Life

Environment and social justice go hand in hand

For 40 years Afri has been working to fight injustices that link communities across the world

Afri is warning that scenes like this in Strabane, Co Tyrone area after Storm Desmond, will become more common if government leaders fail to tackle climate change. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

FORTY years ago an Irish priest set up an organisation to help the poor in Ireland and the developing world, but it would soon become one of the first to highlight the link between ‘big industry’, political apathy and environmental devastation.

In September 1975 Belfast-born cleric Fr Sean McFarren SBD garnered the support of friends to establish Aid from the Republic of Ireland, otherwise known as Afri.

Joe Murray, who has worked with Afri since the early 1980s, says the organisation quickly began to realise that “no matter how much money we sent [to developing countries]it was not going to solve the problem of hunger”.

“Sean MacBride used to say that you cannot talk about poverty and hunger unless you talk about war and militarism and he was right. We found that there was an obscene waste of resources and that there was always no problem finding money for war but not when it came to tackling hunger and providing clean water."

By 1982 the body was ready for the relaunch of the ‘new’ Afri, now meaning Action from Ireland, and linking social justice issues in Ireland with the Developing World.

Two years later, Afri supported the Dunnes Stores strike, when workers were sacked for refusing to handle ‘the fruits of apartheid’.

The organisation set up a meeting between the strikers and South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu on his way to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, raising the international profile of the strike.

The 90s saw Afri’s evolving mindset take a new turn amid a growing realisation that environmental damage caused by ‘big industry’ was destroying people’s lives.

They were instrumental in setting up and funding Ogoni Solidarity Ireland, which focussed on the exploitation of the Ogoni people, in the Niger Delta, by the Nigerian government and the Shell Oil Company.

Shell, which found oil in Ogoniland in 1957, only agreed a settlement last January to pay out £55 million to compensate those affected by innumerable oil spills and the resulting environmental damage.

For those in Afri, one of the most devastating consequences of the disaster was the 1995 hanging of environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others by their own government on trumped-up charges.

Joe blames the world’s “insatiable appetite for fossil fuels” for the tragedy of the Niger Delta, which is still wreaking havoc on people’s livelihoods and their health today.

“Afri was one of the first development groups to wake up to what was going on,” he says.

At home in Ireland, the group’s zeal for supporting local communities facing the might of industrial giants came into play once again when Shell began work on a high pressure gas pipeline after gas was discovered off the coast of Mayo.

In a David and Goliath battle, the ‘Rossport Five’ famously ended up spending almost 100 days in jail for their role in the protests against the Corrib Gas Project.

“The fossil fuel industry was on our own doorstop,” says Joe, adding that Afri found themselves “almost alone” as a global justice organisation supporting the community.

He believes that the anti-fracking campaign, that has seen communities joining forces across the border against proposals to use hydraulic fracturing to drill for shale gas, is stronger because of what the public witnessed in Mayo.

“Mayo woke up the country to what was happening when the fossil fuel industry arrives to your doorstep,” Joe adds, but warns that the anti-fracking lobby “must not become complacent”.

Afri’s participation in the campaign included bringing to an Irish audience the experience of other communities, like the victims of the Bhopal Disaster in India, where more than 500,000 people were exposed to 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals after a leak at a pesticide plant in 1984.

The effects of that leak are still being felt, with a recent medical study finding that “far too many children are being born with congenital malformations to parents with acute exposure to the toxic gas or chronic exposure to contaminated water compared to those who were not affected by either of the two”.

For a number of years, the charity has been organising an annual Famine Walk, to remember the victims of Ireland’s own man-made environmental, economic and humanitarian disaster.

And the Afri Hedge School has been established as a flagship event – a symbol of refuge and resistance to past and current oppressions – with contributors including former president and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson.

With the world watching over the past fortnight, as the COP21 talks in Paris strove to ensure that world leaders reached a proactive agreement on tackling climate change, the sense of urgency around the issue of global social justice has never been greater.

In a dreadful twist, thousands of families across our own island have been hit by flooding this week with a series of fierce storms resulting in torrential rains and burst river banks.

Joe says that long-time political complacency in both Belfast and Dublin is a factor in the floods that have affected countless businesses, homeowners and farmers.

“One of the problems about the debate on climate change is that people keep speaking in the future tense… about what will happen to our children and our grandchildren. Unfortunately, however, climate change is not a future tense issue – it’s a real and present danger.

“Anyone who doubts this would only need to have travelled through Ireland over the weekend to see the floods that have laid waste to much of the country. Severe flooding is now occurring with a regularity and intensity not seen before, while the response of our governments has been less that inspiring, to say the least,” says Joe.

:: If you would like to support Afri’s work you could take part in its Cape Cod Charity Challenge in September 2016, involving a 100km walk over five days on the beautiful peninsula one hour from Boston. For more details, email capecodchallenge@gmail.com, see afri.ie, or call 00353 1882 7563/7581, or write to Afri, 34 Phibsborough Road,Dublin 7, Ireland.

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