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Plenary 5 - Local issues (morning session),
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25/10/2009 13:00

The regeneration of New Orleans is a golden opportunity to show the rest of the world how to recover from environmental catastrophe and embrace long-term sustainability, local activists told delegates today.

Anne Milling, founder of the Women of the Storm pressure group, said that although her organisation's efforts to tackle wetland degradation were focused chiefly on the local area the wider question of coastal restoration was not a 'parochial issue, but a national issue'. How Louisiana responds to the gradual destruction of its natural storm barriers could become 'the prototype for Deltaic situations all over the world', she said.

Echoing her words, Beth Galante, director of Global Green's New Orleans Resource Center and Office, pointed out that the region's battle to defend itself was of international significance. “Trying to control water during storm events is a global problem,” she reminded delegates.

Several speakers made clear their belief that New Orleans had a tremendous potential for leading by example, with the director of the Friends of New Orleans association describing the city as 'an incredible laboratory' for social and environmental change.

“We have to make sure the region comes back - and that it comes back better than before,” said Denise Byrne. “We really are a model for the rest of the nation.”

From improved school results to an explosion in civic engagement, New Orleans has been witnessing many positive changes since the hurricane hit and thoroughly deserves to be rebuilt with care and imagination, she said.

Sandy Rosenthal, founder and director of Levees.org, also defended the city's right to be rebuilt. Anyone who criticises residents for wanting to return to a place many deem unsustainable should consider that over 50% of Americans live in counties protected by levees, she said.

Rebuilding was also the topic of a talk by Charles Allen, associate director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research Tulane and Xavier Universities, who focused on the future of the Lower 9th Ward, an area particularly badly hit by Katrina.

While acknowledging that 'not all of the Lower 9th Ward should or could be redeveloped', he said it was inevitable that many people were determined to go home. With this in mind, efforts to build to the necessary elevations and engage in coastal regeneration were crucial to the city's ability to protect itself. If this is not done, he said authorities would be 'leaving the back-door open to the Gulf of Mexico.'

Speakers united in insisting that residents choosing to remain in New Orleans have the right to a healthy and secure future. Daphne Derven of the city's Food and Farm Network said that a network of farmers' markets, community gardens and micro-farms should be built to improve residents' access to nutritious, locally produced food.

But it was on the controversial issue of local industry that most attention centered. Anne Rolfes, head of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade pressure group, detailed her group's attempts to raise awareness among the local population of the risks posed by oil and gas refineries.
“There is a public health hurricane happening in these neighbourhoods,” she told delegates.

Reinforcing this message in a personal account, Margie Richard, environmental activist and winner of the Goldman Prize, told delegates of her inspiring personal battle to hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for the health problems of her local community.