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The Planet

November 1997, Volume 4, number 9

Grassroots Activists Tackle Local Issues

by Jenny Coyle Sid Tan felt so strongly about the role Shell Oil played in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria that he was willing to stand alone with a picket sign every weekend in front of gas stations in his city of Vancouver, B.C. "The hanging had a profound effect on me, and I thought if there was ever anything I could do about it, I would," says Tan, a board member of the Sierra Club of Canada's British Columbia Chapter and co-chair of the Lower Mainland Group. But Tan wasn't alone. The power of his convictions combined with good networking and organizing skills helped him convince as many as 200 people at a time to join him in weekly protests for the past year.

Tan rose to the challenge faced by activists who want to promote grassroots efforts on the Club's sometimes complicated international issues like trade and human rights. It's often hard to understand how a clearcut in a Canadian rainforest or contaminated soil in an oil field in Nigeria affects us in our own backyards.

"The best way we can do this is to personalize the issue," says Stephen Mills, the Club's Human Rights and the Environment Campaign director. "People are angered by injustice and believe that companies that operate abroad should adhere to the same environmental standards as they are held to here. Whether it's a community displaced by a mega-dam or fighting to keep a company from polluting its water source, we try to show our members the common ground in the worldwide struggle for a clean environment."

Members of the Lower Mainland Group who objected to Shell's complicity in the hangings in Nigeria found common ground with students, human-rights activists and other green groups to form the Ogoni Solidarity Network. Their first "Boycott $hell" rally was held in November 1996, two days before the first anniversary of Saro-Wiwa's Nov. 10, 1995, hanging. Now the group protests at a Shell station for two hours every Friday or Saturday. Each week's targeted location is announced over e-mail and a phone tree.

"We never know how many people will show up, but it's always between five and 200," says Tan. "The protests are making a difference. The city of North Vancouver passed a resolution against purchasing Shell products, which can be directly tied to the chapter's boycott campaign. Shell Canada informally got in touch with us and asked what it would take to end the boycott. We said they should talk directly to representatives of the Ogoni in Canada."

Importing Logs, Exporting Extinction

Trade issues are also being played out in Canada, where the forces of economic globalization pose a danger to the irreplaceable rainforest of British Columbia. The forest is being clearcut at an alarming rate -- mostly for export to the United States. British Columbia Chapter Conservation Chair Vicky Husband and Club Board of Directors member Susan Holmes of New York City are among environmentalists on both sides of the border who are currently struggling to develop a strategy to save the forest and its wildlife.

One approach being discussed -- using an eco-certification process and harnessing the power of consumers in the United States -- is problematic because so little of the timber harvested in British Columbia could meet such specifications: it's almost all clearcut old growth. Another strategy involves focusing on the lack of endangered-species protections in Canada. A third avenue would include wilderness protection and eco-forestry in trade agreements.

"With free trade we're importing logs, but exporting extinction -- not just to British Columbia but to Siberia, Chile and the Amazon," says Holmes. "We've got to find a way to make the world's ancient forests safe from America's high-consumption lifestyle."

Fighting Fast Track

Making international issues matter usually starts with educating the public and forming coalitions. "We try to connect the trade issue to what folks already care about," says Dan Seligman, director of the Club's Responsible Trade Campaign. "As activists learn how trade agreements undermine food safety and increase logging, they make time for this campaign."

A 1993 GATT tribunal that declared the U.S. dolphin-safe tuna law a barrier to trade inspired Craig Volland, Kansas Chapter Conservation Committee co-chair, to work on trade issues. In March, Volland teamed up with local labor and religious activists and populist conservatives and staged a NAFTA teach-in for 150 people at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Mo."Congress and our trade negotiators have got to put people and the environment on an equal status with commercial interests," says Volland.

While leaders of the world's most industrialized countries met last June in Colorado for the Summit of the Eight, John Wade, International Affairs chair of the Rocky Mountain Chapter, committee member Eva Lopez and other labor and environmental-group volunteers staged the Denver Children's Summit to draw attention to the perils of free trade. "People get interested in these difficult issues when you put them into the context of their children, or their pocketbooks or their lives," says Wade.

Activists from across the country swung into action this September as Congress began debate on "fast-track" trade legislation to expand NAFTA and negotiate other environmentally destructive trade agreements. Sheila Bosworth, an Executive Committee member of the Club's Eagle View Group in Iowa, was among four speakers at a labor-sponsored Stop the NAFTA Fast Track rally in Davenport, Iowa. "The great thing is that there was so much overlap in the messages and statistics of the speakers, all of whom came from very different organizations," says Bosworth. Gwen Marshall, coordinator of the Ohio Chapter's Responsible Trade Working Group, staged a one-woman lobby week by meeting with her state's legislators in Washington, D.C. And Michael Gregory, director of Arizona Toxics Information and the Club's International Campaigns Steering Committee member, has helped write provisions for two environmental side agreements to NAFTA that set up application criteria and funding for U.S.-Mexico border communities to install or upgrade treatment systems for wastewater, drinking water and solid waste.

From Antarctica to Siberia

As the forces of "economic progress" invade the world's last wild places, volunteers continue their work on other international issues.

The Club worked closely with the U.S. Congress to ensure passage of the Antarctic Science, Tourism and Conservation Act of 1996. "The protection of Antarctica is a classic Club issue," says Beth Clark, chair of the International Committee's Antarctica Task Force. "It's a wilderness issue, since Antarctica represents 10 percent of the earth's land and oceans. It's a wildlife issue, as Antarctica is home to millions of penguins, flighted seabirds and seals, and great whales feed there in the summer. It's also a political issue -- because there are no permanent human inhabitants in Antarctica, it falls to concerned people on other continents to advocate for its protection."

Susan Holmes is working to halt U.S. funding of unsustainable development projects abroad -- particularly the Aginskoye gold mine in Kamchatka, Siberia. An area the size of California with just one partially paved road, the Kamchatkan peninsula is arguably the largest undeveloped wilderness in the Northern Hemisphere and home to the largest grizzly bear and salmon populations in the world.

Longtime Club activist Bill Mankin of the Global Forest Policy Project is working on a global eco-certification program for timber products so consumers can support sustainably managed forests.

Edgar Wayburn, chair of the International Committee, and Club Chairman Mike McCloskey serve as representatives to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which works to protect parks and wilderness around the globe. One area the IUCN recently helped protect is the Tashtenshini region in Alaska and British Columbia. Today, the Tashtenshini is part of a 25-million acre World Heritage Site, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the world.

Former Board of Directors member Carolyn Carr has kept an eye on Panama since the 1970s, when the Club filed a successful lawsuit to stop the Pan-American Highway from going through 100 miles of jungle and native homeland.

Board member and International Affairs Vice President Michele Perrault regularly plays host to visiting foreign environmentalists and serves on President Clinton's Council on Sustainable Development.

With everything we have to do in our own backyards, what compels these activists to work beyond our borders? Baird Straughan, who several years ago helped the Honduran environmental group Aire Puro in their successful efforts to eliminate lead from gasoline in their country, says he draws satisfaction from "focusing on issues where a little pressure can achieve a lot, and where one doesn't yet face the wall of special-interest groups and their lobbyists." Through its International Committee, the Club is working to develop a program to get more volunteers active in other countries where, as was the case in Honduras, the Club's time-tested techniques and strategies could help conservation efforts. The committee also hopes to offer training for activists who want to get more involved here at home in global issues. There are certainly plenty of places that need saving. As Holmes said of her involvement in Kamchatka, "It is one of the most amazing places on the planet. There was an incredible need there, and I believed the Sierra Club could make a big difference. I know we have."

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