MAUNAKEA & THE FIGHT TO PROTECT SACRED LAND

Image of Mauna Kea protectors blocking the road
TMT blockade on Mauna Kea. Source: Occupy Hilo, Creative Commons/Flickr

A $1.4bn observatory called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is slated to be built on Maunakea, a mountain on Hawaii’s Big Island, this year. This telescope would be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere and would provide images more than 10x sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing astronomers to explore even deeper into space. Yet, while the construction of a new telescope on a tall mountain might seem like a neutral endeavor, it is rife with issues of justice.

The construction of TMT was initially stopped in 2015 when Native Hawaiians and allies blocked the road to construction crews for months until the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court officially stopped construction that December. Then in 2019, developers were given the go-ahead to once again begin construction. In response, protesters (or as they prefer to be called protectors) turned out to block the road, with the protest coming to a head in July, when 38 kūpuna (revered elders) were arrested and Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, signed an emergency proclamation giving law enforcement more control over the area and allowed them to bring in National Guard troops. However, the protectors did not back down and have been camped at the road ever since.

In December, protectors at the Mauna Kea Access Road removed barricades and shifted their camps to the side of the road for the first time, opening the access road to all traffic except construction equipment as part of a deal with Mayor Kim. In return, the Mayor promised, “that no attempt will be made to move TMT construction equipment up the mountain for a minimum of two months.” Protectors hope this time can be used to influence decisionmaking in other arenas. While this update does look promising, in January the trial for the first group of protectors arrested began and has so far highlighted the opposing viewpoints of this protest. According to Deputy Attorney General Darrell Wong “These defendants may have characterized their actions as kapu aloha and peaceful, but nonetheless it involved a plan, an organized plan, something that was calculated and basically something that was unjustified.” Yet the protectors and their attorney view their actions as a response to the government blocking the activists from practicing their religion and culture, which is protected under the law.

Sacred Land

Picture of Mauna Kea in Hawaii
Mauna Kea Hawaii. Source: Eric Tessmer, Creative Commons/Flickr

The protectors are not anti-science, as some TMT supporters have claimed. They are not opposed to the scientific advancements brought by such a telescope but they are opposed to its chosen location. Maunakea is a sacred mountain that is said to connect native Hawaiians to the cosmos. According to the Maunakea Visitor Information Station, the mountain is the dwelling place of the goddess Poli’ahu, it is associated with the Hawaiian deities Lilinoe and Waiau, and the summit is considered the realm of the gods.

The construction of TMT would negatively impact the sacred land and the telescope would increase activities on the mountain, further degrading the environment. The mountain top is already home to 13 other telescopes and since multiple alternative sites were found by the board of directors behind TMT to be “excellent for carrying out the core science” of the observatory, it at first seems off that TMT supporters seem so committed to this location. However, if we take a step back to look at the issue it is easy to see the link between this current protest and the history of ill-treatment to native Hawaiians and the continued desecration of their native lands.

A Brief History of US Interference in Hawaii

The history of Hawaii was absent from all of my education. It had always been just the 50th state and an island vacation spot until I lived in American Samoa and decided to learn more about the history of US intervention in Polynesia. It was then that I learned about the fraught history of Hawaii, a history that I honestly should have known and could have at least guessed at if I had taken a moment to. Just as North America was colonized, so too was Hawaii and many continue to consider the island to be occupied by the US.

In 1887, King David Kalakaua was forced, at gunpoint, to sign a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii, which stripped the monarch of the majority of his authority. The new constitution had been written by a group of white businessmen, many of whom were connected to the sugar and pineapple plantations on the island, who wanted the Kingdom to become part of the US. When the King died, his sister Lili’uokalani succeeded him and attempted to restore power to the monarchy. This action angered the same white businessmen and they formed a 13-member Committee of Safety which forced Queen Lili’uokalani to abdicate her throne. The Committee then proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Hawaii.

President Harrison signed a treaty of annexation with the Provisional Government, but before it could be ratified, President Cleveland was elected and the treaty was withdrawn. President Cleveland also appointed a special investigator to investigate the events in Hawaii, who found that there had been a coup. He then ordered Queen Lili’uokalani to be restored to power, but the Provisional Government refused and declared Hawaii a republic in 1894. Soon after the US government officially recognized it as a republic. In 1895, Native Hawaiians staged mass protests and eventually took up arms to stop the annexation, but the protest was suppressed and the leaders, along with Queen Lili’uokalani, were jailed. In 1898, Congress passed the “Newlands Resolution” officially annexing Hawaii and, in 1959, it became the 50th state.

For decades, the use of the Hawaiian language was punished, Native culture was suppressed and a large military presence was maintained on the islands. Many Native Hawaiians remember these US policies explicitly designed to suppress traditional Native Hawaiian religious and cultural practices, and while no longer explicit, native culture is still being infringed upon.

Religious Protections?

Theoretically, sacred land disputes should not exist because of existing protections of religion in the US. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right for people to practice their own religion, with the first clause providing that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion and the second prohibiting Congress from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion”. Since sacred lands are part of the “religious” practices of many Native Americans they should be protected. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the courts. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a group of Native Americans from the Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes objected to proposed road construction within the Six Rivers National Forest because it would destroy land that they held sacred. The district, appellate, and Supreme courts all agreed that the activity would indeed violate their religious needs, yet the Supreme Court ruled against them. The Court ruled that in this case, while the activity would adversely affect their religion and destroy the sacred location, the government was not prohibiting the practice of their religion and therefore construction could continue (Bowman, 1989).

The establishment clause of the First Amendment, prohibiting government endorsement of religions, has also proven detrimental to the fight for the protection of sacred lands. According to the Supreme Court ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman, government actions must be secular in nature, or at least neutral, and must avoid “excessive entanglement in religion”. In practice, this has resulted in the protection of sacred lands by the government being ruled unconstitutional. Based on this decision, courts found that the National Parks Service’s 1995 Final Climbing Management Plan (FCMP) for Devil’s Tower National Monument violated the establishment clause because it placed a mandatory ban on climbing during June out of respect for local tribal religious practices (Bonham, 2002). In response, the ban was changed to a voluntary one and the case was dismissed, however, some in the climbing community still oppose the ban in any form arguing that they have a right to climb the Tower. While this might appear at least as a partial win for the tribes, what it illustrates is that protecting native sacred land sites is considered a governmental endorsement of religion by the courts and would, therefore, violate the establishment clause.

In short, the courts have continuously failed to protect sacred lands and to adequately protect the practice of indigenous belief systems and cultural practices. A point to think about in light of this failure is that the US Constitution and legal system are not culturally neutral. It is rooted in European legal traditions and Christain morality and theology. Just as culture shapes how individuals see the world, it also shapes how the legal system sees the world and responds to disputes. The Anglo-American legal tradition is capable of recognizing the “sacred” when it takes the form of a church structure, a sermon or a piece of art; but a mountain, a lake, a river? These places are empty until people make their mark. Therefore these sacred land disputes are not merely conflicts between individual rights and government or corporate power but are conflicts between different cultures and different ways of seeing and experiencing the world.

Final Thoughts

In the case of Mauna Kea, the mountain is holy and an integral element of native Hawaiian religion and culture, a culture that the US systematically tried to wipe out. The land in and of itself is sacred and deeply connected to the people and that should be respected. While the building of a telescope may seem neutral, it is not. It is the destruction and desecration of the mountain and cannot be separated from the history of colonization and occupation of the island. In the end, no telescope is worth dehumanizing others. Mauna Kea shows that science does not happen in a vacuum. It must critically examine who is benefitting from the information and at what cost.

As Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the protest leaders, put it, “For Native Hawaiians, there is a question of our right to self-determination as defined by international law, but I think it’s so much bigger than that,” said Pisciotta. “It’s about us learning to live and be interdependent.”

Water Insecurity in the United States

Dirty water spilling our of a glass jug
Dirty water spilling out of a large glass carboy on its side. Source: Ildar Sagdejev, creative commons.

Access to clean water and sanitation is rarely something we have to worry about here in the United States; it comes out of faucets and water fountains at a seemingly endless supply. However, in many parts of the world—including some areas of the United States—access to clean water and sanitation is a major issue and can affect more than just people’s physical health.

In 2010, the UN recognized access to safe water and sanitation as a human right, and the issue was included among the UN’s sustainable development goals in 2015. With the UN’s focus on clean water access, many developing countries have started making efforts to increase access. However, many developed countries, like the United States, have neglected to develop their rural areas, which leaves a significant portion of their population without clean water for drinking and sanitation purposes. In fact, their situations can be similar to situations in developing countries.

Many Americans would be surprised to know that in more rural areas, it’s often not uncommon for people to go without a sophisticated sewer and water system because the infrastructure has not yet been built. In Lowndes county in Alabama, a largely rural and agricultural area, less than one fifth of the population has a safe way to dispose of their sewage waste. This issue can cause the sewage to back up into their systems or to overflow to their backyards. Neither of these outcomes are ideal for promoting health.

The people that are mainly affected by water insecurity and a lack of clean water in the United States are those that are already disadvantaged; the higher your income, the more likely it is you will have complete and adequate plumbing. This leaves those that live in lower socioeconomic areas with lower performing schools and fewer resources more likely to experience issues like inadequate plumbing and lead-contaminated water.

The systems that have the most problems are the ones that serve rural communities. When a city has a sewer issue, more people are paying for the water, so the extra cost is distributed more widely. In a rural community, there are less people to distribute the cost across, so it’s harder to come by the money to update the sewer systems. Because smaller communities have a harder time paying for necessary repairs and upgrades, the residents in these areas have to choose between drinking contaminated water or paying for bottled water.

Another issue that arises is when communities have a city water system but lack the appropriate people to run it. Some areas have no one to run their systems, while other rural sewer systems are operated by volunteers. In Kanawha Falls, West Virginia, a resident was elected to clean the water, but failed to test and report the water, and the state threatened to arrest him. Scotts Mills, Oregon cannot afford to hire workers for the water system, so they rely on volunteers and community reports of smells to know when work needs to be done.

Because some systems don’t have the staff and infrastructure to test regularly, many don’t realize their water is contaminated until they experience an adverse health outcome. For example, in Kanawha Falls, cited 2 thousand times over ten years for not testing and reporting water quality, a man who had skull surgery got two infections from the contaminated water. He now has to keep his head covered when he showers.

These problems aren’t exclusively in rural areas; lower-income areas—typically those in minority communities—also experience these problems. The most famous example is the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, where 62.6% of the population is a racial or ethnic minority. At one point, the lead levels—caused by improperly treated water corroding pipes—were almost three times past being considered hazardous waste. While the lead contamination was discovered in 2015, Flint is still dealing with these issues today. The lead’s effect on the community of Flint was enormous: children came down with a rash and mysterious illness; experts believe that lead was responsible for 198 to 276 fetal deaths; and twice as many children were diagnosed with lead-poisoned blood than before.

Flint is not the only area that has experienced issues like this, and Flint is not the only community at risk. Using income information and housing age, Vox and the Washington State Department of Health created a map to show what areas are more susceptible to lead poisoning. They also take the potential of lead paint into account, but the map shows that the at-risk areas are mainly cities, especially those that used to be industrial areas. Looking at the cities I know—Birmingham and Chattanooga—I can tell the areas at the highest risk are those that have a large minority population.

Water insecurity affects people’s mental health as well. Those that have less access to clean water experience more emotional distress. One thing many people, especially in urban areas, count on is easy access to water from their taps. However, when that easy access turns out to be harmful, like it is in Flint, anxiety and worry can rise. Parents that unknowingly gave their children contaminated water may feel guilt even though they didn’t intentionally give their children toxic water. In Flint specifically, levels of fear and anxiety were at an all-time high following the news of the contamination. In 2016, there were reports of parents coming to the ER with water-related breakdowns; many were distressed over the health of their children.

In areas where there’s a lack of water altogether, people can face similar issues. A lack of access to water—whether it be a loss of water through drought or a lack of water to begin with—has been connected to decreased mental health. Those in areas that are water insecure may experience anxiety, water-related emotional distress, and insomnia, among other symptoms. Additionally, the effects of dehydration play a role in mental health. Dehydration has been linked to increased stress, anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Those facing water insecurity are more likely to become dehydrated, so these symptoms should not be taken likely.

Water insecurity and lack of clean water access disproportionately affect minorities and rural populations. This means these already disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience the adverse effects. Clean water access is considered a human right, but even here in the United States there are people suffering from a lack of clean water.

The Global Waste Trade

trash on Garbage Beach in Malaysia
Water Pollution with Trash Disposal of Waste at the Garbage Beach. Source: epSos.de, Creative Commons.

While the United States’ recycling numbers are nowhere near the highest, as a country, we continue to recycle more and more each year. Many people are able to send items for recycling from their home, which has made it easier for the average person to recycle. However, most people don’t know where their recycling is going after it leaves their house. Ideally, it goes to be sorted and then is sent to be recycled, but that is not always the case.

Before China’s foreign waste ban began in 2018, the United States sent over 70 percent of its plastic waste to China to be recycled, which China used to fuel its manufacturing sector. Because of the profit they made and their environmental regulations, they were able to cheaply take contaminated plastic and sort it. However, as China has moved away from manufacturing and sorting through contaminated plastic has become less profitable, they have less of a need for the recycling. Since they have stopped accepting foreign recyclables, recycling has become immensely harder for the countries who relied on China for a consistent way to affordably recycle plastic waste.

China bought so much of the United States’ recyclable waste that we never created the infrastructure to recycle all of the waste we create, so when China stopped accepting our recyclables, those in charge of recycling had to figure out where to send it. Much of this waste ends up in a landfill instead of going to a recycling plant.

Additionally, the Chinese recyclers needed to figure out what they were going to do after they would lose the majority of their business as well. Some liquidated their assets, hoping to make a final profit on decades of hard work, while others decided to take their services to other areas, often illegally. These illegal recyclers set up in countries where they are able to hire workers cheaply and can take contaminated shipments because the government can’t track their work like it can a recycling plant that is set up legally. This means they are able to pay more and still make a profit, which attracts countries like the United States and the UK.

Many countries in southeast Asia, like Malaysia, have been affected by schemes like this. When the US could no longer send their waste to China, we almost tripled our exports to Malaysia. With the growing market, many illegal recyclers have been able to fly under the radar. They edge out legal recycling plants by paying more for the recycling and taking highly contaminated plastics, about 70 percent of the which is unable to be recycled, is burned or discarded to pollute the nearby areas.

The increasing number of illegal recyclers is taking a toll on the environment and the people living near illegal recycling plants. Illegal recyclers don’t have to properly clean contaminated water sources, which can affect nearby villages water sources. While legal recyclers have to pay to properly dispose of unrecyclable plastic, illegal recyclers can dispose of the unrecyclable waste easily and cheaply by burning it. This releases toxic chemicals into the air, which can make people in nearby villages sick. In Jenjarom, Malaysia, residents “began suffering en masse from headaches, respiratory problems, skin allergies and other ailments.” Additionally, the fires that are meant to burn the plastic often are not monitored and can become uncontrollable very quickly. They are extremely difficult to extinguish and can be dangerous to firefighting crews as many don’t wear masks.

Even those that are set up legally have been found to not follow regulations. Within the first year of the Chinese plastic ban and Malaysia’s new government, over 100 recycling companies lost their permits to import plastic waste because they didn’t follow regulations. They were able to reapply for permits after three months.

Because of these issues, the top three importers of plastic waste—Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam—have temporarily banned plastic waste imports, and all three are also working towards a permanent plastic ban. Developed countries, such as the United States and the UK, will have to figure out how to properly dispose of their plastic waste in an environmentally friendly way.

The blame is not all on illegal recyclers; companies from developed countries, in an effort to save money, send contaminated plastics to illegal recyclers without vetting them. These exporters have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that is damaging our global ecosystem. The American citizens—along with citizens of other developed countries—believe their recyclables are being recycled, while instead they are being sent to illegal recyclers that are further damaging the environment.

The international waste trade cannot feasibly continue like this. Norway’s proposed solution was to add plastic waste to the Basel Convention, which would impose more regulations on its trade. Since being added to the Basel Convention in May of 2019, plastic waste could not be sent to countries that aren’t a part of the convention. This ensures that plastic is not being sent to countries that do not have the infrastructure to properly recycle or dispose of it. Additionally, it would add more transparency to the trade deals; citizens of the exporting countries would know where their recycling is going. One downside to adding plastic waste to the Basel Convention is that not every developed country that exports plastic waste is a part of it: most notably the United States.

Another solution proposed has been to transition from a linear economy to a circular economy. In a linear economy, which is what most countries are a part of, a material is made, used, and the disposed of. In a circular economy, materials go through a cycle, and as little as possible is disposed of. A transition such as this one would not be easy, but it might be necessary to maintain our level of consumption.

China’s plastic ban brought to light just how much plastic we use and discard—not only for the importing countries like Malaysia, but also for the exporting countries. Part of the problem is our level of consumption, but another huge issue is the lack of transparency surrounding how our plastic is recycled. It is not enough to place our plastic waste in a recycling bin and expect it to be recycled; as consumers of plastic waste, we must demand that those exporting our recyclables are being honest about where it’s going.

Community and Conservation in Maasai Mara

On Thursday, January 23rd, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Sparkman Center for Global Health to present Nelson Ole Reiya (CEO/Founder) and Maggy Reiya (Education and Gender Coordinator) of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. During their lecture and discussion with the audience, they addressed their remarkable mission to protect wildlife, preserve culture, and reverse poverty within their community in Maasai Mara, Kenya.

Nelson began with the admission that, amid farming and development efforts in the region, a group of Maasai elders convened under a tree and decided to start a conservancy. In response, Nashulai began in 2015 after a meeting with landowners resulted in the leasing of their land for conservation.

Most Maasai face severe poverty by living on less than one dollar a day, while girls and women are particularly vulnerable. More specifically, many girls are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) which is to prepare them for marriage. Additionally, young women who menstruate without pads are prevented from attending school. In addition to these social issues, because 68% of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of parks and reserves, the country has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife over the past thirty years. These social and ecological issues demonstrate the need for a ground-up approach that advocates for the Maasai’s people, wildlife, and environment, hence Nashulai.

This is a picture from the event with the speakers facing the attentive audience.
Nelson Ole speaking to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Nashulai means, “a place that unites all of use people, wildlife, and livestock in common hope for a better world, today and in the future”. Nashulai offers an array of social projects that benefit the Maasai community. Among those projects are: 1.) Nashulai Academy – subsidized education for adolescent girls and a safe house for girls avoiding FGM and early marriage, 2.) Community Water Project –  clean water retrieval system from the spring which reduces the distance to fetch water and incidences of waterborne diseases, 3.) Tourism for Social Change – two safari camps where many proceeds support community projects, 4.) Sekenani River Restoration Project – rejuvenation of the main river that support the Maasai community, 5.) Nashulai Cultural Training Centre – knowledge center to preserve indigenous practices of the Maasai, and 6.) Cattle Breeding Project – ecologically sustainable project to support the Boran and Zebu herds of the region, and 7.) Stories Café – upcoming facility where Maasai elders can manage and pass on local culture to the youth.

This is a picture from the event with an audience member asking the speakers a question.
Audience member engaging with the Reiyas. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Particularly within these remarkable endeavors are the Women Empowerment Projects which address anti-FGM, creating lady pads, education, an ambulance for expecting mothers, soap making, and a drama theater club. These efforts highlight the human rights fundamentals to support the education and autonomy of girls and women. Additionally, Nashulai’s ecological efforts demonstrate the need to protect vulnerable environments that threatened by habitat destruction and wildlife depopulation. In sum, Nashulai’s community-based conservation model conveys the importance of ground-up human rights approaches that reject external influence and place community first.

If you would like to support Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, please follow this link.

PRISONERS NEED ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE TOO!

Image of US flag behind barbed wire
Incarcerated America. Source: Pixabay

With the release of the film Just Mercy, which recounts Bryan Stevenson’s experience challenging death row convictions in Alabama and creating the Equal Justice Initiative, the criminal justice system is once again in the news and the topic of the death penalty is being debated. First off, everyone should see the film. Until we do away with the death penalty it is necessary that we confront the realities of it in as many ways as possible. The work that Stevenson is doing is beyond admirable, and unfortunately is still needed, yet I couldn’t help but feel a bit pessimistic about this debate. Partly because it seems so obvious to me that the death penalty should not exist, partly because I have little faith in the current federal administration or the state government to address this, and partly because we have been having this debate about the death penalty my entire life. So I fought that initial feeling and began to think about how I could incorporate criminal justice into my own work on environmental justice and human rights.

Prisoners = Environmental Justice Communities

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies”. In other words, no community should disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental ills, such as pollution, yet in reality, minority and low-income neighborhoods are the ones to bear the brunt. Just as race-based and class-based disparities exist in the experience of environmental ills, they also exist in the criminal justice system and are both the result of broader injustices, such as colonization and white supremacy. African Americans make up 40% of the prison population while representing only 13% of the American population, and Latinos make up 20% of prisons, but only 15% of the population. Low-income populations also have higher rates of incarceration then more others.

Although they are not often included in conversations about environmental justice, the US prison population mirrors other environmental justice communities in many ways especially in regards to discrimination, lack of political representation, lack of access to social services and economic marginalization. Minority and low-income individuals are disproportionately represented in prisons and therefore are disproportionately affected by inadequate prison conditions. Inmates in the US are further at risk due to their reliance on the state for protection and provision of basic needs, all while dealing with the chronic stress of prison life and lack of adequate health resources. Yet, despite this, the US continues to fail to recognize prison populations as environmental justice communities.

Unjust Prison Conditions

There are currently about 2.3 million individuals incarcerated in the US, including those who are awaiting trial, and all of those lives are affected by the inadequate prison conditions plaguing the US.

Pie Chart of US Incarceration
How Many People Are Locked Up in the United States?.
Source: Peter Wagner & Wendy Sawyer (2018) Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018, www.prisonpolicy.org

Prison conditions throughout the country have been so inadequate that courts have ruled that they violate the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Many of these conditions are the result of environmental ills such as excessive heat or cold, exposure to asbestos, lack of drinkable water and exposure to toxic elements. Yet, while some cases have been won no national changes have been made and environmental injustice continues.

  • Graph of Medical Conditions in Texas State Prisons
    Some Medical Conditions Make People Especially Vulnerable to High Temperatures.
    Source: Alexi Jones (2019) Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison, www.prisonpolicy.org
    • In February, inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY were stuck in freezing cells for a week as the temperature dropped to below freezing and heating became almost nonexistent.
    • Prisons also fail to adequately prepare for extreme weather events. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 over 8,000 inmates were incarcerated at Orleans Parish Prison. Despite the mandatory evacuation, prisoners were forced to remain for several days in flooded cells, with a limited supply of food and drinking water and lack of basic sanitation. Similarly, prisoners were not evacuated from flood zones in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria.
    • Both prisons and toxic sites are considered undesirable land use and therefore they are often placed in the same area with little to no regard for the health of inmates. 589 of 1,821 federal and state prisons exist within three miles of a Superfund site, with 134 being within one mile. These sites commonly contain toxins such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and can cause extensive damage to human health.

Unjust Working Conditions

Prisoners are also vulnerable to numerous environmental ills in their work environments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery “except as a punishment for crime” and under this ruling prisoners can be forced to work for no pay. Courts have also ruled that inmates do not have the right to refuse work and can be placed in disciplinary confinement for refusal. While only some states have refused any payment, most inmates make less than a dollar an hour. In addition, inmates are not protected by workplace health and safety regulations set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) because they are not considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In other words, there is no outside agency to hold prisons accountable for occupational safety, unless it is so extreme that is constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Many work assignments deal with extremely toxic materials, such as e-waste and asbestos abatement, or inherently hazardous practices, such as firefighting, with little regard being given to inmate health.

Prison firefighters have received some attention of late due to the recent wildfires in California, with much of it focusing on the fact that they are poorly paid for such work and often cannot become firefighters after they are released. Another important aspect to examine is the physical toll firefighting takes. Inmates are eight times more likely to be injured while fighting fires than civilian firefighters, and the American Lung Association has warned of the negative health effects from continued exposure to particle pollution and carbon monoxide within forest fire smoke, among other hazardous air pollutants.

Responsibility of the State

Prisoners represent an incredibly vulnerable population, as they are completely reliant on the state, and therefore the state has a responsibility to protect prisoners from serious harm. The American Correctional Association’s (ACA) Declaration of Principles even recognizes the principle of ‘‘humanity’’ as being essential and states that ‘‘the dignity of individuals, the rights of all people and the potential for human growth and development must be respected’’. This is because people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The punishment for the crime is the length of incarceration.

Unsurprisingly, the stated principles of the ACA do not always manifest in reality. One such example took place in Louisiana. In 2016 the state made headlines when it was revealed that it spent more than $1 million of public funds on legal fees in an effort to defend its refusal to install air conditioning on death row at Angola prison. The cost to install the air conditioning and operate it would have been $225,000. The state has a responsibility to protect those in its care and it is failing to do so.

Why Bother?

Many may question why we should care about prisoners when many other communities are dealing with similar environmental injustices. Others may say that they should have thought about these things before they did the crimes and that prison is not supposed to be “easy”.

My response would be to watch Just Mercy and critically examine the “justness” of the criminal justice system. To borrow a quote from Professor Nick Hardwick, “If you’re going to defend the ordinary, everyday rights that all of us depend on as we go about our lives and live in peace and security, then actually you can’t risk sacrificing the principles on which those rights are based, even for people whose behaviour you disapprove of. Once you start saying that those rights are conditional for them, they are conditional for you too”.

Disclaimer: This article is not an endorsement of the concept that incarceration is a necessary evil nor is it a dismissal of the fact that an end to mass incarceration is the most effective way to address the injustices examined in this article.

Diamonds: A Symbol of Love and Conflict

Two young diamond miners.
Blood Diamonds. Source: Brian Harrington Spier, Creative Commons.

While I do not soon foresee a diamond in my future, I have been able to witness the happiness a diamond ring brings to the lives of other people. A diamond ring represents love and commitment, and nothing can be purer than that. Imagine my surprise when I learned in my economics class that a significant number of diamonds, called blood or conflict diamonds, can be linked to horrific suffering and bloodshed. A good number of these conflict diamonds can be traced back to one company: De Beers.

De Beers diamond company was founded in the 1800s by Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. Before 2000, the goal of De Beers was to effectively and efficiently buy as much of the world’s supply of diamonds as possible so as to be able to determine the price and guarantee price stability. This tactic earned the company the nickname “the custodian” of the diamond industry. In 2000, De Beers controlled around 65 percent of all diamond production, while in 2001 De Beers marketed two-thirds of all the rough diamonds in the world and produced nearly half of the world’s supply of diamonds from their mine. The company employed strategic marketing tactics to maintain their power and growth worldwide, effectively influencing the perception of diamonds to what it is today. For example, the phrase, “A Diamond is Forever,” was coined in a De Beers ad campaign. De Beers influenced the choice of a diamond as the centerpiece for an engagement ring and even the price of the ring to be two months’ salary. The Washington Post described De Beers as “a global cartel controlling mining, distribution, and pricing.”

For a company that produces a product to signify love, such as an engagement ring, De Beers has left a significant amount of bloodshed and controversy in its wake. The company has been banned from operating or selling inside the United States borders since 1996 over a price-fixing case. In the 1990s, De Beers bought billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds from conflict ridden areas in Africa, which in turn provided the means for rebel groups to obtain weapons and supplies on the black market. In the mid to late 1900s, De Beers benefited from the South African apartheid because the system of black repression ensured cheap labor for the mines, protecting the company from being hurt by the diamond boycotts sweeping the world at that time. The company became scorned as more and more information regarding conflict diamonds and De Beers’ blatant disregard for the harm conflict diamonds can cause became public.

Two diamond rings
Rings. Source: ilovebutter, Creative Commons.

The definition of conflict diamonds, as written by the United Nations, is as follows: “diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces or factions opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments, and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments, or in contravention of the decisions of the Security Council.” Armed groups use the revenue from exploiting diamond mines and diamond workers to fund their personal agendas. Despite the diamond business being an $81.4 billion a year industry, the towns that house the diamond mines do not reflect the wealth that lies below. Many parents choose to send their children to work in the diamond mines in order to earn a meager salary, determined on a diamond-by-diamond basis, instead of sending the children to school. The difficulty that evolves from attempting to eliminate conflict diamonds is that the diamonds traded by rebel groups are physically indistinguishable from the diamonds traded by legitimate groups. Because of the long process a diamond goes through before it reaches the jeweler, it is very difficult to determine the original source of the diamond.

In 2000, De Beers put out a statement guaranteeing that their diamonds did not originate from conflict zones in Africa and promised that their purchasing of diamonds did not fuel any conflicts in Angola and Congo. The statement was met with mixed reviews, some welcoming the initiative the company was taking, and some believing that De Beers would be unable to control the smuggling system that crisscrosses across the continent of Africa. Since the initial statement in 2000, De Beers’ statements have been very contradictory, stating at one point that it would be easy to find the origin of the diamonds and yet continually releasing statements saying that it is impossible to distinguish the origin of the diamonds that they buy. Since 2000, some independent diamond dealers have not only claimed to sell diamond bunches that they bought from rebel groups to De Beers, but also that De Beers was aware of the origin of the diamonds. Currently on their website, De Beers boasts that 100% of their diamonds are conflict free. However, the company only cites the Kimberley Process, a process they helped to create, in regards to this certification.

De Beers’ promises have rested on determining the origin of the diamonds. It has already been stated but is worth reiterating that determining the origin of diamonds has been much disputed as diamonds are handled in groups, making the process of discovering the origin of a diamond very difficult. In 2003, a process named the Kimberley Process was established by the main actors in the diamond industry, including De Beers. The Kimberley Process is so named for the town where De Beers diamond company was founded, highlighting the influence the company had in the establishment of the process. It is an international certification process with the goal of distinguishing conflict-free diamonds from those diamonds associated with a conflict. The Process was created from a meeting in 2000 in Kimberley, South Africa, where the biggest diamond producers and buyers in the world met to address the growing threat of a consumer boycott. Consumers were becoming more aware of the influence the sale of diamonds had in funding to civil wars in Angola and Sierra Leone and were threatening to forgo buying diamonds all together. In 2003, 52 governments and international advocacy groups ratified the Process, creating a system of certifications issued by the country of origin that must accompany any shipment of diamonds. If a country was unable to prove that their diamonds were separate from any conflict, said country could be cast out of the international diamond trade. The Process did marginally reduce the number of conflict diamonds in the market, but the process is ridden with loopholes. It is unable to stop the international sale of the majority of diamonds mined in conflict ridden zones and diamond mining even outside of a conflict zone is terrible work with many of the miners being school-aged minors.

Diamond mine in Australia
World’s Largest Diamond Mine. Source: Soundog, Creative Commons.

Many argue that the Kimberley Process is not only laced with loopholes, but it also does not go far enough. For example, the Process does not disqualify diamonds mined in an area with human rights abuses. Also, the definition of conflict used in the creation of the Process is so narrow that it excludes many situations that would generally be considered a conflict. The definition used is, “gemstones sold to fund a rebel movement attempting to overthrow the state.” An instance where the definition stated in the Kimberley Process failed occurred in 2008. The army of the government of Zimbabwe seized a diamond mine within Zimbabwe’s borders and proceeded to kill and rape hundreds of miners. Because the army represented a legitimate government, this instance is not considered to be against the Kimberley Process. The Kimberley Process did implement a ban on the Central African Republic when it was discovered that the mining of diamonds helped to fund a genocide of thousands since 2013. However, the UN estimates that $24 million worth of diamonds have been smuggled out of the country since the ban.

While a true fair-trade system would ban diamonds mined in a conflict ridden area and allow consumers to purchase diamonds that could improve the life of artisan workers, ultimately there is no way of truly knowing whether the diamond you buy is in somehow linked to a conflict. The Human Rights Watch has come up with a list of strategies that may help diamond companies fulfill their obligation of “identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for their own impact on human rights throughout their supply chain.” Such strategies include: 1. Establishing a policy regarding the supply chain that is included in the contracts with suppliers 2. Creating a ‘chain of custody’ by requiring documentation for each step along the supply chain 3. Assessing thoroughly and respond promptly to human rights risks at all stages of the supply chain 4. Employing independent, third-party examiners 5. Becoming public with the names of suppliers 6. Sourcing responsibly and being wary of large-scale mining operations. The diamond industry has a long way to go but with established organizations calling out companies like De Beers, loopholes in certification processes can be closed and ultimately conflict diamonds may be eliminated.

Cleaved and Clamored: The Crisis in Cameroon

On Tuesday, November 5th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside Cameroon Humanitarian Relief Initiative to present Herman Cohen (former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) and Dr. Fontem Neba  (Secretary General of Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium). During their panel discussion, Cohen and Neba discussed the history of Cameroon, ongoing Anglophone discrimination, and potential resolutions to end the conflict.

As one of the most prominent voices advocating for Anglophone rights, Dr. Neba spoke directly about the atrocities taking place in Cameroon because he was recently detained for nine months after being charged with terrorism. Followed by its establishment as a federation in 1961 and an illegal referendum in 1972 that unified the Francophone majority (~80%) in the north and Anglophone minority (~20%) in the south, Cameroon has endured significant conflict. With political power most harbored in the north, Anglophone Cameroonians have experienced pressure to assimilate and prevention to secede, which led to a civil war in 2016 that has been riddled with human rights violations. More specifically, the Cameroonian military has permeated the south with their influence by committing heinous acts such as destroying Anglophone schools, burning crops, and murdering separatists. As a result, these acts have led to famine, homelessness, and institutional instability throughout the south. Additionally, thousands have been jailed for speaking out against the Franchophone government, while approximately a half-million are internally displaced and another 40,000 have sought refuge in Nigeria.

Neba describing Cameroon’s geographic division. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen then spoke about the crisis in Cameroon by drawing parallels with Eritrea which Ethiopia turned  a province before it eventually became an independent country. Although, the international community has been passive about the events unfolding in Cameroon. One exception is none other than the Trump Administration, which signed an executive order last month that effectively removed Cameroon from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a result, this action prevents Cameroon from profiting off duty free sales to the U.S. Additionally, south Cameroonians have found an Anglophone ally in Nigeria, making the prior impervious to defeat, while north Cameroonians have been increasingly critical of their government because they are not benefiting from the country’s strong economy. Thus, Cohen argues the U.S. is in the unique position to mediate a resolution. However, the Trump Administration has adopted an isolationist position, which currently places the U.S. distant from potential negotiations. Following, he suggested that the Cameroonian diaspora in U.S. should write letters to their local representatives and urge a cease-fire agreement.

After their presentations, Cohen and Neba took questions from an appalled audience. Addressing a question about the realistic options in our current political environment, Cohen insisted the United Nations Security Council must initiate negotiations and that it must be settled between warring factions; his personal suggestion is that they return to a federation relationship. Additionally, Cohen responded to a question that mentioned the role of former colonial powers, where he mentioned that Great Britain is currently distracted by Brexit, while France, despite reluctance from southern Cameroonians, is taking initiative to mediate the conflict. When asked how geopolitics, namely natural resources, influence this conflict, Neba claimed south Cameroon is rich in cocoa and timber as well as a fevered, educated populace. Although, he argued the region cannot become economically independent because their oil supply, which is on the border, is property of the government. In response, a passionate audience member, and Cameroon native, insisted south Cameroon, much like other small countries, can be independent without an oil industry.

Cohen answering an audience question. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Cohen argued this crisis has potential to become a “Rwanda situation”, but, thankfully, a potential resolution doesn’t require money or soldiers. However, the current trajectory of this crisis primarily lays in the hands of Cameroon (who is persistent on military intimidation), Nigeria (who has enabled separatists in the south), and the U.S. (who has implemented economic sanctions). Thus, these conflicting narratives put human rights advocates in the position to highlight this pressing issue whether it be mentioning it on social media, writing to your local representative, or donating to humanitarian relief.

Climate Change is Bringing a New Meaning to “Cold War”

Image of Arctic Circle ice caps
Ponds on the Ocean. Source: NASA, Creative Commons.

When I first heard the report that President Trump was working to try to buy Greenland, I was so taken aback that I checked to make sure I was not listening to an article put out by the satirical news outlet, The Onion. Sure enough, I was listening to my NPR podcast and the President attempting to buy another country could in no way be described as fake news. A little more research into this interesting political maneuver revealed the true intentions behind the President’s financial offer to Denmark. Geopolitics are suddenly playing a massive role in climate change as countries prepare for a world with significantly higher sea levels than we are currently experiencing. This is unfortunate as major powers are focusing on investing money and resources on being prepared for the after effects of climate change instead of focusing on fixing the crisis itself. Greenland’s proximity to the Arctic Circle gives the country who owns it, currently Denmark, a claim to the continental shelf that runs under Arctic ice and thus a stake in the trade route that will be unveiled as the ice continues to melt. Ownership of Greenland would allow the United States to gain an important leg up in the race to control the Arctic.

It is indisputable that the planet is progressively getting warmer, and that humans are a direct cause of the continued warming. Green house gasses and carbon emissions produced by the world’s top producing countries directly contribute to a decrease in the expanse of ice caps and in an increase in ocean levels around the world. Average global sea level has a pattern of rising and falling over the centuries of Earth’s existence. The most recent global sea level rise, the one we are experiencing now, has proven to be significantly more rapid than past circumstances. Scientists have noted that should the current rise in sea levels continue, continental coastlines will become drastically different. World leaders do have an incentive to ignore the serious ramifications of the melting arctic ice caps in favor of the possibility of new trade routes over the top of the world. Once the ice caps melt, it could be possible for ships to travel through the Arctic without the need for ice-breaking machines.

The new trade route in question is the Northern Sea route, a route already used during the summer months but that many trade dependent nations are hoping will be open year-round. It extends from the Barents Sea (Russia’s border with Norway) to the Bering Strait (between Serbia and Alaska). Current shipping lanes require ships to start from the Mediterranean, continue through the Suez Canal, and finish through the Red Sea. With this current route, ships travel over 13,049 miles over the course of approximately 48 days. The Northern Sea Route would reduce the transit time for ships by 10 to 15 days.

It is becoming increasingly clear to major power countries that border the Arctic ice caps, such as the United States, Canada, and Russia, how strategically important control over the developing trade route could be. As of yet, Russia has been the fastest actor. Russia has the most stake in the Arctic Circle, despite the United States and Canada having claim to a large portion of the Arctic. The superpower went as far as to plant a titanium flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, on the North Pole in 2007. More recently, Russia has been maintaining multiple military bases within the Arctic Circle that include over 50 ice-breaking machines. Along with the increased military presence of Russia in the Arctic, the civilian presence has increased. Nearly two million Russians live in large cities created in Russia’s Arctic territory. In comparison, the United States maintains a singular airfield in the Arctic, on land that technically belongs to Greenland, and the largest United States town of Utqiaġvik houses a population of a little more than 4,000. President Trump’s attempt to obtain the island of Greenland as part of the United States shows the US beginning to counteract Russian presence in the Arctic. Tensions are slowly rising, and many analysts have reason to believe that a major conflict over territory and control of a consistently melting Arctic could arise in the next decade.

It is clear that these nations have been paying attention to the melting ice caps but none of the countries’ representatives have presented an adequate plan for counteracting the issue. In 2015, 195 world powers signed the Paris Agreement, the goal of which was to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels instead of the forecasted 2 C. During this 2015 conference, the United States promised to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 2025, Russia did not ratify the agreement, and Canada promised to reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions below that of 2005 levels: 30 per cent below by 2030. Canada and the United States made bold commitments and led the way for other countries to do the same.

However, these commitments have not been fulfilled. In the United States in 2018, emissions rose to an estimated 3.4 percent. A country that was once considered a leader and role model in the fight against climate change has all but withdrawn from the fight. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, has even announced plans to officially abandon the Paris Agreement and has simultaneously removed carbon-reducing regulations set in place by the previous administration. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has recently announced that not only is the country on track to meet this goal, but will also undoubtedly exceed it. The claim has brought hope to many environmental activists that Canada could replace the United States as a leader in fighting the climate crisis. However, reports from within Canada dispute Trudeau’s predictions. The Environment and Climate Change Canada’s January 2019 projection has predicted that with current and upcoming climate policies, Canada will barely reach 19 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Russia’s response to the climate crisis has been lackluster at best and the Climate Action Tracker rates Russia’s target emissions at the lowest rating, “Critically Insufficient.” In September of 2019 the United Nations held a Climate Conference in New York where world leaders re-evaluated prior commitments and could choose to update their emission goals. Canada pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This is an admirable goal, but leaders have not yet put forth a plan to achieve the emissions rate. The United States was largely silent in the discussions and did not provide any new promises to reduce emissions. Surprisingly, Russia agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement at the 2019 Climate Conference.

The United States, Canada, and Russia are countries that have a very large sphere of influence and it is disheartening to witness these superpowers focus energy and resources on exploiting a disastrous effect of climate change instead of working towards preventing and ending the warming of the planet. Should the ice caps melt fully, yes, a new trade route would be opened, but millions of people would be affected by the rising waters. The human habitat would be drastically affected along coastlines; more than a hundred million people live along coastlines or within range of the newly predicted coastline and many people live on the decreasing ice caps themselves.

In the race to establish territory in the Arctic, conflicts between very powerful nations could arise and citizens of the world are largely being left out of the conversation. Should the ice caps continue to melt at the rate that supporters of the new trade route are hoping for, the people who call the ice caps their home will be left with limited options and the countries who are laying claim to the Arctic are not providing any options for them. Arctic bordering countries like Russia, the United States, and Canada recognize the opportunity to gain political, economic, and strategic advantages over other major powers. The conflict that is arising from this recognition is another effect of climate change and should violence erupt in the North, the citizens of all of the included countries as well as separate countries could be affected. It is easy to acknowledge how rising water resulting from ever warming ice caps could contribute to loss of land and increased flooding. However, it is important to recognize how global warming will affect human rights in other ways, such as increased reasons for conflict between major powers around the world. President Trump offering to buy Greenland is an evident sign of a growing issue across the world, validating the concern that global warming can and will negatively impact human rights in more ways than usually understood.

The Rainforest is Burning: Fires in the Amazon

Trees in a swamp in the Amazon rain forest.
Swamp in Amazon rainforest. Source: Ivan Mlinaric, Creative Commons

On August 19, 2019, the sky of São Paulo, Brazil was turned black from smoke, bringing an abrupt awareness to a serious problem in the Amazon: it’s burning.  During the first eight months of this year, upwards of 74,000 fires were found burning in Brazil, most of which were in the Amazon and/or on agricultural land.  This was an 84% increase in the number of fires found during the same period in 2018, and the highest number found at one time in Brazil since 2010.  In August, the G7 (Group of Seven) held a summit to discuss issue related to climate change, biodiversity, and the oceans, where the countries involved agreed to give support and $20 million in response to the devastation in the Amazon.  Brazil’s President, Jair Bolsonaro, refused this offer, claiming that the country’s sovereignty was being the threatened. 

Why is this happening? 

There are a few different factors that have been attributed to causing the fires.  One is that some number of fires is normal, especially during this time of year, as it is a dry season.  Most of the fires are not naturally occurring, though.  Brazilian journalist Silio Boccanera says that many of the local people feel comfortable setting fires as they wish, as the government has not made efforts to prevent it. 

President Bolsonaro supports the deforestation of the Amazon because he sees it as place for development.  Because of this, his administration has not framed the preservation of the rainforest as being particularly important, making groups who want to clear land for farming do exactly that.  Boccanera believes that this, in combination with the expected fires of the dry season, has been the main cause.    

According to Mikaela Weisse from the World Resources Institute, cattle grazers and soybean growers are the main two groups who are clearing the rainforest due to economic interests.  Mining, timber, and development firms are also growing in the area as a result of Bolsonaro’s position on the rainforest.  Confirmation of the fact that humans have caused most of the fires comes from satellite photos showing “special pattern where we see a lot of fire hot-spots clustered around roads, agriculture and pasture areas that have already been cleared.” 

The Impact of the Fires on the Environment  

The increase of fires has had (and will continue to have) a serious impact on the natural world.  So far, 228 megatons of carbon dioxide have been released due to the fireswhich absorbs heat and contributes to climate change. 

There is also great reason to be concerned for the long-term well-being of the Amazon itself.  As a tropical rainforest, it has high levels of humidity and is not fire-adapted, meaning its vegetation does not have the special traits that the plants of drier climates have developed in order to survive or even thrive when fire is present.  According to Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford, it takes around 20 to 40 years to regenerate after a fire (assuming it has the chance to regenerate before a new fire begins).  However, any fires that do occur leave the surviving trees more vulnerable to drought and new fires than they were before.  Multiple fires every few years mean more long-term, permanent damage, potentially shifting large parts of the Amazon to a “degraded shrubby state.” 

As of August, 80% of the Amazon remained intact, but Malhi is concerned about how the combination of deforestation and climate change will impact the situation.  Due to the reduced rainfall leading to a drier climate, fires would be more likely to spread.  As Malhi points out: “If 30-40% of the Amazon was cleared, then there would be a danger of changing the forest’s entire climate,” which is hard to think about.  He does, however, also say that we are at an early stage in the situation, and that there is still enough to work to save the rainforest. 

Clearing Up Some Misinformation 

One claim that has been seen numerous social media sites is that the Amazon rainforest produces 20% of Earth’s oxygen.  According the BBC’s Reality Check, academics believe that the number is actually less than 10%.  Professor Malhi points out that a large part percentage of oxygen is produced by plankton and that, of the oxygen that is produced by plants on land, only 16% is produced by the Amazon.   

Even if the Amazon produced a full 20% of oxygen, this is still a misleading claim, because the Amazon absorbs close to the same amount of oxygen as it produces, “effectively making the total produced net-zero.”  The plants of the rainforest must reabsorb about half of the oxygen they produce to perform respiration and grow, and the soil, animals, and microbes also use some of it. 

This is not to suggest that saving the Amazon rainforest is not an important issue (because it certainly is)rather, it is to clear up some misinformation.  People have been known to point to misinformation as an argument against the importance of an issue, so it is important to address it when it is being spread.   

An area of the Amazon rain forest where trees have been cut down and burned.
Slash and burn agriculture in the Amazon. Source: Matt Zimmerman, Creative Commons

The Impact of Fires and Deforestation on Indigenous Peoples 

The deforestation of the Amazon has a severe negative impact on the indigenous people of Brazil.  Indigenous tribes rely on the rainforest in nearly every part of their lives, from food to clothes to medicine.  It is also an important part of their identity as a people.  Jonathan Mozower from Survival International says, “It’s hard to overstate the importance of these forests for indigenous peoples.”  The fires that are burning in the Amazon are eating away at the resources that are the foundation of their livelihoods.   

According to Mozower, this is “the worst moment for the indigenous people of the Amazon” since the military dictatorship that lasted until the 1980s.  In just a single week in August, there were 68 fires found and registered in indigenous territories and conservation areas. 

The indigenous people of the area are also being harmed by the fires’ impact on the rainforest’s biodiversity.  The Amazon rainforest contains the most diverse range of living things in the world.  For example, it is home to over 3,000 species of fish, and there are hundreds more that have not yet been discovered.  The diversity of the forest is what allows the life there to thrive, with different species depending on one another, such as fish helping to spread the seeds of trees.  The loss of some species leads to the loss of others, causing the rate of biodiversity loss to increase over time. 

As the Amazon loses more and more biodiversity, the indigenous people who live there lose more of their resources. 

This Is a Human Rights Issue 

According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ (UN) Universal Declaration for Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.  This is also affirmed by Article 7 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP) states that “Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.”  

DRIP also addresses many aspects of the land and resources that indigenous peoples depend on (like in the Amazon rainforest).  Article 8 states that “States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for actions that deprive them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of cultural values or ethnic identities and any action that tries or succeeds at taking away their land or resources.  Article 26 identifies indigenous peoples’ rights to the lands and resources they have traditionally possessed, to own, use, develop, and control these lands and resources, and to have “legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources” by the states they live in.  Article 29 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources.  Articles 30 says that governments should consult the indigenous people who live in the area before using their territories. 

The impacts of the fires and deforestation of the Amazon impede indigenous people’s access to these rights and must be dealt with. 

What Can We Do? 

When faced with the facts of the situation in Amazon, it is easy to feel hopeless about the future.  Here are some things that you can personally do to help. 

Donations 

One option is to donate to organizations aimed at fighting the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and supporting the people who are impacted by it.  Survival International takes donations in order to fund their efforts to pressure the Brazilian government to keep loggers out of the rainforest in support of the Awá people.  The International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs aims specifically to help makes sure that the voices of indigenous people are heard. 

Rainforest Safe Products 

You can also try to only by products that are deemed “rainforest safe”.  Products that are “Rainforest Alliance Certified” come from “farms that passed audits and met standards for sustainability”.  Some goods that might have the seal for this certification include coffee, bananas, and chocolate.  Products that are made with wood can be “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)” certified, meaning the wood used did not come from illegal logging and deforestation. 

Sustainable Living 

Another great option is to try to live a more sustainable life overall.  One of the best things that you can do is adopt a plant-based (vegan) diet or at least cut down on your consumption of animal products.  As it was previously mentioned, one of the biggest reasons for the clearing of the Amazon is cattle grazing and the farming of soybeans (which are mostly used to feed livestock).  According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Brazil is world’s largest beef exporter, “providing close to 20 percent of total global beef exports.  In 2017, the United States was the sixth largest importer of Brazilian beef, buying $295 million dollars’ worth According to the USDA Economic Research Service, the United States imported 140.9 million pounds Brazilian beef in 2019.   

Cutting down on the consumption of animal products is also a great way to live more sustainably, as 42% of the United States’ agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are from animal agriculture and “livestock accounts for between 14.5 percent and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions” worldwide. 

It main seem difficult, but it is possible for to make a difference as ordinary people. 

Vaccinations Give People a Shot

by Pam Zuber

a picture of a vaccine syringe
Senior Airman Sonia Vega, 332nd Expeditionary Aerospace Medical Squadron, gauges the right amount of vaccine needed for a shot at Balad Air Base, Iraq, Oct. 19. The main vaccinations administered are Anthrax and Hepatitis. Airman Vega is deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base, LA. Source: Staff Sgt. Joshua Garcia, Public Domain.

“We cannot say this enough: Vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak,” Alex M. Azar II, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, 2019.

Despite Secretary Azar’s comments, it looks as if many people aren’t heeding his words. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been more than 1,000 cases of measles in the United States from January through mid-June 2019, a period of only about five and a half months. The CDC blames the outbreak on misinformation relating to vaccines.

Should school systems and governments require people to receive vaccinations for measles and other conditions? Do vaccines protect the health and rights of others? If authorities require people to receive vaccinations, does this requirement violate people’s civil rights and impair their ability to make decisions about medical treatment for themselves and their families?

What are vaccines? Why do people support or criticize vaccines?

Vaccines are substances that spur the immune system to produce antibodies to fight diseases. This way, if people encounter diseases later in their lives, their bodies will already contain antibodies that will help them fight them. Vaccinations are the process in which people receive vaccines, often through injections, ingesting agents orally (such as in the form of drops or tablets), or inhaling them in the form of nasal sprays.

To create vaccines, manufacturers use weakened or dead versions of the same germs that cause the disease. They also use other substances, including mercury, formaldehyde, and aluminum. The inclusion of such ingredients has been controversial and have led some people to refuse vaccinations for themselves or their children. While high levels of these substances are indeed dangerous, experts say that the small amounts of such substances found in vaccines do not pose significant risks to people.

A famous (many say infamous) 1998 study disagreed with reassurances about vaccines. It said that there was a link between vaccinations and autism in children. The paper proved extremely popular and fueled efforts against vaccination. Known as the anti-vaxxer or anti-vaxxing movement, this movement remains strong today, despite many other studies that have refuted the claims of the 1998 paper and allege that vaccinations do not, in fact, cause autism.

Fears that vaccines have toxic ingredients and may cause autism to persist. Such fears have led more parents to refuse vaccines for themselves or for their children. Public school systems require students to receive vaccinations to attend their schools, although they do allow students to opt out of vaccinations for certain reasons, such as religious beliefs or health concerns. Many parents have taken these exemptions in recent years, which leads to lower vaccination rates.

Money is another reason people do not give or receive vaccines. Doctors may not be reimbursed for giving vaccinations. Parents may not have money to pay for such vaccinations or the ability to leave work to take their children for immunizations. To counter those obstacles, a number of public health departments offer vaccinations for free or reduced costs. Other government agencies and private companies provide access to immunizations in a variety of settings, such as immunization fairs that offer vaccinations, health information, fun activities, and transportation to such events.

How do vaccines relate to human rights?

For other people who criticize vaccines, using or not using the substances are a matter of rights. They question whether governments and other entities should determine medical decisions for others. Members of organizations such as the National Vaccine Information Center claim that governments that criticize people for not receiving immunizations are no better than dictatorial, oppressive entities such as the Third Reich. This is because people who do not pursue vaccinations are in the minority compared to the people who do seek such vaccinations. In this view, government entities that criticize such minorities – or even force minorities to seek vaccinations, such the Cambridge, Massachusetts Board of Health that required smallpox vaccinations in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts – are as dangerous as Nazi Germany.

What about the rights of people who contract or may contract diseases that vaccines may prevent? After all, immunizations protect many more people than the people who physically receive the vaccinations. Widespread vaccinations may produce a phenomenon known as herd immunity or community immunity. This occurs when diseases can’t affect a community because so many people have been immunized against the diseases. The diseases die a natural death because they can’t gain a foothold.

Herd immunity is especially useful because not all people can receive immunizations. Some people are too young to receive immunizations. Or, if people have compromised immune systems, they’re too weak to receive vaccinations. If they’re too weak to receive vaccinations, they’re definitely susceptible to diseases. When other, healthier people in their communities are immunized, they won’t contract diseases and thus won’t be able to transmit diseases to unvaccinated people with weakened immune systems.

More unvaccinated people in communities means more people may contract highly contagious diseases such as measles. If they can’t receive vaccinations, there’s a good chance that they’ll become infected and develop such diseases. People who couldn’t receive vaccinations didn’t choose to be sick. Have their human rights been violated? Others who have opted against receiving vaccinations or having their children vaccinated when they were eligible to receive vaccinations did make such choices. Are they exercising their human rights to make decisions for themselves? Are they violating the rights of others by potentially exposing them to disease?

a photo of a leprosy vaccine from 1978
Leprosy vaccine, London, England, before 1978. Source: Burroughs Wellcome and Company, Creative Commons.

How do vaccines affect the community?

It appears that refusing vaccines may indeed harm the greater interests of the community and infringe on human rights. We all have to do many things to serve the greater good, even if we don’t want to do them. We have to stop at streetlights, even though we want to keep driving. We have to pay taxes to fund various government programs, even though we want to keep our hard-earned money. Why shouldn’t vaccinations be any different?

Shots may hurt physically. They may cost money and may be inconvenient, since we may have to take time off from work or school to receive vaccinations. But we may be even more physically uncomfortable if we contract the diseases vaccinations could have prevented. If we’re sick with the diseases, we may miss even more work or school than the vaccination appointments would have taken. If vaccinations are expensive, so are medications and visits to doctors, urgent care facilities, emergency rooms, and other medical facilities that are needed to treat diseases that vaccinations could have prevented.

Not having vaccinations may thus cost diseased people time and money. If they pass these diseases to others, they also pass these costs to others. Since many vaccines prevent diseases that are highly contagious, there’s a good chance that they’ll give these diseases to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”

Vaccines may prevent this. “In the USA, there has been a 99 percent decrease in incidence for the nine diseases for which vaccines have been recommended for decades,” noted the World Health Organization (WHO). The organization added that the country has also witnessed dramatic declines in mortality and pathological conditions related to such diseases.

People die from the measles. It’s not just an annoying, uncomfortable disease that kids pass among themselves. It’s a potential killer, one we may easily stop. The Declaration of Independence famously said that we are entitled to the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Vaccines protect life, give people liberty by enabling healthy and active lives, and promote happiness by preventing the devastation caused by sickness and death. They support human rights and are vital weapons in the public health arsenal.

 

Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, gender, and business.