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USSF Environmental PMA

Pollution has no borders

Published Jul 11, 2010 11:20 PM

More than 300 people from the U.S., Canada and Latin America participated in a vibrant People’s Movement Assembly at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit on June 25 to discuss global ecological justice and environmental racism.

Nearly 20 organizations, including several representing Indigenous and immigrant communities, combined three separate PMAs into one very powerful event with speakers from over a dozen communities directly impacted by environmental racism in the city of Detroit, the state of Arizona, the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

Around 10 percent of the audience had attended the April 2010 Climate Change conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and there was a clear anti-capitalist sentiment in the gathering.

Fitting with the general theme of Detroit as the epicenter of the economic crisis, the PMA first heard from Ahmina Maxey, with the East Michigan Environmental Council. This group is part of the Zero Waste Detroit Coalition, which is organizing against the world’s largest incinerator, owned by Covanta and located in an African-American residential neighborhood across from a public school. Children in the area have high rates of asthma and other health problems.

Maxey encouraged everyone’s participation in a Detroit rally for clean air, good jobs and justice scheduled for June 26, noting that the action would “connect to what’s going on in the Detroit area around housing and jobs, and also what’s going on in the Gulf of Mexico. We are all connected to oil in some way.”

Ronald Wahl described conditions in southwest Detroit’s 48217 ZIP code area, which carries the unwelcome distinction of being Michigan’s most polluted community. Since 1961, Wahl has lived in this neighborhood of about 370 homes completely surrounded by dozens of industrial plants and oil refineries.

Wahl’s spouse has had several types of cancer and eight of his grandchildren have asthma. “People in the area are willing to sell their homes for as little as $300 to get out of the area,” reported Wahl, whose doctor recently told him to move because “this environment is killing you.”

SB 1070 — State gives stamp of approval to racial profiling

Several speakers linked the fight for ecological justice with the movement for migrant and immigrant rights. José Bravo, with the Just Transition Alliance from Chula Vista, Calif., took note of proposed rulings that would refuse jobs to Mexican workers. He said such rulings wrongly direct hate against immigrants and people of color from working-class communities, when it’s corporations that are responsible for the loss of jobs. Bravo said, “People and what people produce should not have to migrate in order to have jobs.”

For young Tucson immigrant rights activist Leilani Clark, Arizona’s SB 1070 was “just a state stamp of approval” for racial profiling that has been going on for decades. “When NAFTA passed in 1994,” Clark noted, “the U.S. knew migrants would come north to find jobs. They closed off city ports of entry, effectively funneling migrants into the most desolate and isolated areas. Between September 2009 and May 2010, 110 bodies were recovered in the desert, all in four Arizona counties.”

Clark said: “U.S. economic policies are driving people from their homelands and causing displacement of Indigenous people, including the complete depopulation of 45 villages along the border. The extremely strong lights that come on at night along the border are also devastating fragile ecosystems.”

El Paso migrant worker organizer Carlos Marentes described a change in the outlook of migrant agricultural workers who used to see small farmers and consumers as the problem but now see them as potential allies. “We are all victims of the same U.S. industrial agriculture system based on the exploitation of workers, but also on displacement of communities, and for production of food that is often not safe to eat,” he stated. “It’s all for profits.”

Marentes concluded: “It’s not enough to put the head of British Petroleum in jail. That won’t bring back workers who lost their lives or undo the damage to the Gulf. We need to replace this destructive system.” His remarks received enthusiastic applause.

Alejandro Villamar, with the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade, noted: “It’s quite clear that free trade agreements have caused great deterioration of the environment and our communities. In Detroit some complain about the dirty, exploitive jobs that left, while back home we complain about the dirty jobs that were brought to us.

“We need international solidarity from the South to the North to end this system that created this havoc,” Villamar continued. “The neoliberal economic system has no solutions. We have to completely get rid of it.”

Laotian activist Sandy Saeteurn, from the Asia-Pacific Environmental Network, addressed ecological justice issues for Asian immigrants. Saeteurn’s family left Laos after the Vietnam War ended and moved to Richmond, Calif., a city surrounded by over 300 polluting industries.

“Now we are not worried about bombs being dropped in our backyard. We have to worry about Chevron Oil refineries,” she stated. “But we are fighting back. When Chevron tried to expand, our community organized and said, ‘Hell no!’ We won not once but twice. Pollution has no borders. Why should people have to deal with borders?”

Next, Indigenous peoples blame corporations.