Author: Gabrie’l J Atchison
Niagara River, Buffalo River, The Outer Harbor, Scajaquada, Eighteen Mile Creek, and the Cayuga River – the water and surrounding ecosystems of the Buffalo-Niagara region are part of our identity. We are fortunate to live adjacent to the Great Lakes – the earth’s largest fresh water ecosystem – and so much breathtaking natural beauty.
Diverse, First Nation people were drawn to this area of the country – a place rich in resources and spiritual significance. Africans in America arrived as part of the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration. Welcoming immigration and labor policies drew Mexican and Puerto Rican families to the area. Coming from different shores, waves of immigrants and refugees – Europeans early and Africans and Asians more recently – have all been drawn here – directly and indirectly – by waterways that tie together diverse groups into a unique, common sense of home.
In the 19th century, the efficiency of the Erie Canal drew industry to our region and put New York State on the map; however, our path to prosperity all but destroyed the natural environment. The Buffalo of the 1960’s saw ecological devastation from decades of sludge and raw sewage culminating in the Buffalo River being declared dead in 1967 and catching on fire in January, 1968. Environmental activism around the condition of the waterways dovetailed with a growing, national movement for change.
The next decade ushered in the first Earth Day (1970) and the passage of the Clean Water Act (1972).
In the 1980’s, the recession forced closures of industries. Many sought to use the moment as an opportunity to factor environmental concerns into a new, post-industrial vision. This era brought significant gains, including a new set of federal regulations which reduced water pollution and set standards necessary for sports and recreation. And, government, non-profit and private agencies worked together to monitor and restore the waterways.
A major cleanup effort and restoration of the shoreline meant that Buffalo was on its way back. Unfortunately, recent moves by the Trump Administration to roll back hard fought federal protections threatened many of the gains of the past. These setbacks teach us that the struggle continues!
Currently, environmental activism has connected with other social issues like poverty and racism. “Environmental Justice” recognizes that refugees, people of color and the poor are most often disproportionately impacted by environmental concerns even as they contribute the least to the damage.
Economic vulnerability and racial segregation means that our city’s most vulnerable people live in areas closest to hazards or where trash is dumped. Environmental issues also exacerbate other problems related to oppression – most notably health issues, like the prevalence of asthma.
Local Environmental Justice work has brought activists working on economic and racial justice to planning tables in an effort to create sustainable communities for everyone. There is also a genuine effort to involve diverse, faith leaders into the fold to address social justice and environmental issues from an ethical and spiritual perspective.
One value within faith-based environmental work is “interdependence” the concept that each of us has value and that nature is valuable. Hence, we all need each other and we all need the earth. No movement concerned about care for the earth can leave out concern for how we take care of each other.
Our waterways and other elements of our rich, natural environment are major aspects of who we are. Each of us has a story about how we have arrived in this place. And, our waterways are community assets connecting us all. Water is an important part of our history and can be our future, if we work together to honor, respect and care for this gift.
Lead image: Photo by Matt Lincoln