EMEAC holds community debriefing on U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun

April 4, 2011

DETROIT -- The East Michigan Environmental Action Council held a community debriefing on January 5 at Hannan House to report out to the local Detroit environmental activist community on the EMEAC delegation's activities at the United Nations' 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) Climate Change Conference that took place in Cancun, Mexico from November 29 to December 10.
EMEAC Executive Director Diana Copeland and Associate Director Ahmina Maxey, who comprised the Detroit delegation to the Cancun conference, facilitated a discussion at the debriefing with representatives from the state and local Sierra Clubs, National Environmental Justice Office, Zero Waste Detroit, The Ecology Center, Great Lakes Detroit Bioneers, Boggs Center, Food Justice Task Force, Black Community Food Security Network, People's Water Board, Green/Blue Alliance, United Auto Workers and others. At the debriefing the delegation detailed their organizing efforts and discussed a range of topics of interest to local community members that came up at the conference like the U.S. Government's deceptively titled Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) plan and their collaboration with the Grassroots Global Justice delegation.
"I think it went really well as far as organizing," Copeland said. "I'm not happy with the outcome of COP 16, but in terms of our organizing I felt like it was well worth our time. I think that things went very well and we were able to assess some things and have a stronger relationship and I am very glad that we did it.

After the EMEAC team gave an account of their activities at the conference, they then engaged the representatives in attendance in a dialogue about how local groups can come together to be more effective in taking on environmental challenges in the Detroit Metro area. By the end of the debriefing, all parties in attendance agreed that Detroit is uniquely situated on the domestic landscape to become a hub of environmental activism in the U.S. and that time for greater collaboration between the various environmental groups is needed now more than ever.

"Coming out of the (U.S.) Social Forum was a good place to start," Copeland said. "We are very rooted in Detroit.  Doing the social forum and being the anchor organization really helped with organizing. We deal with pieces of all these different movements, all these different networks, all these different organizations that were coming to Detroit. We had to look at what was our relationship to them. It opened up a lot of opportunities and a lot of questions.

"During the forum we had a lot of conversations because people were interested in what was our position on climate justice and hearing about the incinerator issue. Of course, that led to how our struggles around environmental justice and the incinerator issues locally connect to the national struggles around environmental justice. We then connect that to the global struggles because it is all related.

"It's very easy to get caught up in what's happening in your own community that you lose focus of what's happening that you are not focused on what are the solutions and what are the tools being developed outside of your own organization that can actually help you in your struggle. The main goal was to understand and learn about those tools that were available to possibly put pressure to help win local victories. We also want to find out who are our allies nationally that can also help -- not only in providing models but in putting pressure on either the city council or the state government in helping to implement federal regulations that will help to create a better environment in the city of Detroit. That was the big goal."

Coming out of the COP, both Copeland and Maxey agreed that another primary benefit was the organizing and strategy tools they learned while working with delegations from all around the world. The delegation learned tips on how to create mobile media hubs and small informational brochures called zines like the No-REDD Reader.

"We went there with Grassroots Global Justice. That was about 25 people from different communities across the country," Maxey said. "There were two people from Appalacia. There were two people from L.A. There were people from New York. There were people from New Jersey. Also, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) was there. They have a presence at every single COP. We were all kind of there side by side. 

"A lot of the work we were doing was supporting I.E.N. They were really doing a lot of the organizing around REDD," Maxey said. "There was like all 40 of us. We strategized everyday about the conference. We had an inisde strategy for those who were going in there. We wanted to pay attention and push hard and ask hard questions. We wanted to push other NGOs to jump on the REDD Bandwagon and push the other way."

The REDD program essentially seeks to commoditize forested areas in developing nations through a new form of carbon trading. Many environmental groups are opposing the plan on the basis that not only does it fail to honor the basic human and land rights of indigenous populations in those countries, but it also fails to effectively reduce greenhouse emissions or protect the forests. In fact, REDD will only allow polluting industries a way to avoid emission reduction through cheap REDD offsets while actually increasing pollution.

"In addition to the inside strategy, there were also people who were there to elevate the issue," Maxey said. "There was media circulating throughout the whole thing. There were people there who held demonstrations, actions and protests within the space. Then, there was a tiny area where they allowed people to hold signs and protests, so that’s where we did it.

"There was also the outside strategy. That was the one that we were involved in. Our job was elevating the issue with the media from the outside. That was easier because we had a lot of freedom. Sometimes, it was in downtown Cancun and other times it was way far away. There was a really strong police presence. It was almost like a police state. It was crazy." 

In addition to on the ground activist tools and strategies, Copeland also emphasized the importance learning more about educational, legal and fundraising tools they were exposed to in Cancun.

"When we talk about tools, I'm not only talking about policy tools but there were several different types of things. There are also these charters like the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. If you know these documents, they can be used in your own community. If the community knows this, then they can hold corporations accountable.

"The other tool out of many of these COP Conferences is that if they do pass this REDD there are funds accessible to the community. They need to know how do you get access to them because too often the money is only going to the organization that (funders) pick to dole out and feed it to instead of directing it to the community. If we know that that is coming down the pike and we can let the community know about it, that's a significant tool. We did that with the Digital Justice Collective and the Hot Mesh Network. They went after the federal stimulus money for the broadband grant because many people didn't know that that was available for community groups.

 "There are the policy tools, the charter tools and the funding tools. Then there are the organizing tools. What we are learning from the outside of the U.N. space is how are our communities coming together to meet their own demands. Not only are there techniques around doing banner drops that can get a lot of attention. That was a good example of that when during the Air Quality March; they dropped a big banner next to the incinerator to let people know what was happening there. We can use art or use banners to point a finger at a community burden. That's a tool."

From this experience and others in 2010 like hosting the U.S. Social Forum, EMEAC plans to move forward in concert with all their partners in hopes of making Detroit a focal point of the environmental justice movement.

"This was the first time that Ahmina and I had participated in anything that large as far as a national or global issue," Copeland said. "We really just needed to understand the lay of the land and bring that back to our organization in terms of our strategy going into these types of global events.

"Coming off of the social forum, we connected back up with Grassroots Global Justice and Gaia and other different groups that we had worked with during the forum. We wanted to make sure that we had solidified that connection to make sure that wasn't just a one time thing and that we were actually building something. It was a next step from the social forum into this climate justice space to really shore up those relationships and understand that you all helped us out so much, and we built so much through the social forum. This is going to continue. This is going to lead to other victories and bigger and better things like a better climate."