Perspectives on Environmental Justice for Community Development

Some thoughts offered to participants at the Community Work: Principles, Policies & Perspectives conference of the Department of Applied Social Studies, NUI Maynooth: 14 November 2013.

Sometimes when I think about community development and the environmental justice movement, I feel its a little bit like two estranged members of the same family. They have so much in common and yet the rarely speak to each other. Yet now more than ever, we need to have a family reunion.

As we gather today in Maynooth, the governments of the world are meeting in Warsaw for the 19th annual UN climate change negotiations. So far they have failed at the 18 previous attempts to agree a global deal that could halt climate change. Climate science proves beyond all reasonable doubt that humans are causing climate change. And it is increasingly clear that climate change is the single greatest threat to human rights and social justice we have ever faced.

The scale of this challenge calls for systematic changes to the way in which we think and act in the world. It is no longer enough to simply  ‘think global, act local’.  It’s only through collective processes for social change, such as those practiced by community development, that the root causes of this climate crisis can be overcome.

So our challenge as community development practitioners and policy makers is to not to ‘think global, act local’, but to ‘think structurally, act strategically’.

The question, of course, is what does that mean for our practice? This morning’s speakers have made clear the links between the social and the environmental, and I’d like to propose three very simple steps that might help to bring about that much needed family reunion:

1. Practitioner analysis

The first step is joining the dots between community development and environmental justice in our own practitioner analysis. The principles of community development articulated in Towards Standards, are very much in line with those of environmental justice- which recognises the effects of pollution and unsustainability are most felt by those marginalised communities which have the least access to resources and power. Environmental justice, like community development, places a specific emphasis on the participation and empowerment of those most disadvantaged communities.

Making the link in our practitioner analysis between the social and environmental is particularly relevant now as our Government and the EU are planning responses to climate change and the transition to a ‘low carbon future’. Any such transition must not happen without specific commitments to social justice and equality. Whether in Ireland, or globally, poor and marginalised communities must not be forced to pay the price for the pollution of an elite few.

2. Dialogue

Building on the development of our own practitioner analysis, the second step is dialogue; beginning conversations in the communities where we live and work. And when the issues at stake are so massive and overwhelming, as they are with climate change, there is a real need to create spaces where people can, as Peter Westoby suggests, ‘reveal their fears, come to terms with their doubts and gradually embrace alternatives’.

These processes of conversation are the bread and butter community development, which deals daily with structural issues of poverty, racism and gender inequality in people’s lives. Bringing environmental issues into these conversations we can build on people’s lived reality of environmental injustices. Many people who live in marginalised communities experience the reality of a poor quality environment- whether its dumping, poor infrastructure on halting sites or lack of consultation on planning issues. The links are there to be made.

3. Alliance building

Building on these dialogues, which must begin in our own communities, the third step is creating alliances between those groups concerned with social justice and equality and those concerned with environmental issues. Despite the huge negative effects of austerity on communities we have not seen the sort of mass collective action on austerity that has been brought about by the dangerous gas mining process called fracking,. Communities all over the north west and County Clare are coming together to take collective action on that issue

Yet the reality is that the State’s neoliberal social, economic and environmental policies are all interconnected. Fracking and austerity go hand in hand as part of a broad neoliberal project. If we are to have any chance of overcoming the challenges that neoliberalism poses to our communities and our environment there is a pressing need to build broad coalitions which brings together communities fighting injustice from every dimension: social, economic and environmental.

At a national level community development and the environmental movement need to build alliances. With initiatives like Claiming Our Future and the CWC joining the Stop Climate Chaos coalition that work has began. At local level there is potential to reach out anti-fracking groups, to local authority energy agencies, to communities concerned about wind farms and the Transition Towns movement

So returning to our thinking structurally and acting strategically, I’m asking you to chew those three ideas over:

  1. Let’s build environmental justice into our own practitioner analysis;

  2. Let’s begin dialogues in the communities where we live and work;

  3.  Let’s join our issues together and build broad alliances to challenge systemic social and environmental injustices of neoliberalism.


‘Our future is now’: Communities in Liberia meet this week to discuss options after large-scale land grab

This blog piece first appeared on the Friends of the Earth International website.

Between 2009 and 2010 the Government of Liberia allocated more than a million acres of land to transnational palm oil producers Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia without consulting or securing the consent of those living on and using the land. Following the launch of a groundbreaking report from the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)/ Friends of the Earth Liberia, Uncertain Futures, the affected communities are holding a major conference this week to demand that their voices be heard in decision making.

The ‘Our future is now’ conference will take place in Bopolu City, Gbarpolu County, Liberia, from 27-29 November, bringing together communities affected by Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia.

The SDI report highlights how, as over a quarter of Liberia’s land area is now given over by the Government to rubber, oil palm and logging companies, Liberia risks becoming a land ‘lost in concessions’ with an uncertain future for the communities who are the original custodians and owners of the land.

These concessions are part of Liberia’s attempt to attract Foreign Direct Investment in the natural resource sector. Large plantations are promoted as a means to create jobs, bring development, and increase the government’s budget. However, they also risk the entrenchment of systemic economic and social injustices against poor and marginalised communities.

Large-scale land allocation to foreign corporations can give transnational companies enormous political power which can subvert local democratic decision making. At the same time as corporate power silences communities, the associated dispossession of rural people from their land contributes to increased poverty in rural areas, widens the gap between the urban elites that benefit from these business transactions and the rural poor who suffer the impacts, and entrenches inequality across Liberian society.

Both the Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia plantations are clear examples of this. According to the SDI report, ‘the situation facing communities impacted by the expansion of Sime Darby’s plantation in Garwula District, western Liberia is dire: the plantation is on their doorsteps, and their farms and farmlands are being swallowed up by it. There are very few alternative livelihood options.’ According to locals interviewed for the report, Sime Darby did not pay compensation for farm lands taken by the company. They also claim that compensation paid for crops that had been destroyed was inadequate and that forest areas used for cultural practices had also been destroyed and planted with oil palm.

SDI campaigner Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor points out that ‘the situation on the Sime Darby or Golden Veroleum Liberia plantation is about much more than the impacts of a single company.’ He warns that ‘allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies for several decades is dangerous because as these companies expand their plantations, communities’ ability to cope will be stretched to the limit. It will push people further into poverty, as their income generating activities are curtailed and earning capacities become limited.’

During the course of the three day conference community representatives will have the opportunity to discuss this issue. More than 150 delegates from the counties affected by Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia Sinoe, Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, and Gbarpolu counties will be in attendance, along with a number of Monrovia-based civil society groups and international experts on agriculture, land, and community rights.

Led by local leaders, participants will be offered the opportunity to break into small groups to discuss their perspectives on the issue. At the end of the conference, community representatives will draft and adopt a document that details what they expect from palm oil concessionaires and the government.

For more information
Uncertain Futures (PDF)

Fairy Stories turn to Nightmares: Young Friends of the Earth and the Fight against Fracking in Ireland

This blog piece first appeared on the Young Friends of the Earth Europe website

One blustery, sunny Sunday morning last November, I took a walk with a local person in a community threatened by fracking. Walking along winding country roads, over hilltops and past gushing brooks, she shared with me a little of the rich history and folklore through which we traipsed.We passed ruined cottages whose former inhabitants still occupy the memory of the place and ancient forestswhich the fairies, mythical creatures of Irish folklore, are said to still inhabit.

This sense of folklore, culture and history is very important. In a very real sense the land does not belong to the people- the people belong to the land on which their families have lived for generations. This is why they are fighting against fracking and all forms of unconventional gas extraction which will destroy the environment and tear apart communities.

If fracking takes place then the fairy stories of this beautiful countryside will be replaced by the nightmare of irreversible human health and environmental damage.

Fracking is a process where water, sand and toxic chemicals are injected into the earth at high pressure. The aim of this process is to fracture rock formations deep underground to release shale gas that would otherwise be inaccessible.

A report by the European Parliament has noted that fracking causes ‘groundwater contamination by methane, in extreme cases leading to explosion of residential buildings, and potassium-chloride leading to salinisation of drinking water is reported in the vicinity of gas wells.’

In Ireland the proposed fracking sites are in areas well-connected to our water table and river network. Ireland and Northern Ireland’s largest rivers, the Shannon and the Erne, flow through the areas which fracking is proposed.

The EU report also highlights ‘unavoidable’ high land occupation that fracking requires. The landscape is taken over by drilling pads, parking and manoeuvring areas for trucks, equipment, gas processing and transporting facilities and access roads.

Fracking will result in a land grab (or ‘compulsory purchase’) as it takes over the landscape that is home to thousands of families in hundreds of communities. Many of these communities are sustained by farming and eco-tourism – the two sectors most threatened by fracking.

As a grassroots network of young people, Young Friends of the Earth Ireland, is mobilising  in solidarity with communities across Ireland to oppose fracking. YFoE Ireland held its recent network gathering on the shores of Lough Allen in fracking-threatened County Leitrim. At the gathering we learned more about how fracking will destroy the countryside from Leah Doherty of No Fracking Ireland, campaigner Dr Aedin McLoughlin of the Good Energies Alliance Ireland, and Chairperson of the Leitrim Organic Famers’ Association, Tommy Earley.

Saturday 22 September was Global Frackdown day. YFoE Ireland held actions in Dublin, Cork and Galway to send a clear message to the Irish government that young people do not want their futures destroyed by fracking. Future generations of Irish people must be able to enjoy our beautiful landscape and rich heritage. They might even manage to catch a fairy, as long as they haven’t been fracked!

Why I’m Already Looking Forward to Rio+40

This blog piece first appeard on the Young Friends of the Earth Europe website.

In 1992, when the nations of the world came together at the Rio Earth Summit, the closest thing to pollution I was thinking about was my dirty nappy. Now, as Rio+20 gets underway, I am a graduate about to head out into the world as a community worker. During my journey from cot to climate activism a lot has changed in the world. Yet the principles of the 1992 Rio Declaration stand as a radical and inspirational avowal from 172 nations-representing 98% of the world’s population- that they no longer wanted to build a world on unsustainability, injustice and inequity.

Those visionary leaders acknowledged for the first time that social and environmental justice are inextricably linked (Principle 5). They asserted the rights of affected communities, indigenous peoples and subaltern populations to be included- and listened to-in the dialogue (Principle 10, 20, 21, 22). They enshrined the idea of intergenerational equity at the core of sustainable development (Principle 3).

However their most important affirmations were, without a doubt, Principle 7 on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and Principle 9 on scientific exchange and technology transfer. Both of these principles, which are so crucial to creating the better world we called for in 1992, are now under serious threat.

Principle 7 emphasises that ‘states shall co-operate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.’

It acknowledges that the countries of the Global North are primarily responsible for the multiple crises affecting climate and biodiversity, accepting that they have a moral and historical obligation to do the most to prevent the crises and alleviate their effects. By incorporating the triple bottom line of sustainable development (social, environmental and economic), principle 7 highlights the fact that we cannot have sustainable development unless the Global North accepts its role in perpetuating unsustainability. Without North-South equity the systems of exploitation that have led to poverty and environmental degradation will never cease to sustain unsustainability.

In preliminary negotiations before the conference opens officially, many Northern actors, with the US leading the charge, are now actively trying to undermine common but differentiated responsibility- destroying any notion of North-South  equity- according to a draft of The Future We Want (the conference outcomes document) leaked to the Guardian in the UK.

The leaked draft is a telling snapshot of how the EU is taking sides with the US and other leading polluters in backroom negotiations to act against the interests of the Group of 77, the negotiating block which includes the Least Developed Countries and members of the Alliance of Small Island States.

Meanwhile, Principle 9 underlines that ‘states should co-operate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies’

This principle acknowledges the reality that key information and technology which is essential for the mitigation of and adaption to climate change is held in the Global North. It is as close as Northern governments are ever likely to go in acknowledging they have cut the Global South out of scientific and political discourses on climate change and development.

Once again, the leaked draft of The Future We Want shows how the US, backed by the EU and others is seeking to delete or dilute all references to technology transferral. Where Northern actors have not demanded outright deletion of the phrase ‘technology transfer’, the US has insisted it be replaced with the words ‘voluntary transfer on mutually agreed terms and conditions’, as in paragraph 18 of the draft text which again seeks to underscore the role of North-South equity in the achievement of the triple bottom line of sustainability.

The abandonment of common but differentiated responsibility and the denial of the North’s moral obligation for technology transfer are extremely worrying on the eve of negotiations that will set out, supposedly, The Future We Want. Now more than ever people all over the world need to stand up and remind our leaders that a future without sustainability, justice and equity is absolutely not the future we want. Our leaders knew that in 1992, we cannot let them forget it.

At the original Earth Summit, Canada, perhaps stirred by the moving speech of 12 year old Canadian citizen Severn Suzuki stated their hope that the Rio Declaration would be something that all children could understand and hang by their beds. The Pakistani delegation reminded Canada that for many children living in poverty there was no bed to hang a piece of paper over. The sad reality is that for many young people who have grown up in the two decades since the Earth Summit the rhetoric of Rio remains hallow.

There is so much still to be done to achieve the world envisioned by the declaration. However it stands as a shining example of what our leaders can resolve to do when they are not guided by narrow self-interest but rather imagine a world build for people rather than profit.

I am graduating now in a world that recognises the North’s responsibility to the South, the importance of the voices of the marginalised and the needs of future generations. In twenty years time, will these fundamental principles still be acknowledged? By Rio+40, I may even have my own polluting toddlers. I wonder what sort of future they will want, and I hazard a guess that it is not one where the Northern leaders of today have abandoned the citizens of the world for a future favoured by an elite few.

That, surely, would be more disgusting than a dirty nappy could ever be.

EU says ‘Bonn’-chance to the Global South

This blog piece first appeared on the Push Europe website

EU says ‘Bonn’-chance to the Global South as it steers through plans which will drown Southern states

At the UN climate talks which are taking place in Bonn, the shift towards abandoning the principle of common but differentiated responsibility is subtle, but its impact will have a huge impact on ensuring social and environmental justice for those most affected by climate change.

The EU’s major role in supporting this shift-while acting as the hero captain steering the negotiations ship- is the equivalent of wishing someone ‘Bonn’ chance as you throw them overboard without a lifejacket. And for many countries of the South facing rising sea levels, this metaphor is dangerously close to becoming a deadly reality.

The principle of common but differentiated responsibility, established under Kyoto, meant that all signatories agreed to share responsibility for reducing emissions- but crucially recognised that because not every country was equally responsible for pollution, not everyone should pay the same price. In particular this recognised that the countries of the Global North have a clear moral and historic responsibility to reduce emissions as the chief causers and benefactors of pollution.

Now though, as negotiations begin to replace Kyoto by a new treaty to be signed in 2015, the EU is seeking to force the Global South to pay more for emissions, while Big Business in the EU and throughout the Global North will continue to profit from the turning of carbon into capital through EU backed market mechanisms.

EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard has sought to justify the renegotiation of common but differentiated responsibility by saying that ‘countries have recognised that the old division between developed and developing countries – there are limits to how useful that is in the 21st century.’

Certainly the world has changed since 1990, the year on which emissions targets have been calculated, but the divisions between so called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries have only widened.  Northern governments and companies, enthusiastically led by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have worked hard over the past twenty years at imposing neo-liberal economic solutions on the South.

We now have a situation where neo-liberal capitalism has taken the climate crisis- once a powerful challenge to the unsustainable and unjust practices of big business- and turned it into a opportunity to profit, with ‘market mechanisms’ such as the Clean Development Mechanism seen as the only way forward, when in reality it is an ‘alternative’ which only means business as usual for polluters.

This week’s disagreement between the EU and its negotiating partners from the Least Developed Countries and the Alliance of Small Island States on the commitment period for ‘Kyoto 2’ has exposed some of the tensions in this relationship. We need to continue to push to ensure that the EU captains the ship to a safe and just harbour, and doesn’t dump its Southern partners as soon as it’s made the seas safe for business.

If we want the EU to take a stand for a just and equitable outcome to the next Conference of Parties in Quatar later this year, then we need to continue to remind them that heroes need integrity; they can’t say one thing and do another.