By Kai Huschke
The COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide uprisings are making systemic societal change possible. People are open to thinking big and structurally. Ahead of the pandemic, multiple Oregon communities were engaged in deliberate efforts to shift the purpose of state law from something that protects commerce to something that protects life and the systems upon which life depends.
Thinking big like this requires conviction.
Conviction is what led to Lincoln County, Oregon’s Community Bill of Rights measure banning aerially sprayed pesticides in 2017. Adopted by the majority of Lincoln residents, the local law recognizes the right to local decision making to protect health, safety, and welfare, and the right of critical forest ecosystems and watersheds to exist, flourish, and evolve. To enforce those rights, it bans — not regulates — aerial spraying of pesticides. This aerial spraying is a common and dangerous corporate timber industry practice that threatens aquatic ecosystems and humans. Lincoln residents are not alone. Others share in their conviction, and are working to advance similar laws.
What’s the cost of compromise?
Carol Van Strum, longtime anti-pesticide activist and current spokesperson in an ongoing legal case to defend Lincoln County’s “Freedom from Aerially Sprayed Pesticides Ordinance,” knows the cost of compromise. (Van Strum functions as the legal spokesperson for the Siletz River ecosystem in the case.) The Lincoln County law, which successfully banned aerial spraying for two years, was assisted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), the organization I work for.
As Van Strum and her neighbors have fought to defend local ecosystems, they have witnessed how large environmental groups cave in to the demands — and power — of the corporate timber industry.
Some environmental groups initially showed interest in also proposing ballot initiatives to curtail the corporate timber industry. However, they not only neglected to advance outright bans of the destructive practices, they swiftly sank into “compromise” mode.
Some things should never be compromised
A private agreement (a Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU) was signed between certain establishment environmental groups and the timber industry, including Weyerhaeuser, Hancock, and Roseburg Forest Products. Environmental groups agreed to withdraw and refrain from legislative petitions that impact the timber industry. In return, they got expanded setbacks for pesticide spraying and clearcutting as well as increased disclosure of forestry practices by the timber industry.
What about the front-line communities that have been fighting for public and forest health by advancing ballot initiatives that stop harms? They were excluded from the compromise.
The establishment environmentalists and the governor of Oregon claim victory: There is the possibility of greater buffer zone regulations and new protections for endangered species. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called the compromise “historic” and “extraordinary.”
However, those dedicated to making deep and meaningful political and legal change know that there are some things that must never be compromised. And even when some compromise takes place, “one must never label a necessary evil as good,” as Margaret Mead, the feminist scholar and anthropologist, once wrote.
Calling it out
Core demands from the grassroots remain unaddressed. (The MOU allows for continued clearcutting, aerial pesticide spraying and new road-making.)
Van Strum calls it out for what it is. She has spoken strongly against this so-called “compromise,” between establishment environmental groups and the industry. “The MOU,” she recently wrote in the Newport News Times, “simply dresses up the status quo in new clothes, offered as a giant pacifier to a public.”
To win the type of change we need post-pandemic we need conviction.
“The MOU,” Van Strum wrote, “is an empty and misleading promise that allows business as usual for years to come.” Van Strum has been stalwart in her stand for protecting forests and people from toxic pesticides. She has been recognized with the David Brower Lifetime Achievement Award. She also compiled the Poison Papers along with authoring A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights, No Margin of Safety, The Oreo File and other works.
“None of the signatories to this MOU represent those of us on the ground who are, and have been directly affected by timber industry practices,” Van Strum writes. “The timber industry, with state sanctioned approval, has denied us that right for many decades, but for allegedly environmental groups to sign our rights away without our consent is an unconscionable betrayal.”
At the root of the global catastrophe of climate change and corporate control of forest lands is the “commercialization of forests, watersheds, life and nature itself,” wrote Van Strum. And that system is perpetuated by the MOU.
Past social movements
Across the history of social movements, activists have understood that once the people behind a movement begin to compromise core convictions and demands, that movement begins to languish.
Conventional, establishment nonprofits have been, and continue to be, quick to agree to compromise. They seem to believe “something is better than nothing,” even at the expense of core grassroots demands. Their willingness to compromise on the necessary systemic changes for the sake of the immediate, superficial “victory” only perpetuates and legitimizes a power structure that insulates the powerful and wealthy from grassroots democratic governance.
That is the opposite of how we should be thinking during this pandemic.
Van Strum and Lincoln County community members stand behind their “Freedom from Aerially Sprayed Pesticides Ordinance” and protecting the Siletz River, following a county circuit court ruling in October 2019 to overturn the law. They recently filed an appeal in the Oregon Court of Appeals to exercise the rights of the Siletz River and to reinstate the Lincoln County ban on aerial pesticide spraying.
We are excited to continue our support of Oregon communities, and dozens more across the U.S., as they work to think big through this crisis and to advance, secure, and protect the rights of communities and nature.
These rights are what communities demand.
Kai Huschke is the Northwest community organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.