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Florida Climate Activist Nicholas Vasquez Rallies in Gainesville During 800-Mile State-Wide Walk

Maia Botek
News Feed
Thursday, July 29, 2021

Embarking on an 800-mile walk across the state of Florida, Nicholas Vazquez is a 23-year-old climate activist using unconventional tactics to raise awareness for climate change.

Nicholas Vazquez leads and speaks to members of a symbolic ‘die-in’ at the Gainesville City Hall on July 27, 2021.

Embarking on an 800-mile walk across the state of Florida, Nicholas Vazquez is a 23-year-old climate activist using unconventional tactics to raise awareness for climate change. Vazquez arrived in Gainesville on July 27, one of nine stops on his journey to Tallahassee. He has just reached the two-month mark for the walk, which began on April 22 out of Miami, Florida. Upon his arrival to Gainesville, Vazquez organized and spoke to activists on the steps of the Hippodrome Theater before hosting a more demonstrative protest at the Gainesville City Hall.

Just after 6 p.m. on July 27, Vazquez stood at the steps of the theater in a woven pair of brown slippers reading off a black iPhone to a small, but enthusiastic, crowd of supporters. Vazquez spoke candidly about his experience with Extinction Rebellion, a UK-based climate organization that he represents, and his expectations for the walk across the state, including the need for Governor Ron DeSantis to declare a climate emergency. Among the issues Vazquez wanted to call attention to were crop failures, water shortages, sea level rise, increased carbon emissions, deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest and global temperature elevations, at one point exclaiming, “Siberia is on f—ing fire!”

Many of Vazquez’s words about the urgent need for climate action were met with affirmation and small chants from the group of around 15 supporters who had gathered around the steps of the theater. Following the conclusion of Vazquez’s statements, the group organized themselves with various signs and posters demanding action and marched for four blocks north on Southeast First Street until reaching the Gainesville City Hall. Many of these signs and materials were supplied by Anne Hemingway Feuer, a member of Extinction Rebellion who had driven to Gainesville from Miami in order to hear Vazquez speak. Feuer credits her environmental activism as one of the ways she overcame her depression about the environment and pointed toward the value of motivating others in the fight for climate awareness.

Later in the evening at the Gainesville City Hall, Vazquez and a handful of supporters partook in a symbolic ‘die-in’, collapsing on the steps and front lawn of the building after reading an imagined climate-change-related cause of death. Though only certain members of the group participated in the act of lying down and ‘dying’, others placed flowers to memorialize the symbolic deaths and outlined the bodies lying on cement in various sticks of chalk that were distributed. Although no city officials or the mayor of Gainesville appeared at the event, Vazquez remains hopeful that his tactics will create the necessary impressions across both local and state governments. In 2019, Vazquez and other Extinction Rebellion activists successfully convinced Miami Mayor Francis Suarez to declare a climate emergency, and Vazquez is expecting a large amount of publicity and coverage upon his arrival and hunger strike in Tallahassee.

To continue following Nicholas’ journey across the state please visit https://xramerica.org/walk-with-nick/, and make sure to follow Cinema Verde’s social media outlets! Nicholas will be in Gainesville until July 30 and is looking to connect with the people of Gainesville during his last few days. On August 10th, 2021, Nicholas will be in Jacksonville, Florida, beginning his March Against Treason to the state’s capital and hopes many people will join him on the trek along I-10.

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of
Maia Botek
Maia Botek

Maia Botek is a third-year journalism major and Spanish minor student at the University of Florida who has grown up in South Florida throughout her entire life. As the daughter of a Jamaican father and part-Norwegian mother, an understanding of cultures, diversity and the world around her has always been an important facet in Maia's life which has resulted in a love of the environment, travel and education. She loves spending time outdoors and with friends, especially at the beach, which she loves. Maia is interested in utilizing journalism to educate others on the importance of the Earth's natural resources and ensuring a sustainable and equitable future for all.

Portugal Is At War With Itself Over ‘White Gold’

European leaders want to transform this forgotten farming region into the continent's largest lithium mining operation — and locals are fighting back.

COVAS DO BARROSO, Portugal — For centuries, Aida Fernandes’ family has lived in this village nestled in the rugged mountains that crown the northern border with Spain, with generation after generation grazing cattle and growing grapes in lush green fields.Then, in 2010, a wildfire — one of the growing number of blazes scorching this part of Europe as the climate changes — engulfed the verdant foothills encircling Fernandes’ ancient home.The rustic stone houses and towering persimmon trees of Fernandes’ remote town of about 100 people remained intact, but there was plenty of damage to the surrounding area. With time, though, the wounded landscape healed. Dense stands of maritime pines regrew to cover the charred bare ridges. Enough Erica lusitanica, or Portuguese heath, sprouted between the skinny evergreens’ trunks to make the ground look like brushstrokes in an impressionist painting. Wild fruit trees returned, bearing juicy berries with red skin and yellow meat that locals call medronheiros and ferment into alcohol. The culture, too, showed signs of a rebound, as the region’s unique farming traditions and indigenous livestock breeds made it one of the only places in Europe to win a spot on a worldwide list of “agricultural heritage systems” worthy of conservation.But around that same time, Fernandes registered a new threat to her land — one that, while slower-moving, could change things forever. It came not from a “what” but a “whom”: an invasion, with huge ramifications for Europe’s climate goals and Portugal’s political stability.With the help of the national government, the lithium mining industry promises to transform this forgotten region into the European Union’s largest operation for digging the metal ― prized for its role in electric vehicles ― out of the earth. More prospectors were arriving by the month to bore cylindrical holes into rock and take samples. As time went on, Fernandes accused workers of trespassing on land where they had no legal rights, an allegation the mining company denied.Seemingly overnight, Fernandes, 45, became the de facto leader of the resistance, a self-described David leading a ragtag coalition of farmers, environmentalists and itinerant hippies. They were up against the twin Goliaths of an international corporation and the Portuguese state, with backing from at least a handful of villagers who believed mining would mean a financial boost for themselves and their region.One Friday in November, Fernandes’ new responsibility — an exhausting third job on top of farming and raising three kids — meant going on patrol to check whether the prospectors were advancing. Peering at the horizon through the dusty windshield of her red Toyota pickup, she spotted a single plume of white smoke. Fernandes let out something between a gasp and a sigh.“They’re here,” she said. Roughly 200 feet down the ridge, a crew of three hard-hatted workers made use of the waning daylight to dig a little deeper into the exposed rock, casting up a continuous puff of diesel exhaust and dust. Men had been showing up on lands owned collectively by the villagers for months. Fernandes and her cohort tried blocking the road when they saw them coming, but this afternoon she was too late. More workers were coming more often, with armed police not far behind — an intimidating sight for residents who lived through the fascist dictatorship that ruled Portugal from the Great Depression until the 1970s.The industry is in a Catch-22. Lithium is the main component in the power packs that propel electric vehicles and store energy from weather-dependent renewables, like wind and solar, for later use. Investors hoping to cash in on the transition from fossil fuels to batteries and electricity call it “white gold.” Consumers in rich parts of Europe and North America demand products made with metals unearthed with minimal environmental damage, but have literally stood in the way of mines in countries with some of the highest regulatory standards in the world. Even under optimistic scenarios for how much metal recycling can recirculate into the battery supply chain, analysts say both continents need to mine more raw lithium ― and officials from Washington to Brussels are dangling new incentives for companies to do so. Yet Savannah Resources, the mining company pursuing the lithium under Covas do Barroso, finds itself fending off villagers’ lawsuits in local court in Portugal. New legal cases “coupled with the increased stream of negative media coverage in the second half of the year are a cause for ongoing frustration,” Matthew King, Savannah Resources’ chairman, wrote in a year-end letter to investors in December. “However, we will continue to communicate the positive benefits of our project for the local community, Portugal and indeed Europe as a whole, and our efforts to minimise any and all negative impacts it may have.”Aida Fernandes, 45, at her farm in Covas do Barroso, the village where her family has farmed for centuries.Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPostTensions were growing. Temperatures were surging. Fernandes was staring down the plans that some of the world’s most powerful governments and financiers had for her tiny, ancient village. And time was running out. With final mining permits still pending, the only question was: For whom?The Dawn Of Portugal’s Lithium Rush There is a lot of “white gold” in the hills around Covas do Barroso. There’s enough, according to the British mining company paying the prospectors to drill rock samples of the landscape, to manufacture nearly 600,000 electric vehicles annually — more than three times the number of new cars sold in Portugal in a good year.Someone just needs to dig the yellowish spodumene rocks out of the ground, cart them away, crush the ore, roast and chemically treat the dust, and eventually sell the resulting lithium concentrate to any of the dozens of battery factories under construction across Europe. London-based Savannah Resources wants to be that someone. This year, the company, which said it has the rights to 93 hectares of land — roughly 230 acres, sold by more than 40 local landowners — around the village already, is set to finish its permitting process. Next year, the firm is scheduled to start the real work on opening its Barroso mine, and plans to build a chemical plant next to the open pit to process the ore in-house.By the end of the decade, Savannah envisions remaking this region into a key node in the clean-energy supply chain the European Union and the United States are banking on to free their economies of both carbon emission and China, which controls the vast majority of the world’s production of metals for batteries and solar panels.“The Barroso Lithium Project is one of the most strategically important lithium projects in Europe, and we are delighted to be progressing so well,” the company said in an email to HuffPost. The European Union currently uses 230,000 metric tons of lithium per year, but the energy consultancy Benchmark Minerals forecasts that demand will more than triple to 700,000 metric tons by 2030. The EU enacted its Critical Raw Materials Act just last month, setting ambitious targets for how much lithium the bloc aims to mine and process within its own borders.Most of the world’s lithium is currently produced in southern South America or Australia, then processed in China. As the push for electric cars drives up demand, other countries have joined the rush, with some making rules that require companies to process the ore locally, potentially limiting how much European refiners could get without mining the metal themselves.In 2022, the U.S. passed its first major climate law, unleashing a historic spending spree on everything from new nuclear reactors to electric cars. Congress reserved the most lucrative federal tax credits in the legislation for new Teslas or Chevy Bolts with batteries made with metals mined in the U.S., or in countries with which the U.S. has a free-trade agreement.In November, the European Union brokered a new deal to work with the U.S. to increase the amount of so-called critical minerals being produced on both sides of the Atlantic. Under the Critical Raw Materials Act passed four months later, the EU needs to mine 10% of its own lithium, but process at least 40% ― a requirement the bloc can meet by importing raw ore from abroad or recycling used batteries at home.“There will obviously be an effort to develop as much upstream mining capacity in Europe as possible,” said Daisy Jennings-Gray, a London-based analyst at the market research firm Benchmark Minerals. “But no one is expecting Europe to suddenly become a huge mining region. Europe will probably never have a massive mining economy unless there’s a whole change in culture.” With Europe charging ahead on going electric, and the U.S. offering its allies privileged access to a car market where, even in a slump, more new vehicles are sold each year than there are people in Portugal, the government in Lisbon saw an opening. Portugal had a history of mining metals like tungsten, and an auto manufacturing industry already employing upward of 150,000 Portuguese workers and paying more than one-fifth of the country’s tax revenues. Savannah’s project, meanwhile, would satisfy both the EU’s mining and processing targets.Outgoing Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa answers questions after reviewing his eight years in office at a March 27 press conference in Sao Bento, the official residence of the prime minister, in Lisbon.Horacio Villalobos via Getty Images“Lithium is something that is so important for new technologies,” said António Costa Pinto, a research professor at the University of Lisbon and one of the country’s best-known political scientists. “It was an economic opportunity that Portugal could not pass up.” Savannah’s proposal has attracted the most international attention, but the rush for lithium in Portugal — and the controversy surrounding it — actually began with a local company, Lusorecursos. The company won a government permit to begin prospecting for tin and tungsten in the foothills around Montalegre, but it was long plagued by allegations of fraud. Lusorecursos remained embroiled in lawsuits as recently as this year. The company did not respond to a request for comment. Both Lusorecursos and Savannah got the green light from regulators in 2023 to move forward on mining. Both companies were then dragged into the nationwide scandal that erupted in early November, when prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged corruption in the licensing process for the lithium mines and another clean-energy project, a hydrogen facility. While only his deputies were named in the probe, Prime Minister António Costa resigned in disgrace.The companies said they were cooperating with investigators. Portuguese prosecutors asked a judge to annul Savannah’s environmental permit in February, but the courts have yet to do so.In an email, Savannah said its own independent investigation in January “concluded that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the company,” and noted that its work has continued “unencumbered” since the probe was first made public.“Our teams are on the ground, our current drilling programme has produced some very positive results,” the company said in May.If all goes according to plan, Savannah will complete its final feasibility study by the end of this year and advance to the last phase of the permitting process shortly afterward. Its prospecting work has continued.‘They Want To Wear Us Down.’I arrived in Covas do Barroso less than two weeks after the prime minister resigned, with the goal of seeing the front lines of the European Union’s biggest “lithium war,” the hyperbolic term that journalists and advocates like to use for conflicts between miners and local opponents.A giant banner calling for “no mining” fluttered in a traffic circle in Boticas roughly 20 minutes from the village. But the place seemed otherwise peaceful. An elderly farmer in a tweed cap waved as he brought his cattle to heel and let my car pass, as I questioned whether my rental could fit down the narrow cobblestone street where Fernandes lives. I parked outside her house, and hopped into the front seat of her pickup. She was on duty, and she had comrades waiting for her.Mariana Riquito, 26, is a grad student in sociology who is studying the anti-mining movement in Covas do Barroso.Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPostFor months, prospectors working for Savannah had been showing up on property that opponents say is clearly outside the bounds of the tracts the company has purchased.“They’re prospecting on my land without my permission,” said Catarina Scarrott, 46, a teacher from Covas do Barroso who now lives in London. “The limits of the land have been set up for 200 years or more, and everyone in the village knows what the limits of the land are.”Scarrott is Fernandes’ cousin, and visits the village regularly. She said she could prove the land is hers, but by the time she could get a court to intervene, Savannah “will have prospected already.” The village of Covas do Barroso has at least three active lawsuits against Savannah, the company disclosed in its latest financial report to shareholders. But all the litigation is pending, part of a drawn-out legal process. “They want to wear us down,” she said. “They know the court system is slow. They don’t care about the penalties they’ll get, because all they want to do is prospect. If they can’t prospect, they can’t prove they’ve got enough material to mine.”The company told investors its lawyers said “any discrepancies in the land borders” would result in “the land returned” to the village. Savannah said a “generous offer has been made” to buy the remaining land, threatening to “use the Portuguese legal system to secure the land” if “it is not possible to secure the remainder of the land required by mutual agreement.”At issue is the fact that a portion of the land surrounding Covas do Barroso is owned communally among the villagers. In Portugal, rural towns have traditionally exercised collective control over areas of land called “baldios,” which the communities can either manage themselves or oversee with the help of national conservation authorities. “Savannah and its contractors have been working only on land which the Company either owns or has been granted permission to enter,” the company said in its emailed statement.There was a gushing river between the village’s cobblestone street and the dirt road that leads through the communally owned lands where the Savannah workers had begun digging. Fernandes and her fellow anti-mining activists have feared that the mining will cause the underground reservoir to drop, wells to run dry, and any remaining water to become contaminated. Last year, Savannah revised its initial pitch in regulatory documents to include more water protections. The company said its mine will operate as a “closed system” with “water treatment and sediment removal systems” in place to “ensure water quality on and off site is maintained.” In all, the company said it would tap less than 1% of the area’s groundwater, and that it had committed to daily monitoring for quality and cleanliness.It also sweetened the deal for Covas do Barroso, according to João Cerejeira, an economist at the University of Minho who analyzed the Savannah project’s impacts.Savannah said its concession only covers 0.5% of the Barroso agricultural region ― and “guaranteed” it would backfill and rehabilitate each area it mines, “permanently” impacting “less than 0.25%” of the heritage zone. The company abandoned plans to operate 24/7, promised to impose strict time and noise limits on the mining operation, and budgeted to build a new road so its trucks don’t cause traffic. Savannah also pledged annual donations to a local charity, and vowed to fund cultural research and breeding programs for native livestock. Aurik Antunes, 33, a Portuguese artist and barber living in Covas do Barroso, Portugal, visits a waterfall, one of the natural waterways local opponents of the lithium project fear will be threatened by the mining.Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPostSuch benefits were “not in the other versions” of proposals Savannah put forward, Cerejeira said. “It’s an opportunity for the region,” Cerejeira said. “The region is losing population year by year. If they don’t have a project that will attract more people, more employment and more families to be living there... in the next decade the municipality will probably disappear. In terms of major services like post offices, schools and banks, you won’t have them because there won’t be enough humans.”Fernandes and her cohort don’t see it that way. And if they couldn’t stop the mine altogether, their plan was to delay it as much as possible to at least test Savannah investors’ will to keep funding a company without revenues. Locals took turns playing sentinel, parking near the entrance to the communal baldio lands and preparing to summon reinforcements to block any mining trucks driving in to work.Some days it proved effective, and Fernandes and her friends managed to keep the diesel trucks hauling prospecting equipment from reaching their destination. Other times, as I would later learn, it was a fruitless endeavor — and a distraction from necessary daily farming tasks.When Fernandes saw the smoke on the horizon, indicating that the workers had begun boring into the bedrock before anyone could spot them, she seemed crestfallen and frustrated. She drove off the paved street and onto the muddy road that ascends the pine-covered hillsides of the common lands surrounding the village. Roughly 100 feet up, she stopped the truck in front of two young people.Mariana Riquito, 26, had first come to Covas do Barroso in September 2021 to study the local pushback for her Ph.D. thesis in sociology. Beside her stood Aurik Antunes, 33, a barber and artist who was also drawn here by the conflict, but found it so peaceful they decided to stay and set up a sanctuary retreat for queer people struggling with trauma.They both hopped in the back of the pickup. Further up the road, we encountered a tall man in a fedora and long cargo shorts walking barefoot in the mud. Originally from Waterbury, Connecticut, Steven Silva Dias, 37, had returned to his parents’ native Portugal and found a sense of belonging in a local chapter of the Rainbow Gathering. The loose-knit, hippie-founded spiritual movement first cropped up in the U.S. in the 1970s to oppose the war in Vietnam. It survives today in the form of regular monthlong encampments where, for a full moon cycle, participants live off the land, bathe naked in streams, and engage in rituals of breathing and physical touch that are meant to erode ego.Covas do Barroso’s mining conflict had drawn the Rainbow Gathering, which set up its temporary camp of tents and teepees in October. Dias, too, hopped in the back of the truck. Steven Silva Dias, 37, a member of the Rainbow Gathering spiritual movement, came to Covas do Barroso to take part in a protest and encampment to connect with the region's nature.Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPostWe drove another five minutes before reaching the ridge above where the workers were taking rock samples. “See what they do?” Dias sneered.The whole affair felt pretty benign. The workers made noise and cast up dust from machinery, but the operation was confined to a small area. The activists leered from the ridgetop above the work site, but did not approach or confront the crew. There seemed to be an understanding: If opponents blocked the road, the workers wouldn’t push through. But if the prospectors got started before advocates could obstruct their vehicles, no one would try to physically stop them. Fernandes planned a show of force for the next day, which she organized in a private WhatsApp chat of local activists. She would lead a march of villagers to where Savannah had been taking samples that night, and prevent any more drilling — a demonstration of solidarity ahead of a town meeting where Fernandes hoped her neighbors would vote to pursue legal action against Savannah. But first, she would make an discomfiting discovery: Her movement had a mole.‘Come Quick. The Police Are Everywhere.’My phone rang as I was finishing breakfast the next morning, about an hour before Fernandes’ march was scheduled to begin.“Come quick. Please,” Fernandes said. “The police are everywhere.”I drove fast down the twisting roads to Covas do Barroso. Two police SUVs blocked the road at the entrance to the village, but officers eventually got out of the way to let me pass.About two dozen protesters were gathered at the defunct schoolhouse in the center of the village. We drove to the start of the dirt road going through the common lands, got out, and hiked the rest of the way to where the workers had been the night before. There were no prospectors. But the police were circling the roads.The crowd stood in the mud. Some eyed the surrounding ridges with binoculars, trying to spot miners. None appeared. Two Rainbow Gathering members began arguing in English over the ethics of smoking tobacco. A third rolled a cigarette by hand. “I wonder if someone could explain why we’re here,” said a man wearing a wool poncho and carrying a large skin drum. “My brother says it’s to meet the land.” Fernandes broke in and began giving a speech describing why her cohort believed a lithium mine would ruin this ancient farming community. She explained that Savannah had won a preliminary permit last May and could receive final approvals by next spring.A national police vehicle drives past Aida Fernandes' farm on patrol. The police presence has increased as opposition to mining has become more visible.Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPost“We’re here to demonstrate that we have no fear, and to alert people to what’s going on,” she said.Another Rainbow Gathering member asked if the lithium was going to Big Pharma. Riquito expounded on how electric cars were driving up demand for the metal, and that digging all that out of the ground here would destroy the local environment, without even adding that much to the global supply. The poncho’d drummer asked if it was OK to read a message he was carrying from a tribe in Colombia. He read out the famous 1990 statement from the Kogi people to the world, warning humanity of nature’s wrath should industrial development continue apace.Fernandes left the gathering early to complete some farm work. Her mind was elsewhere. “Someone alerted the police,” she said. “Someone in the group.”The police later told me it received a tip about a planned demonstration, and sent reinforcements to maintain “public order and tranquility.” But the National Republican Guard, as the country’s police force is known, acknowledged it had expanded patrols in Covas do Barroso generally as protests picked up over the past year. “The increase in police presence in the village... can be justified by the presence of a climate of tension among the population, who in general were opposed to the entry of the lithium exploration company into the vacant land in the region, a situation which generated a lot of media attention nationally and internationally,” said Ana Isabel Morais, a spokesperson for Portugal’s National Republican Guard.That night, Fernandes led a town meeting at the village hall. This was what the protest was setting the stage for, a show of force to fellow villagers that momentum was building against the mine. It seemed to work. The majority in attendance voted in favor of opposing the mine, and considered additional litigation to stop it. The vote didn’t translate into any specific legal action, making it mostly symbolic. But when Fernandes came home to find her husband, her daughter and her daughter-in-law sharing cheese, bread and wine by the fire, she was glowing with pride.From that point on, she said, the village has kept at least one guard at the worksite where the prospectors had been that Friday in November, preventing the company from collecting its equipment or continuing its sampling at that location. The Other SideNot everyone was pleased.Lucillia Mó, 60, was among nearly four dozen people in the village who Savannah says have sold the company a cumulative 100 plots as of last month. She couldn’t recall exactly how much land, or how much money she earned — it was a small parcel far from the village itself — but she said it was a “fair price.”A protest sign opposing the lithium mine in Boticas, Portugal, reads "Lives yes! Mines no!"Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPostShe has lived in Covas do Barroso her entire life, and can remember what it used to be like here. The schools were filled with kids. “A lot of people leave this area because there aren’t enough jobs,” Mó said. Her brother, she added, “already said if it goes ahead, he’d like to work in the mine.”She brushed off concerns about water pollution and trucks, saying she was more concerned about the social isolation she’d felt after not joining the resistance movement. “They stopped speaking to me,” Mó said. “I’m free to have my own opinion, and I have the right to decide to sell whatever land my parents left me if I need the money, so there’s no need for them to punish me.”Fernandes said she had no issue with Mó’s decision to sell her land. The problem, she said, was that Mó’s land deal initially included part of the baldio she had no legal right to sell.“We’re not against the people who sell,” Fernandes said. “We’re against the people who try to steal the baldio land.” If anyone should be mad, Mó said, it’s villagers like her who never invited all these newcomers into Covas do Barroso.“There are groups of people who come in. We don’t know who they are or what they do. It’s not that we’re against new people coming. But they were naked,” she said, referring to activists like the Rainbow Gathering group who bathed outside.“A few months ago, I found two of them in one of my fields picking my chestnuts,” she added. “I asked them, ‘Who sent you here?’ And they couldn’t respond because they don’t speak Portuguese. I don’t like that.” It’s unclear how many other villagers shared her sentiment. No patron at a crowded village bar and café one afternoon wanted to talk about the mine to an American journalist speaking through a translator, and the vote at the town meeting seemed to indicate widespread opposition. “She is a very special person,” Fernandes said sarcastically of Mó. The BBC, Reuters and Euronews had sent reporters to the remote village, and each came back with a similar David-vs.-Goliath narrative about resistance to the mine. A new documentary starring Fernandes premiered last week in France at the Cannes Film Festival. I reached out to Savannah over a month before I was scheduled to visit Portugal, and the company, through an outside publicity firm, ultimately declined to meet with me during my visit.I contacted the company again months later, asking if they would introduce me to some villagers who sold the firm their land. After weeks of going back and forth, Savannah arranged phone calls with two.Cows graze at Aida Fernandes' farm in Covas do Barroso, Portugal.Alexander C. Kaufman/HuffPostMaciel Alves sold Savannah 7 acres for 150,000 euros. A granite quarryman by trade, he said he understands the risks of lithium mining and believes the opposition is exaggerating the potential tradeoffs.“The real risks are if it doesn’t go ahead,” Alves, 43, said by phone in March. “Things will stay the same and nothing will change. Our region will keep getting more and more abandoned.”The mine, he said, would bring royalty payments and money.“Everybody works for money, and it comes in handy,” he said.That’s particularly true as the seasons and land he once counted on become less reliable. Alves remembered the blaze that nearly turned the village to ash. “The wildfire took everything in Covas,” he said. “The land all burned down. The trees all burned down. My parent’s land, it all got affected.”The flames couldn’t lick the cash in his checking account, he said. On my final night in Boticas, after sharing dinner with Antunes, I drove back to the neighboring village where I was staying. The inky blackness of night was overpowering. In New York City, I rarely see that much darkness. I pulled onto the side of the road, parked the car, turned the lights off and got out. The cloudless sky was splattered with stars. I wondered how many generations of gazers had taken in this same view at this exact location. Finally craning my neck downward, I saw a blink of red light. Then another. Another. Along the horizon, on a distant ridgeline, a row of red lights flickering on and off. Wind turbines.A week later, the Spanish government finalized its plans to shut down the Iberian Peninsula’s last nuclear reactors in the next few years, leaving Portugal, which shares a power grid with its neighbor, with little choice but to build a lot more batteries if the lights are going to stay on when the wind dies down and the sky turns dark. If the speed of deliberate change didn’t hasten, nature would set the pace. That would mean more wildfires, more “smokenados,” and more drought, like the latest one parching Iberia. With lithium demand soaring year over year in the U.S., China and Europe, how long could this region really keep mining at bay?

As New York’s offshore wind work begins, an environmental justice community awaits the benefits

A labor agreement guarantees jobs for unions, but making sure Sunset Park residents are included remains a challenge.

On a pair of aging piers jutting into New York Harbor, contractors in hard hats and neon yellow safety vests have begun work on one of the region’s most anticipated industrial projects. Within a few years, this expanse of broken blacktop should be replaced by a smooth surface and covered with neat stacks of giant wind turbine blades and towers ready for assembly. The site will be home to one of the nation’s first ports dedicated to supporting the growing offshore wind industry. It is the culmination of years of work by an unlikely alliance including community advocates, unions, oil companies, and politicians, which hope the operations can help New York meet its climate goals while creating thousands of high-quality jobs and helping improve conditions in Sunset Park, a polluted neighborhood that is 40 percent Hispanic. With construction finally underway, it seems that some of those hopes are coming true. Last month, Equinor, the Norwegian oil company that is building the port, signed an agreement with New York labor unions covering wages and conditions for what should be more than 1,000 construction jobs. The Biden administration has been promoting offshore wind development as a key piece of its climate agenda, with a goal of reaching 30,000 megawatts of capacity by 2030, enough to power more than 10 million homes, according to the White House. New York has positioned itself as a leader, setting its own goal of 9,000 megawatts installed by 2035. Inside Climate News Officials at the state and federal levels have seized on the industry as a chance to create a new industrial supply chain and thousands of blue-collar, high-paying jobs. In 2021, New York lawmakers required all large renewable energy projects to pay workers prevailing wages and to meet other labor standards. The Biden administration has included similar requirements in some leases for offshore wind in federal waters to encourage developers to hire union labor. While the last year has brought a series of setbacks to the offshore wind industry, including the cancellation of several projects off New Jersey and New York that faced rising interest rates and supply chain problems, many of the pieces for offshore wind are falling into place. New York’s first utility-scale project began delivering power in March, while two much larger efforts, including one that Equinor will build out of the new port, are moving toward construction. Together, they will bring the state about 20 percent of the way to its 2035 target. Community leaders in Sunset Park have cheered these wins, but they say it remains unclear how many of these jobs will actually go to residents of the neighborhood, a working-class community where the port is being built. It was the promise of green industrial jobs that brought community activists together with Equinor and political leaders to rally behind a proposal to redevelop the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. Now, as work proceeds, the effort helps highlight how difficult and complicated it can be to pair the transition to green energy and job creation with environmental justice concerns, even when all the players pledge support to that goal. “It’s a thing that often falls off the table,” said Alexa Avilés, who represents Sunset Park on the New York City Council, about the priorities of communities. She worries that efforts to hire locally might bring workers from other parts of New York City or state, “and then we, the local community, never see any direct benefit. We see all the workers coming in and our folks are unemployed.” ‘We want good pay’ On a gray day in March, about 100 union members and government and corporate officials gathered in a glass-walled meeting room overlooking Queens, in a training center run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They were there to celebrate the signing of a project labor agreement between Equinor and local unions, versions of which will be required for similar projects up and down the East Coast. Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, said it was the culmination of years of work, including the hard-fought passage of an infrastructure law and then the Inflation Reduction Act, which ushered in renewable energy tax credits and financing, much of which is pegged to labor standards. “New York can be the center of offshore wind in the whole country,” Schumer said. “But I said, ‘I’m not doing this unless labor is included and labor is protected.’ We don’t want to see low-wage jobs with no pensions and no health benefits build this stuff. We want good pay. We want good benefits. We want good health care.” Senator Charles Schumer speaks to union members and government and corporate officials before the signing of a project labor agreement between Equinor and local unions. Equinor The transition away from fossil fuels has brought uncertainty to workers in the energy sector. While the number of jobs in the renewable energy industry has been growing, wind and solar generation have lower unionization rates than coal or natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Many people have expressed fears that building electric vehicles will require fewer workers than conventional cars, though there may be little data to support that concern.  For labor leaders and many Democrats, offshore wind has been the counter to these fears. A report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that a domestic offshore wind industry in line with the Biden administration’s goals could create as many as 49,000 jobs, and New York and other states have been enacting legislation aimed at encouraging the industry to create as many jobs as possible with high labor standards. More than 400 miles up the coast, Kimberly Tobias successfully lobbied the state legislature in Maine, where she is completing an apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to require some of the same standards that New York had adopted in 2021. Tobias grew up about 15 miles from the town of Searsport, which Governor Janet Mills recently selected as the site for Maine’s first offshore wind port. Tobias said the development will provide steady work that has been elusive in the renewable energy sector.  “This is my 21st solar field in three years,” Tobias said, speaking via Zoom from a solar development where she was taking a break from installing panels. “The promise of being able to go to the same place for a project that’s projected to be five years, that’s a huge deal.” Tobias said she hopes the offshore wind industry can help replace the jobs that Maine has lost from the decline of other industries like paper mills.  Read Next A year in, New York’s pioneering public power law makes uneven progress Akielly Hu In the opposite direction, workers have already leveled the ground for a large wind port in Salem County, New Jersey, that will have room not only for staging assembly of turbines but also for manufacturing their parts. At the signing in Queens, Schumer said, “We always thought there ought to be three legs to the stool: environment, labor, and helping poor communities that didn’t have much of a chance. And South Brooklyn Marine Terminal really met all three of the legs of the stool.” But a more nuanced picture emerged the following week at a community board meeting in Sunset Park. There, several dozen people packed into a less glamorous room on the ground floor of a public library to hear a presentation by Equinor and its contractors about the project. Placards lining the walls advertised the benefits the project will provide the neighborhood and the state, and speakers pledged to create more than 1,000 jobs and to keep open communications with the community. They would minimize truck traffic, they said, by coordinating deliveries and bringing in supplies by rail or barge when possible. A major elevated highway bisects Sunset Park, and two polluting “peaker” power plants line the waterfront, firing up on hot summer days when power demand soars. A rendering of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal offshore wind hub in Sunset Park. Equinor They spoke about a learning center the company would build and about $5 million in grants that Equinor had given to city organizations, including funding workforce training and programming at a rooftop vegetable farm in Sunset Park. But when it came time for questions, several community leaders echoed different versions of the same query: How many jobs will go to local residents? A confounding answer emerged. A spokesperson for Skanska, the construction firm that was hired to build the port, said they were encouraging neighborhood residents to apply but that they need to hire through the unions. He said some small portion of jobs could be nonunion, particularly those that would come as part of a commitment to hire businesses owned by minorities and women. The union requirements, then, might actually get in the way of hiring residents of Sunset Park. A couple of days before the community meeting, Elizabeth Yeampierre voiced these same concerns in an interview in her Sunset Park office, where she is executive director of UPROSE, an environmental justice advocacy group that supported bringing the wind port to the neighborhood. “There’s entire categories of people that we’re concerned about,” Yeampierre said. “We’re concerned about people who don’t speak English, people who are undocumented, people who are coming out of the prison system, mothers, single mothers with children — how are we going to make sure that those people are brought in?” Read Next In Chicago, one neighborhood is fighting gentrification and climate change at the same time Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco Yeampierre remains supportive and excited about the wind port and what it can bring to the community. For years, UPROSE has fought to bring green industry to Sunset Park to help clean up the community and provide working class jobs that pay better than retail and other sectors. UPROSE received one of the community grants from Equinor to fund a “just transition training center” that will help connect people in the neighborhood with training programs in different green industries. But Yeampierre said the city’s building trade unions also need to make an effort to expand their ranks. “The truth is that if you want to hire people locally, and you want to make sure that historically marginalized communities get first dibs,” Yeampierre said, “then you need to create avenues for them to be able to go into these industries, and into this work. I don’t see that happening.” Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, a coalition of 300 unions, said his members were working with city agencies and officials to encourage local hiring in offshore wind. Many of those hires, he said, could be for administrative positions, security, and warehouse jobs at the Brooklyn port, positions that will be less specialized than in construction. An Equinor spokesperson said the project labor agreement signed with the unions includes a “local hire requirement that gives priority to union members who live in Sunset Park,” but did not say how many people that might apply to. Representatives of Equinor and Skanska have said that in addition to direct jobs, additional money will flow to the neighborhood in the form of indirect jobs, feeding the new workers, for example, or providing other supplies. Avilés, the city councilmember, said she and other community leaders continue to support the unions. “We will always fight for a unionized workforce, because we know how important union work is for strong working class communities. But we also know we have people that are going to be outside of that, who also need dignified work.” Now, Avilés said, she and other community leaders will continue to press Equinor, the unions and city agencies to make sure as many jobs go to Sunset Park as possible. “It’s annoying that the work is here upon us, and we’re still kind of asking the same questions” about what benefits will flow to the community, “but I don’t think that closes the opportunity.” Work on the port is expected to last three years. And if the offshore wind industry expands as state leaders hope, there will be years of construction of new projects beyond that. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As New York’s offshore wind work begins, an environmental justice community awaits the benefits on May 25, 2024.

‘Close to a police state’: campaign groups condemn UK report into protests

Report calls for curb on many activities and recommends making protest organisers pay towards policingProtest groups have condemned a long-awaited report on their activity that recommends a review of undercover surveillance of activists and making protest organisers pay towards policing.The 292-page report by John Woodcock, now Lord Walney, entitled Protecting Democracy from Coercion, calls for a curb on many activities, including a blanket ban on face coverings at protests and making it easier for businesses to claim damages from protesters who cause disruption. Continue reading...

Protest groups have condemned a long-awaited report on their activity that recommends a review of undercover surveillance of activists and making protest organisers pay towards policing.The 292-page report by John Woodcock, now Lord Walney, entitled Protecting Democracy from Coercion, calls for a curb on many activities, including a blanket ban on face coverings at protests and making it easier for businesses to claim damages from protesters who cause disruption.Questions remain over whether the report’s 41 recommendations will ever reach the statute books after both government and Labour sources declined to commit to any of its findings.Human rights organisations and environmental groups said the recommendations – which include a review of whether undercover surveillance is being used to police public order – will weaken democracy.Areeba Hamid, the co-director of Greenpeace, issued a warning about the implications of Woodcock’s proposals. “Applying the review’s recommendations would be a sure-fire way to weaken British democracy and bring us as close to becoming a police state as we’ve ever been,” she said.Shami Chakrabarti, the human rights lawyer and author, said: “There is nothing new or enlightened or helpful in the project of bringing people together in polarised times.”The much-previewed report’s findings also call for: Protest buffer zones around MPs’ constituency offices and local council chambers A change in the law to allow the police to consider the cumulative effect of protests on antisemitic hate crime levels The intimidation of candidates and campaigners to be specifically criminalised before the next election The lord chancellor and lord chief justice to review whether juries and judges are more lenient on protesters who support “progressive” causes such as fighting climate change and anti-racism The government to boost physical protection for private defence companies against protesters The intelligence services and relevant government departments to be given more resources to identify disinformation online and to work with technology companies to have it removed.The report stopped short of naming any specific organisation that should be banned, as the Guardian disclosed on Monday.But groups criticised within the body of the report said that Woodcock had abused parliamentary privilege by publishing it as a “motion for unopposed return”, ensuring that activists could not sue over its findings.The communities secretary, Michael Gove, hailed the proposals on Tuesday. Speaking in north London, he said the report was “brilliant” and that its recommendations were “far reaching and compelling”.Huda Ammori, of Palestine Action, an anti-arms trade group discussed extensively in the report, and who was named personally, accused Woodcock of “going on a defamation rampage, and using parliamentary privilege to cover it”.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionThe report showed Woodcock consulted with Elbit, an Israeli arms company whose UK operations have been subject to repeated direct action protests by Palestine Action. But some protesters named within the report said they were given no right of reply.Just Stop Oil, the climate campaign group, which Woodcock also mentioned at length, pointed to Woodcock’s work as a paid lobbyist for fossil fuel companies. “Just Stop Oil does not recognise the legitimacy of this report,” the body said.Woodcock told the Guardian he had maintained an objective standard and sought a wide range of views while writing the report.In a blow to restrictions on demonstrators, the high court on Tuesday ruled that the former home secretary Suella Braverman acted unlawfully in making it easier for the police to criminalise peaceful protests.She was found to have acted outside her powers and to have failed to consult properly over regulations that would be likely to increase prosecutions of protesters by a third.Hundreds of protesters have been arrested since the government redefined the type of protest that could be restricted by the police, allowing it where there is merely a “more than minor” hindrance to people’s daily lives.Those prosecuted included the climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was acquitted of all charges in a hearing in February.James Cleverly, the home secretary, said he would consider Woodcock’s recommendations.He said: “The right to protest is a vital part of democracy, but there is absolutely no place for criminality or harassment on our streets. Too often, we have seen vile displays of hate crime and aggressive tactics used by so-called protesters.“Lord Walney’s report raises important questions on the cumulative impact of disruptive and extremist activity on our communities. I thank Lord Walney and his team for this extensive and compelling report.”

Tracing Darwin’s Footsteps in a Changing Galapagos World

Like Charles Darwin did in 1831, a group of scientists and environmentalists last year set sail from the English port of Plymouth, headed for the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador. But what they found on their arrival last month differed vastly from what naturalist Darwin saw while visiting the archipelago in 1835, in […] The post Tracing Darwin’s Footsteps in a Changing Galapagos World appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

Like Charles Darwin did in 1831, a group of scientists and environmentalists last year set sail from the English port of Plymouth, headed for the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador. But what they found on their arrival last month differed vastly from what naturalist Darwin saw while visiting the archipelago in 1835, in a trip key to developing his world-changing theory on natural selection. The Galapagos today is under protection, part of a marine reserve and classified a World Heritage Site. Yet the area faces more threats than ever, from pollution and illegal fishing to climate change. There to observe the challenges, with a well-thumbed copy of her great-great-grandfather’s “On the Origin of Species” in hand, was botanist Sarah Darwin. “I think probably the main difference is that, you know, there are people working now to protect the islands,” said the 60-year-old, onboard the “Oosterschelde,” a refurbished, three-mast schooner built more than 100 years ago. The ship has been on a scientific and awareness-raising expedition since last August, stopping so far in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Brazil and Chile among other locales. Darwin’s heirs In colonial times, the islands — located in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions — served as a pit stop for pirates who caught and ate the giant turtles that call it home. During World War II, the archipelago hosted a US military base. “I think if (Darwin) were able to come back now and see the efforts that everybody is making, both locally and globally, to protect these extraordinary islands and that biodiversity — I think he’d be really, really excited and impressed,” the naturalist’s descendant told AFP. Sarah Darwin first visited the Galapagos in 1995, where she illustrated a guide to endemic plants. She then devoted herself to studying native tomatoes.  She also mentors young people as part of a project to create a group of 200 Darwin “heirs” to raise the alarm about environmental and climate threats to the planet. Calling at several ports on the journey from Plymouth to the Galapagos, the Oosterschelde took on new groups of young scientists and activists at every stop and dropped off others. One of them, Indian-born Laya Pothunuri, who joined the mission from Singapore, said the Galapagos “has a very important place in scientific terms.” She was there, she said, to improve the irrigation systems in the islands’ coffee-growing regions. “I plan to do it using recycled plastic, which also, again, is a big problem over here,” she said, noting that plastic waste ends up being consumed by wildlife. Plastic peril In the Galapagos, the expedition members worked with researchers from the private Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), the Charles Darwin Foundation and the NGO Conservation International on both confronting invasive species and protecting endemic ones. Last year, a study by the Charles Darwin Foundation found that giant turtles in the area were ingesting harmful materials due to human pollution. Samples revealed that nearly 90 percent of the waste consumed was plastic, eight percent was fabric and the rest metal, paper, cardboard, construction materials and glass. From Galapagos, the Oosterschelde set sail again on Sunday to continue its world tour, with stops expected in Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The post Tracing Darwin’s Footsteps in a Changing Galapagos World appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Environmental justice advocates gathered last week to celebrate progress and chart a path to the future while focusing on healing, self care and mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the Environmental Justice Summit highlighted the need for self-care and connection among researchers and advocates working to advance justice. Exposure to pollution and anxiety about climate change can negatively impact mental health and people who work to right injustices face the risk of compassion fatigue and burnout. “Advancing justice is emotionally difficult work,” Dani Wilson, executive director of the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which coordinated the event alongside the University of Pittsburgh, told EHN. “Taking care of ourselves and each other is critical to fostering moments of joy and connection that help us stay in the movement.” Over three days, attendees strategized about how to advance environmental justice in the greater Pittsburgh region and how to foster resilience with tools like meditation, storytelling, community-building, yoga, crafting and cooking. The event also highlighted the importance of humor, connection and optimism. “This is a social movement,” said Jamil Bey, founder of the nonprofit think tank UrbanKind Institute and newly-appointed director of the Department of City Planning for Pittsburgh. “That means that as part of this work, we’ve gotta have fun with our friends. We’ve gotta stay connected and be able to laugh.” On Friday, Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist, professor and director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the University of Maryland, set the tone for the day by declaring himself a “hardcore Steelers fan” and waving a Terrible Towel above his head while shouting “Go Steelers!” Wilson peppered an otherwise serious talk about the ravages of environmental racism and his work developing tools to combat it with football jokes, referencing recent quarterback drama (“two quarterbacks are better than one!”), emphasizing the importance of both offense and defense for communities burdened by pollution and quipping that if we want to score a touchdown, the community needs to work as a team. “Where you live can kill you,” Wilson said, noting that poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods in most places, including southwestern Pennsylvania, face higher levels of exposure to pollution that result in worse health outcomes and lowered life expectancy. These places are also more likely to experience the impacts of climate change and other disproportionate harms.“We need a holistic framework for environmental justice that also acknowledges the need for housing justice, economic justice, social justice, educational justice, reproductive justice and racial justice,” he said, “because these things are all connected. And you can’t get equity without justice… And on a separate note, we’re going to the Super Bowl this year, right?” Environmental justice victoriesOther speakers shared recent victories and progress. Professor Tiffany Gary-Webb, the associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, shared the results of her work with the Black Environmental Collective and the Black Equity Coalition. The group formed in April 2020 to ensure an equitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Pittsburgh and has evolved to continue advancing racial equity in western Pennsylvania. “We used data to try and understand where there were higher rates of COVID and sent those to the county and state health departments. We talked to elected officials and put out our own dashboard with the numbers for Black populations, and through those efforts we were able to get critical resources to our communities and see that data change,” Gary-Webb said, pointing to a study that summarized the group’s effectiveness. “Now we’re continuing that work with a focus on other issues in our communities.” Ash Chan, a farmer and steward at Oasis Farm and Fishery, shared their experience working at a Black-owned garden and market in Pittsburgh’s predominantly Black, working-class Homewood neighborhood, which has a long history of disinvestment and has been without a grocery store since 1994. The organization uses vacant land to grow food and offers classes in urban farming and healthy cooking. “We see food as a driver of social and economic capital, as well as a way that connects people to their cultural roots and their natural environment,” Chan said. “We’re growing what folks want. For example, last year we noticed that elders in the community would line up for okra before we even opened our farmer’s market …so this year we’re growing six different kinds of okra based on that demand.”Bearing witness to injusticeWhile the Summit highlighted progress and promoted resilience, it also emphasized “bearing witness” — a process described by event organizers as actively listening, not looking away, and most importantly, responding — to “the slow violence of environmental degradation on our land.” Participants were invited to attend a “bearing witness ceremony” in Clairton, a small town about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh that regularly sees some of the most polluted air in the country due to emissions from a coal-based U.S. Steel plant. “The injustices are very thick and very brutal in Clairton,” said Melanie Meade, a clean air activist and resident of Clairton. Meade shared the heartbreak she has experienced learning that Clairton’s rate of childhood asthma is more than double the national rate, watching many loved ones die of cancer and witnessing the impacts of poverty and violence. “The people are tired and they are sick and they are in great need, and we need to stand in the way for them.” Later in the day, Kayien Conner, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, told Melanie she’d been moved by her words and asked if she could connect her with an organization she’s involved with that offers mental health resources for Black communities to get additional resources to Clairton. “Yes, please, thank you!” Melanie said. “See? We’re here making connections, collaborating, getting this work done already!” Wilson shouted to applause and laughter.Political optimismSpeakers at the symposium also noted that western Pennsylvania is on the precipice of major political changes that offer many reasons for optimism for environmental advocates, pointing to the election of progressive politicians like Summer Lee and Lindsay Powell and county executive Sara Innamorato, all of whom have pledged to prioritize environmental justice. “We’re really shaking things up politically right now,” said Bey. “If we don’t do this now, then that’s on us. Now is the time. Let’s keep lifting each other up, let’s do our work and let’s get this done.”

PITTSBURGH — Environmental justice advocates gathered last week to celebrate progress and chart a path to the future while focusing on healing, self care and mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the Environmental Justice Summit highlighted the need for self-care and connection among researchers and advocates working to advance justice. Exposure to pollution and anxiety about climate change can negatively impact mental health and people who work to right injustices face the risk of compassion fatigue and burnout. “Advancing justice is emotionally difficult work,” Dani Wilson, executive director of the Cancer and Environment Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which coordinated the event alongside the University of Pittsburgh, told EHN. “Taking care of ourselves and each other is critical to fostering moments of joy and connection that help us stay in the movement.” Over three days, attendees strategized about how to advance environmental justice in the greater Pittsburgh region and how to foster resilience with tools like meditation, storytelling, community-building, yoga, crafting and cooking. The event also highlighted the importance of humor, connection and optimism. “This is a social movement,” said Jamil Bey, founder of the nonprofit think tank UrbanKind Institute and newly-appointed director of the Department of City Planning for Pittsburgh. “That means that as part of this work, we’ve gotta have fun with our friends. We’ve gotta stay connected and be able to laugh.” On Friday, Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist, professor and director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the University of Maryland, set the tone for the day by declaring himself a “hardcore Steelers fan” and waving a Terrible Towel above his head while shouting “Go Steelers!” Wilson peppered an otherwise serious talk about the ravages of environmental racism and his work developing tools to combat it with football jokes, referencing recent quarterback drama (“two quarterbacks are better than one!”), emphasizing the importance of both offense and defense for communities burdened by pollution and quipping that if we want to score a touchdown, the community needs to work as a team. “Where you live can kill you,” Wilson said, noting that poor, Black and Brown neighborhoods in most places, including southwestern Pennsylvania, face higher levels of exposure to pollution that result in worse health outcomes and lowered life expectancy. These places are also more likely to experience the impacts of climate change and other disproportionate harms.“We need a holistic framework for environmental justice that also acknowledges the need for housing justice, economic justice, social justice, educational justice, reproductive justice and racial justice,” he said, “because these things are all connected. And you can’t get equity without justice… And on a separate note, we’re going to the Super Bowl this year, right?” Environmental justice victoriesOther speakers shared recent victories and progress. Professor Tiffany Gary-Webb, the associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, shared the results of her work with the Black Environmental Collective and the Black Equity Coalition. The group formed in April 2020 to ensure an equitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Pittsburgh and has evolved to continue advancing racial equity in western Pennsylvania. “We used data to try and understand where there were higher rates of COVID and sent those to the county and state health departments. We talked to elected officials and put out our own dashboard with the numbers for Black populations, and through those efforts we were able to get critical resources to our communities and see that data change,” Gary-Webb said, pointing to a study that summarized the group’s effectiveness. “Now we’re continuing that work with a focus on other issues in our communities.” Ash Chan, a farmer and steward at Oasis Farm and Fishery, shared their experience working at a Black-owned garden and market in Pittsburgh’s predominantly Black, working-class Homewood neighborhood, which has a long history of disinvestment and has been without a grocery store since 1994. The organization uses vacant land to grow food and offers classes in urban farming and healthy cooking. “We see food as a driver of social and economic capital, as well as a way that connects people to their cultural roots and their natural environment,” Chan said. “We’re growing what folks want. For example, last year we noticed that elders in the community would line up for okra before we even opened our farmer’s market …so this year we’re growing six different kinds of okra based on that demand.”Bearing witness to injusticeWhile the Summit highlighted progress and promoted resilience, it also emphasized “bearing witness” — a process described by event organizers as actively listening, not looking away, and most importantly, responding — to “the slow violence of environmental degradation on our land.” Participants were invited to attend a “bearing witness ceremony” in Clairton, a small town about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh that regularly sees some of the most polluted air in the country due to emissions from a coal-based U.S. Steel plant. “The injustices are very thick and very brutal in Clairton,” said Melanie Meade, a clean air activist and resident of Clairton. Meade shared the heartbreak she has experienced learning that Clairton’s rate of childhood asthma is more than double the national rate, watching many loved ones die of cancer and witnessing the impacts of poverty and violence. “The people are tired and they are sick and they are in great need, and we need to stand in the way for them.” Later in the day, Kayien Conner, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, told Melanie she’d been moved by her words and asked if she could connect her with an organization she’s involved with that offers mental health resources for Black communities to get additional resources to Clairton. “Yes, please, thank you!” Melanie said. “See? We’re here making connections, collaborating, getting this work done already!” Wilson shouted to applause and laughter.Political optimismSpeakers at the symposium also noted that western Pennsylvania is on the precipice of major political changes that offer many reasons for optimism for environmental advocates, pointing to the election of progressive politicians like Summer Lee and Lindsay Powell and county executive Sara Innamorato, all of whom have pledged to prioritize environmental justice. “We’re really shaking things up politically right now,” said Bey. “If we don’t do this now, then that’s on us. Now is the time. Let’s keep lifting each other up, let’s do our work and let’s get this done.”

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