Category Archives: Environmentalism

Update from Uganda: A Guest Post by Rich Katz

Left to Right: Peace Kawomera founder JJ Kekei, Rich Katz, JB Birenge

The following post was written by JRC member and current trip participant Rich Katz, who also participated in JRC’s Uganda/Rwanda delegation four years ago. Before joining us in Rwanda on our current trip, he returned to Uganda to visit many of the people and NGO’s with whom we’ve been partnering. Below, he offers thoughts on his experience visiting our good friends at the Peace Kawomera interfaith coffee cooperative.

Visiting East Africa for the first time with JRC  in 2008 was a remarkable experience.  We made many new friends and we were able to work with and support several grass-roots organizations in Rwanda that provide direct service to alleviate conditions of poverty, HIV-AIDS, and the plight of widows and orphans in a country scarred by genocide. We also visited eastern Uganda to learn more about how the Peace Kawomera Cooperative Society is working to improve the lives of coffee farmers in the region.  I returned there for a week before flying to Rwanda.  The changes I witnessed were astonishing.

Four years ago, the co-op numbered about 500 farmers who were producing and shipping one container of high quality Arabica coffee to the Thanksgiving Coffee Company in Fort Bragg, CA, where it was roasted, packaged and distributed.  They had just  received a significant grant from USAID to purchase and install a central “washing station”, which is used by the co-op’s farmers to remove the outer pulp of the ripe coffee “cherry”.  The money was also used to begin the construction of a warehouse & office building on the same site (below).  Importantly , agronomist Johnbosco “JB” Birenge had been hired to train the farmers in more productive methods of growing coffee.

The Peace Kawomera Warehouse/Office under construction, 2008

Today, I’m happy to report that the PK membership has grown to nearly 3,000 farmers, and they now ship four containers of organic, fair-trade certified coffee to Thanksgiving Coffee.  The warehouse/office building (below)  is functioning—although the office space is not quite finished—and the farmers have expanded their crops to include vanilla, cocoa and cardamom.  The staff now includes a credit union manager, an entomologist and a seed development specialist.

The PK Warehouse/Office, 2012

However, not all is as rosy as it appears.  The co-op is facing some unanticipated problems that require  innovative solutions.  First, the region is experiencing dramatic climate change that has pushed the harvest forward into July rather than late August, forcing changes in their other farming activities.  Also, many farmers are increasing the land planted in cash crops by cutting down the shade trees necessary to grow good coffee and using them for firewood, charcoal and to fire bricks.  Fortunately, JB, who is now PK’s managing director, was successful in securing a grant from the Stichting Progreso Foundation, a Netherlands-based organization that supports small holder producer organizations.  The money is being used to purchase and raise seedlings (see below) that will be distributed to farmers for reforesting their land. In combination, the climate change and the loss of trees have meant that the annual rains are washing away the topsoil at an alarming rate.

The PK Seedling Project

On the bright side, PK has obtained a letter of agreement with Natural Flavors (Newark, NJ) to buy all of their vanilla and cardamon once the growing and drying processes have been perfected.  A  second USAID grant application has been submitted to purchase a washing station large enough to handle the increased volume of coffee that is being brought in by the farmers.  Among other things, the grant will also be used to establish a small “cupping laboratory” in the office building so that farmers can actually taste the coffee that they grow and learn how their farming practices affect the quality; increase the number of women-led producer organizations in PK from 15 to 20; hire six field facilitators, who will visit the famers more frequently for purposes of training and problem-solving; and establish a nursery to test different variety of coffee trees for quality and yield, resistance to pests, etc.

All in all, the future looks bright for our friends at Peace Kawomera.  Incomes are steadily rising, women are being given greater independence and authority, democratic institutions are being strengthened, products are expanding, and the quality of their coffee is outstanding.  If you live  in the Chicago area, head over to JRC and buy a bag of delicious Mirembe Kawomera coffee. You can also support their efforts by buying their coffee at the Thanksgiving Coffee online store.

The Tar Sands Sit-In: Something is Happening!

photo credit: Milan Ilnyckyj

Have you been following the Tar Sands XL Pipeline Sit-In at the White House? This still-ongoing protest is being described as the biggest environmental civil disobedience action in a generation. It began on Saturday, Aug 21 and will continue until September 3. This action has already led to the arrest of almost 600 protesters to date, with crowds increasing every day.

Some background, courtesy of Friends of the Earth:

The Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada hopes to begin building a new oil pipeline that would trek close to 2,000 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas. If constructed, the pipeline, known as the Keystone XL, will carry one of the world’s dirtiest fuels: tar sands oil. Along its route from Alberta to Texas, this pipeline could devastate ecosystems and pollute water sources, and would jeopardize public health.

Giant oil corporations invested in Canada’s tar sands are counting on the Keystone XL pipeline to make the expansion of oil extraction operations profitable: The pipeline would double imports of dirty tar sands oil into the United States.

Pollution from tar sands oil greatly eclipses that of conventional oil. During tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three times higher than those of conventional oil, due to more energy-intensive extraction and refining processes. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry 900,000 barrels of dirty tar sands oil into the United States daily, doubling our country’s reliance on it and resulting in climate-damaging emissions equal to adding more than six million new cars to U.S. roads.

Before TransCanada can begin construction, the company needs a presidential permit from the Obama administration (no Congressional approval is needed.) Alas, Secretary of State Clinton is already on record as being “inclined” to approve the project and Obama has been ominously silent on the issue. Hence, this incredible, inspiring mobilization in DC.

All honor to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda – one of the leading rabbinical heroes of the environmental movement – who was among those arrested today (see above.) In a subsequent press release, he was quoted thus:

We must turn up the heat in a sustained effort against the scourge of climate change, which harms not just our land and water but people here and now, our human future and all earthly creation.

Please: if you aren’t able to join the action, please consider signing this petition or just contact the White House directly.

Fracking in Illinois? Pass SB 664!

Last January I addressed the serious ecological dangers of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) as a method for extracting natural gas from underground shale. At the end of the post, I noted with some alarm that a Louisiana energy company is currently seeking to lease hundreds of acres of farmland for fracking in Edwards County, IL.

Advocacy time. A important new piece of legislation is now being proposed by Faith in Place, an Illinois interfaith environmental coalition. Sponsored by Sen. Michael Frerichs, it is called SB 664 (or the “Fracturing Chemical Disclosure Act.”) and is modeled after a ruling by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Bottom line, SB 664 would:

• Require companies extracting natural gas from shale in Illinois to disclose their chemical formula to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and to the public.

• Prohibit the injection of volatile organic BTEX compounds into groundwater.

• Outline safeguards for storing and disposing of wastewater.

In other words, SB 664 would require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the drilling process. This way, if any polluted water or natural gas finds its way to a faucet, we will know exactly who put it there. And we can hold them accountable.

Faith in Place is looking for more legislative sponsors—and citizen support—to pass SB 664. If you live in Illinois, please click here to learn what you can do.

Fight Fracking in Illinois!

Those who care deeply for the welfare of the earth have been watching with alarm at the growth of hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) throughout the US.

Fracking (yes, fracking) is a means of extracting natural gas that involves drilling deep into the earth, through the aquifer into hard shale deposits. During the process, a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals is injected into the rock, causing a kind of mini-earthquake. Natural gas is then released through the cracks, eventually making its way to the surface, where it is piped to compressor stations.

During the compression process, toxic chemicals are burned off into the air while the used chemical fluid is either sent away or stored in on-site pits where it evaporates. The rest of the chemical fluid, however, remains deep underground.

As you might guess, communities where fracking takes place have reported increasing incidents of water contamination, environmental degradation and serious health problems. State and federal agencies have received thousands of complaints from people all over the country whose lives, homes and communities have been literally poisoned by fracking operations.

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Celebrate and Take Action This Tu B’shvat!

It’s utterly frigid here in Chicago. As I lose feeling in my toes, however, the Jewish calendar tells me it’s Tu B’shvat: the Birthday of the Trees, and the first harbinger of Spring.

And so my Tu B’shvat offerings for you:

An email I wrote on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace: this Tu B’shvat, please take action to save trees and uprooted communities in Israel/Palestine;

– From the Velveteen Rabbi: a lovely two-page Tu B’shvat Haggadah that covers all the bases quite gracefully. (Mazel Tov to the Velveteen Rabbi, who recently received her smicha and is now, as she puts it, “running and playing with the real rabbis.” Rabbi Rachel: don’t you know you’ve been a “real” rabbi to many of us for quite some time now…)

– For Tu B’shvat reading material, I encourage you to read this inspiring piece on “Spiritual Environmentalism” by Wangari Maathai, Kenyan tree-planter extraordinaire:

Human beings have a consciousness by which we can appreciate love, beauty, creativity, and innovation or mourn the lack thereof. To the extent that we can go beyond ourselves and ordinary biological instincts, we can experience what it means to be human and therefore different from other animals. We can appreciate the delicacy of dew or a flower in bloom, water as it runs over the pebbles or the majesty of an elephant, the fragility of the butterfly or a field of wheat or leaves blowing in the wind. Such aesthetic responses are valid in their own right, and as reactions to the natural world they can inspire in us a sense of wonder and beauty that in turn encourages a sense of the divine.

That consciousness acknowledges that while a certain tree, forest, or mountain itself may not be holy, the life-sustaining services it provides — the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink — are what make existence possible, and so deserve our respect and veneration. From this point of view, the environment becomes sacred, because to destroy what is essential to life is to destroy life itself.

I feel my toes warming up already…

“The Largest Art Project the World Has Ever Seen…”

Here’s a pretty awesome global statement arriving just ahead of UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico: the first global art show on climate change has just opened, launching several huge art projects seen from space designed to highlight the hazards of global warming.

The massive scale of the project is fairly breathtaking. Organized by activist Bill McKibben and his 350 Earth environmental advocacy group, thousands of volunteers ranging from New Mexico to China, Egypt, India and Spain, have gathered for a week long photo-performance project – using human bodies as the main media.

Click here for some amazing pix of the projects. The picture up top was taken of the effort in Santa Fe, in which over one thousand residents held blue posters in a dry riverbed to depict what it would (should) look like if there was actually water flowing through it.

In his email to 350 Earth supporters, McKibben wrote:

We’re not going to solve the climate crisis with art. We know that–we’re deeply based in science and politics. But we’re not going to solve the climate crisis without a movement. And art is one of the ways that movements express themselves, one of the things that reach human beings in powerful and deep ways. So by next week, when the UN climate conference in Cancun opens, we’ll be focused on a new set of ideas and tactics, asking your help for all sorts of practical and political things.

But today–today just know you’re part of the largest art project the world has ever seen.

Thank God We’ve Still Got Pete Seeger

If you’re starting to feel cynical and worn out at what’s going on in the world, just remember how long Pete Seeger has been fighting the good fight for us all. Check out his latest protest song, “God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting on You.” (Note among other things, his pointed reference to the BP oil disaster.)  Click below for the lyrics:

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