40th National Forum Series — 2023 (Virtual)
Forging a Future with Nature
The existential challenge to end petrochemical pesticide and fertilizer use
Session 3: Nov TBA
The goal of the Forum Series is to enable a collective strategy to address the existential health, biodiversity, and climate threats and chart a path for a livable and sustainable future. We come together to empower effective action. You are part of the solution!
Dr. Martin Luther King (1963) said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Sixty years later, people of color in the U.S. and around the world struggle with inequities that place disproportionate risk in ways that are institutionalized in the economic and social system. And, in recognizing the power, beauty, and importance of the interconnectedness and interdependency of organisms in nature, we must include all humans as crucial and precious to our ecosystems.
The father of environmental justice, Robert Bullard, PhD, defines environmental racism as any policy or practice that unequally affects or disadvantages individuals, groups, or communities based on their race. Dr. Bullard states that, until the 1980s, environmental conservation and pollution were separate. Many environmental organizations prioritized the preservation of “wilderness” rather than urban areas, predominantly comprised of people of color, who continuously experience the disproportionate impacts of pollution and its disproportionate adverse effects.
During the Jim Crow Era—following slavery—segregation propagated disparities between black and white communities, causing justice-related priorities to vary between demographic divides. Both the civil rights and environmental justice movements spread nationwide during the 60s and 70s. However, the two movements rarely coincided, and the implications are felt today. This division amplified the perception among civil rights advocates that environmentalism catered to white organizations and populations while ignoring people of color and their struggles.
However, this does not mean environmentalism was completely void of addressing racial inequalities. Many early environmental justice leaders came out of the civil rights movement, bringing the same tactics they had used in civil rights struggles—marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation, and nonviolent direct action.
The 1960s saw some of the first localized protests of environmental inequalities, such as:
- Latinx farm workers, led by Cesar Chavez, fought for workplace rights and against harmful pesticides in the farm fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley.
- African American students took to the streets of Houston, TX, to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the life of a child.
- Residents of West Harlem, New York City, fought unsuccessfully against a sewage treatment plant in their community.
Attention has been brought to this concern in the U.S. in recent years by the establishment of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the Justice 40 Initiative, which includes issues relating to climate change, legacy pollution, clean water, and waste water infrastructure, and the establishment of a new EPA office of environmental justice and external civil rights (2022), “elevating equity concerns to higher levels within the agency.” There is more work to be done, given the toxic legacy, high-risk occupational exposures (e.g., farmworkers, landscapers, chemical manufacturing), manufacturing emissions to fenceline communities, pesticide drift in agricultural communities, and the continuing registration and use of toxic pesticides that cause disproportionate adverse effects to people of color and their communities. In the international context, the United Nations recognizes the human rights abuses associated with toxic pesticide exposure, lack of universal ratification of international safety treaty, and the exportation of highly hazardous pesticides to developing countries with the knowledge that even limited use restrictions cannot be met. In 2021, the United Human Rights Council declared “the human right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.” According to the UN, “This right is an important catalyst for change, being crucial for the right to life, food, and decent work, among others.”
Marcos Orellana, PhD
Marcos Orellana, PhD— the United Nations Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights—is an expert in international law and the law on human rights and the environment. His recent reports in South Africa and Australia capture the significance of his work for environmental justice. Dr. Orellana teaches at the American University Washington College of Law.
His engagement around the world captures critical truths that are challenges across the globe, such as his statement after a visit to South Africa in September. Dr. Orellana said, “The term 'environmental racism' describes institutionalized discrimination based on race or colour. In pre-1994 South Africa, the distribution of environmental risks and harms disproportionately and often deliberately targeted low-income groups and along racial lines. Today, despite the efforts by Government in setting up institutions and laws to address this legacy of environmental racism, pervasive air, water, and chemical pollution still imposes a heavy toll, especially on disadvantaged communities. Overcoming it will require significant additional efforts, including structural, legislative, economic, and environmental changes."
His practice as a legal advisor has included work with United Nations agencies, governments, and non-governmental organizations, including on waste and chemicals issues at the Basel and Minamata conventions, the UN Environment Assembly, and the Human Rights Council. He has intervened in cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, and the World Trade Organization's Appellate Body. His practice in the climate space includes representing the eight-nations Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean in the negotiations of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. He has also served as senior legal advisor to the Presidency of the 25th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Professor Orellana has extensive experience working with civil society around the world on issues concerning global environmental justice. He was the inaugural director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. Previously he directed the trade and the human rights programs at the Center for International Environmental Law, and he co-chaired the UN Environment Program's civil society forum.
Professor Orellana teaches at the American University Washington College of Law. He has also lectured at prominent universities around the world, including Melbourne, Pretoria, Geneva, and Guadalajara. He was a fellow at the University of Cambridge, a visiting scholar with the Environmental Law Institute in Washington DC, and an instructor professor of international law at the Universidad de Talca, Chile.
jayson porter, PhD
jayson porter, PhD, is an environmental historian of Mexico and the Americas and teaches science and technology studies, material culture, and black geographies in Latin America. Dr. Porter focuses on oilseeds, agrochemicals, environmental justice, and ecological violence. He is an editorial board member of the North American Congress on Latin America and a Voss Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (2022), and he recently began teaching in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Dr. Porter’s research has traced the history of arsenic mining and use as an insecticide that has left a legacy of poisoning, pesticide dependency, and contamination. As he has written, “Arsenic has remained number 1 on the list of priority hazardous substances in the United States for decades. Nearly a third of the country’s 1,200 superfund sites have arsenic-contaminated water and soil. Most contaminated land resulted from U.S. businesses mining, manufacturing, and using arsenic, which they already shared and practiced across the Americas. Millions of people today in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Honduras, and El Salvador are exposed to pesticide-related concentrations of arsenic.”
In “Cotton, Whiteness, and Poisons” (Environmental Humanities, Nov. 2022), by Brian Williams, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University, coauthor Dr. Porter writes about a U.S. history of “labor exploitation conditioned by racist ideologies” underpinning plantation agriculture. The recognition that dependency on pesticides and fertilizers undermines the economic stability of small farmers, the authors write, “At the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural experiment station, George Washington Carver recognized that commercial fertilizers were a key source of debt for Black farmers and tenants. He encouraged composting and the use of organic fertilizers found on the farm, writing that “many thousands of dollars are being spent every year here in the South for fertilizers that profit the user very little, while Nature’s choicest fertilizer is going to waste.”
The authors conclude, “[R]acism saturated the environmental and technological conceptions that shaped the development of plantation agriculture and systemically oriented agrarian development toward extraction, environmental dispossession, and toxicity. Environmental racism, that is to say, is not ancillary to capitalism but a central feature—animating ideas of value, waste, and technological progress. Racism simultaneously values and devalues people, land, and ecologies, while generating and channeling toxicity.”
In 2022, Dr. Porter stated in Agrochemicals, Environmental Racism, and Environmental Justice in U.S. History (Organic Center, 2022), that “Robert Bullard defines environmental racism as any policy or practice that unequally affects or disadvantages individuals, groups or communities based on their race. Vann Newkirk II adds that environmental racism is the opposite of environmental justice and often ignores or belittles input from the affected communities of color.”
David Goulson, PhD
We are honored this year to begin the Forum Series with the internationally renowned researcher, professor, and author David Goulson, PhD, who in plain language draws together scientific research on the elements of nature that we must cherish, support, and enhance, if we are to have a future. The data, as Dr. Goulson documents, describes the importance of nature in contributing to the web of life that sustains the rich diversity needed for a healthy planet. Dr. Goulson is a professor of biology at the University of Sussex in Great Britain, the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, a trustee of Pesticide Action Network UK, an ambassador for the UK Wildlife Trusts, and author of more than 300 scientific articles on ecology and conservation of insects.
In his book, A Sting in the Tale (2013), Dr. Goulson writes, “We need worms to create soil; flies and beetles and fungi to break down dung; ladybirds and hoverflies to eat greenfly; bees and butterflies to pollinate plants to provide food, oxygen, fuel and medicines and hold the soil together; and bacteria to help plants fix nitrogen and to help cows to digest grass. . . [yet] we often choose to squander the irreplaceable, to discard those things that both keep us alive and make life worth living. Perhaps if we learn to save a bee today we can save the world tomorrow?” He is also the author of the Sunday Times bestseller The Garden Jungle: or Gardening to Save the Planet (2019).
And in his most recent book, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse (2021), he writes, “We have to learn to live in harmony with nature, seeing ourselves as part of it, not trying to rule and control it with an iron fist. Our survival depends on it, as does that of the glorious pageant of life with which we share out planet.”
In an interview with The Guardian, Dr. Goulson offers a strategy for moving forward: “The UK has 22 million gardens, which collectively could be a fantastic refuge for wildlife, but not if they are overly tidy and sprayed with poisons. We just don’t need pesticides in our gardens. Many towns around the world are now pesticide free. We should simply ban the use of these poisons in urban areas, following the example of France.” To that end, he supported a petition to ban urban pesticides in the UK.
As we move forward with the steps that can and must be taken in our communities around the globe, join us for an eye-opening and inspiring conversation with Dr. Goulson.
André Leu, DSc
As a leader in advancing organic agriculture, André Leu, DSc is the international director of Regeneration International, with more than 370 partners in 70 countries, working with numerous agricultural systems—agroecology, organic permaculture, ecological agriculture, holistic grazing, biological agriculture, and organic agroforestry. The organization, founded in 2015, is cultivating an international movement united around a common goal: to reverse global warming and end world hunger by facilitating and accelerating the global transition to regenerative agriculture and land management. Its mission is to promote, facilitate, and accelerate the global transition to regenerative food, farming, and land management for the purpose of restoring climate stability, ending world hunger, and rebuilding deteriorated social, ecological, and economic systems.
Dr. Leu previously served as president of IFOAM—Organics International, the international umbrella organization for the organic sector. IFOAM has about 850 member organizations in 127 countries. His most recent book, Growing Life: Regenerative Farming and Ranching, explores organic regenerative systems being adopted worldwide, which, he says, “require a shift in the mindset of the land manager and operator, away from being primarily reliant on external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and toward dependence on knowledge, measurement, and management. He is the author of two other books, Poisoning our Children (2018) and The Myths of Safe Pesticides (2014). Dr. Leu and his wife, Julia, own and manage an organic tropical fruit farm in Daintree, Australia.
Jeff Moyer, CEO emeritus of the Rodale Institute, describes Growing Life: “In his powerful and well-written new book, André Leu introduces us all to the concepts of regenerative organic agriculture, asks provocative questions, then shares answers only decades of experience could possibly hope to inspire, and then finally invites us on a journey to, as André says, ‘Become your own researcher.’ Every farmer needs to read, discover, and realign their priorities to focus on the power of basic biological principles to feed us all while regenerating the soil resources we need to survive as a species. André has captured the very essence of the word regenerative by clearly and simply explaining the basic building blocks of healthy soil, showcasing how the science of biology dictates that we can improve the resource we need, while using it to grow food. The science of regenerative organic agriculture uncovers how the systems are complex, but the implementation isn’t complicated.”
Dr. Leu speaks to the need for clearly defined and enforceable regenerative, organic land management systems that are critical to meet the challenges of our time, lest we fall victim to empty words and promises that do not effect the urgent changes required for a livable future.