Signs of Life :: Summer 2010

Small stories about big change
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  • Climate talks end with People’s Agreement

Also ... United Nations Environment Programme study encourages use of waste water.


  • Canada frees up foreign aid

  • Farmworkers rally for higher pay


  • In India, fake money is payback


  • Roads aren’t just for cars anymore

Also ... Los Angeles Mayor to speed up construction of light rail lines.


  • More states may create public banks


  • Public housing goes green


Climate talks end with People’s Agreement

Developing nations and social movements left out of December’s climate talks in Copenhagen have issued their own call for change.

Cochabamba Climate Talks

President Morales opened the event with exhortations to choose life for the planet.

Read more about the People's Climate Summit.

Photo by Lauren Rosenfeld and Tupac Saavedra.

The People’s Agreement—the culmination of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth—demands that wealthy nations cut their carbon emissions and pay a “climate debt” to impoverished countries. The April summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, convened by Bolivian President Evo Morales, drew more than 30,000 people from around the world.

The three days of workshops and discussion groups, which included substantial representation from indigenous groups, yielded a look at climate justice from the perspective of the Global South, as well as the movement’s left flank.

“Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life,” the agreement declares.

According to the Cochabamba declaration, the climate debt owed to developing nations includes both economic reparations and adaptation payments. The agreement also calls for a new International Tribunal of Conscience to hold wealthy nations accountable.

During last December’s talks in Copenhagen, a group of the planet’s wealthy nations convened behind closed doors to reach agreement on vague, non-binding goals for reducing carbon emissions, setting the stage for temperature rises well above the 2 degree ceiling needed to avoid climate calamity. Although none of those countries sent their top leaders to Bolivia, cabinet-level representatives of 20 nations attended.

Summit leaders plan to take the People’s Summit declaration to the next round of U.N.-hosted climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, later this year.

—Jim Shultz attended the Cochabamba conference. He is executive director of The Democracy Center.


Video Icon 10pxA Climate Summit for the Rest of Us: The Cochabamba climate summit was designed to respect the power and knowledge of world social movements and indigenous peoples.

ALSO ...

A new study from the United Nations Environment Programme, Sick Water, encourages using wastewater as fertilizer to minimize water pollution. Because wastewater includes many of the same nutrients as fertilizer, proper management can harness the waste to boost food production, rather than contaminate clean water.

In the United States, the Enivronmental Protection Agency has regulated the use of wastewater as fertilizer as some can contain heavy metals and other toxins.

The UNEP encourages well-planned use of wastewater to ensure crops and groundwater aren’t contaminated.


wind turbines“It’s the shot heard ’round the world for American clean energy.”


Ian Bowles, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, on the approval of the nation’s first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound.



Roads aren’t just for cars anymore

Thumb Up IconThe Americas have lagged behind Europe in promoting bicycle transportation, but recent government efforts may change that.

Bike Communting Wittwer family

Travis Wittwer loads his sons and his groceries into his cargo bike for the trip home. Travis is a teacher and stay-at-home dad in Portland, Ore. Read more in his blog "Wheel American Family."

Photo Icon 10 pxPhoto Essay of the biking Wittwer family.

Photo by Sara Cross.

In the United States, federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced in March a new policy encouraging cities and states to include the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians in their transit infrastructure planning.

The Department of Transportation will discourage projects that negatively affect bikers and walkers, LaHood added.

 In an interview with The New York Times, LaHood called the policy a “game changer” as the country searches for more sustainable choices.

“It’s what Americans want,” LaHood said. “It’s a game changer because people do want to get out of congestion, they want to get out of their cars, they want to be able to enjoy the outdoors, they want to be able to recreate with their families.”

The projects range from accommodating bikes and pedestrian paths on bridges to tracking bike trips and keeping sidewalks and paths free of snow.

Cycling advocates praised the new policy, as it expands the focus of the Department of Transportation beyond motorized vehicles and recognizes that “[t]ransportation programs and facilities should accommodate people of all ages and abilities, including people too young to drive, people who cannot drive, and people who choose not to drive.”

Meanwhile, Mexico City officials are piloting a bike-sharing program to reduce congestion and pollution. In a city with 4 million vehicles, only 1 percent of trips are made by bike. The program, still in its early stages, offers more than 1,000 bikes at stations around town. Officials hope to increase trips to 5 percent of the daily traffic.

The Mexican program is modeled after those in Copenhagen and Paris. People who enroll in the program pay an annual fee and get a card they can swipe at any of the stations. Cyclists pay a nominal fee for each hour they ride.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at

  • No Car, No Problem: Car-free living not only cuts back on your greenhouse gas emissions. It also builds local community, brings families closer together, and helps support local economies.
  • Photo Essay: How to bike commute with small kids.
  • YES! Magazine Bikes to Work: Bike commuting tips and stories from our staff.


ALSO ...

Thumb Up IconLos Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to speed up construction of 12 light rail lines throughout the metropolitan area. Voters in 2008 approved a half-cent sales-tax hike to fund the project over 30 years. According to The Wall Street Journal, Villaraigosa has asked the federal government for $9 billion up front. That way, the mayor said, the project could be complete in 10 years.



In India, fake money is payback

Thumb Up IconPaying bribes to officials at all levels of government is common in India, but an advocacy group for the poor came up with a way to fight back: Make money worth nothing more than the paper it is printed on.

India's Zero Rupee Note

The Zero Rupee note reads: "Eliminate Corruption At All Levels," and "I Promise I Never Accept or Give Bribes." Find out more at

The organization 5th Pillar distributes the zero rupee “protest note” to low-income citizens who can’t afford to pay the daily bribes demanded from them.

The fake currency looks similar to a 50-rupee bill but features a zero for the denomination and the pledge, “I promise to neither accept nor give a bribe.” Volunteers give out the bills anywhere an official would be looking for a handout, such as hospitals or railway stations.

According to Britain’s Telegraph, more than 1 million zero-rupee notes have been printed in five languages. Soliciting bribes is an imprisonable offense in India, but most citizens comply with the requests to avoid problems. Zero-rupee supporters say the bill is designed to be handed to anyone who asks for a bribe and is a simple way to stand against corruption.

Transparency International’s annual report estimates 4 million Indians pay bribes each year for licenses and other basic services, according to the Telegraph.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at


More states may create public banks

Thumb Up IconBy 2011, only one state will have escaped the credit crunch that is pushing other states toward insolvency: North Dakota. North Dakota is also the only state that owns its own bank. The state has its own credit machine, making it independent of the Wall Street banking crisis that has infected the rest of the country.

Bank of North Dakota Headquarters

The new headquarters of the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck.

Image courtesy

Now, several states are either studying the prospects of a state-owned bank or are considering legislation to make one possible.

Five states have bills pending—Massachusetts, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, and Virginia. In April, documentary filmmaker and Virginia resident Bill Still showed his new award-winning documentary on the topic, The Secret of Oz, to the Missouri House of Representatives. Rep. Allen Icet, a candidate for state auditor, proposed using the Virginia proposal as part of a study on a state bank in Missouri and said he would hold committee hearings this summer.

Also in mid-April, the Hawai‘i House approved a resolution asking the state to study the possibility of establishing a state-run bank there. State Rep. Marcus Oshiro, a Democrat who chairs the finance committee, called a state-run bank a “reasonable public option” to spur development and hold state funds.

Other state legislatures entertaining proposals for forming state-owned banks include New Mexico and Vermont. Candidates in eight states are running on a state-owned bank platform: three Democrats, two Greens, two Republicans, and one Independent.

—Ellen Brown is an attorney and the author of 11 books, including Web of Debt,


Farmworkers rally for higher pay

Farmworker Freedom March

Photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou.

Workers’ rights activists who took on fast-food giants such as McDonald’s and Subway are now battling one of the largest supermarket chains in America, Florida-based Publix.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—a farmworkers rights group from the South Florida town—is demanding that Publix pay a penny more for each pound of tomatoes that workers pick. In April, hundreds of farmworkers joined other supporters in a 22-mile march through Florida, ending in Lakeland, the headquarters of Publix.

The penny-per-pound increase would almost double workers’ daily pay—currently about $50 for picking an average of 4,000 pounds of tomatoes per day. Along with demands for higher pay, CIW­—which is made up mostly of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian immigrants—has been educating the public on the human-rights abuses migrant workers face. Employers are required by law to pay farmworkers minimum wage, but CIW co-founder Lucas Benitez told WUSF-FM that many growers find ways around the regulation.

The push against Publix is a part of CIW’s “Campaign for Fair Food,” which started in 2001. Since then, McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, KFC, and others have agreed to the penny-per-pound hike. Publix would be the ninth company to do so.

In an interview with WUSF, a Publix spokeswoman said that farmworkers’ complaints should be directed at their employers, not the grocery store.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at


Canada frees up foreign aid

Thumb Up IconCanadian officials have announced plans to untie foreign aid by 2012–2013.

The practice of “tying” aid is common to many developed nations, including the United States: Most countries insist that a major proportion of their foreign assistance be used to purchase products and services from the donor nation. The United Nations reported in 2004 that tying aid cuts its value by 25 percent to 40 percent, harming local producers and farmers who can’t compete with cheap or free imports from the developed world.

After lobbying efforts by Engineers Without Borders, among other organizations, Canada in 2008 decided to take a first step toward effective foreign aid, when the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) announced a complete untying of all food assistance. So development assistance for food projects—CA$230 million in 2008—could pay for food from anywhere, not just Canada. That means food aid destined for one developing country, for example, could come from another country on the same continent, using local infrastructure and labor and boosting that economy, rather than Canada’s.

Organizations such as Oxfam America are organizing similar efforts to make U.S. aid accountable to the global poor.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at



Rev. Samuel Rodriguez“The angst and trepidation in our communities is unprecedented. ...

This is our Selma.”


The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, at the March for America immigration rally in Washington, D.C.



Public housing goes green

Intervale Green in NY's South Bronx

Congress designated $4 billion in the stimulus bill to increase the energy efficiency of public housing, building on a 2008 announcement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that encouraged the use of green technology and green strategies in public housing developments.

Enterprise, a nonprofit working on affordable housing, has laid out a plan to raise another $4 billion for affordable housing by 2014. The organization maintains corporate partnerships and other investments.

On average, public housing agencies spend about 25 percent of their operating costs on utilities, according to HUD.

—Jeff Raderstrong is a Washington, D.C., writer who blogs at


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