Belgium: Focus on Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels
an interview with david heller
"It's exciting to wake up in the morning and think 'it's a big bad world but we're on track to change it.' Every day throws up new challenges, new people and new adventures for the campaigns."
I have worked with Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels' European Voluntary Service as a campaigner and in web support for four years.
Most of my life I've been involved in the peace movement. I was dragged around London on demonstrations by my parents when I was younger, including demonstrations against cruise missiles. Later, I was an activist in campaigns against the arms trade, especially nuclear weapons. I lived at a peace camp in Scotland and while I was there Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels organized a peace march from Brussels to Faslane in Scotland. They arrived on my doorstep after walking for weeks, and I was inspired by their energy and enthusiasm, I thought they were a group of people that I wanted to keep in touch with. They asked me to work with them under the European Voluntary service.
Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels was established in 1991, the first big project took place in 1992; a walk across America. A group of people mainly from Belgium, but also from different Native American groups, walked from New York to the Nevada nuclear test site. They walked about 5000 kilometers, which took nine months. The project set the main focus for Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels: a combination of environmental, human rights and disarmament issues.
Our historic focus has been on nuclear issues; weapons testing, power and now we're looking at other issues including; genetically modified food and organic agriculture, transport and climate change, but we aim to make links between these campaigns and disarmament and human rights issues. For example, when we talk about transport we talk about oil consumption and the war in Iraq, emphasizing the fact that it was a war about oil. When we talk about disarmament issues we make the link with the environment, when we work on depleted uranium, there are clear links to human rights, and the environmental impacts of weapons.
We hold demonstrations, perform street theatre, hold stalls, and use various other methods to try to reach people directly. Most of our work is in Gent, through our office, but we have paying members across Flanders and we organize different activities across Flanders, but we mainly operate in Gent at the moment for practical reasons. The next biggest area in which we work is Brussels, because Parliament is there so it's often the most appropriate place to lobby or demonstrate. Next, Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels is looking to promote local groups and to work in the areas where they are established.
Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels is an international, outward looking group, but we are also very aware of the need to work locally in Flanders.
Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels works with a large group of volunteers; about 30-40 international volunteers under the European Voluntary Service; other international volunteers, and also many Flemish volunteers. The volunteer' s commitment ranges from working every day to once a month, with tasks including helping with campaigns, holding street stalls or project work. The volunteers participate in non-hierarchical working groups, using consensus for decision-making - the groups have a lot of autonomy within the organization, complying with guidelines set at our general meeting. We have a spokes-council where a spokesperson from each group meets every two months to work on common issues and strategic development.
We have a paying membership of around 200 and we are about to start on a membership drive. In the past we have worked as an affinity group, working on actions without having paid membership. We've enjoyed broad support from people who knew about us, and not just in Gent. Membership is a priority, not just in financial terms, but to give people a sense that they belong and encourage them to get involved in campaigns, letter writing and cyberactions. In the past three months we have gone from a membership of less than 50 to 200, and our aim is to have 10,000 members by 2010. I think that it's an ambitious but realistic target because there isn't another grass root campaigning environmental group in Flanders at the moment. If we do good outreach work I am sure we'll be able to grow very rapidly.
I am involved in the nuclear disarmament campaign. Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels works mainly on the issue of American nuclear weapons in Europe – a leftover from the cold war. The United States is the only country in the world that has nuclear weapons outside its own territory; it has weapons in Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The fact that these weapons are based outside the U.S. leads to problems under the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and at a time when there is attention to proliferation of nuclear weapons, and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan and Israel, it's incredibly hypocritical. The most extreme example is the war in Iraq; especially while the U.S. maintain the largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction in the world, some of which are directly in contravention with the NPT due to the fact that they are in other countries.
Over the past few years we have focused on a very successful campaign of civil disobedience at the nuclear weapon base in Belgium, at NATO political headquarters in Brussels and the military headquarters in Mons. We have also picked up other aspects of anti nuclear work – with mayors of local communities to try to get them to do work with their local population on the issue (Mayors for Peace); coordinated with the office of the mayor of Hiroshima who has a close relationship with the issue of nuclear disarmament. There has been a lot of movement in getting local authorities to sign up to this network.
We work on monitoring treaties, the NPT, test ban treaties and have sent delegations to international conferences on the NPT and others. We try to work with groups in other countries who are involved in similar methods of campaigning, on the Mayors for Peace Initiative, also civil disobedience in Scotland, the Netherlands, and Germany in particular, where we've been using a model of 'citizens' weapons inspections. We send people into the nuclear weapons bases, often trespassing to try and gather information, a lot of the time it's a question of getting the information and getting it out to people. With the U.S. being so keen to conduct weapons inspections, it gave us a nice action model to say 'you're going to do weapons inspections in Iraq so how about letting people in to inspect your Weapons of Mass Destruction. You won't let us in, we're going in anyway!'
We used this type of action model in Belgium very successfully, with up to 2000 people taking part in the inspections, during the largest one there were 1117 arrests. A lot of people managed to get into the base – but the fences were only 1.5 m high so people were able to climb over (at others, for example, Faslane the fence is 3 meters with razor wire at the top). The police and military had to mobilize huge numbers to try to stop us and still we managed to get past them. It's inspiring to be able to mobilize a population that has no real tradition of civil disobedience, except maybe in the trade unions, and to take them to a point where they are willing to risk being arrested. But, it has to be backed up by the campaigning work, research lobbying work in local communities, and with the mayors and local authorities. To mobilize 2000 people when we only have a support base of 200, we had to do a lot of work with local groups who came together just for that one campaign. We didn't successfully manage to turn them all into members though. Its one of our challenges now to make sure that in the future when we run campaigns that we build on the support and turn it into membership. This is part of our strategic planning process, to build membership.
We have established practical solidarity projects with different indigenous groups, particularly in North and Latin America, and we envisage that membership with the Friends of the Earth network will help by further developing links with groups in North and Latin America, also we will have access to others in the network who are supporting the same indigenous groups.
Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels is excited at the opportunity to join the Friends of the Earth International network because we do a lot of international campaigning and having membership of more formal federation means that we can consolidate that work. For example we might already work with some of the groups in the network but doing it in the context of Friends of the Earth means that we can work in a more structured way. Now when we make contact with another group they will know us as a member of the network. Also it will give us ideas for camp work at a national level, and we can share information and strategies that we don't have the resources to carry out alone.
We believe we can offer much to the Friends of the Earth International network. We are in dialogue with the umbrella organization for environmental groups in Flanders who identified a need for Friends of the Earth groups within Flanders, we are plugging a gap in the Flemish environmental landscape and in turn, the Friends of the Earth international network. On a practical level, we can also contribute as a group by being able to mobilize activists for events in Brussels and we have already worked with Friends of the Earth Europe on the GM tomato tour and the carbon dinosaur tour.
During the Friends of the Earth International BGM in Croatia, I was inspired and horrified by some of the stories I have heard and I think it's going to be great for Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels to join the Friends of the Earth International network.