Guest blog post by Kelly Bono, Spring 2023 Environmental Justice Intern
“We can improve outcomes for people by caring for our environment. We just have to dig in.”-Kelly
As a social justice advocate that also happens to study ecosystems, I’m very interested in how human social systems, the natural environment and the built environment all contribute to the well-being of humans and non-humans alike. This spring I served as an MCU Environmental Justice intern, where I worked under the guidance of Beth Gutzler to increase community garden uptake in the geographic footprint of Ritenour School District. I often stand with one foot in the sustainability field and the other in the social justice realm, but community gardens are places where I can firmly plant both of those feet. Urban gardens are often organized with food justice in mind, but when planned intentionally, they can ALSO serve as an environmental remediation tool. They can improve air, water, and soil, even increase biodiversity and offer relief from the urban heat island effect.
Through our environmental justice work at MCU we recognize that human well-being is directly tied to the environment and take action to improve outcomes for people harmed by their environment. The reverse is also true: the health of our environment is directly tied to the humans that live there. Are we, as activists of faith, standing witness to this fact and doing our part to ensure the care of our Creator’s most precious gift to us, our Earth and all of Creation? Do we recognize that it is in our self-interest to protect biodiversity, preventing the mass extinction of a web of species that support human life in both visible and unseen ways?
There seems to be a prevailing thought among social justice and environmental activists alike: we can act on behalf of people or we can act on behalf of the environment, but not both. But the truth is that we can develop initiatives that serve both interests simultaneously– just look at community gardens. In the conservation field, an approach that centers local people in the process of caring for and protecting their environments called “community based conservation” CBC, is gaining popularity. When CBC is done effectively, locals gain economic benefits and improve environmental outcomes. They work alongside researchers, technicians, and funding institutions to maintain ecosystems and natural resources, not unlike MCU’s AirWatchSTL program. Just as AirWatchSTL reclaims the monitoring of air quality from the government and puts ownership back into the hands of local people, CBC reclaims conservation work from governments and NGOs, returning the care of land and resources to local and indigenous peoples.
Hacienda Herrera’s Ecolodge. The boardwalk provides a walking path over the marsh and is a prime bird watching spot for researchers, students, and tourists. Photo by Kelly Bono.
My summer coursework included an academic trip to Hacienda Herrera, a CBC site in the Peruvian rainforest. At Hacienda Herrera, a local family operates an orchard using environmentally sustainable practices which support the adjacent rainforest. They share their space with a bird research program called CECCOT, and together the two programs work to preserve wildlife and explore best practices in sustainable agriculture. Maintaining habitat for local bird populations helps to draw in tourists for bird watching and provides educational opportunities for local and foreign students. The ecolodge at Hacienda Herrera provides hospitality and freshly grown food for researchers, students, and tourists who visit the site. All of this activity generates agriculture and ecotourism jobs, offering economic opportunities outside of a mining industry that drives organized crime, ecosystem destruction, and dangerous mercury pollution in the region.
Cacao growing in the Hacienda Herrera orchard. Multiple varieties of cacao, citrus, banana, and other fruit trees are grown, a more sustainable practice than monoculture farming. Photo by Kelly Bono.
Though the Peruvian rainforest may seem like a world away, I see the spirit of Hacienda Herrera in urban farming programs popping up in St. Louis and other US cities. These programs improve and protect our air, water, and soil, provide educational and economic opportunities for the community, improve food access and security in food deserts, and preserve cultural practices. How would our region be transformed if each neighborhood had a grassroots program committed to meeting the unique needs of the community, dismantling the oppressive systems that poison our environment and the living things within it, both figuratively and literally? But we must act now: scientists are clear that there isn’t much time to slow the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss. We can improve outcomes for people by caring for our environment. We just have to dig in.
To learn more and get involved, contact Beth Gutzler, Environmental Justice Organizer at Beth@mcustl.com