Lois Barber, EarthAction back projects around the world

Last modified: Friday, December 07, 2012

AMHERST — When Lois Barber was in high school in Irvington, N.J., she was co-captain of the cheerleading squad. The skills she tapped then are similar to those she’s used in organizing global environmental campaigns for the past 20 years.

“You have to learn the game, and you have to pay attention to the game,” she said at her Amherst office. “You have to know when to influence what happens. You have to know the right message and when to send it to people who can make things happen.”

Barber is the founder and executive director of EarthAction, which started in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, she has built up a global network of 2,600 partner organizations in 165 countries with interests in the environment, peace and human rights. It claims to be the world’s largest network of organizations working together for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.

Her latest success was the announcement last month that the prime minister of Cambodia cancelled a plan to make over 100,000 acres available to agribusiness to plant palm oil trees, she said. EarthAction worked with a group of indigenous villagers who live in that part of Cambodia to coordinate a campaign to protect the old-growth forest the government had targeted.

“The villagers have been struggling to protect their home and forest from government corruption and illegal logging and mining for over a decade,” Barber said. “Through our campaign, EarthAction brought global attention to the imminent destruction of this forest and mobilized worldwide action in support of the demands of the local people.”

The main way that EarthAction contributes to campaigns is through kits that it provides to member agencies. These kits provide both background information and suggestions on whom to contact. A lot of the work at EarthAction is researching topics by talking to people familiar with an issue, writing and editing the kits, checking facts and mailing them out. Most kits are in three languages, sometimes as many as five, Barber said.

“We don’t just focus on environmental issues, but see the interrelationship with military, political and human rights issues,” she said. “We work to make it apparent that these issues are all connected. We send people useful materials, then they do the work.”

EarthAction has participated in 90 campaigns and sent out close to a million kits, Barber said.

Range of work

In the past decade, it has worked to stop logging in a forest in Moscow, save sacred sites in Mexico from mining, and sponsored a project to preserve disappearing languages and cultures in Siberia. It has helped saved rainforests in Venezuela, Congo and Canada and is working to save one in Cameroon. It has created a coalition of businesses, policymakers and individuals to create an effective renewable energy policy.

From 1993 to 2006, it built support for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, a treaty aiming to protect soil fertility in dry regions. It has sent out 10,000 action kits on the issue of protecting children from armed conflict. In 2003 it sent out 10,000 kits on the issue of child labor. From 2003 to 2007, EarthAction helped create the World Future Council, a global forum to protect the rights of future generations.

In 2009, Barber received the Unsung Heroine Award from the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women.

“Our values are a reverence for nature, respect for human rights, long-term action for sustainability and democracy,” she said. “We’re not looking for quick fixes.”

EarthAction relies on fundraising to pay its expenses, which have been as high as $1 million a year but now are much lower. Barber said she has has traveled around the world for her organization and worked with about 100 interns from the Five Colleges, some of whom stay for four years. Now 66, Barber has cut back on her involvement but has no plans to retire, she said.

“The world is full of problems,” she said. “If I’m going to be successful and sustain myself and the organization, I have to be very smart about which ones we’re trying to solve. The issue has to be timely, and there needs to be a clear focus on what’s needed to solve the problem, a clear step for change that makes sense to me.”

One issue Barber is particularly interested in is climate change.

“We heard little from the candidates in the election,” she said. “Their silence means that citizens need to raise and amplify our voices and call for policies that will stabilize our climate. We will be the ones who pay the price for our policymakers’ inaction.”

Barber is trying to get state governments and towns to adopt policies that have made Germany a world leader in renewable energy. The Alliance for Renewable Energy, which she co-directed for four years, promotes a system whereby governments set the rate that homeowners are paid to feed solar and other renewable energy into the electric grid.

This policy has helped Germany get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Cities such as Gainsville, Fla., Sacramento, Calif., and Ft. Collins, Colo., have adopted similar policies, she said.

EarthAction runs a campaign called 2020 Action that sends out postcards once a month to subscribing organizations, recommending people to write letters supporting environmental and peace initiatives.

Barber said she’s motivated by “a love for the world and knowing that I can do something meaningful that will help solve some problems somewhere around the planet. There’s something in my nature that wants to bring people together with a common objective.”


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