A little people power can go a long way

Galilee group celebrates 20 years of activism.

galilee waterfall 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
galilee waterfall 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Environmentalism begins with transparency, Liora Amitay, co-head of Citizens for the Environment in the Galilee (CFE), told The Jerusalem Post this week. That’s why she and her co-head, attorney Jamela Hardal-Wakim, spend so much of their time attempting to convince or pressure factories in the North to make their business practices transparent.
CFE is the second-oldest environmental organization in Israel and is currently celebrating 20 years of activism. Founded a few months before the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, it was preceded only by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which was formed in the 1950s. As opposed to the other two groups, which are the biggest environmental organizations in Israel, CFE handles much of its work through a network of devoted volunteers and five part-time employees, not including Amitay and Hardal-Wakim.
The organization has had some notable successes on the national front over the past few years, Amitay and Hardal-Wakim told the Post. CFE was behind two important environmental laws that could change the landscape of environmental enforcement in Israel.
“Seven years ago, CFE initiated an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act, which would require factories and businesses to post all environment-related data in their possession on their Web sites,” Amitay explained. The bill was taken up and approved by the Knesset, and its regulations will go into effect this August.
“It could save a lot of money regarding enforcement, since if a factory has to post unfavorable data regarding its activities, it could become an incentive to move toward sustainability,” Amitay pointed out.
In a sign of how much the environmental legislative agenda has changed in the past five years, Amitay compared the Freedom of Information amendment to the other law CFE worked on with MK Dov Henin and then-MK Ophir Paz-Pines – the Polluter Pays Law, which passed in 2008. The law requires those who caused pollution to pay for its cleanup rather than relying on the state to clean it up.
Seven years ago, “we submitted a wide-ranging bill. What passed was a very narrow law. We submitted a narrow Polluter Pays bill and what eventually passed was a much broader law,” she said.
CFE has also had some recent regional successes, according to Hardal-Wakim, who was recruited five years ago by Amitay from the private sector to co-head CFE. The mixed Jewish-Arab leadership perfectly suits the mixed nature of the Galilee, where Arabs outnumber Jews. Amitay spent 17 years training SPNI counselors before taking over CFE in 2001.
“We recently achieved a victory against the aluminum factory IMC,” Hardal-Wakim said. “The factory managed to finagle its way into the industrial area near Tziporit, which belongs to Upper Nazareth. We formed a committee of religious Jews and Arabs who would be affected by the factory’s pollution, and the district court eventually ruled that the factory had to relocate even though it had already been built and begun operations next to Tziporit.”
The factory has appealed the verdict.
The campaign was awarded a Green Globe by Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of environmental organizations in Israel.
“It was an important precedent,” Amitay added. Such a precedent that another factory’s request was recently denied after a public outcry.
“The Frutarom factory wanted to move into the industrial area in the Beit Shean Valley,” Amitay said. “When the residents heard about the request, they met with the head of the regional council. The head of the regional council then turned around and denied the factory’s request even before we could launch a campaign.”
Amitay stressed that CFE was not anti-industry.
“There are 6,000 factories in the northern district which represent income for most of the residents. We fully support that, but want to push the factories to adopt sustainable practices,” she said.
To that end, CFE has launched a series of reports, the first of which showed the severe difficulties faced by rank and file citizens in obtaining environmental data about factories in their backyard. The report occasioned a six-page rebuttal from the Environmental Protection Ministry.
“Another four reports are in the works’ the next one will look at the Haifa Bay area,” said Amitay. “The point of the reports is never the report itself. The report is merely a tool to put pressure on factories to change their practices and become more transparent.”
Hardal-Wakim added that “each time we release a report, we always have a strategy about what the next steps are.” The organization is also active in a number of environmental coalitions and founded the Coalition for Public Health, where Amitay was chairwoman until six months ago.
CFE is run on a shoestring budget of less than NIS 500,000 a year, and has a lot of devoted volunteers who have helped raise funds, often in small amounts at a time. For instance, one professor offered a year-long course on wildlife behavior that was attended by some 40 people. Tuition went to fund CFE activities. Ruza Tafor of Channel 1 taught Arabic to local authority inspectors, and that money as well went to CFE.
“We raised about NIS 15,000 from that,” Amitay remarked.
Right now, CFE is looking for funding for the series of “Sustainable Industry” reports, and for its operations in general.
“There’s a good quote from Kohelet Rabbah, which sums up our mission,” Amitay said.
“At the time that God created Adam, the first man, He lifted him up andshowed him all of the trees of the Garden of Eden. And He said to him:‘See all that I have created, how remarkable and praiseworthy all of itis. And I have created all of it for your sake. Contemplate this and bewatchful not to damage or destroy my world. For if you damage it, therewill be no one else to repair it after you.’”
“We try to show how we’ve broken the world, and what to do to fix it,” she said.