As I prepare to travel to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Climate March, I am deeply focused on our Jewish obligation to repair the world and safeguard the earth and its inhabitants. As Genesis tells it, it took six days to create the complex majesty of the universe. Today, I fear that we are frighteningly close to undermining this majesty. But we have the power and responsibility to act, and we must and will.
That’s why I am proud to join with supporters of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) to march in Washington, D.C. with thousands of people who are concerned about the horrific effects of climate change and environmental degradation that cause millions of people to suffer around the globe and threaten life on Earth itself.
When we march, we will take each step in solidarity with the 21 grassroots organizations that AJWS supports in the developing world that are combatting the devastating impact of climate change and seeking climate justice for their communities. Ironically, these communities have done the least to cause climate change but, tragically, they suffer disproportionately from its ravaging effects. Small-scale and subsistence farmers are losing the crops they need to survive because of prolonged droughts. Powerful and destructive storms are washing away homes and communities. People are migrating within Africa in response to famine caused by severe drought. And people in low-lying coastal regions are migrating inland to escape rising seas.
The activists whom AJWS supports are resisting the causes and consequences of climate change often at great risk to their safety. To mark this momentous march, I am sharing three remarkable stories of activists in Burma, Mexico, and Uganda who are on the frontlines of the fight for climate justice.
Women come together to resist a dam in Burma
Often touted as “clean energy,” dams actually emit high volumes of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change. In Kachin State in Northern Burma, a Chinese corporation has displaced thousands of people from their ancestral villages to make way for the construction of the Myitsone Dam. The proposed site for this megaproject, at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, is Burma’s most important water resource as well as a sacred site for the Kachin people. Though the future of the dam is still uncertain, the thousands of villagers who have been coerced into relocating are unable to return to their villages.
The thousands of people who have been displaced are not giving up the rights to their land quietly. The grassroots organization Mungchying Rawt Ja (MRJ), which AJWS supports, has been bringing local people together to make them aware of their rights and challenge the confiscation of their land.
Indigenous farmers fight for water rights in Mexico
As climate change prolongs and intensifies droughts, farmers are struggling to obtain enough water to grow the crops they need to survive. In Mexico’s Ocotlan Valley, indigenous farming families who have lived off the land for generations have begun to experience this struggle. In 2006, Mexico’s national water authority CONAGUA restricted indigenous communities’ water use and overcharged them for the very water it rationed. The crops withered because local communities couldn’t pay their sky-high water bills. At the very same time, CONAGUA provided ample water to nearby mines, industrial farms and hotels.
Local organization Centro de Derechos Indigenas Flor y Canto (Flower and Song Center for Indigenous Rights), which AJWS supports, helped local indigenous farmers advocate for their water rights—especially during times of water scarcity caused by climate change. In 2013, they sued CONAGUA and won, with the municipal tribunal ruling that the water commission must consult with the farmers and give them a say in how water resources are allocated. This landmark legal victory upheld the water rights of 2.1 million indigenous people.
Land rights and livelihoods for women farmers in Uganda
In Uganda’s oil-rich Albertine region, the endless search for climate-changing fossil fuels has investors buying, developing, and drilling for oil on land that has been lived on and farmed by communities for centuries. Ugandan law protests customary land rights and calls for compensation for those affected by development, but these laws are rarely enforced. Women are even more vulnerable to land grabs and less likely to receive financial compensation since, traditionally, family land is in the husband’s name.
I am proud that AJWS supports Kwataniza Women Farmer’s Group (KWG), a grassroots organization that is challenging the sexism in Uganda’s land customs, and has pushed the government to recognize female landowners and compensate them fairly. KWG is also providing women with the skill they need to farm sustainably and raise livestock.
While climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time, when I think about grassroots organizations like MRJ, Flor y Canto, and KWG, I can’t help but feel hopeful about the future. When I see Jews committed to repairing the world unite with grassroots groups working as stewards of their natural resources, I know that we can build a better world together. I hope that you will join me as I renew my commitment to care for creation and fight for climate justice.
Robert Bank is President and CEO of American Jewish World Service, the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights in the developing world. Robert has spent his career championing human rights as an attorney, activist and leader. He joined AJWS as Executive Vice President in 2009 and previously served in New York’s municipal government and in the leadership of GMHC—one of the world’s leading organizations combating HIV/AIDS. Robert has been honored with GMHC’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Partners in Justice Award from AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. He is also an adviser to The Conversation: Jewish in America and is a board member of Peripheral Vision International. Robert’s passion for human rights was shaped growing up in a Jewish family in South Africa, which was engaged in the struggle to end apartheid.