More Writing: Joe Harawira; Women’s Rights; Books

I first saw Joe Harawira speaking last year at the CTU-Iwi leaders hui in Tauranga. He seemed such a quiet, unassuming man, but the story of his struggle, along with fellow former Whakatane timber mill industry workers (SWAP, or Sawmill Workers Against Poisons), was quite mind blowing. It took them decades to win recognition for their claim that their exposure to PCP (pentachlorophenol) in the timber mills was causing some pretty severe health problems. In addition, that the poison-laced waste used as landfill (often around marae) was an environmental problem.

12305714041500807562choochus_Wolf_Head_Howl_1.svg.medI kept meaning to contact Joe — since I live not too far from Whakatane, in the Bay of Plenty — and catch up on where he and the former mill workers were at, how the clean-up was going and were their health issues being resolved, something I finally did this March. He came to my place, managing to drive himself here despite having an arm that doesn’t work too well — one of the many health problems he himself has developed. (He’s 67 now.)

And, yes, he is a quiet, unassuming man. (I asked him about that: he said, well, if he’d seen me “30 years ago, probably 20 years of those 30 years, I would probably cut your neck off out there. We were shocking, but after thinking about it now, we needed to go down that track.”) We talked for an hour and a half or so, and I wrote up a wee piece for Werewolf.co.nz, Toxins in the Timber Mills. The full story of Joe and SWAP has been told elsewhere, including in a documentary called The Green Chain that was shown on Māori TV in 2011. (There’s a link to that in the Werewolf piece.)

In the wake of the Pike River mining disaster, and the calls that followed for more oversight and better regulation, it struck me while listening to Joe that his story had a lot in common with other community-level struggles I’ve heard about over the past year or so — like the Waihi residents battling plans to mine under their town; and the iwi challenging the Port of Tauranga’s expansion plans, to mention just two.  They share that sense of being powerless in the face of business interests, who usually also win over public sentiment by talking about how many jobs their project will create. (Sometimes that’s true; sometimes it’s not. But the ‘economic growth’ at any cost has been widely seen as contributing to what happened at Pike River.) It’s nigh on impossible, for example, to conclusively prove links between things like chemical exposure and health problems (think agent orange or dioxin in Taranaki), and when you’re a group of blue-collar workers — well, good luck with that. Similarly, in all the RMA hearings over mining, the local groups are up against well-resourced companies with experts on tap and reports that a lay person can barely make head nor tail of. True, the residents are supposed to have moderately well-resourced local government looking out for their interests, but ask the Waihi residents what they think about that. Whoa! A lot of them actually see the council as the biggest problem,  not the mining company.

Among other things, the RMA is supposed to even the playing field a little bit. But most everyone has bought into that “there’s too much red tape” and “decisions take too long” narrative, hence the current legislation that’s designed to speed up some of the decision making. Sounds innocent enough, but unless a lot more effort is put into actually listening to and acting on the concerns of the people on the ground, there are surely more costly clean-ups in our future (be they health or environmental).

Other Recent Stuff

I had a much more in-depth piece in the Werewolf before (27 February 2013) about Policing Pregnancy, (I’m convinced the official and unofficial surveillance of pregnancy is a human rights issue that should be on more people’s radars) and some more book reviews up at The New York Times in February. Also, at The Hand Mirror, UN ‘Family’ Resolution Raises Concern, (20 March 2013) looks at a proposed UN Human Rights Council Resolution on “Protection of the Family”, and the potential  impact it could have not just on reproductive health and rights, but on those of LGBTI people; while in  ‘Careless Driving Causing Death’, (4 March 2013) I report on a case before the courts in Wellington in which a husband has been charged with careless driving causing death after a relatively minor accident that apparently led to the death of his wife’s 31-week fetus. A heart-breaking case in every possible way!

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