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Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Defending the Earth's Defenders | Thin Green Line | Home Front

Defending the Earth's Defenders

When I fled Burma in 1988, I knew nothing about the environment," said Ka Hsaw Wa. During 11 years of exile, he has risked his safety by returning repeatedly to his homeland to interview victims of the military dictatorship's brutality. "More and more, these people are talking about issues that directly implicate the environment as well: the woman whose baby was killed when a soldier kicked her into a fire during a forced relocation for the pipeline; the boys and girls who were forced at gunpoint to labor on the logging road; the fisherman who lost his traditional livelihood when international trawlers forced him out of the sea."

Ka Hsaw Wa, slight and boyish-looking, could easily pass for the college student he was more than a decade ago. Now, though, he understands both the "deadly partnership" between multinational oil magnates and the Burmese generals-who are leveling forests for a massive natural-gas pipeline-and the "intimate connection" between human liberty and ecological health. "We have a chance to join hands and stop the abuse at its sources," he said. "Those who have been previously committed to protecting human rights, and those who have focused on the environment, must recognize that we work at cross-purposes if we do not work together."

Ka Hsaw Wa, who now lives in Thailand, spoke at the Sierra Club's San Francisco headquarters in January to bless an alliance between the Club, the nation's largest grassroots environmental organization, and Amnesty International USA, its counterpart in the human-rights arena. At his side was Dr. Owens Wiwa, whose brother, Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, was executed with eight others by the Nigerian military in November 1995 for speaking out about toxic oil spills and government repression. Wiwa fled days later, and now lives in Toronto.

The Club and Amnesty, which together have nearly a million members in the United States alone, have previously collaborated on behalf of the Ogoni and Russia's Alexander Nikitin, charged with espionage for blowing the whistle on dangers from decommissioned nuclear submarines. Their three-year "Defending the Defenders" campaign will bring more such cases of persecution to broader attention via first-person accounts by indigenous activists on the Internet and annual "Environmental Defender" reports, and through the two organizations' extensive communications and activist networks.

There is, sadly, no shortage of worthy candidates. William Schultz, Amnesty's executive director, noted that just days earlier, 1991 Goldman Prize winner Wangari Maathai, coordinator of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, and other protesters had been hospitalized after being clubbed for trying to plant seedlings at the gates of a forest slated for development. As a participant in a morning roundtable discussion observed, however, "We don't have to go abroad to find examples of corporate abuse." To cite just one, Navajos are struggling to defend their sacred homeland in the Arizona desert against expansion of Peabody Coal's Black Mesa mine.

The "Defending the Defenders" campaign aims to turn up the pressure on the U.S. government for its part in human-rights abuses. Carl Pope, the Club's executive director, criticized Democrats and Republicans alike for supporting a foreign policy he described as "see no evil, hear no evil." Appearing at a news conference to announce the campaign, he promised to "press our government to insist that corporations based here, marketing here, and raising money here, develop and implement credible human-rights and environmental protection policies wherever they do business."

"It should no longer be acceptable," said Pope, "for corporations to say, 'we have complied with the law where we are doing business,' if that law does not recognize basic environmental and human rights."

The San Francisco-based Goldman Fund is underwriting the Club/Amnesty alliance and is also providing support for a variety of other advocacy groups to stop human-rights abuses and hold corporations accountable. In the previous two weeks, Wiwa said, the Nigerian junta had killed at least two dozen activists in its reign of terror on behalf of multinational oil interests there. By defending the defenders, "this coalition will help ensure that such things never happen again."

"If anything happens to us, we will not die in vain," Wiwa said, unavoidably evoking the memory of his martyred brother. "A lot of people are watching." —B.J. Bergman

Werbach Walks "Thin Green Line"

From news-minded 60 Minutes to celebrity-driven Entertainment Tonight, television is chock-full of newsmagazines. But Thin Green Line is one of the first to put the spotlight on environmental issues.

"It's a cross between Dateline and TV Nation," says host—and former Sierra Club president—Adam Werbach, who cites Michael Moorešs satirical, muckraking (and short-lived) television show as an inspiration.

Werbach's show will debut April 22—Earth Day—and air monthly on the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), a cable channel devoted to individual sports like hiking, mountain-biking, skiing, and surfing.

"Our audience is passionate about the pursuit of outdoor recreation," says OLN Executive Director Peter Englehart, "so we're assuming they will also be passionate about environmental issues."

Werbach, still a Sierra Club Board member, agrees that taking the conservation message to television is a natural—and necessary—way for environmentalists to reach potential new allies.

Thin Green Line will introduce viewers to the human stories behind the environmental headlines. One of three segments of the first half-hour show will focus on David "Gypsy" Chain, the young Earth First! activist killed by a falling tree last September during a protest against the cutting of Headwaters Forest redwoods in Humboldt County, California.

The premiere episode will also report on the fight against buffalo slaughter outside Yellowstone, and profile California kayaker/conservationist Scott Lindgren, who has lost six friends to kayaking in the past year.

"TV is signal-rich, but content-poor, while the environmental movement is content-rich, but signal-poor," Werbach says. "Our goal is to take the great stories that need to be told to a medium that needs substance." Werbach invites readers to send story ideas to Act Now Productions via e-mail at—Jennifer Hattam

Home Front

In 65 chapters and hundreds of local groups spanning 21 ecoregions and two nations, Sierra Club members are hard at work protecting our natural heritage.

Great Basin/High Desert: SAVING UTAH'S TRUE LEGACY

When a four-lane, 13-mile road was proposed along the southeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah activists knew it was futile to lobby Governor Michael Leavitt. The Republican governor had not only proposed the "Legacy Highway," he was its most passionate supporter. So activists took their case to the federal government.

Local Sierra Club members sent hundreds of letters to the EPA to protest the construction and brought almost 1,000 activists to an agency hearing in October. They also teamed up with farmers and duck hunters, who shared their fear that the highway would turn farmlands into subdivisions and destroy 160 acres of wetlands, along with pelicans, eagles, and other birds. "It makes the message more credible to have all these groups speaking with one voice," says Marc Heileson, conservation organizer for the Club's Southwest office. "We can't be written off as extremists when fifth-generation Mormon farmers are part of the effort."

In January, their voices were heard: the EPA declared that it would veto any highway project across the Great Salt Lake wetlands.


U.S. Air Force officials were so confident their bombing-range expansion plans would be approved, they bid a mere $10 for 960 acres of state land on Idaho's Owyhee plateau at a January auction. But members of the Sierra Club and other conservation groups in the Owyhee Canyonlands Coalition (OCC) had a surprise in store: a $5,000 bid.

"The area is worthy of national-park status," says Roger Singer, conservation coordinator for the Club's Middle Snake Group. "We hoped to raise public attention by bidding in the auction, to make it known that people are determined to protect the area."

The Idaho Land Board ultimately awarded the land to the Air Force, calling the OCC "obstructionist" and questioning the organization's solvency. But media coverage publicized the widespread opposition to the military's plans. Activists hope to rally that concern in defense of adjacent public lands. A majority of Idahoans support wilderness designation for these rugged canyonlands, which are home to elk, deer, and bighorn sheep, and offer world-class rafting opportunities.


Sierra Club volunteer Caroline Karp wasn't surprised by plans to build a huge port on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and bring 20 container ships, some too big to fit through the Panama Canal, into the bay each week. "The port is absolutely the wrong scale for the bay," Karp says. "But it fits with the backlash against environmental protection that's going on in this state."

Graduate students in Karp's environmental policy seminar exposed potential problems with the megaport by researching crime rates in port cities and likely impacts on transportation patterns. The proposed development could change the shape of the bay (due to dredging); fuel sprawl; destroy habitat for lobsters, clams, and the threatened least tern; and sully the water and air.

The Club got the anti-megaport message out with a "Fish or Foul? Family Festival" highlighting the development's likely effects on the local tourism and fishing industries, and a "Flotilla of Fun" boat-in.

State officials are still pushing for a port, but the huge allied shipping companies Sea-Land and Maersk pulled out of the plan after activists made it clear that the project wouldn't meet water-quality and wetlands requirements.


Most conservation efforts seek to reduce human impact on the environment, but volunteers in Hawaii may be making two wrongs into a right. Kokee and Waimea Canyon state parks, in mountainous northwest Kauai, are lush with native vegetation, including at least 22 endangered species and half of the island's rare plants. But this rich ecosystem is threatened by an invasion of fast-growing, non-native plants. Many of the new species were introduced intentionally, like the ornamental Kahili ginger and the strawberry guava, used for reforestation.

Last year, more than 1,400 volunteers, including Club members from Kauai and other Hawaiian islands, cleared 254 acres of more than 600,000 alien plants-and got a hands-on introduction to conservation principles. To spend part of your vacation helping preserve paradise, contact Kate Reinard at the Kokee Resource Conservation Program, P.O. Box 100, Kekaha, HI 96752, or e-mail


The Greys River, the longest undammed river in Wyoming outside Yellowstone National Park, flows through a remote western part of the state. Here in Bridger-Teton National Forest, you'll find big peaks and rocky slopes, meadows and forests, elk, goshawks, lynx-and a history of clearcuts.

Last year, nearly 1,000 acres at the headwaters of the upper Greys, which is already rife with sediment, was threatened by a proposed timber sale. Activists charged that the resulting clearcuts and new roads would increase sediment tenfold, fragment wildlife habitat, and damage fisheries.

Thanks to an appeal filed by the Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Wyoming Outdoor Council, and other conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service halted the sale in November.


The National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club might seem like natural adversaries. But members of these groups in Houston, Texas, have been working together for more than two years to protect the Katy Prairie wetlands, a resting stop for migrating waterfowl. This type of collaboration is hardly an isolated occurrence. The past year saw new efforts by Club activists to organize among hunters, fishers, and farmers.

In bringing these often-at-odds constituencies together, Sierra Club chapters across the country are trying to broaden their base of support to include all groups that use (and love) our natural resources. While South Dakota Club members are joining sportsmen to clean up local waterways and wetlands, Oklahoma and Maryland activists are fighting the spread of huge factory farms with the help of family farmers and the African-American community.

To spotlight Sierra Club activism in your area, contact Jennifer Hattam at Sierra, 85 Second St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail jennifer.hattam@sierra; or fax (415) 977-5794.

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