Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Fighting for the future

Raising awareness of environmental issues can be a thankless task, but there is a growing band of campaigners dedicated to the cause. Who are they, how did they get involved and what are their hopes for the future, asks Sylvia Thompson
Tony Lowes, co-founder and activist with Friends of the Irish Environment
US-born Tony Lowes describes the environmental non-governmental organisation Friends of the Irish Environment as the "radical wing of the Irish environmental movement". His own interest in environmental issues began in 1990 when a Dutch developer applied for planning permission to build a holiday village on Cod's Head on the Beara Peninsula, Co Cork. Lowes had been living in nearby Allihies since 1971.
"I found out that the area was protected and the development was stopped,” he says. "My solicitor suggested that I join a national environmental organisation, so I joined the Cork branch of An Taisce and later set up a west-Cork branch."
Lowes learned a lot from that organisation and still collaborates with An Taisce.
In 1997, along with other environmental campaigners (including David Healy, Peter Sweetman, Sarah Dillon and Roger Garland), he founded Friends of the Irish Environment with the specific aim to use EU law to campaign on environmental issues in this country. "Previous to that, no one referred cases to the European Court of Justice for advice," he explains.
Issues relating to road developments and forestry are specific areas of expertise and drawing on both legal and academic experts, Lowes makes submissions, appeals, complaints and petitions on behalf of local groups which don't have such expertise.
Meanwhile, as funding continues to be an issue, Lowes and his wife, Caroline Lewis, have been involved in the development of the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation, centred on a sustainable forestry project in west Cork. Drawing on the support of local celebrities, including Jeremy Irons and Darina Allen, they hope the mixed-species woodland known as the Manch project will be a model for forestry in the 21st century.
Éanna Ní Lamhna, president of An Taisce
Nature expert, lecturer and a familiar voice from radio, Co Louth native Éanna Ní Lamhna became president of An Taisce, Ireland's oldest environmental non-governmental organisation, in 2004.
With her strong interest in environmental education, Ní Lamhna has introduced a more populist approach but she is none the less ardent when it comes to speaking out about the planning issues that resulted in An Taisce being castigated in some circles.
"People in Ireland don't want to be told what to do with their land, but the environment needs to be protected, and one-off houses in the countryside make people dependent on cars and often result in septic tanks polluting the water table."
She is keen to stress, however, that An Taisce is about much more than planning, as its activities include programmes for green schools, clean coasts, biodiversity and anti-litter campaigns.
Through her regular slots with Derek Mooney on RTÉ radio and her nature books (Talking Wild, Wild and Wonderful and Straight Talking Wild), Ní Lamhna has informed, educated and amused a significant section of Irish society. The lack of environmental awareness in this country, she feels, stems from the fact that issues relating to the environment were not taught in schools until the early 1970s.
"For over half the population, the most pressing environmental issue is household waste and that's because the bin charges have hit people in their pockets," she says. "The problem is that there is no joined-up thinking on environmental issues. What I do is make the links for people and I firmly believe you can only conserve the things you love, you can only love the things you know and you can only know what you've been taught."
Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth
At the tender age of seven, Oisín Coghlan's parents brought him to demonstrations against the building of the Civic Offices Wood Quay, Dublin and to the anti-nuclear rally at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford.
Working as a community worker in Mexico and in Belize honed his sense of social justice and led to jobs with the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International in Bonn, Germany and Christian Aid in Ireland. A trip to the world environmental summit in Johannesburg, South Africa exposed him again to environmental causes. "I witnessed the Friends of the Earth campaign on corporate accountability - rights for people, rules for companies. It was very impressive."
In 2005, he applied for and got the job as director of Friends of the Earth. "They have a very simple definition of environmental justice, which is no less than a decent environment for everyone and no more than a fair share of the Earth's resources," he says. "Ireland will become the fifth most generous overseas aid giver by 2012 and we are already the fifth most climate pollutant nation in the world," he says. "These two facts don't match up. There is a
disconnect between our generosity and our reckless pollution which is undermining the livelihoods of people in the poorest parts of the world," he says.
Coghlan is pushing for a seat at the table of the next round of social partnership talks. "I believe climate and energy will dominate the public agenda in the next decade in the way that unemployment and emigration dominated in previous decades. We need a paradigm shift and environmental NGOs need to be a voice at the table. With the Greens now in government, it's all the more important that there are strong campaigning voices in society keeping the pressure on," he says.
Elaine Nevin, national director of Eco-Unesco
Growing up on a small farm in Co Galway left Elaine Nevin with an enduring sense of the wonder of the natural world. "I was always interested in nature and the environment. I studied sociology, politics and geography at NUI Galway, which then introduced me to the way people behave in groups," she explains. Nevin worked in Spain for three years, teaching geography, science and environmental studies in a bilingual secondary school.
Her work with Eco-Unesco, the environmental education and youth organisation, began in 1995 when she became its Environmental Clubs Development officer. Then she returned to university to do a master's degree in women's studies, concentrating on gender politics and eco-feminism.
This was followed by some years teaching in secondary schools and developing educational resources on environmental issues. "I feel environment and our connection to it is hugely important. A lot of people don't see how fragile our ecosystems are," she says.
She returned to work for Eco-Unesco in 2001, originally as programme co-ordinator before becoming national director in 2002. Nevin sees the role of Eco-Unesco as one of "empowerment and awareness-raising". The annual Young Environmentalists Awards and other youth education and activities programmes are the principle activities of the organisation. Eco-Unesco also runs an accredited training programme on sustainable development.
Nevin feels strongly that environmental organisations should be represented in social partnership talks. "You can't have a real social partnership without taking environmental issues into consideration," she says.
Davie Philip, events and communications manager at Cultivate
Scotland-born Davie Philip has been one of the key people to mainstream the theory and practice of sustainable living in Ireland. Despite growing up under
the shadow of Scotland's biggest oil refinery in Grangemouth - where he worked for four years after leaving school - environmental issues were not prominent in his early years. Yet while Philip is highlighting the issues we will face from declining oil stocks and climate change, back home in Scotland, his brother is campaigning with Friends of the Earth to stop BP pulling out of Scotland and leaving a brownfield site behind them.
Philip ran a successful action sports clothing company in Scotland for eight years before heading off for a few soul-searching years in Asia. Following his return, he moved to Ireland to study anthropology at NUI Maynooth, where his environmental sensitivities surfaced.
Since then Philip has dedicated himself to pushing forward a culture of sustainability (reducing energy use, strengthening local communities, etc). He coedited the Sustainable Ireland Source Book 2000. Together with Ben Whelan and Eric van Lennep-Hyland, he organised the first Convergence Festival in 2000. In 2003, the Cultivate Centre in Temple Bar opened and it is now established as a shop and venue for courses on sustainable living.
Meanwhile, Philip continues to live in Dublin, but as a member of the Village project, his long-term plans are to live and work in the eco-community in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary. His latest campaign, Stop Climate Chaos - on which he is working with a number of environmental and development organisations - aims to ensure Ireland plays its part in preventing runaway climate change.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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