Signs of Life :: Small Stories About Big Change
Amazon Tribes Win Against Big Oil
In the Amazon rainforests of Peru and Ecuador, indigenous groups are on the front lines of the climate change battle.
Communities in both countries bear the brunt of demand for oil and gas resources buried in the rainforests. The Amazon is one of the world’s most significant “carbon sinks,” and when resource-extraction industries destroy forests to make way for roads, drilling, and pipelines, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. In Ecuador, toxic dumping by oil giant Texaco has also created deadly pollution that locals say has caused cancer rates to soar.
Native groups in both countries have scored recent victories, but at great cost.
In Bagua in northern Peru, demonstrators blocked a road in protest of new laws that would have eased the process for foreign companies to acquire land title and road-building rights-of-way in the Amazon. The protest erupted into a confrontation with police on June 5 that left dozens of demonstrators dead. International outcry over the deaths forced Peruvian President Alan Garcia to rescind two of the nine laws in question.
On July 21, James Anaya, U.N. Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights, called for an independent investigation of the events in Peru. Activists have accused the Peruvian government of attempting to destroy the powerful indigenous organization AIDESEP, whose leader, Alberto Pizango, has been accused of sedition and is currently in exile in Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, Ecuadorian communities have won a ruling against Chevron Corp., which owns Texaco. Their 16-year-old, $27.3-billion liability suit concerns Texaco’s nearly three decades of activity in the Lago Agria area of the Amazon, during which, plaintiffs say, the company dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the rainforest. Chevron merged with Texaco in 2001 and has been fighting the case in both Ecuador and the U.S. On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out an appeal by Chevron to shift the liability to Ecuador’s state-owned oil company.
Demonstrators in both Ecuador and Peru have received an outpouring of international support. Images of the Peruvian massacre circulated online, galvanizing supporters, who held demonstrations in South America, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe in solidarity with the Amazon activists.
Activists have lobbied for alternatives to free trade agreements that require governments in developing nations to loosen restrictions on natural resource exploitation. The decrees that led to the Peruvian protests were a response to the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement.
Chevron has also tried to use trade agreements to retaliate against Ecuador. Four U.S. senators—Ron Wyden, Robert P. Casey, Jr., Dick Durbin, and Patrick Leahy—recently urged the U.S. Trade Representative to reject Chevron’s plea to deny trade benefits to Ecuador.
—Lisa Gale Garrigues is a YES! contributing editor.
India's “National Solar Mission”
India will soon embark on a “National Solar Mission,” part of the country’s eight-part climate plan. The plan calls for boosting India’s solar energy output from nearly zero to 20 gigawatts by 2020. Greenpeace India campaigner Siddarth Pathak says the move could bolster the country’s leverage in U.N. climate talks in December, though India’s refusal to commit to carbon emission limits has vexed richer countries demanding tougher action.
"There’s no ombudsman for future generations. We’re it."
Amanda McKenzie, organizer with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. McKenzie and 1,500 youths met in Sydney, Australia, in July to learn how to stage direct action to pressure government leaders to address climate change.
Sit-In Keeps Factory Open
Inspired by last year’s win by employees at Republic Windows and Doors, workers at the Des Plaines, Illinois, Hartmarx factory voted to stage a sit-in this June against banking giant Wells Fargo.
Wells Fargo was the man creditor of Hartmarx, a century-old apparel company that manufactured the tuxedo Barack Obama wore to his inauguration. Early this year, Hartmarx declared bankruptcy after Wells Fargo denied the company a line of credit. Wells Fargo then threatened to liquidate Hartmarx and lay off its workers, rejecting offers by several investors to buy the company.
Nearly 500 Hartmarx workers voted to occupy the factory to prevent its closure, taking inspiration from the Republic workers who successfully recovered their accrued vacation time and severance pay after occupying the Chicago factory last year.
Forty-three members of Congress sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geither, asking him to pressure Wells Fargo to keep Hartmarx intact and decrying “financial institutions that are receiving taxpayer assistance but refusing to provide credit in this tough economic climate.”
Illinois treasurer Alexi Giannoulias threatened to move the state’s accounts out of Wells Fargo. “They can either do the right thing and save 1,000 jobs, or they are not going to do business with the state of Illinois,” Giannoulias said.
These efforts pushed Wells Fargo to accept a bid from Emerisque Brands to buy the company and preserve the workers’ jobs.
The win adds fuel to another campaign targeting Wells Fargo’s move to cut off credit to Quad City Die Casting in Moline, Illinois, jeopardizing the jobs of its 100 factory workers. This summer, members of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America held protests at 20 Wells Fargo branch offices. On July 9, nearly a dozen union supporters were arrested for blocking a road in front of a Wells Fargo branch in Rock Island, Illinois. The protesters called Wells Fargo “a roadblock to recovery.”
—Laura Kaliebe is a journalist living in Seattle.
Green Economy Going Strong
Despite the recession, the green economy is outperforming the rest of the global economy, according to two new reports. New energy investment in renewable sources in 2008 surpassed worldwide investment in fossil fuel power for the first time, says a report released by the United Nations in June. In the United States, green jobs grew more than twice as fast as the overall job market between 1998 and 2007, and the green economy has suffered fewer setbacks than the economy as a whole, according to data released by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Legal Settlements Protect Voters
Organizations in Ohio, Missouri, and elsewhere are correcting problems that prevented thousands of people from voting in recent elections.
The League of Women Voters reached a settlement in July on a four-year-old lawsuit against the state of Ohio. The lawsuit was intended to fix problems that were rampant in the state’s elections systems in 2004, when voters waited in line for up to 14 hours and registered voters cast provisional ballots that were never counted.
The settlement mandates monitoring of poll worker performance and voting equipment malfunctions and requires the secretary of state to oversee activities of county elections boards.
In June, ACORN reached a settlement with the state of Missouri requiring the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) to provide voter-registration applications to its clients. DSS first began offering this service in July 2008, following a preliminary court order. Since then, more than 100,000 low-income voters have registered at public assistance offices. Only 15,000 such voters registered in the three years prior.
In July, a voting rights coalition—including ACORN, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Project Vote—filed lawsuits in New Mexico and Indiana. The suits allege noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to make voter registration available at public assistance offices.
The national voting rights group, Project Vote, says few states are following that directive. During the first two years after the law went into effect in 1995, 2.6 million low-income voters registered, but registration among that demographic has since dropped by as much as 90 percent in some states.
“In this last election, there were still something like 11 million low-income eligible voters who were not registered to vote,” says Brenda Wright, director at Demos, a national policy think tank. “Making voter registration accessible and convenient at government agencies is a proven way to give people access to the process.”
—Susie Shutts is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
Cities Eat Local
Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are looking to lessen their climate impact by growing and eating local food.
The city of Berkeley, California, has approved a climate-action plan that sets a target for reducing citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and includes measures to localize the food sector. The plan will fund new community gardens and park projects, develop a community orchard on vacant city land, and provide financial incentives to restaurants that sell local organic food.
Last year San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom convened a panel of experts to find ways to make food grown within 200 miles of city limits available to locals. On July 8, the mayor’s office directed all city departments to identify unused city land that could hold community gardens, and required all farmers markets operating in the city to accept food stamps.
The city of Minneapolis recently passed a resolution that creates a local food task force and opens up city land to community gardens.
Seattle is also implementing its Local Food Action Plan. This year, the city committed $500,000 from a parks levy to build new community gardens on vacant city land.
—Jessica Bell is a former staff member of the California Food and Justice Coalition.
"Appreciate the under-appreciated today"
A prompt from DoGood, an iPhone app designed by University of Michigan students that encourages its 1,000 users to do a new good deed each day.
Tribes Approve Same-Sex Marriage
Same-sex marriage may not be legal in the state of Oregon, but an Oregon tribe has exercised its sovereignty to recognize same-sex marriages on its 10-square-mile reservation near the Oregon coast. The Coquille Indian Tribe allows marriage licenses and benefits for gay and lesbian couples as long as at least one partner is an enrolled tribal member. On May 29, two women became the first same-sex couple to legally marry on the reservation.
The Suquamish Tribe in Washington state may soon follow suit. Its tribal council has approved a proposal to amend the Suquamish constitution and will finalize a same-sex marriage ordinance pending two public hearings later this summer.
—Heather Purser is a YES! editorial intern and member of the Suquamish Tribe.
Act Two for Clean Water
The U.S. Senate may be poised to undo a Bush-era policy that undercut protection of the nation’s waterways.
Until 2002, the U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers had the authority to keep pollution out of creeks and stop builders from paving over small wetlands.
But two rulings on the Clean Water Act by the U.S. Supreme Court took a narrow reading of the law’s language, limiting the Act’s jurisdiction to “navigable waterways” and the small streams and rivers that are connected to them.
The rulings stripped protection from 20 million acres of wetlands and 60 percent of the nation’s stream miles, such as the Los Angeles River and nearly all of Arizona’s small streams.
Now 24 senators have sponsored a bill that would restore those protections. The Clean Water Restoration Act has passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and is headed for the Senate floor. The act has the support of a large number of environmental, wildlife, and fishing and hunting groups, along with the Water Environment Federation, which represents the water treatment industry, though the law is meeting resistance from big agriculture and developers.
Bundanoon, Australia, May be First to Legally Ban Bottled Water
In a July 4 vote, Bundanoon, Australia, may have become the first community in the world to legally ban bottled water. The ban was promoted through the grassroots “Bundy On Tap” campaign. The town plans to implement the law by September, once it sets up bottled water alternatives, such as several new free filtered “water stations” to be placed around the community.
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