Facing up to the climate crisis: building eco-unions
Climate change and the dramatic reduction in biodiversity are getting worse every day, and some damage is already irreparable:
- Of all plant and animal species, one of eight is on the verge of extinction
- 3.3 to 3.6 billion people are "very vulnerable" to the impacts of climate change: drought, heat waves, storms, floods, and water shortages
- There will be no mountain glaciers left in 50 to 100 years if they continue to melt as they are melting now
- 50% of new farm land is created by cutting down forests
- One species of animal or plant disappears every 20 minutes
- 680 species of vertebrate animals have disappeared since the 16th century
- 8.79 million people have died from diseases caused by air pollution
- 92% of the world's population breathes polluted air
- The equivalent of a 7th continent made of plastic now sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It already measures 1.6 million square kilometers (618,000 square miles)
- One quarter of earth’s known species (vertebrates, invertebrates and plants) are in danger of extinction
This is perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. But while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports pile up, and with them the collective awareness of the disaster, the forces of the status quo still seem to be winning out over the forces of change. Industrial agriculture, oil companies, aircraft manufacturers, real estate speculators and all those who benefit from the polluting economy are powerful and want to keep their privileges. On the other side, those who would benefit from steps to protect the climate still seem too divided to swing the balance their way.
Our strategy: identify all communities on the front lines of the climate crisis and its impact, draw them together through community organizing, and build pressure within society as a whole, using unions as a model, to tip the scales towards reversing climate change.
What is an eco-union?
Syndicalism is another word for organized labor that comes from the Greek “syn” (συν) meeting and “diké” (δικος) justice. Unions create the power of the many to defend their shared interests: social justice. There are unions of workers, students, tenants, etc. When the shared interests of members of a union coincide with broader climate issues, we speak of eco-unions.
Many communities find themselves, through no fault of their own, on the front line of the climate struggle. Among these groups whose rights overlap with steps to protect the environment, we find, for example, Native American tribes living along the route of the Keystone pipeline in the United States, indigenous villages and communities on rivers around the Skouries gold mine in Greece or the Mountain of Gold in Guyana, and farmer members of the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil.
More broadly, we can see the emergence of eco-unions among river-dwelling residents near factories, industrial agricultural lands, and major roads that bring pollution, and all those whose environment has been degraded by major infrastructure projects or mining operations. The very livelihoods of some communities of workers are endangered by climate change. Those who work in polluted environments, such as those who harvest fruit heavily treated with pesticides also have a stake in practices less harmful to the environment and to human health.
The term eco-union was first used to describe unions of rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest founded in the 1960s by Chico Mendès. Workers tapping rubber trees see their livelihoods threatened by deforestation for the purpose of factory farming. Mendès’s union defends workers’ rights including environmental regulations that allow them to work in safe conditions. “At first I fought for workers, then I fought for the forest, and now I fight for humanity and the whole planet” said Chico Mendès before being assassinated on the orders of bosses of companies responsible for deforestation.
Since 2010, ReAct Transnational has supported citizen groups organizing against environmental harm from industrial agriculture. Characterized by intensive production, increasing mechanization, a never-ending tendency towards consolidation and expansion, and the massive use of chemicals, industrial agriculture harms the climate, the ecology, the economy, health, and society.
Industrial agriculture and ecocide
Between 2010 and 2019, agriculture has been responsible for from 13 to 21% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Deforestation, intensive livestock farming, and the production and use of nitrogen fertilizers are the main causes and these emissions are only increasing. Yet the sector could provide up to 30% of the global mitigation needed to limit climate change to between 1.5 or 2°C by 2050 [IPCC Report, 2022]. What are the harmful effects of industrial agriculture?
Monoculture and farm concentration
For several decades, French and international agriculture has seen a movement towards consolidation leading to farms that are fewer in number but larger in size. In France, the existence of increasingly large farms has led to a doubling of the price of agricultural land. Due to a lack of available land at affordable prices in France, nearly 5,000 people abandon farming every year.
Around the world, since 2008 non-governmental organizations have been documenting the surge in large-scale land acquisition contracts, labelled land grabs when these acquisitions are controversial. These contracts, often negotiated at the highest level in each country, do not take into serious account environmental and socio-economic conditions of the land in question. Even when it does not lead to the destruction of pre-existing food crops or homes, monoculture is responsible for the disappearance of forests and peat bogs, essential for the protection of biodiversity on a global scale.
Growing use of pesticides
“Pesticide” is a generic term that includes insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and parasiticides designed to kill different classes of living things. By definition, therefore, their use reduces biodiversity and weakens ecosystems, leading to lasting contamination of the air, soil and water. According to the Pesticide Action Network, 4.1 million tons of pesticides are currently used annually worldwide compared to 2.3 million tons in 1990. This upsurge in the use of pesticides is all the more worrying as the full extent of their destructive effects is better documented. Exposure to pesticides causes six serious illnesses, including prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease. While the use of certain molecules has been banned in Europe, these often remain available elsewhere in the world.
Beyond human health, the whole living world is threatened by this chemical pollution. Pesticides are one of the major causes of the decline of certain species of birds and terrestrial invertebrates. Responsible for the disappearance of nearly 80% of insects lost in Europe over the past 30 years, this pollution weakens all ecosystems and constitutes a real threat to all living things.
Scarcity of water
In 2013, the French Sustainable Development Commission (Commissariat général au développement durable) published a report showing that pesticides were present in almost all French waterways. Furthermore, unsafe chemical levels in groundwater has more than once forced France to ban the consumption of tap water in areas near industrial farms. Globally, the most common chemical contaminant found in groundwater aquifers is nitrate from agriculture [see Water Pollution from Agriculture: a global review, FAO, 2018]. Industrial agriculture thus remains one of the main sources of water pollution: runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and livestock waste all contribute to the long-term pollution of streams and underground waters.
The proliferation of large farms and the development of monocultures also affects who gets access to water. Their need for water creates conflicts over water rights. The economic and political power of agrobusiness firms regularly gets them priority over other users, people living near waterways or small farmers.
Violations of human rights
Along with the harms described above, industrial agriculture multinationals often violate fundamental human rights: the right to safe working conditions, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and the right to earn an adequate standard of living for oneself and one's family.
Agricultural workers on large farms are, in France and abroad, regularly employed under contracts that are seasonal and unstable. Some workers have no access to basic protective equipment, whether for the use of pesticides or the risk of bodily injury. The instability of workers' contracts - often temporary and oral only - limits the ability of workers notably in Africa and Asia win adequate working conditions and hinders them from organizing strong unions.
The emergence of multinational firms able to control the materials needed in agriculture and the marketing of agricultural products also leads to farming under contracts that hurt small producers. The success of small farmers depends on materials and on selling prices that are imposed on them and nearly unavoidable, dragging them into a spiral of debt.
Local communities are harmed when industrial farms are established. Their fields and homes are destroyed and their environment polluted. When they mobilize collectively to obtain financial compensation, the restoration of natural habitats, or the elimination of pesticide use near homes, they are often ignored or suppressed.
To oppose such injustice, ReAct Transnational works to promote the emergence of eco-unions among local communities impacted by industrial agriculture in France and around the world. We provide material support for their development, including organization assistance and training in non-violent collective actions. We build campaigns to provide assistance in networking and alliance-building, to conduct investigations and ensure media coverage, so that communities that organize can carry out winning campaigns.
Industrial agriculture is not the only sector of the economy where eco-unions organize to defend both their own interests and the environment. Energy-saving renovations for housing and alternatives to fossil fuels in transportation are examples of the changes sought by eco-unions made up of tenants, co-owners, users of public transport, and cyclists. All encourage going beyond conservative approaches and pave the way for the ecological revolution already in progress.