Bridging the Gap: Connecting Academics, Communities, and Environmental Justice

Bridging the Gap: Connecting Academics, Communities, and Environmental Justice

Podcast with Flaviano Bianchini, environmentalist and naturalist, Founder and President of Board of Directors, Source International

Explore the vital link between environmental science, human rights, and community action. Our guest shares insights into connecting academia with grassroots movements, fostering positive change for sustainability and corporate responsibility.

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original audio [eng]

Exploring Environmental Advocacy and Community Empowerment

Olena Uvarova: Hello. We have a podcast today with Flaviano Bianchini. Flaviano is an environmental scientist and also a human rights activist. Flaviano is the founder and executive director of Source International. And I know that Flaviano has a very interesting experience to equip communities, local communities and grassroots citizen organizations with the ability to measure the harmful consequences of natural resource extraction, leading to lawsuits against companies. In the context of business and human rights and the rule of law for corporate actors, this experience is very relevant and interesting. My first question to Flaviano is, could you please share your experience with us? Why did you go to this initiative and how are you doing this?

Flaviano Bianchini: Well, first of all, thank you very much for the invitation to this podcast. I’m very pleased to be here. What I’m doing here, basically, is trying to be a connection between academic work, grassroots, and the activist world, which unfortunately are often detached from each other.

I think it is very important to bring together the academic point of view and the research, with the rigorousness of the academic world, together with the needs of local communities and grassroots organizations.

Olena Uvarova: And how did you come to this kind of activity? Because it’s not a very common situation. I know a lot of academics who cooperate with civil society organizations, who are human rights activists. But this role of connector between the academic world and the civil society or local communities world is something special, I would say.

Flaviano Bianchini: Yes, I know. You say this, and a lot of people say this to me, it is something very normal. They say it sounds stranger the opposite way. So I think that the academic world should be pretty much related to and connected to the real, let’s call it, real world—local communities and affected communities. And I think that it is very important, and there is a sort of common ground of understanding that enables communities and academics to work together.

The Impact of Extractive Industries on Local Communities

Olena Uvarova: Can you share with us a concrete example? I know that you focus on extractive industries, and do you think that extractive industries actually have the greatest impact on local communities? Could you share some examples?

Flaviano Bianchini: Extractive industries, generally speaking, not only mining but also oil extraction, land extraction, all types of resource extraction are very harmful to local communities very often. I mean, there are cases like the community of Cerro de Pasco in Peru, which is a city of 80,000 inhabitants, where if we apply WHO standards for heavy metal pollution and heavy metal bioaccumulation in the human body, 100% of the population should be urgently hospitalized due to the presence of heavy metals in their bodies. And this is because of the impact of this gigantic open-pit mine in the town. But also, for example, the effects of palm oil or sugar cane plantations in some countries in South America and also in Asia like Malaysia or Indonesia, but also Guatemala, Colombia, where the impact of pesticides on local communities is huge in terms of reducing fertility, increasing sickness, and reducing the production of local crops. So you have these selective pesticides spread with planes all over vast territories. Then these pesticides end up in the crops of local people, and they cannot grow their own crops. So there’s a lot of food insecurity that generates poverty, internal migration, violence, and a poverty cycle that ends up badly. But very often, these communities do not have access to scientific information. And this is where we were saying before with the academic world. There are some academic studies on pollution caused by oil plantation or by mining industries, but they are not driven by the community, they are not connected to the community. So that’s where the role of social intervention comes in, in the sense that we put into connection those two aspects. So we do scientific research, but we do it together with the community, so the community can provide evidence, collect concrete real evidence, and use these pieces of evidence to stand up for their rights, basically. To obtain law seat, to effect policy change, to push for better behavior from companies, or simply to improve their lives.

Olena Uvarova: Do you have any positive examples of these changes? In one of the podcasts we had, we interviewed a Kyrgyzstan civil society organization called Bir Duino. They also talked primarily about the lack of accessible information to local communities and society. This lack of access extends not only to scientific information related to the concrete harm to their rights and lives but also to information that the state has about investments. And this conflict between the interest in having investments and local communities who could be interested in having these investments to develop their local communities, from another side, they could be wondering about what harm could be done to their lives. So, in your experience, do you feel that local communities have this conflict between human rights and the quality of their lives and investments? And do you have positive examples when policymakers and decision-makers take it into consideration, and local communities don’t need to go to court with their claims, but this problem could be resolved without going to court?

Flaviano Bianchini: First of all, we have to clarify what it is the investment for the community. Because the need to attract investment is mostly an issue that the central government wants. That does not affect the community too much because what would affect the community is job generation, so job creation. But that’s very limited. Modern extractive industries are highly automated and industrialized, and the number of jobs for local communities is very small.

The case I mentioned before of the mining in Cerro de Pasco, which is, as I mentioned, a town of 80,000 inhabitants, and this huge mine would affect the entire town and produce $60 million in revenue every year. But the actual jobs for the entire town are less than 300 nowadays. There used to be 7,000 back in the 60s when, you know, they still had miners. But today the miner doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s an engineer who works behind the machine. The same when we talk about palm oil plantation, sugar cane plantation, you have jobs for one month a year when you have to harvest. The rest of the time, there is no job.

Then of course, there are revenue generating that goes to the central government, and then it’s the central government who is supposed to reshare with the affected community. But this very often doesn’t happen.

So at the end of the day, the positive results for the communities are very limited. There might be a positive result for the central government because they receive investment, royalties, and taxes. But it is also another aspect that is that a lot of developing countries are fighting with each other to obtain those investments. And it results in a series of tax cuts.

Olena Uvarova: Yes, business-friendly policies.

Flaviano Bianchini: Exactly, lower and lower. And in this case, when I was living in Central America, there was this case. It was just unbelievable. Like Honduras put the royalties at 3%, and after a month, Guatemala said 2%, and then Honduras said no, 1%. And then Mexico all of a sudden said no royalties for 20 years for everyone, come over here. Is it a fight against the poorest to simply reduce the amount of taxes, royalties, and regulation in order to attract investment? I honestly think that this idea of attracting investment is a bit of a trap at the end of the day because foreign investments are needed but they are needed in a certain way. If I start fighting over investment to attract any type of investment, that doesn’t really work like this.

Challenges of Balancing Economic Interests and Human Rights

Olena Uvarova: I totally understand what you are saying because in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, we have a very similar situation. And we also have something like a competition about the business-friendly environment. And of course, we need the investments, but we have an interesting situation when the states are trying to make this business environment more attractive for companies. But in many cases in many countries, we still have a very high level of corruption and very high level of pressure from the state. But at the same time, the states are trying to have fewer requirements about human rights for these companies. For example, many countries in our region just banned labor inspections for several years, just to have this attractive environment for companies.

Flaviano Bianchini: And environmental rules are very taken down. Even from what we think are developed countries, like the United States, when Trump basically canceled all the environmental protection rules to reattract investment back to the United States. And that’s because obviously, if you can pollute, you save a lot of money as a company. And therefore, that’s also something that creates this business-friendly environment, which at the end of the day only generates harmful consequences for local communities and for future generations too. Don’t forget that pollution will not go away after one legislation. You know, the politicians go, but the pollution will stay for centuries.

Olena Uvarova: I agree. And I have a huge discussion with my colleagues who are not human rights lawyers, but they talk about investments going first. So first of all, we need to solve our economic problems and then we can be ready to discuss human rights problems and corporate responsibility to respect human rights and so on. But economic problems should be solved first. So it’s a very, very huge discussion in our society.

Flaviano Bianchini: In my understanding of this point of view, “economic first and then human rights,” which is actually what has been done in Europe, for example. I don’t think we have to replicate what has been done in Europe. We have made a lot of mistakes, and we should learn from them. The countries that are developing now should go on a different pathway because otherwise the results will be like we are in Europe now where we don’t have basically any primary forest left, and we rely on third countries to stock our carbon and we rely on third countries to take our resources and basically our food and our water.

So I don’t think that really works in a sustainable way. To me, it’s a very conservative point of view. It’s like, well, Europe is fine now, so let’s follow the same pattern. But Europe is fine now. But 50 years ago, it was not fine. So we should start to think about doing things differently, I think.

Olena Uvarova: Yeah, and I want to go back to one of my previous questions about positive examples. I mean, probably you have some concrete examples when this knowledge for local communities and these connections between the academic world and local communities helped them communicate with companies or probably win some court cases.

Flaviano Bianchini: Well, for example, in Honduras, we’ve been working with local communities, and we investigated together with them the pollution caused by an open-pit mine. We obtained that the Supreme Court of Justice of the country declared 13 articles of the mining law unconstitutional and therefore obliged the government to create another mining law that is more respectful of environmental and human rights. Another case, for example, we had in Peru, where after ten years, the Parliament created an investigative commission, a parliamentary commission about the pollution caused in Cerro de Pasco, and they declared the area an environmental and health emergency. After that, they made a law to restore the Rio Ragra, which is the most affected river. So we do have examples in which the movement of local communities, especially when supported by scientific evidence and a scientific background, led to a policy change.

Proving Responsibility for Environmental Harm

Olena Uvarova: It’s very, very interesting because we studied in Ukraine, for example, court practices in cases related to environmental harms when also local communities claimed that some companies actually impacted their health in a very significant way. But the position of the courts was that we can’t be sure that there is a link between your health and this company’s conduct. What evidence do you have to prove that the situation with your health is because of the conduct of this company? I think it’s very interesting to share this experience with, for example, our court system.

Flaviano Bianchini: That’s always the case. You know, the main challenge is proving that an area is polluted, which is kind of easy from a scientific point of view. What is difficult is proving who is responsible for the pollution because very often you don’t have the historical data. That’s a challenge that we always encounter. So, for example, let’s imagine a community in Mexico affected by an open-pit mine. They call us and say, ‘Look, there’s pollution here, come and help us,’ and we arrive. But the mine may have been there for 20 years, and we don’t know; we don’t have the evidence that this area was clean 20 years ago. So, that’s a bit more complex. But there are ways to prove responsibilities, and at the end of the day, I think that the companies and the business sectors should take responsibility firsthand for what they have done.

Olena Uvarova: Yeah, and probably my last question, you know, this situation is somewhat reactive. So we already have a problem. We already have this negative impact on the life of the local community. And my question is about how to actually cooperate with local communities and civil society organizations and what should be done proactively. I totally understand that other actors should be involved in this process as well. Companies should be involved, state governments should be involved. But again, from your perspective, do you have experience in just coming and bringing this bridge between academics and local communities when the problem already exists? Or can we do something proactively when we just see that some projects are planned to be implemented?

Flaviano Bianchini: Well, I do think that you’re right; we have to behave proactively and do it before because if you arrive later, then it’s… But those companies, when they arrive, they always arrive with a lot of advertisement, saying we’re going to bring jobs, investment, profits. So it’s rare to have a reaction from the beginning. There is a case we have done in the Sierra Norte de Puebla in Mexico where the community reacted from the beginning, and we were able to basically stop the mining before it even started. And I think this has become even more relevant every day because of the green transition, the new green economy, and the green transition minerals. So there is actually an increase in mining activities nowadays everywhere, even in Europe, because Europe is now pushing hard to secure the strategic minerals in-house. The European Union doesn’t want to depend on importing lithium and cobalt from somewhere else. I think we are, historically speaking, at a moment where we should start acting from the beginning, from before. We want to open an open-pit mine of cobalt here. Okay, fine. But those are the rules. Then you have to apply and you have to start from the beginning: consulting with local people, sharing the benefits, respecting the environment, respecting human rights. And all of this from the beginning.

Towards Proactive Measures for Sustainable Development

Olena Uvarova: I think that this idea is also at the center, in the focus of corporate sustainability Due Diligence directive, which is drafted and was voted on by the European Parliament. And let’s see what the future of this directive will be. But we expect that it will be in force. And, of course, this idea aligns with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. So actually, from different perspectives, but the ideas are the same. So let’s hope that it will work.”

Flaviano Bianchini: I am not a big fan of due diligence. No.

Olena Uvarova: Why?

Flaviano Bianchini: Because it is mostly a system of self-reporting. It’s mostly based on that. And in Italy, we say it’s like going to the wine cellar and asking if the wine is good. Obviously, the wine cellar will always tell you that the wine is good. And that’s pretty much the same principle. Companies, they will never say, ‘I’m polluting and violating human rights here in Congo.’ No. You and I can share several examples of a company that has all the due diligence in place, like ticking every box. And then you go in the field and you realize that it’s a mess.

Olena Uvarova: Yes, I agree from one side. But I think that it’s a different piece of the whole picture. So we expect from companies that they will do at least, because we don’t really have some other effective instruments. Probably we will develop. But at the moment, at least, you should do human rights due diligence, but in a substantive way, not just in a formal way. And, of course, human rights—when we expect from the state that the state should realize its duty to protect, its duty to respect. Different states are doing this in different ways. Some of them are doing it informally, some are doing it in a substantive way. But we can go to the discussion about the legitimacy of the state and why states are doing it in different ways and so on. And the same situation with the companies. I think that some companies, they will do it just in a formal way, but some companies, not just because the law requires them to do it, but from other perspectives, they will do it in a substantive way. I hope so. But it’s not enough just to expect from companies that they will do it and will realize human rights due diligence. Civil society organizations should be equipped with relevant knowledge and should also monitor this situation. So I think that such initiatives as you are doing are a very, very important part of this whole picture.

Flaviano Bianchini: And I think that’s the thing that should be improved. The ability of the local community to self-monitor their environment first and also the ability of the government. We have been working in Liberia where there is this rubber company, Firestone, that owns 10% of the land of Liberia. And they produce their rubber there and they have, if you check, all the due diligence aspects in place. But the Liberian EPA, they don’t even have a pH meter, which is something that people have in their pool to check if there is enough chlorine in their pool. That is a $50 instrument. They don’t even have that one. So how can we enforce environmental regulation if the EPA of the country does not even have a pH meter? What can they do? They just smell and watch the water. So all those funds should be invested in strengthening the enforcement mechanism and local communities’ abilities to monitor the environment and human rights.

Olena Uvarova: Yeah, it’s a very good final point, and I’m very thankful for this podcast. It was very important for me personally, and I hope that for our listeners as well, to have this podcast. Thank you very much, Flaviano, for your experience and for sharing this experience with us.

Flaviano Bianchini: Thank you very much to you for the invitation. I’m happy to share this.

Olena Uvarova: Thank you.