Fighting for the Last Housing Project, Marshall Islands Arkansas, Chinese Enviros

Ideas and Issues
70 year old housing development, Dixie Homes, demolished in Memphis

New Orleans  I went to sleep with firecrackers booming over the Mississippi River and woke up to chickens crowing in the yard next door, but it helps get me out of bed and on the road to Memphis and to working with citizens’ groups and others in the Bluff City, trying to make the redevelopment of Vance Avenue a place that will also support affordable housing for the poor.  The almost impossible fight has to do with trying to save or at least restructure the planning around the “last housing project” in Memphis, which may be more important as a slogan than development plan for some city fathers.  From there it’s over to Little Rock for a couple of hours sleep, more meetings with radio and union officials, back to Memphis for some meetings about money, and, yeah, you get it, we’re hustling!

So this is a “aggregated” blog like you find from the big guys.  One story is about how the largest population of people from the Marshall Islands has arisen around Springdale, Arkansas and the Tyson Foods chicken plants that have been an immigrant mecca for decades with minimal wages and blisteringly hard work.  This says something about immigration that many of the right won’t except as a different side of globalization and one of the surprising reasons why Tyson spokespeople have often been loud voices about worker-import programs even if not immigration reform.  The other is about a simple organizing truth from China.  It’s easier to fight something before it’s built than it is tear it down later.  Amen!

Workers at Tyson Chicken plant in Springdale, Ark after exposure to chlorine gas last year

July 4, 2012

For Pacific Islanders, Hopes and Troubles in Arkansas


SPRINGDALE, Ark. — Melisa Laelan is a royal princess far from her Pacific Island home, presiding instead over a landlocked realm of grain silos and poultry processors.

Her subjects here are 4,300 Marshall Islanders — the largest enclave in the continental United States — and many of them are adrift in a culture that confounds them.

“I feel obligated to protect my people,” said Ms. Laelan, 34, who spoke of her exalted heritage with reluctance. In the islands, she said, “it’s a very common thing to expect that someone from a royal family will provide for you.”

Her uncle is a tribal king who owns much of the land in Majuro, the capital. But Ms. Laelan herself has no riches to share. Her only power is a meager one: persuasion. A single mother, she provides for her 7-year-old son, Zion, with money she earns as a court translator. They live in a small apartment next to a discount muffler shop.

She enlisted in the United States Army after she graduated from her Marshallese high school. In 2005, she entered the civilian world and, like thousands of Marshallese before her, came to Arkansas.

Almost all of them live in this working-class town in the northwest corner of the state, where Tyson Foods has its headquarters. They arrived here hoping to escape poverty and poor health: their nation ranks third in tuberculosis deaths per capita. Diabetes is rampant. Leprosy still lurks.

The promise of a steady income is a big draw. Tyson’s minimum starting wage is $8.70 an hour, with benefits, a relative fortune for Marshallese. But the islanders discover that they will need to buy a car to get to work and, before that, that they will need to pass a driver’s test, which is not offered in their language. Many must pay rent for the first time. They puzzle over the American obsession with time, and they are ignorant of bureaucracy and health care systems.

“Their language is a problem; their culture is a problem,” said Kathy Grisham, executive director of the Community Clinic in Springdale, which treats low-income patients. “They don’t have a word for prevention. They don’t have words for all the body parts.”

Springdale, which is heavily Hispanic, is well equipped with teachers of English as a second language and with special programs, but “I’m having to start at a different level with my Marshallese,” said Deborah Hardwick-Smith, the principal of Parson Hills Elementary School, which is 30 percent Marshallese. School administrators struggle with tardiness and absences among the Marshallese.

Ms. Hardwick-Smith started giving alarm clocks to parents as presents. Last semester, she created a program to educate parents about American life and expectations for students. Now, “I’m seeing higher scores with my kids,” she said.

That is good news, because the number of Marshallese is likely to grow. The islands and the United States have been intertwined since World War II. The United States has detonated at least 67 nuclear bombs in its 750,000-square-mile territory. The radioactive fallout rendered some islands uninhabitable. And United States military operations there are powered by American processed food, beloved by locals but blamed for the explosion in diabetes.

A 1986 compact gave the United States continued military access, while the Marshallese got the right to work and live in the United States indefinitely without visas. More than a third of the Marshallese — about 20,000 — have seized the opportunity. Marshallese politicians routinely fly the 6,000 miles to campaign here, and in 2008 the Marshall Islands opened a consulate on Spring Street, above a barbershop.

The Marshallese trace their roots in Springdale to one person, John Moody, who arrived in the 1980s to work in a Tyson plant. He sent back word of plentiful jobs. Word spread through the islanders’ family-centered culture. “This place got a population” because “everybody is related,” said Jacob Masha, 34, who left Majuro in 1990 and is a distant cousin to Mr. Moody.

The increasing numbers add urgency to Ms. Laelan’s cause. Health care is a top concern. Her mother, who was uninsured, died in Arkansas the same day that she learned that she had a brain tumor. “To this day, we are still losing people because of a lack of services,” Ms. Laelan said.

Still, a clinic that caters to the Marshallese opened in November. Ms. Laelan enlisted some friends to form an advocacy group, the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese. She has also teamed up with a Marshallese congregation of Seventh-day Adventists to plant community gardens. A nutritious weekly supper is held at the pastor’s home.

At a supper in June, about 40 people — many of the women in traditional flower print dresses — crammed into a small duplex. Kevin Harkey, a member of Ms. Laelan’s coalition, was disappointed by the turnout. “We usually have more than this,” he said. But he was pleased with the punctuality. “We’re trying to get people to practice being on time.”

The dinner was part worship service and part gospel of good eating. There was vegetable soup, but a bowl of doughnut holes, too. Mr. Harkey stopped a teenager from drinking a soda. “He knows that can lead to diabetes,” he said. The teenager put the can down and grabbed a doughnut hole.

A few days later, Ms. Laelan was out working on another cause: persuading state officials to offer a Marshallese-language driver’s test. Few can pass the English test, but many must drive to work or to the doctor’s office. As a court translator, she sees Marshallese incur fines and jail time. Some lose their jobs.

Ms. Laelan and lawyers from Legal Aid of Arkansas have petitioned the State Police, which administers the test, and are considering filing complaints with the federal Transportation Department. “We tried asking nicely, and that didn’t work,” Casey Bryant, a Legal Aid lawyer, said. “The lack of language access can be seen as a violation of the Civil Rights Act.”

The Marshallese around the table in the Legal Aid office were silent and seemed worried about the idea of taking on the United States government.

The princess made a plea to her people. “Please hang in there,” she said. “If we don’t do it, who is going to?”

July 4, 2012

Bolder Protests Against Pollution Win Project’s Defeat in China


HONG KONG — China has long been known as a place where the world’s dirtiest mines and factories can operate with impunity. Those days may not be over, but a growing environmental movement is beginning to make the most polluting projects much harder to build and operate.

Large and sometimes violent demonstrations against the planned construction of one of the largest copper smelting complexes on earth prompted local officials in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province to continue backpedaling furiously on Wednesday. The local government of Shifang, the planned site of the smelter, announced in a statement that the construction of the $1.6 billion complex had not only been suspended but also permanently canceled.

The smelter was supposed to be the centerpiece of a planned economic revitalization of an area devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, through the creation of thousands of construction jobs at a time when the overall Chinese economy is suffering a sharp slowdown.

A police official in Shifang said in a telephone interview that everyone detained in the protests had been released. The police acted after a crowd estimated by local residents in the tens of thousands defied the police and assembled Tuesday evening to demand the release of dozens of students jailed in the protests on Sunday and Monday.

In a country infamous for its polluted air and water, the protests were only the latest in a series of large, sometimes violent demonstrations that appear to be having some success in pushing China to impose more stringent safeguards on new manufacturing and mining projects.

“The standards for environmental protection are higher and higher, from the public and also from the government,” said Zhao Zhangyuan, a retired environmental protection official who has successfully campaigned for the last several years to block the construction of a large trash incinerator in a prosperous Beijing neighborhood.

Even as Chinese people demonstrate an increasing willingness to challenge local authorities, financial penalties are on the rise for Chinese companies and their owners who plan projects perceived as hazardous. Shares in the Sichuan Hongda Chemical Industry Company, which was going to build the smelter, plunged 9.2 percent in Shanghai trading on Wednesday.

Last month, about 1,000 people protested to block a trash incinerator in Songjiang, near Shanghai, with no decision yet announced there on whether it will proceed. Last December, local officials announced that they would stop a coal-fired power plant in Haimen, near Hong Kong, after an estimated 30,000 people marched to block the construction.

Last September, a solar energy company in Jiaxing, near Shanghai, was closed after demonstrations there that objected to chemicals used in the manufacturing process. And last August, local officials in Dalian, in northeastern China, said that apetrochemical plant would be closed and relocated after at least 12,000 people joined protests.

Events in Dalian offer a cautionary tale for environmental protesters in China, however. The petrochemical plant is still operating nearly a year later, as local and national officials have been unable to agree on where to it should be relocated, a person with a detailed knowledge of the factory said Wednesday, insisting on anonymity because of lingering controversy over the factory.

But the success of the Shifang protests suggests that opponents may find it easier to prevent environmentally threatening projects from getting started than shutting down existing ones.

“A decision has been made that the construction of the plant has been stopped,” officials said in a statement on Wednesday, “and that Shifang now and in the future will never construct this project again.”

Thanks to the Internet — China has more Internet users than any other country — the protests appear to have resonated across the country. “Shifang” was the most-searched term on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service, on Tuesday and again on Wednesday morning, before abruptly disappearing entirely from the list of frequently searched terms in a possible sign of censorship.

Several posts praising the Shifang protests on Tuesday evening had been deleted by Wednesday morning, another sign of censorship. But more posts had replaced them.

“Paying close attention to Shifang, because maybe the next one will be me, us,” a Weibo post said.

Public protests are not the only challenge for heavily polluting industries. In some industries, the Chinese government has taken action on its own.

Environmental activists and local residents have tended to be reluctant to challenge illegal rare earth mining operations, which are frequently connected to organized crime syndicates with well-deserved reputations for intimidation and even murder. But the government has lately been closing down even legal rare earth refineries all over China for months at a time to require them to install new emissions control equipment, after years of tolerating heavy emissions of toxic and radioactive waste that have turned areas into moonscapes.

Improving the environmental record of the rare earth industry may help China in a pending World Trade Organization case filed against it by the United States, the European Union and Japan.

Multinational corporations are generally already building cleaner operations in China, partly for fear of offending Chinese ultranationalists if there is a pollution scare and partly from public pressure in their home markets.

When Honda built a new auto assembly plant in Guangzhou several years ago, for example, the company included a wastewater management system that even went beyond the cleanup standards at many auto assembly plants in the United States. Honda executives reasoned at the time that China would someday toughen standards, and that it would be cheaper to build to strict standards from the start instead of retrofitting later.

But to the extent China toughens its environmental standards, it could erode some of the competitive advantage of Chinese companies and affect those multinationals that depend on Chinese suppliers for a huge variety of materials.

residents protest in Shifang