Voices of our Community

Apr222016

Earth Day: More than Recycling

by Erin Famularo

With grocery stores, clothing, jewelry, and technology available everywhere, it is hard to remember the people who still live off the land. There are communities that rely on the Earth to be self-sustaining and take pride in having a symbiotic relationship with nature. On Earth Day, we discuss what it means to be energy-efficient, to fight global warming, and to encourage our communities to recycle. Let us also make the effort to discuss how the destruction of the environment impacts human rights.

Dams disrupt 2/3 of the rivers in the world so it is hard not to imagine how this may impact the people who make a living off these water sources. However, many remain unaware of these negative effects. What once used to be flowing, healthy river systems are now little more than ponds and lakes. The now pond-like environment ruins the biodiversity that is so vital to the world’s ecosystem as it cuts off the migratory patterns of animals while decreasing water quality. What is an example of the effect this has on humans? 40-80 million people have been displaced by the construction of dams in just six decades.

While many look to dams as a solution to energy, food, and flood relief needs, there are actually many more efficient and ethical ways to fulfill those demands. International Rivers provides a list of other ways to solve the economic and social issues that many look for in dams. Activists continue to fight the construction of dams in places where it would do the most harm to the environment and to the human rights of those living on the rivers.

Berta Cáceres Flores was a Honduran environmentalist and indigenous rights activist who advocated for the alternative energy sources mentioned above. Her work exemplified how the destruction of the environment has real consequences for human rights.  Last year, she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work fighting against the Agua Zarca Dam. Giving her own life to the protection of human rights, she was murdered on March 3, 2016 in La Esperanza, Honduras. Despite her untimely death, her efforts continue with the organization she co-founded: The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. COPINH addresses threats posed to indigenous communities from illegal logging while fighting for their territorial rights and improving their quality of life.

Berta Cáceres Flores“Berta grew up in one of the poorest regions of Honduras, in a very small community in an isolated part of a small country. She grew up in a traditional family and might have led a traditional life—until saw mills came into the region and wanted to cut down her community’s pine forests, and the construction of a hydroelectric dam threatened to block people’s ability to fish in the rivers and access their territory. She became an activist, and a force for change.” – David Kaimowitz, The Ford Foundation.

Flores’s intersectional activism exemplifies the impact that the environment has on human rights, especially toward indigenous populations. In 2006, a plan was in place to build the Agua Zarca Dam which Berta Cáceres Flores actively fought. This dam would be built on the Gualcarque River, a river that is sacred to the Lenca people. The dam would prevent access to an important water source and greatly impact the livelihood of those living off the river. While plans are still in place to construct the plan, funders have recently pulled their money from the project.

Fracking is another common resource “solution” that violates human rights and the United States has played a huge role, particularly in South America. Between 1964 and 1990, Chevron poured over 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into unlined pits, contaminating the soil, river systems, and underground water of the Amazon in Ecuador. This is the same soil and river systems that the many indigenous people live off of and who are now facing serious illnesses such as cancer. The 15 minute video below shows the aftermath of Chevron’s oil extraction.

The True Story of Chevron's Ecuador Disaster from Amazon Watch on Vimeo.

Dams and fracking are only two of the many environmental issues that are contributing to human rights violations. Often when people discuss protecting the Earth, the conversation focuses on what the earth will look like in years to come. Let’s start looking at how destroying the environment already affects the human rights of people today.

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