About IATP

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.

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About Think Forward

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.



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February 11, 2011

Reversing a commitment to safe energy production in Minnesota

The Minnesota State House panel voted earlier this week to repeal the moratorium on new nuclear power generation. While there is little chance this bill will be enacted into law in its current form, it demonstrates a lack of concern for the health and well being of all Minnesotans. The House panel vote follows the passage of a similar bill in the Senate.

Presented as a “clean” energy option, the Minnesota legislature is ignoring the realities of producing electricity using a highly toxic and radioactive material which poses a threat to communities in all stages of mining, processing and waste disposal.

The state moratorium was implemented in 1994 because of the lack of real solutions to these critical concerns - concerns that remain largely unresolved. The high economic cost of nuclear energy should also give us pause. Minnesota has long been a leader in energy alternatives and should instead be directing these investments into more cost-effective solutions that would benefit the local economy - such as energy efficiency, wind, bio-based fuels and solar. Real clean energy options and conservation offer all Minnesotans alternatives that are renewable and safe today and for the future. And importantly, these energy sources can also create many more jobs here in Minnesota, benefiting the state and local economies.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy supported the moratorium when it was passed in 1994. Proponents of lifting the moratorium declare that this does not necessarily mean new nuclear plants will be built, but there is no doubt that this is the first – critical - step in this high risk cycle of energy production. We look to the legislature to demonstrate common sense and stop the drive to allow expansion of nuclear power in Minnesota.

Stay tuned for a webinar series the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is organizing on nuclear energy scheduled to begin in March.

Shalini Gupta

December 10, 2010

Water warriors testify in Cancún

People working on water and climate change—water warriors—participated in a workshop organized at the alternate COP 16, known as Dialogo Climatico. At a session titled "Water, Dams and Disasters," we heard moving testimonies from those affected by toxic pollution in their air and water, and peasants displaced from their farms. 

Indigenous Rights and Water

“Indigenous Peoples 'managed' lands for thousands of years, and it wasn’t until the colonizers came that the problems began.”  

We heard from the Fort Berthold nation from North Dakota first and there was no mincing of words. Speaking to all present, she said, “we  were colonized, and we speak the voice of colonizers.” She said this, because she spoke in English and not her Native language. Native languages in the U.S. have been decimated. The modern system has relied on fossil fuel based energy because it is cheap. It is cheap because it has historically been exempt from paying its dues, both to our environment and to humanity. The list is long, black lung, mountaintop removal, company town exploitation, mercury, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, mining accidents, sulfur dioxide, and of course, water pollution. Coal, in particular, needs water—and massive amounts of it—to be transformed into energy we can use. The consequences can never be fully measured. But contrast this with values that have guided Indigenous peoples.

“We believe that coal is like the liver of our Mother Earth, it naturally filters the water.” 

The tensions between different knowledge systems are certainly on display in these settings. What is truth to one community is denigrated as myth to another. One does not have to believe in Indigenous beliefs, but if we are to live in a truly democratic society, the right to retain these longstanding ways of knowing must be acknowledged. In so-called “modern” times, “modern” science has become the ultimate validator of truth. But from the perspective of Indigenous people, its contribution tends to come as a Johnny-come-lately compared to Indigenous science. For example, Indigenous people have warned about massive resource extraction for hundreds of years. 

 “Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. We have good hearts, good minds and good souls. One path leads to destruction, and one leads to renewal.”

Unequal Toxicity

 “We have a history of commodification beginning with peoples, bought them across the seas and sold them on the open market. Since then, we have been fighting oppressive regimes of capitalism.” 

Next came the recounting of the historical exploitation of African American people and communities by an environmental and human rights advocate from the southern United States. Just as the organization and technology of the modern energy structure has been evolving and innovating to new stages of development, the story of how communities have had to respond to this evolution was presented through the eyes of one such place. The town of Mossville, Louisiana was formed by five families of former slaves in the late 1700s. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway used to travel to Mossvile to fish and muse for his writing precisely because it was known to be a rich biodiverse area. But all of that changed with the modern appetite for energy and things. Years later, Mossville was founded by another group of actors: a set of corporate production facilities. Today, in an area covering 5.5 square miles, 14 industrial facilities are in operation.

“These companies are emitting many of the most toxic chemicals, choking the life of the community— people can no longer fish or grow crops. Their bodies are contaminated and yet their call for safe alternatives is not heard.”

Hydro: The Old Green or the New Green?

In the race to find low-carbon solutions, hydro power continues to be at the top of the alternative list; but then we heard from those on the other side of the dam: Mexico's Indigenous communities and farmers.

“Our town is going is be flooded by the dam; the place where we have lived, where we have grown our food,  where we fish.”

We heard from those who are struggling to have a voice. The rush to economic development, including tourism and expansion of energy through “green” alternatives, has catalyzed investment for massive large-scale projects. But what about the villager whose livelihood is affected and whose community is displaced? He asks for help in understanding how his human right to water and life can go unanswered. 

“They’re privatizing water, and selling it to rich companies. Poor farmers will be left without anything. The hills will not be able to be cultivated. We have thermal waterfalls, hot water, springs, but now it’s a tourist area.”

The message being received is that agriculture is not valued, the natural flows of water are without value, sustainable livelihoods are irrelevant, and people are displaced. This to the farmer is what it means to live in a commodified world. Green or clean energy without democracy will fail at its core objective.  Democratic clean energy systems are more than technological alternatives, they are alternatives in which political voice is given to everyone.

“We don’t agree with them setting a price on our lands and our waters. Not only people who have money have rights.”

In closing, everyone reaffirmed the intrinsic connection between water, climate and food security. Any solutions need to support local approaches and connect globally to challenge the institutions that do not value people or ecosystems.

Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Shiney Varghese are blogging from the U.N. climate talks in Cancún, Mexico.

Ben Lilliston

December 09, 2010

Elegant in Cancún

Women gathered at EsMex: an alternative climate forum in Cancún to discuss REDD+ as a strategy for dealing with climate emissions. A circle of women, surrounded by yet more circles of Indigenous women and men shared their thoughts about forests, life, community and climate change.

We came in late, but like a real friend whom you have not seen for years and yet pick up where the last conversation left off, it was easy to fold into the flow of the discussion. I confess to marveling at the way people from communities who live intimately with the natural world are so...elegant. I remembered what one of my Ojibwe mentors once advised me as we sat in a ceremony: never assume because someone is quiet that they are not speaking; never assume that because someone is not moving that they are not active. Thousands of miles from the home of my mentor, I was witnessing the same dignity of people who speak truth from their hearts. 

It was as if climate change jargon had been left at the door. There was no discussion of 350 ppm, MRV, GHG or CDM. But we were there to talk about REDD. And so the women spoke of their lives, their aspirations for their community and their hopes. They spoke of living well and working hard, of children and of earth. And, of course, of REDD. My friend, IATP's Shiney Varghese, shared her thoughts on the life blood of water and women's struggles for basic human rights all over the planet. My friend, Michele Roberts, a woman  who works in the Louisiana gulf, spoke of her fears. She described life among oil refineries, and life after hurricanes and oil spills. One might have expected that rural women of the South would look with cynicism at the plight of those living in the wealthiest country of the world. But as she described the world of cancer alley, holding back her tears, others in the room were filled with compassion. We were in a room of people with no titles and no agenda. They were simply speaking their truths, but more importantly they were also hearing the truth of one another. 

The session ended, and picture taking began. Bolivian women, cameras in hand, asked for a picture with the woman from the gulf. Not because she could offer them development money, but because she spoke about the reality of life. Thousands of miles from my Ojibwe mentor, I could see her smiling. For her, as with Michele, Shiney and me, hope is not in the sterility of endless point-counterpoint, international negotiations of complex legalisms. Nor is it in the abstracted movements of the North centering themselves around 350 ppm. Who among us really knows what that means? At the end of the day, we will tackle climate change when those “in charge” begin behaving like the women and men in that room: elegantly. 

Dr. Cecilia Martinez is blogging from the U.N. climate talks in Cancún, Mexico. She is a senior policy fellow with the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP.

Ben Lilliston

From Cancún to Minnesota: The need for environmental justice

On Tuesday night, IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) hosted an event in Minneapolis that connected the need for climate justice in Cancún with local grassroots environmental justice efforts. It was part of the “1000 Cancun’s”, a day of climate justice action around the world.  The event included a local EJ panel as well as a live report back from three members of the National (U.S.) Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change. The event was filmed and webcast by The UpTake and a video is available below (in English). Pictures from the event are also available on IATP's Flickr page. You can follow the EJ delegates blogging from Cancun on our blog page, Think Forward.  

The event begins at the 8-minute mark below, with the speakers entering as follows:

Shalini Gupta, IATP, introduction: 8:00

Cochabamba People's Climate Summit video: 12:26

LeMoine LePointe, advisory board of IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy: 24:43

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, Rural Enterprise Center: 35:08

Veronica Burt, Just Equity: 44:27

Deborah Ramos, Zenteotl Project: 54:11

Liza O'Reilly, Zenteotl Project: 1:01:10

Question and Answer: 1:06:00

Call-in reports from Cancún (Cecilia Martinez, Michele Roberts and Jose Bravo): 1:09:32

Watch live streaming video from theuptake at livestream.com


Andrew Ranallo

US in the hot seat on REDD+

The event, "Launch of United States Strategy for REDD+ USAID," was held today at COP 16. As U.S. negotiator Todd Stern publicly called upon us to have “measured expectations” for an international climate agreement, officials from U.S. AID  and U.S. Treasury laid out exuberant strategies for implementation of REDD+ projects to protect forests around the world. As of yet, the U.S. has made no commitments for reducing its own contributions to the alteration of the atmosphere. But, this has not stopped what presenters today outlined as a push for developing countries to adopt large scale REDD+ projects.

The session was intended to present how the U.S., through a range of bilateral and multilateral projects, was providing equity-driven capital for a carbon-reduced development path. After each panelist presented there was opportunity for questions. Question after question asked what the U.S.’s solutions for climate change were. The panelists seemed stumped for answers. At one point, an audience member asked, “are you for colonialism or are you against?” Response: “I don’t understand the question.” 

At a minimum, one would expect that U.S. representatives outlining the strategies of such a massive controversial investment would have at least been prepared for an answer. Instead, in an interesting effort at redirecting the discussion, the response was that environmental justice issues were being taken very seriously by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Emphasis was also given to the U.S.’s commitment to a “process” of inclusion. Note the word “inclusion,” and not the word “outcome.” The evidence is overwhelming when it comes to guaranteeing an equitable outcome by only focusing on participatory processes. The powerful can listen, but do not have to act upon what they hear.

Admittedly, there was a humorous side to the day’s event. The microphone carrying facilitator, try as she might, to select the most benign looking person behind the raised hands, found herself time after time giving the microphone to people with similar questions. By the end of the event, a woman in a dress suit, quite professional in appearance—perhaps even mistaken as a potential REDD+ investor—was given one of the last opportunities to ask a question. But, once again, the inquiry focused on the U.S.’s commitment to Indigenous rights.

Clearly, people concerned about REDD+ and issues of justice dominated the press event. What is the U.S.’s position relative to Indigenous rights and vulnerable communities? How will REDD+ resolve the pollution burdens placed on its own high–environmental risk communities at home? How will issues of transparency be resolved? And one which this blogger was not able to ask: What is the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of REDD+ as a real emission-reducing strategy? Answer: The U.S. is committed to an inclusive process and please come to the White House briefing on Environmental Justice.

Interestingly, nearly the entire first string panel was soon replaced by a set of bureaucrats from various federal agencies. Whether this was a spontaneous effort to remove U.S. AID and U.S. Treasury from the hot seat, or whether it was a planned switch, we will never know. At the end of the day, U.S. commitment for $1 billion over the FY2010 to 2012 to REDD+ projects is a notable investment. The problem is that the U.S. remains unwilling to change the way it does business. No matter how many press conferences and brochures with pictures of people measuring trees are presented, REDD+ does not in any way change the U.S.’s greenhouse gas appetite. The U.S. Congress remains one of the most belligerent institutions in addressing this fundamental problem.

Measured expectations, indeed.

Dr. Cecilia Martinez is blogging from the U.N. global climate talks in Cancún, Mexico. She is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP.

Also contributing to this piece, Michele Roberts, campaign and policy coordinator with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.


Ben Lilliston

November 12, 2010

Exporting privatization

When Obama visited India earlier this week, saying India "has already emerged" as a power in Asia and globally, his compliments were loaded.

On Wednesday night at IATP, Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao from the Environment Support Group (ESG) in Bangalore, described India's current tug of war between its traditional commons-based framework (collectively owned resources and landscapes) and the privatization that accompanies foreign direct investment (FDI) and globalization.

In the U.S. today, as highlighted by Shalini Gupta with IATP’s Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, imagining a model without privatization may be near impossible for many. India's current struggle is more comparable to late-1800's North America—in the midst of the industrial revolution, at war with indigenous tribes, and spurred onward by increasing demand for natural resources and promised riches of industrial development.

The push for globalization in India brings with it a fundamental shift in the environment and traditional way of life. According to Saldanha, jobs are indeed created, but not jobs for the farmers, fishers and indigenous tribes. In fact, the land, waters and forests that provide their livelihoods are being appropriated to private interests and natural resources are being extracted at alarming rates.

Global demand—and India's own push for an increased GDP—dictates that profits be maximized. The traditional commons-based framework and environmental laws, then, are barriers that must be removed. It began, Saldanha said, in the 60s tourist boom: coastal beaches once used for fishing filled up with four-star hotels.

Now, according to Bhargavi Rao, roads are being widened, public parks are being gated and grazing lands are being turned into garbage dumps for corporations. And to make room for these drastic changes to the environment, development advocates are pushing to dilute India’s environmental laws.

In 1986, two years after the tragic Bhopal gas leak, the Indian parliament enacted the Environment Protection Act. It allows companies and individuals to be held criminally (not just civilly) liable for violations of environmental standards. Now, an RFP from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pushing for a move from the current standards to one limited to civil liability in the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests—a move that would essentially pull the legislation's teeth while protecting foreign investors.

Saldanha and Bhargavi described the underreported thousands of Indian farmer suicides throughout the past decade attributed to this globalization. "The state moved from being a custodian of public land to an appropriating force," Saldanha said. 

What are Leo, Bhargavi and ESG doing to fight back? A combination of protest with litigation and lobbying forms the foundation of ESGs work, but as Bhargavi said, "Protest is backbone of grassroots struggle." One example included forming a human chain around a lake that was nearly sold off to business interests. Another, coalition-based, action included writing a death certificate for the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The latest effort centers on trying to stop Asia's largest steel maker, POSCO, from being allowed to build plants on forest and coastal lands. Clearance for this project—funded, in part by Warren Buffett, and India's largest-ever foreign direct investment—has been granted but, as one NGO alleges, may have been obtained illegally. For now, the project's progress has been stalled, but not defeated.

Obama's visit earlier this week was more than a goodwill visit, multinational business interests globally and in the U.S. stand to make millions. "Maximizing profits for a few while leaving millions behind," is how Saldanha describes the ongoing changes. And, perhaps Obama's description of India as "already emerged" was a bit premature. If emerging means destroying the environment, displacing the indigenous and taking livelihoods away from poor farmers, surely prosperity lies on another path.

Andrew Ranallo

July 01, 2010

Environmental justice, science leaders urge action linking climate and public health

In a letter sent to Congress and the Obama administration last month, leading voices in environmental justice, science and academics asked that: “1) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs) should not be overturned or diminished; and 2) climate change policy should address the emissions of greenhouse gas co-pollutants, as well as the emissions of greenhouse gases themselves.”

The same facilities and vehicles that emit greenhouse gases also emit co-pollutants that lead to high rates of asthma and other serious public health concerns. In addition to the public health impacts associated with climate change itself, co-pollutants from coal plants and other fossil fuel sources disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color as these communities are largely located where fossil fuel facilities are located and where urban vehicle emissions are concentrated. This unique partnership of leading environmental justice activists, policy analysts, scientists and academics is the first of its kind.

While Congress has rejected initial attempts to undermine the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for public health reasons, additional attempts to challenge EPA’s authority are expected. Shalini Gupta, director of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP, was among the 18 leaders who signed onto the letter. To find out more, read the press release and full letter.

Shalini Gupta

February 17, 2010

Community building and climate justice

The non-binding Copenhagen Accord effectively failed to respond to the threat of climate change at the international level. Nationally, U.S. legislators are in limbo—some arguing for cap and trade, others for cap and dividend, and still others insisting that climate change simply doesn't exist. These stalemates—combined with the historical injustices that have left developing nations (internationally) and people of color and the indigenous (nationally) bearing the brunt of imbalanced policy decisions—beg the question: What can we do here and now to combat climate change and ensure that our communities have a place at the table?

Community members, artists and activists met at the All Nations Indian Church in Minneapolis for the "Communities of Color and Indigenous Peoples Climate Justice Debriefing" hosted by IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) on Monday night. CEED Senior Policy Fellow Dr. Cecilia Martinez and CEED Director Shalini Gupta shared their experiences at the Copenhagen climate talks—one, not uniquely, full of long lines and being denied entry—and discussed the importance of working at the local level and utilizing indigenous knowledge in addressing climate justice issues.

Dr. Rose Brewer, a member of CEED's advisory board, summarized her experience in Pittsburgh at the most recent G-20 summit where demonstrators, organizers and activists worked hard to be heard. Among many other things, they hosted a People's Tribunal, putting the G-20 to trial for the impacts of their policies around the world with testimony from community members and policy experts. And, of course, there was a verdict. As she asked last night—can you guess what it was?

So, what can indigenous communities and communities of color do, on the ground level, to battle injustice and address climate change? Moderator LeMoine LaPoint (also a member of CEED's advisory board) talked about the power of indigenous knowledge—the fact that people have known about climate change for a while, even if the scientific community has only recently caught on. He then asked the group for emerging solutions they envision for their communities and organizations. Some common themes included sharing information among groups and linking organizations in order to create a stronger voice; becoming united under a holistic approach to changing consumption and production patterns; and using arts, ceremony and ritual to control the story, rather than internalizing the current system that unfairly impacts minorities, the indigenous and the impoverished.

The issue of green capitalism came up as well: one participant compared it to installing solar panels on the Titanic while making sure it doesn't change course—i.e., the same companies advocating for "green business" have a heavy interest in making sure the power structure stays the same. This issue of framing struck a chord with many in the room: Is the system broken, or working as it's supposed to in maintaining the status quo? Is climate justice an environmental issue or one of an economic and power structure that needs to change?

In the end, the group seemed to agree that keys to success were communication, building alliances and reaching a critical mass to take control of resources and energy consumption in their community, currently controlled by corporations and private interests. Energy sharing, cooperative solutions and developing sustainable systems through local food and energy production were all cited as potential projects. Furthermore, the idea of establishing a meeting place where organizers and community members could come together and discuss ongoing work gained traction around the room.

Was last night's meeting the start of something big for Minneapolis? It's very possible. What's certain, however, is that community building can happen now, while international summits and legislative filibusters are still floundering.


Andrew Ranallo

September 11, 2009

Climate equity: Ensuring a just response to climate change

Ceciliashalini The facts shared at last night's IATP event, "Climate Equity: Ensuring a Just Response to Climate Change," were at many points staggering—at others, supremely encouraging. Dr. Cecilia Martinez and Fellow-in-Residence Shalini Gupta, from IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy (CEED) hosted an event to discuss the inequity that exists within our highly inefficient energy infrastructure. As Dr. Matinez pointed out, our current energy system is often built on the backs of whole sets of populations, while those consuming the energy, and creating energy policy, see little consequence.

Both internationally and within the U.S., the inequity between those that produce carbon and those that pay for its impacts, is real and widening. Dr. Cecilia Martinez credits this gap, among other things, to a highly inefficient infrastructure built on outdated, short-sighted and sometimes discriminatory ideals. She cited Robert Moses, the twentieth century urban planning giant responsible for much of New York City's current suburb-oriented design. Moses's tendency to favor highways over public transit did more than influence urban planners around the country—it separated communities from the inner city (often low-income) from those who could afford cars and to live in the suburbs. This energy-intensive transportation system still exists today and as Dr. Martinez pointed out: if modern policies are to succeed and ensure justice, they will need both physical goals (reducing carbon emissions, etc.) as well as social and political goals (improving a broken community infrastructure and ensuing equal access to energy).

Shalini Gupta addressed the international issues surrounding climate change, including past and present proposals for cutting emissions. Who has rights to the atmosphere? Currently, in the U.S., we produce about 20 tons per capita annually of carbon emissions. India, on the other hand, a mere 2 tons per capita, annually. Gupta said, if the world was truly to be equal, carbon emissions would need to reduce to 3.3 tons per capita globally—quite a far off goal when you consider the currently proposed goals; the most aggressive of which comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which proposes reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent from the 1990 levels. Such a reduction would still only put the U.S. at around (conservatively) 11 tons of carbon emissions per capital annually.

Among the daunting figures and historical injustices discussed at last night's event, a thread of "Where do we go from here?" connected the problems with solutions. Efforts like Sustainable Energy Utilities (detailed in this article coauthored by Dr. Martinez) and the determination to push for diversified, small-scale energy solutions, can and will serve to not only reduce our dependence on a commodified, highly inefficient energy infrastructure, but will provide equity for those who have long been denied equal access to energy and energy independence. As Dr. Martinez put it last night, energy must be viewed not as a commodity, but as a commons.

Learn more about SEUs on CEED's SEU Web page. The concept for an SEU was developed by the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP).

Andrew Ranallo