Environmental justice at work: From New Jersey water to Indonesian air


Collective action in three of our news briefs netted a city cleaner water, small-holder farmers more control, and citizens stronger legal rights to challenge corporate wrongdoing.

1. United States

Newark, New Jersey, has replaced nearly all city water pipes made of lead. Since 2019, utility workers have swapped out some 23,000 lead service lines. Congress banned the use of lead water pipes in 1986, but an estimated 6 million to 10 million lines remain active throughout the country. Lead exposure has been linked to serious health risks for adults and developmental issues in children, and disproportionately affects Black and low-income families. Newark leaders were initially reluctant to acknowledge the crisis, but community outcry and warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency pushed officials to act.

Why We Wrote This

In our progress roundup, citizen activism carries risks, as some Indonesian villagers found when they were jailed for speaking up. But it also yields rewards, and just a few voices can make a big impact.

Armed with financial support from the state and county, a temporary workforce trained specifically for this project, and a new local ordinance that allowed the city to replace pipes without landowner consent, Newark has tackled what it planned as an eight-year project in less than half that time. At the project’s height, labor crews were replacing 125 lines a day, and are set to finish the project this fall. Water tests conducted in 2020 found the city was back under 15 micrograms of lead per liter, in compliance with EPA standards. (Read more about water and justice in the U.S. in this Monitor story.)
The New York Times, The Guardian, EPA

2. Paraguay

The resurgence of yerba maté herbal tea is helping to bring economic independence to small-scale farmers in Paraguay. For centuries, the tough green yerba maté leaves and herbal infusions brewed from them have been a major part of the country’s culture and economy. But when Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the industry became dominated by violent exploitation. Locals say the effects of that exploitation are still felt today in the government’s support for industrial agriculture, to the detriment of rural and Indigenous communities. The Oñoirũ Association of Agroecological Agriculture, a cohort of 134 small farming families, is working to change that dynamic. General Manager Pedro Vega says the democratically run group is “looking to create a fairer model of society using our natural resources, so that our young people can stay in their communities and have decent living and work conditions.”

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters/File
Brewed yerba maté, native to South America, is served in a bottle gourd or gourd-shaped cup, with a straw that has an attached strainer.

Since launching in 2015 with NGO support, the group has been able to pay farming members more than the industrial buyers, create 20 jobs, and increase harvests by more than 250% as sales and membership grow. Its model prioritizes sustainable farming techniques and gender equality, with Oñoirũ bringing women into decision-making positions, educating communities on gender issues, and allowing women to develop and commercialize their own products.
The Guardian

3. United Kingdom

A new survey shows Scotland’s wild beaver population has more than doubled in the past three years. The Eurasian beaver has been extinct in the country since the 1500s, largely due to hunting for its meat, fur, and castoreum, a vanilla-scented secretion. Since 2009, formal and informal reintroduction initiatives – some controversial – have sought to restore the species. Environmental agency NatureScot found that beaver numbers in Scotland have surged to 1,000, up from an estimated 433 in 2017. The beavers also established 251 territories across the southern Highlands – a 120% increase since the last survey – colonizing rivers and lochs from Stirling to Glen Isla, just south of the Cairngorms National Park. The beavers play an important role in creating and maintaining wetlands, and are boosting nature tourism.

Beavers that destroy farmland or infrastructure can be removed under license either by trapping and relocating the beaver to a different nature site or, more commonly, through extermination. The NatureScot survey announced that 115 beavers were killed in 2020 under license, which some conservationists say is evidence that the group failed to prioritize humane forms of population control. NatureScot and the National Farmers Union say the policy allows for culling as a last resort.
BBC, The Guardian, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

4. Tanzania

Women in Zanzibar are learning to farm natural sponges, a shift that safeguards their income and the environment. As climate change disrupts seaweed production and overfishing depletes fish populations, Tanzanian women who rely on the sea will need to diversify. Sea sponges – simple organisms that resemble porous rock – are more resilient to changing temperatures, require little maintenance, and can be sold to tourists and local hotels as a green alternative to synthetic sponges.

Nicky Woo/Reuters/File
Low tide in Jambiani village, Zanzibar, is a time for working in the seaweed farms, which women have done since the 1990s. Some are turning to a more resilient crop – sponges.

Nasir Hassan Haji, a single mother who, like many women on the island, was once a seaweed farmer, found out about marinecultures.org from a friend. The small Swiss charity is training women to swim and cultivate sea sponges, primarily in the fishing village of Jambiani. Ms. Haji is one of 13 women currently farming with the group, and more are trained each year. “I learned to swim and to farm sponges so I could be free and not depend on any man,” Ms. Haji said. “I am building my own house and educating my children. Women were left behind before, but now that is changing.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation, Marinecultures.org

5. Indonesia

The acquittal of six Bangka Island villagers is a precedent-setting first against frivolous litigation intended to silence environmental defenders, also known as SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation). Residents have been fighting the PT Bangka Asindo Agri (BAA) tapioca company since 2017 over the factory’s pungent waste. In May 2020, a group of neighborhood unit heads began preparing a class-action lawsuit against the company. When the community planned a meeting to discuss the lawsuit, a neighbor reported the six organizers – who were no longer serving as neighborhood chiefs – to authorities for impersonating officials. The villagers believe BAA was behind the report, but the company denies involvement.

They spent more than three weeks in detention after a district court found the villagers guilty. But in August the province’s high court said the gathering was protected under an anti-SLAPP measure in the 2009 environmental protection law, affirming residents’ rights to campaign. Advocates celebrated the decision, but said a better backstop is needed in the form of a discrete anti-SLAPP law. “This is also an important moment for investigators to coordinate with ministers, the Attorney General’s Office and the police,” said Raynaldo Sembiring, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law. “These institutions can build communication and stop [SLAPP] cases as early as possible.”

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