Ecojustice on the Louisiana Bayou

By Wendy Hammond 9-23-2013
Photo courtesy Wendy Hammond
Photo courtesy Wendy Hammond

I always thought of climate change as something that affected developing countries. Through my work at World Renew, an international disaster response and community development organization, I am well acquainted with the devastating effects of changing growing seasons in Africa and environmental refugees in Bangladesh. I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised to learn that there are ecojustice issues here in the U.S. — but I was.

Last week I had the opportunity to tour the town of Jean Lafitte just outside New Orleans. Hosted by Sojourners, it was one of the “Go and See” options during the Christian Community Development Association conference.

Our tour began with a presentation by the Rev. Kristina Peterson and Mayor Tim Kerner at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. There we learned that since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost a football field of wetlands every 38 minutes. At the current rate, the state will lose an area of wetlands the size of Rhode Island by 2050. According to Peterson, 36 percent of the wetland loss can be attributed to the activities of the oil and gas industry — in particular, the canals they carve out.

We also learned about how the community was able to rebuild and thrive after surviving eight disasters in eight years — seven hurricanes and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“That wasn’t our first oil spill, either,” Captain Lou told us later on the boat tour. “You just don’t hear about them.”

Not that he was complaining. As we wove through the swamp and Spanish moss, it became clear that oil spills, hurricanes, and even flesh-eating bacteria are just a matter of course here in the bayou.

“We plan our vacations around the hurricanes,” he said. “We save up so that when a hurricane is coming, we can go visit the new casino.”

I fell in love with the beauty of the swamp: the bald cypress trees, the birds, the alligators. It was made even more beautiful on a relational level by the close-knit community that works hard to help each other recover from the frequent disasters, both natural and manmade. In just a few hours I felt possessive of it; I wanted to go all Erin Brokovich on the companies that are destroying the environment and a way of life, counting on the locals not making a fuss.

To make our tour “more memorable,” Captain Lou pulled a 2-year-old alligator out of his backpack and let us take photos with it. As fun as it was to handle a real live ‘gator, what I remember most about the experience was a sense of injustice about life on the bayou. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to do about I — just like I don’t know what to say to farmers in Kenya who are experiencing yet another drought.

Maybe, for now, it’s enough to be aware and pray, and to make little changes to live a little greener. And to share the story to build awareness.

Wendy Hammond is Church Relations Manager for World Renew.

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