Local Environmentalists Celebrate Activism to Mark International Human Rights Day

An emergent network of environmentalists gathered at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast Saturday to mark International Human Rights Day. Four stories of activist achievement, focused on the human right to safe drinking water, were shared by activists engaged in campaigns to:

  • Save Our Sperrins” (SOS) from plans by the Canadian Gold-mining company, Dalradian Resources, for a 1000m deep mine, cyanide processing plant, huge waste dump, tailings ponds, electricity substation, telecommunications mast and associated works, beside the village of Greencastle in County Tyrone;
  • Build on the success of the “Stop the Drill” campaign that halted plans by Infrastrata to commence exploratory oil drilling in Woodburn Forest, 380 m uphill from a major drinking water reservoir. The campaign led directly to Ministerial commitments to abolish Permitted Development Rights for oil and gas exploration in future;
  • Press for restoration of the Mobuoy Road site outside Derry, which is host to the biggest illegal dump in Europe. With almost 1.7 million tonnes of waste, including dangerous contaminants, the dump poses a continuing threat to the River Faughan, one of the country’s leading salmon rivers and a threat to drinking water quality. The gathering heard that a unanimous Stormont vote (March 2014) to hold a Public Inquiry has yet to be acted on; and
  • Highlight state oppression in Peru where the judicial authorities, police and the armed forces have been used in an attempt to crush popular resistance to mega-mining operations in the Cajamarca and Celendin provinces. In Cajamarca, the Yanacocha holding company (made up of Newmont mining corporation (US), Buenaventura (Peru)) together with IFC of the World Bank has razed mountains, dried up natural lakes, polluted rivers and stands accused of poisoning the human and animal population.

Threats to precious water sources were a recurring theme behind the mobilization of local communities who have been sharing tales of their success and strategies. Threats to safe drinking water are threats to life and health. For this reason, the international community has increasingly taken steps to recognize access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, culminating in 2010 with the UN General Assembly’s Resolution (64/292) giving explicit recognition to the human right to safe water and improved sanitation. Safe should mean that water required for each personal or domestic use must be safe and free from mico-organisms, chemical substances, and radiological hazards that constitute a threat to a person’s health.

Human Rights have become a valuable tool in the armoury of environmental activists:

  • A safe and clean environment (including water) is instrumental to the meaningful realisation of other Human Rights, including the right to life and health;
  • Procedural rights, such as the rights to information, participation in decision making, and access to justice, are vital means to the pursuit of environmental and climate justice; and
  • The right to a healthy and clean environment per se has been incorporated into a number of national and regional human rights instruments. Indeed, there is a movement to extend rights to the environment itself (‘Wild Law’, Biocentric Rights), including a campaign led by the Scottish Barrister, Polly Higgins to amend the Rome Statute and introduce ‘Ecocide‘ as a Fifth Crime Against Peace.

Like four converging streams, the narratives repeatedly overlapped and reinforced a series of insights about the state of grassroots activism near and far:

  • Local campaigns designed to fight off despoliation of local landscapes tap into local expertise, cultural memory, and belonging, which sustains a struggle that must not only fight off corporate intrusions but expose corporate capture of State and regulatory apparatuses;
  • Innovative strategies are deployed, using the law, political lobbying, social and conventional media, and advanced networking with other campaigns and dedicated NGOs leading to strategic success and expanded ambition. Local, place-based campaigns generate learning that leads to system-level interventions, such as campaigns for climate change legislation.
  • History, memory (including memories of eviction, landlordism, enclosure) and local knowledge are all part of the cultural resources that leave campaigners radically changed by their activism. They become “agents of change” through their own experience of change and empowerment, rising out of isolation and into expansive networks that are local and global, expert and celebrity, lived at the front lines of risk (from policing) and humour.
  • Local actions give rise to an understanding that interventions must take place at the level of the ‘system’ (governance, regulation, law, the media) and the dominant ‘narrative’. Loose networks form that bring individual activists out of isolation; they name systemic failures and begin to generate a new narrative as the “scales fall away from our eyes”.
  • The emergent activism celebrates its wins (e.g. bringing about political commitments to alter Permitted Development Rights) at the level of the system, but there is also a palpable sense that “creating and living the alternatives….living the truth” is an immediate and pressing demand.

While human rights are a necessary part of the contemporary environmentalists toolkit they are far from a sufficient basis for pursuing environmental justice. Grassroots communities of activists have always been the first line of defence of ecologies throughout the world, often at the risk of their lives and safety. Consider, for example, the fate of Berta Cacéres in Honduras.

Grassroots environmental activists are the new model citizens of the Anthropocene – often ordinary people who are moved to place their bodies and lives on the line in opposition to new forms of enclosure backed by an unholy alliance of State and corporate or sectoral interests. The corporate capture of State apparatuses (law, policing, planning) and of State-sponsored versions of “economic development” that often seek to trump the interests and wellbeing of local communities – recurs both locally and internationally.

These ordinary people are the front line of environmental defence in the age of the Anthropocene: to paraphrase the German writer, Hannah Arendt, the new model citizens-as-activists have discovered that to live in truth is to go beyond statements and observations of what “is wrong” and “what is right”. They have encountered the unacceptable and begun to embody a radical refusal with the words: “I can’t”.

(The author was invited to chair Saturday’s meeting at the Golden Thread Gallery)