‘London should not have Dow’s toxic legacy on its conscience’

This week, the Bhopal Medical Appeal caught up with Meredith Alexander for a chat.

lilivanili under a CC Licence

The London Olympics were wrapped in fresh embarrassment and controversy at the end of January, as Mayor Boris Johnson’s ‘ethics Tzar’ resigned live on BBC Newsnight over fears that her ethics and sustainability concerns with regards to sponsors simply weren’t being listened to. In an interview with Jeremy Paxman, she announced that her position at the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (CSL) was no longer tenable in light of the London Organizing Committee for the Olypmic Games (LOCOG)’s continued relationship with and defence of the Dow Chemical Company. ‘By coming on air tonight, I’m taking the decision to resign my position and stand up for my principles… I feel that I was part of a body that has been used to legitimize Dow’s involvement in the games,’ she explained. Dow took over Union Carbide Corporation in 2001, but neither company has addressed the ongoing issue of water and soil contamination in Bhopal that continues to kill thousands and afflict even more with chronic illnesses.

Coverage of the ongoing Bhopal tragedy, and the controversy over Dow and London 2012, soared with the news of the resignation, and Meredith acquired overnight celebrity status in India. Her resignation live on British television resulted in an outpouring of hope, gratitude and optimism from those still living in Union Carbide and Dow’s toxic shadow.

What were the main reasons for your resignation from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 (CSL)?

All the evidence I have read has convinced me that Dow Chemicals is responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 people in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak. The assets and liabilities of the company involved at the time – Union Carbide – are in Dow’s hands. Londoners, and other people, who are rightly excited about the London games, should not have this toxic legacy on their conscience.

At what point did your position became ‘untenable’ and why?

The tipping point for me was the correspondence between Amnesty International and Lord Coe [Chair of LOCOG]. The latest response from Amnesty, just last week, pointed out how LOCOG have become apologists for Dow, falsely legitimizing Dow’s stance that it bears no responsibility to the victims of the disaster and their families. I feel that the Olympic bodies are supporting Dow’s line and have failed to take the victims’ views into consideration.

Last week, Sebastian Shakespeare published a controversial column in the London Evening Standard with the bold headline ‘The Olympics should be no place for ethics’. Have you read it, and if so, what did you think?

I have read it. And I actually submitted a letter to the editor yesterday about it. I think most Londoners share my view that ethics and sport can and must go hand in hand. Yet as things stand, the enjoyment of the Games risks being hampered by the toxic legacy of one of the sponsors: Dow Chemicals. When London bid to host the 2012 Games, we made a promise to the world that it would be most sustainable Games ever.

Based on your resignation, can you further tell us why you think that ethics, morality, and sustainability are an important part of the Olympics? Why shouldn’t we just accept that commercial sponsorship is inevitable and ‘get over it’?

I think it’s important to remember that there was absolutely no need for the London 2012 organizers to award anyone the contract for this wrap. It’s a completely optional item that is not essential to the design of the stadium. It will not help a single athlete run faster, nor will it help spectators have a better view. Dow’s connection to the Olympics is a slap in the face to the victims of Bhopal, but the fact that this wrap is unnecessary makes this particular deal even more galling for those who have spent decades fighting for justice.

On a personal and emotional level, what did your resignation mean to you? And, in relation to this, you undoubtedly saw the response from survivors and human rights campaigners, both in Britain and India, so what is your response to that? How does it make you feel?

The decision to resign was very difficult because the CSL has made major contributions to making London 2012 more sustainable. I have a lot of respect for the people I have been working with for the last two years. I really struggled with the decision to walk away. But in the end, I could not let my name be associated with a statement that falsely supports Dow’s claim to be a responsible company. Although I decided to resign publicly, it was an intensely personal decision.

However, I am thrilled that I have been able to achieve so much attention for the victims, survivors and families of those who lost loved ones in this disaster. These people and their demand for justice have been forgotten for far too long. Their fight is hugely inspiring. I have been deeply humbled by the response of people to my resignation. There has been a real outpouring of support here in the UK, where most are horrified that Dow’s toxic legacy is now on their conscience as Londoners. But it is the reaction from India that has truly amazed me.

The Indian Olympic Association has stated that your resignation has ‘vindicated’ their argument calling for Dow to be dropped and they’ve renewed their attempts to achieve this. In light of your resignation, how should LOCOG, the CSL and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) respond to the growing global opposition to Dow?

I think both the IOC and LOCOG should review their contracts with Dow. I find it impossible to reconcile Dow’s toxic legacy with the Olympic values of the IOC or LOCOG’s promise to host the most sustainable games ever. It is essential that they listen to representatives of the survivors and the people who lost loved ones in this tragedy. So far they seem to be only hearing the company’s side of the story.

This is not a historic disaster, it is ongoing, and attempts to clean up the area have been woefully inadequate. I want to see Dow publicly admit responsibility for the Bhopal tragedy, to clean up the contaminated site, and to compensate victims. I think the responsible thing to do would be for Dow to withdraw from the wrap contract. Otherwise London 2012 is undermining its aim to be the most sustainable Games ever and showing contempt for the victims in Bhopal.

Meredith Alexander was interviewed by Jack Laurenson and Colin Toogood for the Bhopal Medical Appeal. Reproduced with permission.

Dow’s toxic waste heads for Mumbai

Authorities want to burn tonnes of the toxic waste from Bhopal, which critics say is highly irresponsible © Jack Laurenson / BMA

Battle lines have been drawn in India in recent weeks for new clashes over the Bhopal disaster following reports from Indian media that highly toxic waste from Union Carbide is ‘headed for Mumbai’. India’s flagship current affairs magazine India Today has alleged that as a result of a ‘secretive and high-handed decision’, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has authorized the burning of hazardous toxic waste from Union Carbide at facilities in Mumbai, India’s largest city.

The Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, site of the 1984 disaster, is still heavily contaminated with tonnes of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, but some 346 tonnes of dumped waste have been recovered and stored elsewhere; for years most of it has awaited destruction. States including Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have previously disallowed authorities from incinerating the waste in their facilities on grounds of severe risk to public health and the environment.

The latest developments, from CPCB sources and as reported by India Today, are that the CPCB has decided to send an initial 10 metric tonnes of chemical waste to the Mumbai Waste Management Company for incineration at facilities in Taloja, a Mumbai suburb.

The ongoing issue with Bhopal’s toxic waste has led to renewed calls for the Dow Chemical company, Union Carbide’s new owner, to step in and take responsibility for their subsidiary’s pollutants.

In Taloja, environmentalists and the area’s residents are opposed to the waste being incinerated there and critics have warned that burning such material, which is highly carcinogenic and poisonous, would likely cause long-term health issues similar to those suffered in Bhopal today.

India Today quotes one particular expert: ‘The waste from Bhopal includes the hazardous halogen nitrate compound and chlorinated organic chain. Burning it could result in poisonous dioxin fumes that can result in cancer and deformities in future generations, besides respiratory and nervous system disorders.’

As the waste was being prepared for transportation to Mumbai last week, activists stepped up the offensive and the Bhopal Medical Appeal were joined by Greenpeace India in highlighting the irresponsible move by Indian authorities. In 2007 the Central Pollution Control Board was ordered by the Jabalpur High Court to ‘destroy’ 346 tonnes of stockpiled Union Carbide waste but since then, the CPCB has been routinely blocked by local environmental authorities in Indian states which have stated that the incineration of such material would be too dangerous. In the latest Bhopal waste drama the Maharashtra state government has stepped in to resist the CPCB’s desire to incinerate the material in Mumbai.  

Authorities in India have been routinely criticized for previous covert attempts to incinerate toxic waste from Bhopal in an unsafe manner. In 2008, the Indore environment minister Jairam Ramesh apologized to his people after it was revealed that 40 tonnes of toxic waste were secretly smuggled from the Union Carbide factory to an incinerator in Pithampur.

Recent coverage of the issue in India has also cited evidence that this transportation of Bhopal’s toxic waste is actually illegal under Indian law and the ‘National Hazardous Waste Management, Handling and Transportation Rules 2008’ state that such material must be destroyed at the ‘closest facility’’ Taloja, in Mumbai, is some 670 kilometres from Bhopal.

As Indian authorities and state governments, as well as Union Carbide and their new owners Dow Chemical, continue to bicker over who is liable and what is to be done with the toxic waste, much of Bhopal still remains heavily contaminated with no effective clean-up in site.

Last week, in response to developments, The Bhopal Medical Appeal said: ‘This haste to get rid of the toxic waste is leading to some very hasty – and quite possibly ill-informed – decisions; it risks putting yet more lives at risk from Union Carbide’s toxic chemicals.’

The BMA went on to state that although the government was attempting to dispose of stockpiled waste, nobody has yet cleaned up the water and soil around the Union Carbide complex.

‘The authorities seem desperate to get rid of this toxic waste that’s stored above ground but, in fact, the real mess in Bhopal is all within the ground. It seems they’re doing this because these barrels of chemicals are such a highly visible manifestation of the ongoing toxic disaster in Bhopal. But it’s not the 300-odd tonnes of toxic material sat in warehouses that is poisoning the local population; it’s the dumped waste that has contaminated the area and, most damagingly, the drinking water for many thousands of people.’

Environmental activists and Mumbai residents have pledged to oppose any attempt to dispose of Bhopal’s waste in a negligent manner, but critics have warned that Indian authorities will simply bypass legislation and regulation to dispose of the waste secretively at a later date.

Add your voice to the growing campaign for justice in Bhopal by supporting the Bhopal Medical Appeal.

Reproduced with permission from the Bhopal Medical Appeal website.

Olympic countdown: ‘200 days left to dump Dow!’

The Bhopal Medical Appeal were joined in London last week by supporters of the 200 days Left to Dump Dow! campaign.

Barry Gardiner (below right), Labour MP for Brent North and Chair of the Labour Friends of India organization, also issued a direct challenge to Lord Coe to either drop Dow Chemical from its position as an Olympic sponsor, or sample some of Bhopal’s water that Dow claims is perfectly clean.

In reality, of course, soil and water sources in many areas of Bhopal have been highly contaminated ever since Dow’s subsidiary Union Carbide negligently disposed of highly toxic chemical waste in the area. Greenpeace calls Bhopal a global ‘toxic hot-spot’. Thousands of people in Bhopal have no other source of drinking water other than this highly contaminated water from pumps. But the Dow Chemical Company not only refuses to accept responsibility for Union Carbide’s mess, it even refuses, despite a huge body of scientific evidence, to accept that the water and soil is actually contaminated.

The protest, which also involved briefly occupying Trafalgar Square and wrapping a banner around the London 2012 countdown clock, was also joined by Bhopal gas-disaster survivor and activist Farah Edwards. Campaigners such as Farah continue to criticize the Dow Chemical Company for what they claim is an incredibly irresponsible disinformation campaign regarding the validity of evidence stating that Bhopal’s water is poisoned. Despite huge amounts of research by Greenpeace, the Indian Centre for Science and Environment (ICSE), the Bhopal Medical Appeal and the BBC finding that water is definitely contaminated to deadly levels, Dow continues to claim no evidence has been found.

Dow states on its website that ‘according to media reports, various groups have made assessments of the groundwater quality at the Bhopal site through the years. In a report to the State of Madhya Pradesh dated June 2010, India’s National Environmental Engineering Research Institute concluded that the “groundwater in general is not contaminated due to seepage of contaminants from the UCIL” plant site.’

Although this NEERI report, referred to by Dow, states that the groundwater is not contaminated due to ‘seepage from the Union Carbide site’ it does state that the groundwater is contaminated. However, it rather bizarrely suggests that this is a result of surface run-off  and NEERI’s assessment and evidence has been described as ‘deeply flawed’. An expert critique written on behalf of the Bhopal Survivors’ Organization had this to say:

‘Both the NEERI and the NGRI report provide useful information, however, a number of key deficiencies have been identified in the site investigations and methodologies used. Critical results are misinterpreted or missing and a number of the conclusions reached within the reports are not supported by the evidence presented… The scarcity of groundwater sampling, the absence of detailed investigation of the Solar Evaporation Ponds, false assumptions regarding groundwater flow direction, and the identified permeable nature of the black cotton soil all suggest that NEERI’s conclusion that groundwater has not been contaminated from UCIL sources cannot be supported.’

Dow, for its part, clearly misrepresents NEERI’s findings, with extremely selective usage of text from the report in order to make a case; unfortunately Lord Coe – head of the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) – and Mayor Boris Johnson, have chosen to accept all of Dow Chemical’s PR statements at face value and are not accepting any independent advice. They continue to back Dow as a ‘sustainable and ethical sponsor’ for the games.

MP Barry Gardiner has been campaigning with the Bhopal Medical Appeal not only for justice for Bhopal victims, but for a transparent investigation into how and why Dow Chemicals was selected by LOCOG as a sponsor, despite the company’s seemingly awful record. At the protest in Trafalgar Square on 9 January he stated that ‘we have just 200 days to kick Dow Chemicals out of these Olympics…Union Carbide, who are wholly owned by Dow, are responsible for the world’s worst industrial disaster which killed thousands and still affects more than 120,000.’ He then, via TV cameras, issued a passionate challenge to Lord Coe to drink with him a glass of Bhopal’s contaminated water so he could better understand the toxic legacy of Union Carbide and Dow Chemicals.

‘If he doesn’t dare do this, then he should kick Dow out of the Olympics. They have no place in what has been billed as the greenest and most sustainable Olympics ever; it can’t have Dow Chemicals associated with it.’

Recently, Dow agreed to drop all branding rights to the plastic wrap it is sponsoring for the Olympic stadium, in the apparent hope it could slip into the shadows and avoid further criticism. However, with Bhopal campaigners launching the new 200 days to drop Dow campaign and Agent Orange survivors and activists becoming increasingly vocal and critical about London 2012, Dow seems to have a rocky 2012 ahead of it.

Reproduced, with permission, from the Bhopal Medical Appeal website.

Photo © Jack Laurenson / BMA


Dow Chemicals and Lord Coe are wrapping London 2012 in shame

Women gather water from a government water-truck delivery in Bhopal.

© Jack Laurenson 2011

Tucked away from the chaotic hustle and bustle of Bhopal’s busy main roads and markets, and within a stone’s throw of the abandoned Union Carbide complex, is an oasis of calm and healing. The Sambhavna Clinic, which is funded by UK-based charity The Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA), is the only facility in Bhopal which offers effective and free healthcare to the thousands who still live in the toxic shadow of the world’s most infamous pesticide factory.

In the crowded waiting room of the clinic, where patients seated on benches look out onto lush herb gardens and a pond filled with turtles and fish, there is a message carved into a large wooden beam that reads: ‘A heart-felt thank you to the thousands of British people who made this clinic a reality…’

For Brits – who often visit the clinic while travelling through India – it’s impossible to read this sign without feeling somewhat patriotic and proud. The BMA is a small charity based in Brighton and through the kind support of their donors – who are, as the sign states, mostly British – they are able to help Indian doctors and therapists save lives on a daily basis.

How perversely ironic it is then, that Britain would now undermine this excellent charitable work by engaging in a ludicrously ill-advised sponsorship agreement with one of the world’s most unethical and controversial companies. Via the misguided Olympic organizing committee and the ignorance of Lord Sebastian Coe, we are on track to insult a billion Indians by embracing Dow Chemicals as an official London 2012 sponsor.

It is now estimated that between 9,000 and 15,000 Bhopalis were killed within three days of the initial gas-leak in 1984. The first incident, caused by cost-cutting measures and a dramatic decline in safety standards implemented by Carbide’s American management, is infamous. Less well known is the fact that some 120,000 or more are still living with agonizing chronic health problems caused by 27 years of ground-water and soil pollution; a result of dumped toxic waste contaminating communities around the factory.

A global toxic hotspot

Total deaths are estimated at around 25,000 and still rising. Greenpeace and the Indian Centre for Science & Environment state the area around the factory is so saturated with dumped chemicals and heavy metals that they have labelled Bhopal a ‘global toxic hotspot’; the disaster is ranked alongside Chernobyl as one of the world’s most terrible industrial catastrophes. This unresolved legacy of pain is now the official property of Dow Chemicals. Is it a legacy we want our Olympics to be associated with? Does Britain want this irresponsible company wrapping their stadium in their branding?

Sebastian Coe - former athelete and Tory MP - was head of the London bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

Doha Stadium Plus under a CC Licence

Much attention in the media is currently being given to the fact that Dow never owned or operated the factory in Bhopal. This is correct, but they acquired Union Carbide in a lucrative takeover back in 2001 and have legally inherited their liabilities as well as their assets. This is basic corporate law and a acquisitions and takeovers 101: you cannot acquire a company’s wealth without inheriting its debt. Dow essentially admitted this themselves when they paid off an outstanding lawsuit against Union Carbide soon after acquiring the company, settling with former UCC asbestos workers in Texas for a whopping $2.2 billion. However, Dow has consistently argued that it isn’t liable for Bhopal, without giving any satisfactory reasons as to why.

Even if the thousands of dead and dying in Bhopal were not the issue here, Dow Chemicals would still have to answer for other crimes, such as their awful environmental record and the heart-breaking legacy of Agent Orange and Napalm in southeast Asia. Dow became a major provider of Agent Orange to the US military when many other companies ceased production in the face of overwhelmingly negative public opinion. They have, however, alongside Monsanto Company, continually avoided any kind of legal liability for these crimes.

The Union Carbide complex is abandoned and neglected. It's used by local communities for gathering water and soil and is often a playground for children who are unaware of the dangers.

© Jack Laurenson 2011

The Dow Chemical company claim to be a responsible ‘global corporate citizen’ and committed to ‘environmental sustainability’ but in reality they are a rogue corporation that cannot be held accountable to national or international law – apart from in the US; where their reputation is seemingly more of an issue to them than human rights or the environment.

The Dow subsidiary Union Carbide have created, via their negligent waste disposal methods, a brand new tragedy in Bhopal that has slowly developed over time. Neither company has ever paid out a single dollar for this ongoing environmental damage and as Dow now operates Union Carbide as a full subsidiary, the liability belongs to them. They must clean up Bhopal.

By arranging and endorsing Dow’s involvement with London 2012, Lord Sebastian Coe and the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) have demonstrated their complete ignorance of the situation in Bhopal – and indeed their own policies on ethical and sustainable sponsors.

If Dow cannot face up to their legal and moral responsibilities, and will not spend a single dollar on their liabilities in Bhopal, do they have a right to splash their money and branding around at the London Olympics? With a powerful opposition movement growing – including motions in the UK and Scottish parliament, mass media coverage and a petition that has attracted thousands of signatures – it’s becoming clear that whatever happens in this fight, this has been a spectacular PR disaster for Dow Chemicals.

Lorraine Close is a volunteer campaigner with the Bhopal Medical Appeal and started the Change.org petition to drop Dow as a sponsor from the London 2012 Olympics.
Jack Laurenson is a freelance journalist and documentary photographer who works regularly in India. He founded the Bhopal Now campaign project.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from the Bhopal Now website.

Bhopal disaster

Twenty-six years after the tragic night when tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas descended from Union Carbide (UCC)’s pesticide factory onto Bhopal’s slums, the poisonous legacy continues. More than 25,000 people have died and at least 500,000 are believed to be chronically ill due to the gas disaster and subsequent water contamination.

Vast areas surrounding the UCC compound have been labelled a ‘global toxic hot-spot’ and declared unfit for any kind of use. Now, numerous groundwater sources have been found to contain mercury concentrations millions of times higher than World Health Organization recommended limits, as well as large amounts of other poisonous chemicals and metals.

Decades of water and soil contamination from the factory are feeding a brand new public health tragedy. Despite an Indian Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that the state government of Madhya Pradesh must provide clean alternatives to UCC-polluted groundwater, an estimated 87 per cent of people in affected communities still have to use water heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Events recently took another turn for the worse when large amounts of government-supplied water tested positive for e-coli. According to Dr Saringi, founder of The Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, ‘the government is being criminally negligent and mixing safe water with water sourced near an open sewer channel to save money’.

Water should be life, but here it is death, thanks to government actions.

Altaf Qadri/AP/Press Association Images

Babular Gaur, the state minister for gas-rehabilitation, industry and development, prefers to blame the people for the ongoing health problems: ‘These slums are filthy and their sanitation is bad. They throw their waste everywhere and wonder why they get sick.’

The Sambhavna Clinic remains the only facility providing entirely free care to the many sick and dying. In June, the Indian government approved plans for renewed financial aid to Bhopal, but survivors are fearful that the money – which is estimated to be hundreds of millions of US dollars – will simply evaporate after trickling down through the same old corrupt bureaucracy in state government.

‘The people of Bhopal still await justice for our dead children, and for Union Carbide to be held accountable in a criminal court,’ says Leela, whose daughter recently died from water contamination.

Dow Chemicals (USA) – which acquired UCC and all its assets in 2001 – refuses to take any responsibility for ongoing social and ecological damage in Bhopal, arguing that taking over UCC should not leave them with their inherited liabilities. However, the corporation faces renewed litigation in both the Indian and US courts as the government of India and activists attempt to get them to foot the bill for a final and conclusive clean-up under the ‘polluter pays’ policy.

Jack Laurenson

www.bhopal.org

An alternative life

An activist negotiates with police officers through the locked gate of the seized land in Kew-Bridge.

Jack Laurenson

I scurried up to a higher vantage point to get a better view of the site the activists had just sneaked into and occupied. Most were now sitting in a circle amongst the undergrowth having a planning discussion, while others guarded the locked gate. ‘This is it,’ I thought as the police eventually arrived and started banging aggressively on the nine-foot high wooden gate: ‘It's all gonna kick off!’

The village effectively functioned as a democracy, all important decisions being made by consensus agreement. Everybody seemed to get along and to have a role to play

In preparation for imminent siege, a handful of the younger and more energetic eco-warriors went to defend the entrance against attack. The activists hadn’t thought to bring boiling oil or catapults and the police had apparently forgotten their battering ram, so the drama at the gate quickly fizzled out. The police, apparently realizing it was a civil matter between the landowner and protesters, subsequently left. The cheerful and victorious squatters quickly began pitching tents, erecting signs and clearing the site of much debris and rubbish.

In an effort to highlight the pressing global issues of land rights, climate change and lack of sustainability and bio-diversity within our modern and ever-developing societies, The Land Is Ours campaign swooped on the derelict plot of land in Brentford, London, and began establishing an Eco-Village community. Occasionally the grumpy pessimist, I was not expecting they would have much success.

A movement gathering momentum

I was, of course, to be proved dramatically wrong. Writing this article a year on from the day the village was founded in early June 2009, I’m impressed and somewhat humbled by how much the Eco-Village achieved and, although they have recently been evicted, how a new national movement seems to be gaining momentum.

I returned to the village in December 2009 after a long summer working in India, and some six months after they took over the land. Looking down onto the site from Kew Bridge was almost a familiar vision. It resembled not the image I recalled from the day back in June when the site was first occupied, but more like the many eclectic slum villages that are scattered around all of India. Messy, chaotic and under-developed, but also warm and welcoming, with an obvious community rapport that is lacking in much of ‘developed’ society. The Eco-Village is situated in a relatively affluent London suburb and obviously lacks many of the socio-economic troubles of the poverty-stricken Indian slum communities, but it still reflects many of the more pleasant aspects of these crowded and atmospheric townships.

‘The village is giving an insight into things that aren’t generally taught in schools... And the attention we are getting is perhaps the local people’s last bastion of hope of stopping this development from going ahead’

The village effectively functioned as a democracy, all important decisions being made by consensus agreement. Everybody seemed to get along and to have a role to play, be it cooking, maintenance, teaching, building or art and hospitality. Much effort had obviously gone into the village’s physical appearance and the meticulously-planned wood-chip paths which wound around the village between the small herb and vegetable gardens and individually hand-constructed wooden homes. They were as much works of modern art as practical, semi-permanent abodes.

Much of the village was decorated with beautiful crafts and sculptures, all made from sustainable materials like wood, mud and flora. The fences around the site were plastered with murals and paintings, slogans and inspirational quotations from history; Gandhi was very popular. Colourful banners and flags hung from people’s huts; they flapped and flickered in the wind. As spring began to arrive and the weather began to improve, the villagers planted more flowerbeds and gardens all over the site. These quickly bloomed with the helping hand of some rain and sunshine. A smell of fresh grass, water and wood smoke mingled with the overwhelming atmosphere of pollution from the nearby A205.

A new coat of paint is applied to the door of the Eco-Village communal area, November 2009.

Jack Laurenson

Cindy, one of the founders at the Kew-Bridge Eco-Village, told me that the movement simply wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to live differently. ‘It would’ve been easier to establish it in the countryside, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect and not as many people would have seen it. We wouldn’t have got the message across: even living in a city you can dramatically reduce your carbon footprint and be much more sustainable.’ The village could have grown much more of its own food had it been located outside of London, and would have had access to more naturally occurring resources like wood, wild berries and mushrooms. Being on an old industrial site with poor quality, heavily polluted soil meant much of the village’s food was salvaged waste from supermarkets.

Gareth, another founding member and full-time activist, told me that supermarkets all over the country throw out enough perfectly good food to feed entire communities. Indeed, I saw this for myself. ‘You wouldn’t believe the stuff they throw out. We’ve had people come back with bags of steak and crates of beer, boxes full of bread and milk, not to mention tonnes of vegetables. You have to be careful obviously, especially with meat, but much of it is chucked out well before its expiry date.’ A truly damning indictment of wasteful corporations and bureaucracy, and ever more potent in my mind, having recently returned from a drought-stricken, starving India.

St George is the dragon

The site, which was unused and left derelict for over 20 years, was a prime one acre patch right next to the River Thames. Since obtaining it in 2003, the St George development company were happy to capitalize on its value by leaving it empty and overgrown while they finished luxury developments elsewhere. In recent years, planning applications for the site were declined because St George continually failed to reach compulsory standards regarding important issues like required percentages of affordable housing in developments. Subsequent discussions saw St George’s plans approved. One resident said to me that he suspected ‘somebody had probably received a fat brown envelope.’

Michael, one of the eco-villagers, lights the evening fire and boils water for green tea, April 2010.

Jack Laurenson

The local council admitted it was not willing to use public money to pay a £250,000 legal bill to challenge the conclusion in court, despite unanimous condemnation from all of the local community groups. Justice it would seem, is expensive.

‘It will end how it is supposed to end, and something new will begin. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey...’

Local people I spoke to felt rightfully disenfranchised and abandoned. The new proposal from St George consists of 164 flats in a huge nine-storey development containing only 13 per cent affordable housing. The development mostly consists of luxury penthouses and apartments. One local woman, Kaz Mackie, a cancer sufferer, spoke to a local journalist of her feelings; ‘It is mainly disabled and elderly people who live on the ground floor and they are going to be submerged into darkness. I take great pleasure in being able to see the moon from my window and now that is being taken away from me. I feel our views have been completely ignored.’ St George politely ignored my requests for an interview.

Local residents are quick to state the abandoned site was an eyesore, but quicker to condemn the plans for yet another block of expensive flats. ‘What we need is more affordable social housing or community gardens and parks to rejuvenate the area, not luxury apartments and expensive bars,’ one resident told me in the pub next door to the site. A charming and lively family-run pub that is sadly a planned casualty of the development: it’s being demolished.

The Eco-Village quickly became a strong and popular community catalyst and the free organic café was regularly home to locals sipping green tea or school children learning about permaculture, biodiversity, peace and art. Michael, one of the villagers and a general handyman around the community, was responsible for rigging up many of the structures for the wind-power and installing solar panels. He told me that he thinks the village had a strong impact on the local area; ‘It’s changing the local community’s way of thinking towards more ethical living. People want to be more sustainable in their everyday lives, even in cities, but obviously everyone can’t give everything up and live here... The village is giving an insight into things that aren’t generally taught in schools... And the attention we are getting is perhaps the local people’s last bastion of hope of stopping this development from going ahead.’

Having been finally evicted from Kew – after 11 months - the activists descend on the heart of British democracy and establish a new sustainable site in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. May 2010.

Jack Laurenson

Sadly, the site is empty again now, derelict and soulless. It is the wasteland it was before – the homes have been smashed up and the occupants evicted. The herb-gardens and flowerbeds trampled beneath the feet of clumsy bailiffs, the sculptures and banners torn down. The smell of wood smoke, grass and green tea is gone too, soon to be replaced with that of cement, asphalt and rubber. The music around the campfire has gone and the children wanting to learn about peace and sustainability will have to look elsewhere.

I’m sitting with Lou and Gareth in Parliament Square. It’s a beautiful English summer day. With us are dozens of activists. Many of the eEco-villagers have taken their arguments directly to Parliament, to the very epicentre of British government, and have formed the Democracy Village. Here, they cannot be ignored. The Eco-Village could now become a self-sustaining social movement. With so much abandoned land in this country being hoarded and wasted by companies, there will never be a shortage of places for them to go, grow, build and protest. All over the country, similar projects are popping up and momentum is growing. I remember asking Lou how she would like to see the Kew-Bridge Eco-Village end. She replied; ‘It will end how it is supposed to end, and something new will begin. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey...’

Jack Laurenson is a documentary photographer and journalist based out of London. He is also a founding member and Editor of the not-for-profit reportage agency Lacuna Media.