Signs of Life

Small Stories About Big Change
Rainforest Action Network protest against investments in dirty coal. Photo (cc) by Jonathan McIntosh, Rainforest Action Network
Photo (cc) by Jonathan McIntosh, Rainforest Action Network

Since 2000, Rainforest Action Network's Global Finance Campaign has successfully challenged the world's largest banks to stop funding the world's most destructive industries. In Boston and across the nation, street theater activists at Merrill Lynch offices protested the company's investments in dirty coal.



Human Rights

UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues logo

U.N. Declaration on Indigenous Rights

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After two and a half decades of work by indigenous peoples and U.N. member governments, the United Nations General Assembly passed the Indigenous Rights Declaration on September 13, 2007. Only four countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States) voted against it.

For 25 years, the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (later changed to “Peoples”) monitored events occurring in indigenous territories and worked to adopt standards for interaction between states and indigenous peoples.

The process provided an international stage for indigenous peoples to tell of their experiences of colonization and taking of territory, and of their struggles for self-determination.

The North, Central and South American indigenous experiences, along with the Sami of Scandinavia, were presented first. As the process rolled on, many other indigenous peoples were heard.

This U.N. process was unique in that the indigenous people themselves took a major part in formulating the standards, working with government “experts.”

“Indigenous peoples, even in the most remote places, have been made aware of the existence of this Declaration through all the years that it was being negotiated,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous woman from the Philippines and the chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Now they have a strong ownership of it and, hopefully, will be able to use it to help strengthen their battles.”

The Declaration identifies a wide range of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples —the right to unrestricted self-determination; collective right to the ownership, use, and control of lands and natural resources; the right to maintain and develop their own political, religious, cultural, and educational institutions—and the protection of their cultural and intellectual property. The document highlights the requirement for prior and informed consent in activities that affect indigenous peoples, their property, or their territories. It calls for fair and adequate compensation for rights violations. Guarantees against ethnocide and genocide are established.

Tauli-Corpuz emphasizes the impact of the declaration: It creates a frame of reference against which to check government or corporate policies, it is a tool for awareness-raising and education, and it legitimizes the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an indigenous voice within the U.N.

In 2008 the Forum will address impacts of climate change, alternative fuels, and carbon trading on indigenous communities.

— Poka Laenui represented the World Council of Indigenous Peoples before U.N. bodies in the 1980s and 1990s. He is executive director of Hale Na`au Pono, a community mental health center in Wai`anae, Hawai`i.


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Listen to Sarah van Gelder's interview with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz on the Indigenous Rights Declaration. More.



No Wall campaign

In October, the mayors of Brownsville, Del Rio, and El Paso, Texas, showed their opposition to a border fence by denying access to city property to U.S. government officials assigned to begin design work on the fence.

Updates on the “No Wall” campaign at


Panties for Peace

For the “Panties for Peace” campaign, women in several countries are sending underwear to Burmese embassies. The protest against the military regime's violent crackdown on peaceful protesters plays on Burmese generals' superstitious belief that contact with women's underwear deprives them of their power.

Sarayaku Nation Block Oil Extraction in Ecuador

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In September, the Ecuadorian government announced it would direct removal of 1.5 tons of explosives left behind by oil companies at 640 different points within Sarayaku territory in the Amazon. The Sarayaku people are known for their decade-long refusal to allow oil extraction on their land, even in the face of imprisonment and paramilitary assault. With support from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, they proclaimed their land an “Autonomous Territory of the Original Kichwa Nation of Sarayaku.” Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has promised to support indigenous rights against oil companies.



Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon

“The civil rights movement taught me that if I'm alive, I can find some way to participate in changing things.”

Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, musician, scholar, civil rights activist, and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon performed at the 75th anniversary event of the Highlander Center.



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Seattle Adopts Zero-Waste Policy

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The Seattle City Council has committed the city to a zero-waste policy—and one small neighborhood's activism helped spur the change.

In early 2007, the city was making plans to build a transfer station to keep pace with its expanding garbage problem. Two existing transfer stations, built in the 1960s, couldn't handle the daily, mile-long train of garbage—a total of 440,000 tons in 2006.

The third transfer station was to be located in the industrial neighborhood of Georgetown. But residents fought the decision and called for an alternative solution in testimony at City Hall: zero waste.

In response, councilmember Richard Conlin and the Environment, Emergency Management, and Utilities Committee unveiled the city's new zero-waste plan this summer. It caps the tonnage of exported garbage at 2006 levels and requires yearly reductions.

The strategy represents a major change in the way the city views trash. “Instead of accepting more trash as inevitable, we are now treating waste as a resource,” Conlin said. Food waste will be picked up for composting; support will be available for community waste-reduction initiatives and for durable products designed for easy reuse; and grants and tax-breaks will encourage contractors not to demolish old buildings but to disassemble and recycle their building components. The council is also studying the possibility of banning plastic bags and foam.

The plan also means that Georgetown won't be home to a new transfer station. Instead, Seattle will retool its existing stations for recycling. “Thanks to the community activists, I think the pattern has been broken,” said council president Nick Licata.

— Brooke Jarvis is a YES! intern.

Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin is a YES!board member.



Mountaintop removal site. From

Blocking Big Coal

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Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment Roderick Bremby has blocked the building of two coal-fired power plants, a $3.6 billion project.

Concerns about carbon emissions and the public's health spurred Bremby's controversial decision, the latest in a trend of resistance against Big Coal.

With more than a third of the nation's carbon dioxide coming from coal plants, citizens and politicians alike are pushing for a ban on new plants, and some are calling for closing the ones now in operation—especially when inefficient. There is also growing opposition around the practice of “mountaintop removal,” which has destroyed mountainous regions of the Southeast, cutting into mountaintops and filling streambeds in search of coal.

As of May 2007, U.S. energy companies were pursuing per-mits for about 130 new coal plants, yet since 2006, plans for more than 24 plants have been canceled and more postponed.

Mark Brownstein, managing director of Environmental Defense, cited Bremby's decision as “further evidence that the days of business as usual for coal are over.”

—Margit Christenson is a YES! intern.




Supreme Court rules for Vermont against auto industry

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The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Vermont's right to enforce stricter regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions for cars. Vermont's law calling for a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions for automobiles by 2016 had been challenged by the American automobile industry. The suit claimed that individual states must defer to the federal emissions standards set under the Clean Air Act.


Green Jobs Act Passed

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The Green Jobs Act passed by the House of Representatives dedicates $125 million to train 35,000 people annually in “green-collar jobs,” including low-income people. The bill, sponsored by Representatives Hilda Solis (D-CA) and John Tierney (D-MA), is supported by the Apollo Project, which proposes massive public investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy designed to create jobs, cut climate-disrupting emissions, and reduce dependence on oil. “If we focus on practical steps to accelerate job-creation in the green economy, we can save the polar bears—and the poor kids, too,” says Van Jones from the Ella Baker Center. Jones has been an advocate, nationally and in his community in Oakland, CA, for green-collar jobs and the Apollo Project.



Major carbon sink in danger: ocean's CO2 absorption has halved

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The Journal of Geophysical Studies published a University of East Anglia study in October 2007, showing that the ocean's CO2 absorption has halved between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Scientist fear that the dwindling absorption capacity of the oceans, one of our two major natural carbon sinks, may worsen global warming.



Photo by Emily Kornblut
Photo by Emily Kornblut

World's Largest Bike Fleet in Paris

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Paris will soon be home to the world's largest public bike fleet. This summer, the city joined Amsterdam, Oslo, and Copenhagen in offering low-cost bicycle rentals to help solve its traffic, pollution, and parking issues. Free for the first half-hour of use, the bikes can be rented and returned at more than 800 stations across the city.











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San Francisco's Health Care for All

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San Francisco is the first city in the nation to offer health care to all of its uninsured residents.

Healthy San Francisco opened first to residents earning at or below the federal poverty line, but now offers health care to all 82,000 uninsured adult residents while they are within the city, regardless of income or immigration status.

The initiative is not an insurance program. Instead, it is a network of community clinics, providers, and a public hospital. The funding comes from redirecting money previously spent on emergency hospital visits by the uninsured into a more complete medical safety net.

— Brooke Jarvis is a YES! intern.



Pope Benedict XVI

“We can't simply do whatever we want with this earth that has been entrusted to us.”

Pope Benedict XVI declared the Vatican the first carbon-neutral state.
Vatican City will install more than 1,000 solar panels in 2008. In addition, the Hungarian company Klimafa donated a climate forest to offset Vatican emissions: 37 acres of degraded land by the river Tisza will be reforested with native species.




Students at the International Development Design Summit, held at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in August 2007

Appropriate Tech Takes on Poverty

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The International Development Design Summit, held at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in August 2007, brought together engineers, scientists and prospective users of low-tech, low-cost technology. In just four weeks, participants from 16 countries developed 10 prototypes, addressing critical needs in their communities.

Bernard Kiwia from Tanzania, where 40 percent of the rural population lacks access to clean water, developed a backpack for carrying and disinfecting water. The transparent plastic pack uses solar heat and ultraviolet rays to disinfect the water and could retail for less than $5.

Other design concepts included a greenhouse made with recycled materials, a low-voltage light powered by electricity generated by the microbes in dirt, a low-cost water-purifying system, and a pedal-powered grain mill.

The University of Colorado now offers a graduate program in engineering for developing countries, and Princeton and Columbia offer classes on the topic. “Young people today are much more aware of the needs of the planet,” said Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders and a professor at Colorado. “This is a kind of engineering that involves the heart as well as the brain, and it's appealing to more people than ever before.”

— Rik Langendoen



Dole Ditches Pesticide

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Dole, the world's largest producer and marketer of fruit, vegetables, and fresh flowers, will no longer use Paraquat. The company joins a growing number of major producers who are voluntarily phasing out the highly toxic pesticide. The move puts pressure on the maker, Syngenta, who is currently fighting to have Paraquat re-approved in Europe.


Newborn Sex Ratio Shifting

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Sex ratios of newborns are changing across the world and shifting dramatically in the Arctic. Scientists found that two girls are being born to every one boy in monitored communities in Greenland and Eastern Russia. The sex disparity has been traced to chemical pollutants. The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme measured hormone-mimicking chemicals in women's blood and concluded that they were capable of triggering changes in the sex of unborn children.


Spanish Islands Go GMO-Free

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The state government of the Spanish islands of Mallorca, Menorca, and Ibiza declared the islands a GMO-free zone. The campaign, supported by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, now includes 236 regions, over 4,200 municipalities, and tens of thousands of farmers and food producers in Europe who have declared themselves “GMO-free,” banning the use of genetically modified organisms in the agriculture and food in their territories.




Hissing Cat (symbol of wild strike) and logo for StrikeBike
Hissing Cat (symbol of wild strike) and logo for StrikeBike

Strike Bike

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On October 25, 2007, the workers of the bankrupt Bike Systems factory in Nordhausen, Germany, completed the assembly of 1,800 bicycles in a week-long, fully worker-managed production run. The workers occupied the factory when they were told it would be closed. To avoid eviction over the past months, workers have stayed on premises in a non-stop staff conference. In an international solidarity campaign, they offered two versions of their “strike-bike” for $395, a price they say covers production costs and salaries.

The idea for the strike bike came from a radical fair trade collective that sent coffee to the striking workers, and offered to buy bicycles should the factory ever open again. The bike was designed in collaboration with a bicycle cooperative in Berlin.

—Lilja Otto




A group meeting during the Third International Conference on GMO-Free Regions, Biodiversity and Rural Development. Photo by Henri Laupmaa, Estonian Fund for Nature
Photo by Henri Laupmaa, Estonian Fund for Nature

GMO-Free Conference in Brussels

A group at the Third International Conference on GMO-Free Regions, Biodiversity and Rural Development in Brussels in April 2007. Three hundred attended representing regional governments and municipalities, farmers, consumers, and environmental and other organizations. The first World Summit on GMO-Free Diversity is planned for May 12-16, 2008, in Bonn, Germany.




FCC Fines Comcast for Fake News

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Comcast Corporation has been airing pre-packaged video news releases (VNRs), and the Federal Communications Commission is cracking down. The VNRs are sponsored promotional ads created to look like news reports. The fines, issued in September, were for a video news release that appeared in the middle of a legitimate newscast. The Comcast cable channel that aired the segment, CN8, did not disclose to viewers that the company would receive payment for running the piece. Later, Comcast was fined for four more undisclosed VNRs.

The initial fine came in response to a 2006 complaint from Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy, which documented nearly 140 undisclosed VNRs. The $4,000 fine is the first-ever penalty imposed by the FCC for airing fake news.

—Margit Christenson is a YES! intern.

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