Environment / News

In Bolivia, activists see Hunts Point in a mirror

Photo by Esther Wang

At the climate summit in Bolivia. Mott Haven resident Toyin Adebanjo is at far right.

Climate change conference inspires local organizations

Grassroots organizations from Hunts Point, Longwood, Mott Haven and Melrose were well-represented at an international conference on climate change in Bolivia in April.

“There are tangible parallels that exist between the indigenous people in Bolivia and Hunts Point,” said Tanya Fields, one of more than a dozen local residents who traveled 4,000 thousand miles to South America to join roughly 18,000 people from around the world at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which gathered in the city of Cochabamba for four days in mid-April.

The bridge that connects South Bronx residents to Bolivian citizens is environmental degradation–the pollution of the air and waterways and the exploitation of poor communities by industry, Fields says.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, called the conference as a grassroots response to the failure of world leaders to reach an agreement on restricting the emission of greenhouse gases linked to global warming at a climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

According to Fields, the People’s Conference provided an opportunity for those affected by climate change and environmental injustice to meet and plan for change.

“It was not only the politicians and academics making the decisions for us, it was the people on the ground,” Fields said. Delegates from 125 nations gathered in Cochambamba.

In its final resolution, the conference called on the rich nations of the world to cut their emissions by 50 percent.

Although the governments of those nations are not likely to agree, participants said the summit had succeeded in other ways.

The experiences and contacts made at the conference helped activists to return invigorated and determined.  “The message brought back home was sustainability and cost effectiveness,” said Juan Antigua, Healthy Communities and Food Justice Coordinator for the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.

“Changing our consumption habits is one way of tackling climate change. It is as simple as changing our shower heads, using refillable water bottles instead of plastic bottles and washing our dishes rather than purchasing disposable ones.”

Toyin Hussein Oluwakemi Adebanjo, a Mott Haven resident who is active in the Casa Atabex Ache, an advocacy organization for women of color on East 140th Street, found a warm welcome in Bolivia.

As one of the few African Americans with dreadlocks to attend the conference, she drew lots of attention. “I felt like I was a celebrity. People were asking me to take my photo,” she said with a big smile. The curiosity of the Bolivians helped create camaraderie and dissolve the language barrier, said Adebanjo.

Her take-home message from the conference is to inform her community about the negative impact industrial farming has on women’s reproductive health and the health effects faced by Bronx communities that have limited access to fresh food.

Fields, too, emphasized the impact of environmental issues on women. Saying climate change can be seen in the rapidly shrinking glaciers of the Andes Mountains in Bolivia, which supply much of the nation’s water, she noted that those most affected are women and children who live below the poverty line.

At the conference, she said, “Women were the agrarians, the street vendors, activists, organizers and governmental officials. They’re the ones who are affected by climate change and flawed policy.”

The activists who attended the Bolivian conference emphasized the economic realities of the communities they serve, saying their communities bear the heaviest burden of environmental injustice. They also emphasized the need for jobs and said ways had to be found to create jobs without injuring the environment.

“There is a need to provide green jobs to tackling climate change as well as address poverty,” said Antigua, a member of The Bronx Green Jobs Round Table, a coalition that includes many Hunts Point-based organizations. The Round Table is meeting with government officials and the business community to outline a green initiative that can reduce the effects of climate change locally while stimulating green job growth.

Activists partnered with the business community in a “Green Roots Tour,” on May 17. Organized by the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (BOEDC), the tour was designed to give the public a chance to learn about new green energy technologies in the Bronx.

And on June 25, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale will host a Bronx Green Business Summit focusing on attainable, measurable and sustainable business practices and green job creation.

“It might sound like a cliché, but thinking locally and acting globally are more so true today. Climate change affects us all” said Fields, who echoes the sentiments of many of the Bronx activists who traveled to Bolivia.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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