Persecuted and Imprisoned for Environmental Activism

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As the world celebrated Earth Day on April 22, we also marked a half century of environmental resistance and recrimination. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962 and is widely regarded as the genesis of the environmental movement. It also marked the beginning of persecution for those trying to protect planet Earth. A naturalist and prolific author who warned against the effects of synthetic pesticides, Carson’s work was met with aggressive opposition, and she was labeled a communist with sinister intentions employed by the Soviet Union.

The peasant women of the Chipko Movement in India in 1974 helped stop rapid deforestation and reclaim traditional forest rights by surrounding and literally hugging trees to stop them from being felled. Their efforts – which were ultimately successful – came at a cost, as they were abused and threatened with guns by the loggers.

Since the beginning, activists have been met with consequences for their environmental conviction, and those consequences increasingly include arrest and imprisonment.

In February, an 84-year-old Catholic nun, Sister Megan Rice, was sentenced to 35 months in prison and three years’ probation for her role in the environmental and antiwar action at the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear reservation in Tennessee. Sister Rice and her two collaborators, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli (who each received sentences of five years in prison and three years’ probation), broke into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, splashed blood and hung banners protesting the government’s possession and potential use of nuclear weapons. The Oak Ridge Y-12 facility houses America’s largest supply of highly enriched uranium, enough for thousands of nuclear weapons.

Sister Rice had already been arrested more than 40 times for civil disobedience and had previously served six months behind bars. In explaining this most recent action, she said, “The truth will heal us and heal our planet, heal our diseases, which result from the disharmony of our planet caused by the worst weapons in the history of mankind, which should not exist. For this we give our lives – for the truth about the terrible existence of these weapons.”

The nuclear facility has a sign on its perimeter that says “Deadly force is authorized beyond this point,” and while three senior citizens sit in prison cells for their peaceful protest in defense of the planet and human life, the government remains unindicted for its role in violent environmental destruction.

Climate change and its consequences can also result in illegal detentions, as is highlighted in the first episode of the new television series “Years of Living Dangerously.” In an interview with a mother and son in Syria, they describe their lives as farmers when the rains were good and how drastically things changed when the rains stopped and the land became dry. The farmer from Syria describes the authorities’ reaction to the climate crisis and what happened to her family: “We spoke out about the drought, saying the government must help. But no one gave a damn; instead, they brought us in for interrogation, and in the end, they detained us for two months . . . then they released us – provided we kept our mouths shut.”

In Russia, ecologist and activist Yevgeny Vitishko was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing the environmental impact of construction for the Sochi Olympic Games – something the Russian court ruled was a violation of a suspended sentence he had received for spray-painting the fence of a governor’s property in a national forest, where building is forbidden. In February, Vitishko began a hunger strike to protest his incarceration, an incarceration many people believe was politically motivated to deter other environmental activists from speaking out.

Also in Russia, “The Arctic 30” – a group of Greenpeace activists from 18 countries – were arrested at gunpoint for their peaceful protest of the Gazprom oil ring in an attempt to raise awareness about the threat oil drilling represents for climate disruption. The activists were held for two months on charges of piracy and faced sentences of 15 years each before the charges were eventually dropped to hooliganism due to international pressure, and the 30 were released on bail.

While behind bars, Polish Arctic 30 activist Thomas Dziemianczuk wrote in a letter from prison: “All of us are asking each other the question, whether we would do it again knowing the consequences? Yes, we would. We cannot get threatened and sometimes it is necessary to pay a high price for things we deeply believe in.”

In 2011 in Vietnam, journalist Ta Phong Tan was sentenced to 10 years in prison on propaganda charges for her social justice blogging, including around issues of land confiscation. In 2012, her mother died after self-immolation to protest her daughter’s detention. Activist Do Thi Minh Hanh is also behind bars in Vietnam: she was helping farmers file petitions to demand the return of confiscated lands and factory workers organize to strike. She was sentenced to seven years behind bars, and she was beaten and tortured there and is now deaf in one ear as a result.

In Canada, on October 17, 2013, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police broke up a three-week blockade by the Elsipogtog First Nation, which was opposing a fracking project outside of New Brunswick, and 40 protesters were arrested. Among those arrested were Aaron Francis and Germain Breau – who have been held ever since and who began their trial in early April 2014.

Suzanne Patles, who is a member of the Mi’kmaq Warriors Society, was there the day of the Elsipogtop arrests and explained the importance of the action to the Canadian press, saying: “There are going to be pipelines coming through all of our territories, and it is important that we realize that we have original title to the land, and that with anything that comes through our territories, the government and these corporations require our consent in order to proceed. . . . Once they destroy our territories and these resource companies are gone, we will be the ones left with destroyed land and poisoned water.”

Aboriginal communities have been at the forefront of environmental resistance. The Haisla First Nation and community in Kitimat, British Columbia, recently voted against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project,which many other organizations and communities oppose. A final decision is expected from the Canadian government in June, but they have consistently been more concerned with the projected $300 billion growth to GDP than with the environmental devastation the project would bring.

In March, 398 students and youth were arrested outside the White House during a large-scale environmental protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil every day from Alberta’s oil sands, and the Obama administration has once again delayed its decision around this issue, choosing mass arrests over listening to the voice of the people.

As the world continues its dreadful decline at the hands of man’s destruction and indifference toward safeguarding the planet, and those who fight to protect it are silenced, killed or imprisoned, we can look to leaders like Kenya’s environmental and political activist Wangari Muta Maathai, whose courage and determination are the kinds of seeds needed to sow lasting change.

Maathai brought attention to the environmental degradation that women faced as they had to walk hours looking for water. Her “Greenbelt Movement” fought the colonial legacy of deforestation and was used to create jobs with reforestation and voter registration.

Nothing could stop Maathai – who was targeted for assassination, arrested over and over again and beaten by police. She went on to be appointed the assistant minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources; she founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003 and in 2004; and she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Maathai died in 2011, but her legacy lives on in the thousands of trees planted and thousands of people inspired to work for change. Her words remain a call to action: “You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them. . . . We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.”