Environmental activists continue to strategise under lockdown

May 6, 2020
Water for Rivers action before the lockdown. Photo: Miranda Korzy / Water for Rivers Facebook

Green Left’s Rachel Evans spoke to an online roundtable of environmental activists about organising amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

Elena Garcia is a regenerative grazier, Farmers for Climate Action and Socialist Alliance. Tracey Carpenter is a Water for Rivers activist and former Greens councillor. Paul Oboohov, is active in Climate Action Canberra, Climate Justice Alliance and Socialist Alliance. Pru Wawn is active in Stop Adani Pittwater and the Northern Beaches Greens. Larissa Payne is an activist with Extinction Rebellion.

Is there a relationship between a profits-first approach and COVID-19?

Elena Garcia: Industrial agriculture, factory farming and the mining industry have raped our environment and biodiversity. As they destroy natural environments, they have forced an overlap between humans and their livestock and wild species like bats.

Wild species seek food from crops and orchards because their native food sources have been cleared. This has exposed humans to viruses we were previously well-buffered from by self-sufficient wilderness ecosystems.

Factory farming, with its overcrowding of genetically similar single species, creates perfect conditions for quickly spreading new diseases from wild animals.

We know that deforestation and destruction of our ecosystems in Australia and internationally are done by agribusiness and development projects which are financed by global capital.

Tracey Carpenter: The globalisation of markets helps the spread of the virus. People at the lower end of our globalised food chain are forced to consume wildlife as a food source. So, if the source of the COVID 19 virus is from eating wild bats from a Wuhan market, I can imagine this is part of the source.

Paul Oboohov: The media said COVID19 came from the wet market of Wuhan, China. But disease ecologist Dr Peter Daszak, who spent 15 years doing research in China and is president of EcoHealth Alliance, said there are hundreds of coronaviruses in bats. He said that bat viruses caused the death of 25,000 pigs in southern China a few years ago. He said humans should put some distance between themselves and bats, but this is difficult when corporations cut down habitat and forest of the bats.

How have you stayed active under the COVID-19 restrictions?

Elena Garcia: The Wilcannia community has been promoting an organised approach to tying ribbons onto local bridges to demand water trading be stopped to keep rivers flowing. We write people’s names on the ribbons as well as our demands. It is a visible marker that people care.

Tracey Carpenter: Water for Rivers is collaborating online to stay connected with New South Wales north-west communities and to abreast of the ongoing water crisis.

Paul Oboohov: Stop Adani Canberra has been zoom meeting every week as part of the campaign against Marsh Insurance, a United States multinational, offering Adani an insurance contract. Climate Action Canberra is discussing the ACT government’s climate action plan.

Pru Wawn: We are writing submissions to the government review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Federal environment minister Sussan Ley said she wants to cut “green tape” even before the review has been concluded.

Larissa Payne: Extinction Rebellion is organising a “Digital Rebellion” for May as part of an international online action. We’ve held strategy meetings and an action pitching session. We’re also building decentralised mutual aid networks as a form of nonviolent direct action, challenging the systemic premise that society is motivated by profit and greed.

What are some of the environmental challenges as a result of COVID-19?

Elena Garcia: We need to grab this opportunity to switch to carbon-neutral or carbon-storing methods and forge a green economy. That means less air flight, less private vehicles and more public transport, particularly in cities. It would mean less air pollution and less suburban development.

We need to encourage local clean manufacturing, sustainable agriculture and food processing industries to replace fossil fuels as national export earners, and continue the system of housing the homeless in empty apartments and hotels and guaranteeing everyone, employed or not, a minimum living wage.

Tracey Carpenter: The lock down is stopping us from taking issues to the streets and provided police with new laws to prevent protest. The government has put a fossil fuel industry boss in charge of the economic restart, ignoring calls for a green new deal to head economic recovery in a sustainable direction.

It is prioritising the same old play list of big coal and gas ventures, big infrastructure, like dam building and ignoring the concerns of workers, farmers and small businesses who want sustainable industries that benefit their children’s futures and support their communities.

Paul Oboohov: The 10 year review of the federal Climate Biodiversity Act is big focus and there has been a lot of submission writing. The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor is pushing new coal mines, including to allow Peabody to mine in the Illawarra catchment.

Pru Wawn: Our primary focus has been to stop the further extraction of fossil fuels with the Pittwater Knitting Nanas holding a stall in a local shopping centre, or outside local MPs’ offices every Friday. We can’t meet face-to-face, but we are networking and organising for when we can.

Larissa Payne: The COVID-19 challenges have demonstrated how people can unite regardless of ideology or borders. Communities have creatively expressed solidarity, whether singing the anti-fascist Ciao Bella from balconies across Italy, clapping in the street for NHS workers in London, sending soap to prisons or ensuring remote Aboriginal communities are sent hygiene products when the government chose to send them body bags instead.

International solidarity is not only powerful but necessary to combat the climate emergency. It’s a beautiful lesson and hopefully a strong prelude for when the climate emergency returns to the forefront of people’s minds.

What are some of the challenges?

Elena Garcia: Water for Rivers has been following The Lifeblood Alliance, a coalition of groups campaigning against the over-allocation of water. 

Communities are organising and building links, like this alliance, for mutual support, to make cloth masks, to assist the vulnerable, and to protect the water on which all communities depend.

The environment movement has to involve itself in these networks and build local measures to help produce and distribute local food, house the homeless, protect clean water, and supply renewable energy to their local communities. That way we can stand together against corporate profiteering.

Tracey Carpenter: We are all facing a vulnerable economy and health system. Politicians and shock jocks have made terrible and deadly blunders, ignoring the science and medical experts. But more people are drawing a parallel between this health crisis and the climate crisis, and want leaders to act on the science to protect us from further environmental collapse.

Paul Oboohov: Our big challenge is to end the fragmentation of environment groups. There needs to be common front. I attended the May Day car convoy in Sydney because the Morrison government is leaving heaps of people behind.

Pru Wawn: This lock down is an opportunity to get informed about politics and becoming aware of the major injustices in our inadequate social services system. I am hoping this mood for change will lead to more people embracing Adam Bandt’s proposal for a green new deal — a much needed vision for a sustainable future economy.

We need to continue to push for ambitious climate action and investment in clean energy. We also need a solid post-COVID boost in public sector investment in sustainable infrastructure, including electric vehicles and public transport systems, also for new jobs.

Larissa Payne: Aboriginal warriors have said that we won’t win unless we unite and walk together. We must. My hope is that collaboration with other climate groups, which has increased since we’re meeting digitally, continues.

XRs is working on a mass mobilisation project which listens to and works with regional communities so their voices are heard in urban centres. We’re also working on a project with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Once restrictions are lifted, will resist any return to business-as-usual and organise for more disruption, more colour, more satire, more love and more rebellion.

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