On Earth Day, Celebrating the Grassroots Activists Fighting for Climate Justice

On this Earth Day, a Shabbat, I am deeply focused on our Jewish obligation to repair the world and safeguard the earth and its inhabitants. As Genesis tells it, it took six days to create the complex majesty of the universe. Today, I fear that we are frighteningly close to undermining this majesty. But we have the power and responsibility to act, and we must and will.

That’s why, next week, I will join with supporters of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to march in Washington, D.C. with thousands of people who are concerned about the horrific effects of climate change and environmental degradation that cause millions of people to suffer around the globe and threaten life on Earth itself.

When we march, we will take each step in solidarity with the grassroots organizations that AJWS supports in the developing world that are combatting the devastating impact of climate change and seeking climate justice for their communities. Ironically, these communities have done the least to cause climate change but, tragically, they suffer disproportionately from its ravaging effects. Small-scale and subsistence farmers are losing the crops they need to survive because of prolonged droughts. Powerful and destructive storms are washing away homes and communities. People are migrating within Africa in response to famine caused by severe drought. And people in low-lying coastal regions are migrating inland to escape rising seas.

The activists whom AJWS supports are resisting the causes and consequences of climate change often at great risk to their safety. To mark this Earth Day, I am sharing three remarkable stories of activists in Burma, Mexico and Uganda who are on the frontlines of the fight for climate justice.

Women come together to resist a dam in Burma

Often touted as “clean energy,” dams actually emit high volumes of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In Kachin State in Northern Burma, a Chinese corporation has displaced thousands of people from their ancestral villages to make way for the construction of the Myitsone Dam. The proposed site for this megaproject, at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, is Burma’s most important water resource as well as a sacred site for the Kachin people. Though the future of the dam is still uncertain, the thousands of villagers who have been coerced into relocating are unable to return to their villages.

The thousands of people who have been displaced are not giving up the rights to their land quietly. The grassroots organization Mungchying Rawt Ja (MRJ), which AJWS supports, has been bringing local people together to challenge the confiscation of their land.

Ja Hkawn on the bank of the Irrawaddy River, near the proposed site of the Myitsone Dam. She is a leader with MRJ, and is one of the thousands who were coerced to leave their homes and into relocation sites constructed by the Chinese company planning the dam. Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik

Indigenous farmers fight for water rights in Mexico

As climate change prolongs and intensifies droughts, farmers are struggling to obtain enough water to grow the crops they need to survive. In Mexico’s Ocotlan Valley, indigenous farming families who have lived off the land for generations have begun to experience this struggle. In 2006, Mexico’s national water authority CONAGUA restricted indigenous communities’ water use and overcharged them for the very water it rationed. The crops withered because local communities couldn’t pay their sky-high water bills. At the very same time, CONAGUA provided ample water to nearby mines, industrial farms and hotels.

Local organization Centro de Derechos Indigenas Flor y Canto (Flower and Song Center for Indigenous Rights), which AJWS supports, helped local indigenous farmers advocate for their water rights — especially during times of water scarcity caused by climate change. In 2013, they sued CONAGUA and won, with the municipal tribunal ruling that the water commission must consult with the farmers and give them a say in how water resources are allocated. This landmark legal victory upheld the water rights of 2.1 million indigenous people.

Emiliano Sanchez Contreras and his wife, Irene Martinez Gonzalez, wash freshly harvested onions in a wheelbarrow beside their field. They allow the water from washing to run off the wheelbarrow and into the field for irrigation in an effort to conserve water. Emiliano has had to dig his well deeper and deeper in recent years. Photo by Evan Abramson

Land rights and livelihoods for women farmers in Uganda

In Uganda’s oil-rich Albertine region, the endless search for climate-changing fossil fuels has investors buying, developing and drilling for oil on land that has been lived on and farmed by communities for centuries. Ugandan law protests customary land rights and calls for compensation for those affected by development, but these laws are rarely enforced. Women are even more vulnerable to land grabs and less likely to receive financial compensation since, traditionally, family land is in the husband’s name.

I am proud that AJWS supports Kwataniza Women Farmer’s Group (KWG), a grassroots organization that is challenging the sexism in Uganda’s land customs. KWG has pushed the government to recognize female landowners and compensate them fairly when fossil fuel exploration and extraction has destroyed their land and livelihoods. KWG is also providing women with the skills they need to farm sustainably and raise livestock.

Here I am standing with Beatrice Rukanyanga, Coordinator of Kwataniza Women Farmer’s Group (KWG), whom I visited earlier this year to learn more about KWG’s efforts to support women’s land rights in rural Uganda. Photo by Christine Han

Climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time, and that is why when I think about grassroots organizations like MRJ, Flor y Canto and KWG, I feel hopeful about the future. When we join with grassroots groups working as stewards of their natural resources, I know we can build a better world together.

We must take up our responsibility to build the world that we wish to live in — one that rests first and foremost on the existence of a healthy planet.