NEWS

Community action persists when stakes are high, even against heavy odds

Global community action had a say, to some extent, in Bali, Indonesia, last month. Avaaz.org, a community of global citizens who take action on the major issues facing the world today, mobilized 600,000 of its members to hold local rallies in over 100 nations and, in Bali, presented 2.6 million signatures from 192 countries calling for climate action, and rapid-response campaigns to pressure the American, Canadian and Japanese governments. In February 2007, Avaaz members had sponsored a global television advertising campaign that was covered in major media around the world, marking the launch of the organization’s global warming petition. A few weeks later, Avaaz handed in over 100,000 signatures at a planning meeting for the G8 summit. German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel waved the petition at his fellow ministers as he pledged to meet the demand to put the climate at the top of the summit agenda. (Avaaz.org was co-founded by Res Publica, a global civic advocacy group, and MoveOn.org, an online community that has pioneered Internet advocacy in the USA.) At local level in Greece, even small communities are rallying to protest at actions they see as destructive to their local environment and quality of life, even if it is only to delay them. Local residents and associations in the Athens district of Goudi have been waging a campaign for over a decade to save one of the city’s largest green spaces from being taken over by housing development, entertainment and sporting complexes. In 1994, plans for a 96.5-hectare park in Goudi were announced, but since then parts of it have been earmarked for the construction of hospitals, sporting complexes and the Olympic badminton stadium, now converted into a theater. «According to what we learned with the help of the Citizen’s Ombudsman, the former army camp in the area had been built on forestland and, therefore, after its military use ended cannot legally be handed over to third parties but should have been granted to the Greek Public Real Estate Corporation (KED), which, however, has not expressed the appropriate interest,» said Vassiliki Karayianni, for the citizens’ committees. In Viotia, residents of Oinofyta, Oropos and Avlida, led by the local priest Father Ioannis Economidis, a chemist, Thanassis Panteloglou, and publisher Christos Panago-poulos, have been waging a campaign that has been making headlines over the past few months, drawing attention to the fact that the Asopos River was being poisoned by effluent containing depleted chromium from local industries. «It is clear that the state… has lost its credibility among the people. It is precisely at this point that the society of citizens can play a very important role. Active citizens can monitor the state’s indifference and intervene dynamically when and where necessary to defend fundamental rights such as, in our case, access to clean water,» Economidis told Kathimerini. The heavily polluted Kifissos River that flows through Athens from north to south through some of the city’s heaviest industries has been the object of a campaign led by Panayiotis Tsitouras, who has been a thorn in the side of environment ministers for the past 30 years. «We have over 150 active members and 2,000 registered ones… They are people of all ages, from university graduates to people with just a primary school education; some are well-off, others are day laborers. All of them, however, love nature and are fighting to protect it… Those who are committing crimes against the environment don’t understand polite talk or simple accusations. They need to be chased up. It can’t be done any other way,» he said. Yiannis Boutaris, an independent representative in Thessaloniki’s municipal council and member of the Thessaloniki Citizens’ Movement for the Environment and Culture, summed up the question of community action: «People are becoming more and more willing to take part and to intervene in what is happening, but the existing power system, at least at local government level, is extremely authoritarian, foreign and off-putting for citizens. It is as if they exist just for the sake of it and not for the purpose of serving society as a whole. Overlapping responsibility among ministries and services is used as an excuse for not rocking the boat. Local authorities have far more power than their words would make it seem. Still, they have not realized the new conditions taking shape in the functioning of cities, with transport, garbage, social welfare, schools, environment. (Citizens’) movements are raising awareness among an increasingly large sector of the population; unfortunately, however, the results are still few.»