ecologists-by-conviction.”

Organoponicos can be as small as the vacant lot used by a three-family coop in Pinar del Rio, or as large as the 26 acres used by the 150-member Vivero Alamar in the Havana suburbs. Countrywide, there are more than 7,000 organoponicos, and their number is growing. Havana, with 2.5 million people, has more than 200 gardens, plus thousands of backyards and rooftops where people grow leaf vegetables, tomatoes, herbs, and even wine grapes.

Historically, farming has meant hard labor but in Cuba it was primarily forced, underpaid labor on someone else’s land. The new Cuban farms, in contrast, are mostly cooperatives managed by their members who may work equally hard but make about three times the national average wage and are considered valuable contributors to Cuban society.

Entertaining Insects in Havana
“Del cantero a su mesa!” (From the garden bed to your table!) proclaims a sign at the 44th Street organoponico in Havana’s Playa municipio or burrough. The garden, whose concrete raised beds take up about half a city block, was started in 1992 in an old parking lot. All produce from the garden not contracted to go to institutional kitchens is sold on site at the punta de venta on the day it is picked. Eighty percent of all profits goes to the eight-member collective that tends the garden, 15 percent goes to the state, and five percent into a capital reserve. Collective members—consisting of three production workers, three salespersons, an agronomist who serves as collective director, and a biologist—earn about 1000 Cuban pesos each, which is about three times the average monthly wage.

Every aspect of the 44th Street urban farm is designed to be integrated and sustainable. Collective members closely follow recommendations laid down in an agriculture manual jointly produced by the United Nations and Cuba. For instance, sorghum is grown all along the periphery of the garden as a trap for bugs who will munch on that instead of the leafy vegetables. “It keeps the insects entertained!” says agronomist Roberto Perez Sanchez. The collective also does companion planting—the practice of planting in bands of different colors to confuse the insects—with basil and marigold, or onions and garlic serving as insect repellents at the edges of the beds.

The soil is enriched with worm compost. The worms process vegetable leavings and manure from the oxen and mules that have almost completely replaced mechanized labor. Like most of Cuba, the organoponicos get water from a well on site. The water is magnetized to remove minerals that would build up in the beds, and its quality checked regularly by state inspectors who also ensure that the water table is not falling.

The collective makes a production plan each November for the primary crops of lettuce, bok choy, spinach, radish, green onion, garlic, chives, arugula, green bean, carrot, watercress, celery, and parsley. They also grow smaller quantities of broccoli and have an experimental bed of Argentine green bean that looks like a snap pea on steroids. Some medicinal plants, such as aloe vera, chamomile, marjoram, mint, and chicory are also raised.

In addition, the 44th Street garden is a CREE (Centro de Reproduccion de Entomopatogenos y Entomofagos), i.e. a production facility for a biological insect control called trychoderma used against nematodes, which attack the roots of plants like lettuce. They sell it to retail customers and to the state for distribution to other gardens.

Farming Cuban Style: Science Plus Decentralization
In Cuba, farming has gone from being the labor of an underpaid migratory worker class to becoming a skilled craft that provides steady work, thanks to the new model of coop agriculture that emphasizes practices like inter-cropping (planting beans between banana trees, for example) to insure against weather disasters and  mono-crop diseases. The results have been outstanding with farms producing as many as five crops a year on well-amended soil. Cuban food production now meets international standards for food security and the acceptable minimum standard for calories and protein.

The Global Footprint Network has defined three fundamental measures of development: long life, access to education/literacy, and access to income. By these standards, Cuba is a developed country with a life expectancy of 77 years, a literacy rate of 97 percent, and a per capita income of about $10,000. What’s more, a 2007 report by the Global Footprint Network found Cuba to be the only country on the planet with both, a reasonable standard of living and a sustainable ecological footprint.

In contrast, the standard of living in the U.S. can only be sustained with the resources of five-and-a-half planets, and many third world nations with sustainable lifestyles have vast numbers of poor, illiterate, and sick peasants and slum dwellers.

The development of urban agriculture is part of a set of innovations in the Cuban economy to become more decentralized and more varied. Gone are the days when sugar exports were the biggest item in Cuba’s balance of payments. These days Cuba trades its doctors for Venezuelan oil, and imports from China and Vietnam, as well as Europe and Latin America. It was a founding member of ALBA, the Latin American common market.
So, what would happen if the U.S. ended its blockade and oil, fertilizers, and pesticides again became available? Probably nothing. The general opinion is that organic agriculture gives better food and farming coops are creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs. Who would want to go back to the old ways?

Como en Havana?
By the measures of a consumer society, Cuba is poor—housing is crowded and consumer goods are scarce and expensive. But to communities suffering from unemployment, poor health care, poor nutrition, and schools that track students into prisons or the military, the Cuban lifestyle looks very good. Everyone in Cuba has access to high quality free education and medical care, cheap transportation, and a basic food ration supplemented by organic produce grown wherever people live.

Urban agriculture in the U.S.—although moving into mainstream awareness as more and more people renounce the unsustainable “U.S. way of life”—is still largely the province of volunteers and nonprofit organizations who create community, school, and prison gardens. But an article in Fortune magazine earlier this year entitled, “Can Farming Save Detroit?” featured a money manager who smells profit in growing food on abandoned land in Detroit.

Whether U.S. urban agriculture becomes yet another source of profit for venture capitalists or a resource for community self-determination remains a key political question for the coming years. If we believe the slogan at last summer’s Social Forum in Detroit—“Another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary”—we should take our lessons in sustainability from Cuba.

Mickey Ellinger and Scott Braley are a writer/photographer team from Oakland who often work for social justice and nonprofit organizations. Ellinger is a journalist and fiction writer (www.mickeyellinger.com). Braley is a freelance photographer and a member of the Bay Area Press Photographers Association and the American Society of Media Photographers (www.scottbraley.com). 

Weaving the Threads | Vol. 17, No. 2 | Fall 2010 | Credits

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