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Issue 36

Because we have to …

By Chad Jones and Mariana Ruiz

The struggle for environmental justice embodies Do It Yourself; as Angelo Logan of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice says, “Part of Environmental Justice is self determination and being able to speak for ourselves.”  In this struggle, the Do it Yourself ethos is a necessity - not a choice.

After years of localized environmental justice organizing, leaders from community groups around the nation expressed interest in meeting together. Foundation allies who had long been supporters of the groups provided financial support which enabled the first national People of Color Environmental Justice Leadership Summit. The summit, held in October of 1991 in Washington D.C. resulted in the drafting and adoption of the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. This convention also provided the opportunity for organizations to build regional networks that set the stage for a decade of building the national environmental justice movement.

The four groups profiled in this issue talk about the real impact to their communities, the lack of access to a safe and healthy wellbeing, loss of sustainable jobs and resources, and systemic loss of life. Their work and energy involve keen organizing strategies, real democratic practice and a commitment to members.  And these groups are winning, having impacted legislation on a statewide and national level.

Southwest Organizing Project

Albuquerque, NM (founded 1980)

The following answers are from Executive Director Robby Rodriguez.

How do you define environmental justice? 

The right for people to live in a clean and healthy environment where they live work and play. Environmental Racism is the deliberate siting of toxic facilities in communities of color or the lack of enforcement in those same communities.

There is a lot of argument out there criticizing the work of the mainstream environmental groups (Sierra Club etc.) How do you see their role in the larger struggle for environmental justice? 

Their definition of environment is too narrow.  They don’t really understand the concept of movement building and how really a lot of the issues they care about are connected as social justice or EJ issues.  I don’t think they understand how to build power, it isn’t just about lobbying in D.C.

Who is your constituency and do you feel that elected officials meet the needs of your constituencies. If not, is there a way that you see your work as part of that process? Have you been able to engage electoral work as part of your organizing? 

We define our base as low income and communities of color.  We organize families.  We don’t have power currently and are trying to figure out different and new strategies that will help us seize power.  That does include engaging in the electoral process.

[In] ‘83-84 SWOP did a huge voter registration drive like nothing anybody had seen in the state and registered 20,000 people to vote in some of the poorest Latino communities in and around Albuquerque.... It was about  demonstrating in a concrete way the capacity of the organization.

Community organizing is about power.  We feel also  that we’re fighting with one hand tied behind our back if we’re not also engaging in the electoral system.

Electoral organizing is a way to engage for us that broader base of people who are not necessarily working on a neighborhood organizing campaign or anything community specific. We see the election day as a mobilization, it could be seen as a form of direct action or protest but it’s a point of mobilization that’s all it is. What’s really important is how do we continue to work with those folks throughout the year. We don’t have all those answers yet.

Identify two of your principal campaigns and why they are significant?

Intel, taking on big corporate power, a classic David vs. Goliath story.  Super profits, super pollution.  They use over a billion gallons of water a year in this water scarce state, they pollute nearly 100 tons of super toxic stuff; they’ve received over a billion dollars in public subsidies over the last 10-15 years in one of the poorest states, and everybody said we couldn’t take them on.

Pajarito Mesa:  A colonia located 250-miles from the border in the largest metro area in the state; largely immigrant community, very young and very poor; the very existence of this community speaks to the real effect of trade agreements like NAFTA and the very real situation of a lack of affordable housing and good paying jobs; government has ignored the fact the over 400 families lack access to potable water!  We’ve been organizing in that community since 1997 to achieve basic services for that community starting with water. They have formed their own alternative institutions like a quasi-governmental entity called a Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association; three of our full-time staff have come out of that organizing effort and they are amazing women, strong leaders.

What is the most pressing land use issue in your region? 

Water. We can’t keep building houses if we don’t know where the water is going to come from to support that type of growth. New Mexico is a desert state, right, and 90% of the people rely on ground water as their source of drinking water, a lot different than other places.  And in Albuquerque which is the big city, if we continue to pump the aquifer at the rate we are pumping we are going to deplete it in 10-25 years.
[A City plan] is based on 145 gallons per day.  Is that sustainable?  Is the goal to supply 200 gallons per person per day?  [We need to] promote harvesting of water and use of gray water, recruit or grow industry that don’t use a lot of water.

Intel uses over one billion gallons of water per year. We gotta think about limits. The point is that we have to think about living within our limits. We have to take into consideration population, we gotta be saving now for future generations. That’s the situation.

What do you think is at the core of land use struggles?

Big money developers and the politicians beholden to them versus smart long term planning that values our history, culture and tradition.

And what is one thing you would want people to know about the work that SWOP does? 

We organize people, not problems or issues.  We believe people are our greatest resource.  We believe there is genius in the ‘hood.  That everything we need to change in our communities for the better is at our fingertips.  We believe organizing is a transformative process.  People transform themselves as they transform their community.  It is a beautiful thing to be a part of.

ME (For Love Of Mother Earth) Foundation, Inc.

Quezon City, Phillipines. founded 1998

The following answers are from Sonia Mendoza, President (via email).

How do you define environmental justice?

It is preserving the environment as nature has made it to provide people and other living beings clean air, clean water, food produced from clean and fertile soil free from toxic chemicals, and be able to pass on to the next generation.

Tell me why your group formed, what was going on in your region/country at the time. Was there an issue you were facing or struggling with?

Our group started in the place where I live, at Blue Ridge, Quezon City. It was registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Sept 1998 with a 15-member Board of Trustees.  Most of us were members of the Concerned Citizens Against Pollution (COCAP) up to 1997 and our main activity then was to lobby for the passage of the Philippines’ Clean Air Act with a ban on solid waste incinerators, [which] was passed in 1999.
Garbage was a serious problem and was getting worse. Garbage trucks failed to come for three weeks in our place and trash was piling up on the streets, plastic bags full of mixed waste were hung on trees to prevent dogs and cats from tearing the plastic bags. It was stinking all over our subdivisions and flies gathered on these plastic bags and on the uncollected garbage. There was corruption in the garbage hauling and disposal [agency].  Hundreds of millions of pesos per year was budgeted for garbage hauling alone for each of the cities in Metro Manila.
The Payatas garbage slide tragedy happened in July 2000 where more than 300 people were buried alive in garbage. Thus the passing of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 or Republic Act 9003 (RA 9003), signed into law in January 2001.

Who is your constituency and do you feel that elected officials meet the needs of your constituencies. 

We do not really have a formal constituency but our target participants in our workshops on eco-waste are local communities that will be taught eco-waste management and in the process will practice organic farming, have livelihood programs and live in a healthy environment.

Identify two of your principal campaigns and why they are significant.

[An] ecological waste management [campaign] which includes a campaign against incinerators and landfills.  This campaigns for waste prevention, no toxic waste generation, conservation of resources for future generations, nourishing and healing of Mother Earth.  [A] tree planting [campaign] to reduce pollution, water conservation and establish balance in the ecosystem

Tell me a little bit about your organizing strategies.  Are you a membership or base building organization?

We have community organizing activities that support the implementation of RA 9003. We have established about 389 Materials Recovery Facilities [where organic matter is composted and recyclable materials are re-used and recycled] (MRFs) nationwide since 2002. The Department of Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) told me that there are about 980 MRFs established. This means that about 40% of MRFs established nationwide were done by Mother Earth Foundation! Maybe it is unique in a sense because we are able to convince communities to put up MRFs instead of just dumping their waste in open dumpsites and landfills.
We have not built a core base of membership but we will start next year getting members from the secondary schools. Although we have a diverse membership (students, teachers, local government officials, civic leaders) but they have not been mobilized.

How does your organizing work affect regional/statewide policies?

We have not affected regional/statewide policies yet but we are working on one of the heavily populated cities in Metro Manila (3 million population) to make this a model in eco-waste management. The DENR is now looking into this model and maybe this would affect a statewide policy on waste management.

What is the most pressing land use issue in your region?

Agricultural land being converted into housing subdivisions, industrial estates, etc.

What do you think is at the core of land use struggles?

Mono-cropping [by] big corporations and big landowners, industrialization and mining (land-grabbing).

EastYard Communities for Environmental Justice

City of Commerce, CA. founded 2002

This interview was done with the East Yard collective (via email).

How do you define environmental justice?

All people have a basic right to a safe, clean and healthy environment. Communities impacted must have direct democracy and a mechanism for meaningful involvement in decision-making where we live, work, learn and play.

There is a lot of argument out there criticizing the work of the mainstream environmental groups (Sierra Club etc.) How do you see their role in the larger struggle for environmental justice?

Angelo Logan: In Los Angeles there has been a bit of a tension between Mainstream Environmental Organizations (MEO) and EJ groups for a number of reasons. The biggest reason in my opinion lies in the contradiction in supporting EJ principles and acting on them, specifically self-determination and directly impacted communities to be able to speak for themselves. Most MEOs are staff lead and are not accountable to their membership, making it hard to be consistent with principles that call for the right of directly impacted people to be able to speak for themselves.

It is ironic that all public and written comments from MEOs ask for meaningful public participation, even though they are very limited in their attempt to reach real democracy in their work. Part of EJ is self determination and being able to speak for ourselves; MEOs’ role in this is to respect EJ communities’ call for direct democracy, support the goals local communities have determined for themselves, and share leadership roles and/or taking a backseat in areas related to local impacts.

Tell me why your group formed, what was going on in your region/country at the time. Was there an issue you were facing or struggling with?

East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice developed out of a handful of community members that neighbor the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad-East Los Angeles Intermodal Facility, otherwise known as the East Yard. The community was dealing [daily] with two intermodal facilities in our backyard, extreme amounts of truck traffic in our front yard, and the surrounding heavy industrial environment. Community members noticed the amount of illnesses and health concerns -- elders were terminally ill with lung and throat cancer, children and adults with severe bronchitis and asthma. [Also] due to the noise, vibration, and industrial lighting, large amounts of people were suffering from sleep deprivation and hypertension. 

Our neighborhood, includes 3 parks, 2 elementary schools, 2 pre-schools, multiple day care centers, and a juvenile detention center. The East Yard Communities are at the north end of the Alameda Corridor in the midst of the Union Pacific Railroad-East Los Angeles Intermodal Facility, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Intermodal Facility, and the I-5 and I-710 freeways. The I-710 corridor brings 47,000 truck trips per day into our neighborhoods from the Los Angeles port complex, expected to triple in approximately ten years.

Our community endures the following: extremely high levels of diesel pollution, with [particulate matter] levels that put the cancer risk factor at 1,700 per million; in addition, we have a trash-burning power plant that emits just about every type of toxin, including fugitive ash that contains high levels of lead and mercury – all of which come from the incineration of the rubbish from150 trash trucks a day; lead battery manufacturing plants, which require Proposition 65 warnings; 18 ground and groundwater contaminated sites – just to name a few.

Identify two of your principal campaigns and why they are significant?

The campaign to address international trade and its local impacts is a multi-faceted approach. The statewide Goods Movement Action Plan proposed by Governor Schwarzeneggar is intended to increase transportation capacity at the ports, freeways, at rail intermodal facilities & railways, as well as cargo airports. The I-710 and I-5 Freeway expansion projects are part of the governor’s Plan to facilitate the transport of goods from international trade at the expense of working class, working poor, communities of color. [With] a base of support, we have helped to delay the expansion of the I-710 freeway.

Together, we, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, co-sponsor statewide legislation that targets diesel emissions from railroad operations in Southern California. Due to community pressure and Toxic Tours for environmental and regulatory agency staff [resulted in] the City of Commerce’s [selection] as one of three cities participating in the California Air Resources Board’s pilot project to reduce emissions.

Tell me a little bit about your organizing strategies. Do you rely heavily on support from elected officials? Do you work on building a core base of membership?

East Yard Communities operates as a community member driven organization, and uses a modified consensus decision-making model. Our goal is to conduct quarterly community meetings. Every household is invited via door knocking and flyering by block captains, as well as mailings and an outreach plan by the Staff and Steering Committee members. At these meetings, time and space is provided for dialog across the board. This time is used to reassure that the work plan and direction that the organization is moving in is truly community driven.

What do you think of the Sierra Club’s stance that the depletion of resources is the result of relaxed immigration policies in this country?

As an organization we have not taken a position on SierraClub’s stance. Our mission is that all people have the right to a safe and clean environment, where we work, live, learn and play. We find that new immigrant communities (as well as other communities of color) tend to be targets of toxic assault by corporations, such as oil refineries, transportation industries, and chemical manufacturers, depleting natural resources, straining our natural environment, and risking human lives. Basing the role one plays in consumption of resources on whether or not you crossed an artificial border, with or without documentation, is problematic and shifts the blame onto the most vulnerable.

Environmental Health Coalition

San Diego, CA & Colonia Chilpancingo, Mexico in Tijuana founded 1980

The following answers are from Maria Moya, promotora & organizer with the Toxics Free Neighborhood Campaign.

How would you define environmental justice?

Environmental justice is where everyone can live work and play in a safe environment. Just because you are poor you [don’t] need to [live] in a place where you are being impacted by pollution.

Tell me why your group formed, what was going on in your region/country at the time. Was there an issue you were facing or struggling with?

An incident [happened] where kids walking to school were getting sick and residents started wondering what was going on and it turned out to be that the kids walking to school were walking through a [toxic] field. Workers started to dig to see what was buried underneath, [which] was a toxic waste disposal right next to the school. And that’s how interested citizens got together in 1980 and formed the Environmental Health Coalition.

Identify two of your principal campaigns and why they are significant

The campaign that I work in is the Toxics Free Neighborhood campaign. We work mainly in Barrio Logan where you have mixed zoning, you have industries and homes right next to one another.

Also, the border environmental justice campaign that is working out of Tijuana because we are very close to the border, [on maquiladora issues],  American-owned industry that goes to Mexico to avoid U.S. laws . They’ve been polluting this community, where you have high incidences of illnesses caused by pollution. We formed a group that is working in Tijuana [Colectivo Chilpancingo] doing a great job trying to get the American owners to clean up the sites and we have had some victories. An old lead smeltering plant in Tijuana that was abandoned by an American owner after 15 years is getting cleaned up because the community got involved with the governments of Mexico and the U.S. to bring that about.

Tell me a little bit about your organizing strategies. Do you relyheavily on support from elected officials? Do you work on building a core base of membership etc.

The promotora model is something that has worked to educate [Latinos] one-on-one and we took it a different route not just to educate the communities but to spread the word. We call it SALTA, Salud Ambiental Latinas Tomando Accion (Latinas Taking Action for Environmental Justice).Through this we were able to get to know the problems and the illnesses in the community and then develop a curriculum to educate the community and for years we’ve done it over and over on different issues.

We started with a two-hour course over 10 weeks where we discussed issues in the community and organizing ...and from all of that we developed a total of 20 women who then went out to the community and formed community groups with their neighbors and families and instructed the same curriculum that they had learned from us. It really helped to start the activism within the community.

How does your organizing work affect regional/statewide policies?

The Right to Know law started here in San Diego and then went statewide and now is national. People have the right to know what industries — what chemicals — are doing. And when we first developed SALTA we had a problem in Barrio Logan [from] fumigating with Methyl Bromide. After a five year battle, the port district, who was fumigating with Methyl Bromide, passed an ordinance that they would not import any fruit that needed fumigation to come through the San Diego port.

What is the most pressing land use issue in your region?

Barrio Logan is one of the oldest Latino communities in San Diego and has been neglected by officials. Two years ago the Padres built a baseball stadium [within] walking distance of Barrio Logan, starting a gentrification issue. The area was mostly occupied by artists and low income people [earning between $17,000-$20,000 per year] [in] single room occupancy [housing]. People from downtown started invading Barrio Logan, and within a year rents tripled. The rents have tripled and families have to triple up. We go to houses and now in a four bedroom house there is one family in each bedroom and they are sharing a restroom, sharing a kitchen. Every investor you can think of is coming to Barrio Logan and buying up property.

We started working with the residents about three years ago to develop a community plan to stop the development and, with residents, developed a new vision for Barrio Logan that we are pushing the City Council to pass.

This vision has a set of principles that the community developed saying that they want to ensure a healthy community where residents and industry are separated, [with] housing that’s affordable to the community Residents in Barrio Logan. [Instead of] those housing projects for people who make between $60K-$80K.

What do you think of the Sierra Club’s stance that the depletion of resources is the result of relaxed immigration policies in this country?

Everything that happens here in San Diego is “the illegals” and they don’t see the benefits that they bring. They work for next to nothing with no benefits, but you know they are here to work. Now they are building a triple fence right here on the border and the Minutemen are planning to come here. People in our communities are targeted. When 187 passed it gave way for any redneck to stop you and say “Oh you go back to Mexico you don’t belong here.” We need to have someone to blame [for environmental problems], illegal immigrants are the easiest target to blame.

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