Beyond Coalitions

Alesia Maltz

This is not just a story of stone, millions of tons of stone, but of how a material as inert as stone can become an elixir for dramatic transformation of the most ephemeral aspects of our being. It is a story of how, in the best case scenarios, love and respect for the land may get expressed as love and respect for each other. It is a story about how coalitions, which are mere political devices to effectively nay say or yea say, may evolve into genuine partnerships.

By any account, the superquarry proposal on the Isle of Harris in the Western Isles of Scotland was constituted around a set of coalitions: the American environmentalist taken in as kin in the rural Scottish community; the Mi’kmaq War Chief from Nova Scotia, Canada testifying in Tarbert, Harris, that his people were in solidarity with the Scottish people; and the ideologically diverse Scottish environmental groups forming for the first time a national coalition against an issue.

These unusual coalitions, extending between distant continents, and across even more distant ideologies, was predicated on a more typical coalition: one between an international aggregates company and a remote rural community. An agreement made between Redland Aggregates International and the Harris Crofters (subsistence fishermen and shepherds) would provide Redlands with the opportunity to quarry out Roineabhal Mountain for aggregate to build roads throughout Europe. It is proposed to be one of the largest quarries in the world.

My experience on Harris suggests that people and mountain are integrally intertwined. In this wind strewn place, where trees can barely get a footing on the bare rock, and even houses can be blown away, ancient voices whisper in the wind, imbuing the whole place with voice, and people cling to a language that travels better on the wind. The social interactions can be as subtle, firm and majestic as the mountains. Integrity of landscape and culture is so highly valued that consensus is the modus operandi built into the patterns of ordinary daily life and depended on times of crisis. Consensus is built into the language itself: in Gaelic, the first and most important word in a sentence is the verb, the action, and because there exists no word for yes, the proper response to any statement is to repeat the verb — Is, is.

In a place where consensus is so strong, why would the community agree to Redland’s proposal? Because the company’s vision was in many respects in accord with the vision of the people of Harris. It played on island fears of being a hopeless economic case, a remote backwater that could never meet its economic challenges without a tremendous infusion from the outside. The island is so remote (a five hour ferry ride from the mainland) you can still identify precisely which village someone is from by their dialect. Without the quarry, Harris would continue to languish with upward of thirty per cent unemployment. The consequences of that unemployment include the break-up of family, as young or working aged people emigrate to find work elsewhere and leave behind a preponderance of elders.

The quarry could connect the people of Harris with the rest of the world, and reconnect them with family members. Stone had always connected Harris: soapstone quarrying could be traced back to the time of the Vikings, and the mica quarried for submarine periscopes was indispensable in World Wars I and II. The Redland vision rekindled a hope that Harris would get on the map, would become one of the world’s largest anything, would transcend its isolation, and would provide the much needed jobs to bring family members back to the island.

In the early stages of deliberation on the company’s proposal, public opinion about the quarry was hard to ascertain. Any private concerns were minimized for the greater good of the community. With a few notable and courageous exceptions, local residents appeared to support the proposal. The only socially acceptable argument against it in this highly religious yet economically deprived community was the argument of Sabbath Observance: will the company not work on the Sabbath? Yet as one outspoken elder of the community argued, the third commandment: (Sabbath Observance), was being attended to at the expense of the fourth: (honoring one’s parents by honoring the land they worked).

It took time before people would hold the Redland vision up to question. If one merely counted on opinion polls you might surmise that at first everyone was in favor of the quarry, and only several years later did the climate of public opinion abruptly turn against it. But opinion polls are a deceiving indicator in a community that operates according to consensus. An elder who eventually emerged as one of the strongest critics initially told me: Ninety-nine per cent of the people are in favor of this quarry.

Gradually, through questions posed by outsiders, through the few courageous insiders who went against the tide of local opinion, through several large public relations mistakes on the part of the company, and through the longest Public Inquiry in the history of Scotland, public opinion changed. Currently a wide majority of the community has turned against the quarry, but it is still a highly controversial issue. While the Harris people maintained an outward consensus, and took great care not to irrevocably divide the community, an ever-present rustling of papers, rumors, and satire peppered the silence of consensus. Members of the public were invited to speak from the heart at the Public Inquiry.

Solidarity was poignantly expressed by the fishermen, who coalesced community opinion against the quarry when they questioned if dust from the quarrying would affect the spawning ground and if the shipping of stone would endanger the fishing lines. Fish farmers, each dressed in blue zip-up overalls, inhaled in unison as their representative testified against the quarry. The Harris Tweed weavers expressed concern that the superquarry would tarnish their green reputation. In contrast to the first years, when people felt obliged to accept an economic savior in light of a hopeless economy, the community became increasingly more inclined to speak about how they might value, rather than denigrate, what they have.

When the people of Harris were initially considering the benefits of quarrying, they denied the beauty of the place (Roineabhal is no place to have a picnic. It looks like the moon. This is where my grandparents were forced to retreat during the clearances.) Yet when people in the community softened to the beauty of the place, their voices grew stronger in the process. Rather than seeing Harris as the moon, they chided the company that the quarry could be seen from the moon. The dismissive attitude of the company’s expert witnesses to the aesthetic qualities of the mountain elicited stories about the place of the mountain in the old Gaelic sagas and its importance to Gaelic traditions and identity.

CREATIVE COALITIONS

The growing respect for local knowledge changed public opinion on Harris. This change did not happen in a vacuum: ironically it required the creation of coalitions between local people and those outside the community.

Often the greater the differences, the greater the tolerance shown. People brought together with an awareness of difference are often more readily able to transcend those differences than those with a long history of working alongside each other, sandpapering the edges of their respective ideologies. This international coalition received considerable press, nationally and internationally.

The pathway for this interdenominational, interracial, intercultural and international exchange was made smooth not only by the hospitality of its organizers, but also by the fact that this coalition was exotic.

INTERNATIONAL COALITIONS

I became involved in international citizen diplomacy after spending several months a year in Scotland doing research about the proposed quarry. My students at the College of the Atlantic provided the councilors and fishermen of Harris with information about issues ranging from the possible effects of ballast water on the fishing industry to quarries as nuclear waste facilities. We established connections between Harris and Nova Scotia and hosted one of the most outspoken critics of the quarry, a colleague who was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis. Alastair MacIntosh came to Nova Scotia to visit Gluscap Mountain, another proposed superquarry site and a sacred site for the Mi’kmaq people. MacIntosh in turn hosted Stone Eagle Herney, the Mi’kmaq war chief. Chief Stone Eagle attended the Public Inquiry in Scotland to underscore that the two proposed superquarry sites were not alternative possibilities for development. Stone Eagle identified similarities between the two islands and testified that the Mi’kmaq people were in solidarity with the people of Harris.

NATIONAL-LOCAL COALITIONS

The Scottish environmentalists strengthened their own coalitions through the Harris proposal. This case marked the first time these groups agreed to unilaterally take a stand on an issue and present joint testimony at a Public Inquiry. The lawyers representing the aggregate company routinely searched the seams, poked and prodded to find any rifts between environmental groups. These attempts by the company to create division were fully, and sometimes creatively, met.

For example, when Kevin Dunion, the Link representative from Friends of the Earth Scotland (FOES) testified, he was cross-examined primarily about the position of Greenpeace. While he was being badgered with this line of questioning, another member of the Link group, Dr. Andrew Johnson, quietly stepped out of the room to call the head of Greenpeace Scotland. A letter from the head of Greenpeace against the proposed quarry was submitted to the Chief Reporter by fax before Dunion got off the stand.

This public inquiry became significant for the way it developed and maintained bonds between the national environmental organizations and the local community. In part because the hearing took so long, it was one of the few times when the environmental organizations genuinely worked side-by-side with local communities. From the first day, when we altered the oppressive architecture of the Public Inquiry by moving our tables together, members of each group worked side by side, to take meals together, to analyze testimony together, to share notes, jokes and strategies of cross-examination.

This was not a coalition in the strict sense of the term, because people were not working together for a common political aim. Out of respect for the diversity of opinion of the community, the Quarry Benefits Group of Harris did not take a pro-environmental, or even an anti-quarry, stance. They explicitly took as their mandate the pursuit of their community’s interests, which included the negotiation of benefits in light of environmental, economic, religious, and other community concerns. Link was extremely conscientious about its relationship with the community, especially the Quarry Benefits Group. It offered its support to the community irrespective of the community’s ultimate decision on the superquarry. In effect, Link was volunteering to stay in the front lines to divert pressure from the local community. Link formed a partnership without demanding a coalition: it gave the community the opportunity to find its own voice without demanding that the community reach agreement.

TOWARDS TRANSFORMATIVE PARTNERSHIPS

However important and challenging it is to establish and maintain coalitions, there is something more significant, both politically and spiritually, at stake: the possibility that coalitions may emerge as genuine partnerships with the ability to transform individuals and communities.

Immediacy is seldom the basis of partnership. Genuine involvement in communities require years of working with each other — elder to elder, child to child — across the kitchen table. The fastest way for an outsider to become an environmentalist busybody is to offer an unsolicited opinion. Professionals working with communities must take particular care not to co-opt or bend grassroots movements to their interests, but make a commitment to listen to what emerges.

A woman once described a friend of hers as being such a keen listener that even the trees leaned toward her, as if they were speaking their innermost secrets, into her listening ears. Over the years, I’ve envisioned that woman’s silence, a hearing full and open enough that the world told her its stories.

This can be a hard lesson for environmentalists to learn, but one of the most significant for developing genuine partnerships. Much of the initial resistance to outside environmentalists on Harris happened because opinions were given too freely and, from the perspective of people in the community, without respect.

Because many of the communities targeted for environmental inequities are communities where the public voices have been squelched, one of the most important pathways toward achieving partnership is to aid in reclaiming the voice. With active listening, abandoned ideas may reawaken; the rustling of new ideas sounds as imminent and charged as the unfolding of new leaves on a warm spring day. With active listening, the past may become genuinely integrated into the present, and may even guide policy alternatives for the future.

The act of listening not only prepares the community to address the issues at hand; it also enables the fullest flowering and intermingling of local and global knowledge. Local knowledge –the sagas, history, understanding of local weather, people and place, and the applied common sense about what is possible in a place — perpetuates itself in whispers and jokes. The company thinks it can keep the dust pile down by keeping it damp? You couldn’t even keep that garage from blowing away. In contrast, global knowledge, with its methods and plans and research strategies, builds on itself with all the formality and loudness of a construction site.

At its most dramatic, outsiders can provide an elixir to call up the local voice. In the process, communities may undergo alchemical transformations, carefully mingling or juxtaposing global knowledge with local knowledge in ways that transmute the base materials of information into a vision and voice that emerges purified. At the Public Inquiry, for example, the company brought forth a landscape designer specializing in the restoration of quarries. This witness described the mountain in the most stark terms, quoting bits of poetry and fiction to underscore her imagery, and then described the process by which she would re-seed heather on the quarry shelf. John Macaulay, of the Quarry Benefits Group, cross-examined her. He pointed out that she found nothing special written about the mountain because she did not consult any literature in the Gaelic language. If she had, she would have found that the culmination of one of the most important epic poems takes place on the mountain. He contrasted her dark imagery of the mountain as it now stands with her vision of the mountain and corrie after restoration, and chided, Don’t you think this beautiful restoration will be out of character? A few weeks later, one of the poets living in the Western Isles submitted evidence that she had completely misinterpreted several lines of his poem. By the time the Public Inquiry closed, the Quarry Benefit Group had clearly identified the importance of local knowledge in their deliberations. Noting that the Public Inquiry played a vital role in educating all concerned, they also identified their own arena of expertise:

We do not consider ourselves to be experts on the many technical matters which came before the Inquiry, but
we are experts on local knowledge and can identify with the values and priorities of the people of this area, which has
been inhabited by successive generations of our families for centuries.

These public transformations were paralleled by equally dramatic changes at the private level. The international connections enabled people on both sides of the Atlantic to explore a history of common bonds extending from the very bedrock. When Old Scotia and Nova Scotia were united in the Jurassic Period of geological history, to the tumultuous social history of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the people of the Western Isles were cleared from the land to make way for sheep, and summarily packed off to Nova Scotia.

During the inquiry, people in both Harris and Nova Scotia expanded their sense of identity from being local community members to international, diplomatic emissaries. They were leading parallel lives pressured by parallel development in marginalized communities. One prominent elder of the Harris community gave the summit rock of the mountain to Stone Eagle. He thought it was better to have the summit in safe keeping in Nova Scotia than have it ground up and disappear. Although Stone Eagle was at first unwilling to accept the decapitation of the mountain, he later agreed to take it for safe keeping. If the proposal failed, the summit would be returned to the Harris community; if not, it would stay in Nova Scotia on public display with The Hector, a ship that set sail in 1773 taking people of Harris to Nova Scotia as they were cleared off the land. The summit is now serving as a reminder that not only were the people driven from the place, but the place itself might be taken away, piece by piece, to be ground up for roads in English suburbs.

It is a long cultural journey between a statement of solidarity and the transformative partnerships that evolved. Stone Eagle’s visit to Scotland enabled him to understand for the first time what the Scottish people had to endure during the clearances, and the levels of poverty they still endure. As Friere has suggested, the oppressed may in turn become the oppressors. Seeing the landscape and meeting the people, he could more readily imagine the grueling experiences of environmental refugees emigrating from Scotland playing a part in destructive racial interactions between Scottish immigrants and First Nations people in Nova Scotia. During his visit to Scotland, Stone Eagle was greatly honored by the Scottish people in contrast to his experience of racial tension in Nova Scotia. That new found respect changed both his perception of the Nova Scotia Scots and their perception of him.

Likewise, one Harris elder, John MacAulay, also underwent transformations. He made an about-face from promoting the aggregate company as the only hope for Harris, to becoming a powerful spokesman against the superquarry. During the Public Inquiry, he eloquently elicited an apology from Scotland’s leading anti-environmental lawyer for not even showing enough respect to correctly pronounce the name of the mountain they wanted to quarry away:

We are concerned about the implications for our landscape, our culture and our heritage. Even before the development starts, our heritage is being undermined. So far I have not heard one person pronounce Beinne na-h-Aire correctly, and even some of the lochs are already referred to by numbers. (John Macaulay, QBG Cross
examination)

At its deepest levels, the partnerships changed people at their core, as is likely to happen when due respect is given to people who otherwise have been marginalized. In this case, reconciliation with the environment promoted reconciliation between races. We are quick to see that the personal is political, yet in our widespread cynicism, we are slower to reverse that phrase. The political also becomes personal when we engage in emerging political processes in ways that make us more fully human.

A VISION OF PARTNERSHIP

Dare we consider Truth, Beauty, and Justice to be the guiding principles of environmental partnerships? Can this story of diverse groups of people fighting against development proposals be told as a story of people striving to recapture and retain the home as a place of refuge, willing to undergo spiritual tests, able to uncover unexpected emotional strength, intent on valuing what is familiar? Is it a story of people discovering, at the endpoint of beauty, truth and justice, a peaceful relationship with others and with their environment?

TRUTH

One of the characteristics of conversation on Harris is that when a statement of truth is recognized, the hearer punctuates it with a quick sharp breath inward, as if those words are transported along a funnel of air directly down to the heart.

In the same way that the starkness of wilderness may elicit the truth by testing mettle, the starkness of the public inquiry may elicit truth. In this cluttered age of information, where we permit the most mundane facts and feelings and contradictions to pass for truth, our standards of truth are diminished. There are fewer things to breathe in.

Truth is a sensation measured viscerally. When it rings, when it sends chills up the spine, when it makes anti-environmental lawyers apologize, or when companies acknowledge plans for hazardous waste dumping, then it brings peace. Partnerships, because they require deep communication, and because they strengthen the voice and ear, enable the silenced to speak truth to power.

For example, when Morag Monroe of the Quarry Benefits Group established in cross examination what small percentage of the benefits of the quarry Harris would get, while accruing all of the disbenefits, she asked her witness, Is this fair? and the person sitting next to me breathed in.

BEAUTY

In their closing statement, the Quarry Benefit Group was able to state with conviction a love of place they had previously denied.

Like the Romantics’ struggle to transform the perception of the howling wilderness into a place of beauty, inner truth, and just protection, the Harris community, when faced with dismemberment of their landscape, a lopping off of the mountain that characterized that landscape, had to struggle to re-member the beauty of the landscape, to reawaken to the beauty of their place. The subtle beauty of South Harris is not embedded in the landscape alone, as it is in the postcard vistas of other parts of the island, but in the rich relationship: the people cultivate and shape the landscape as much as they are cultivated and shaped by it.

The muted colors are colors of being: earthy tertiary heathers and golds, bathed by a piercing silvery light mimic the quiet conversations, which are filled with flecks of silver, shimmers of gold and the warmth of heather. The peat bogs behind the mountain, infinitely deep, damp and dark, speckled with piles of drying bricks of peat, seem cold, distant and dour, yet once burned are surprisingly warm, and when fully cured have the inviting and surprising smell of toasted cheese sandwiches. The isolated houses, cold and dour on the outside, open to great warmth and hospitality. The quietness of this landscape is antithetical to the deconstruction of mountains. The acknowledgment of beauty is a strong challenge to those willing to dismiss any place as wasteland, as remote sites on which to dump waste or extract resources.

JUSTICE

Now that participatory democracy has met the information age, we need to be increasingly more attentive to what constitutes right relationship in environmental partnerships. Providing a place for minorities at the table requires more than scootching over– it also means attentive invitations to speak, respectful listening to the local knowledge and encouraging the intermingling of knowledge. Providing a place means supporting emerging voices and taking time to bear witness to transformations.

Individual and community transformations engendered by the establishment of partnerships kindle the hope of environmental justice. In the United States, a rich mythology has abounded venerating wilderness as a sacred space where beauty, truth and justice emerge. Those myths are now coming under scrutiny. My hope for environmentalism in the twenty-first century is that we will begin to see environmental partnerships as transformative an experience as the wilderness experience was believed to be throughout the twentieth century.

While these partnerships have already enabled participants to break through the sound barriers to Truth and Beauty, it remains to be seen whether Justice will be served. Truth, beauty and justice are all facets of the same thing, pathways to the same goal. My hope for environmental partnerships is that they will strengthen the relationship between people and place. Through these partnerships, outsiders and insiders will grow to love place in ways that honors the people who create that place and opens the door to healing the environment. Through transformative partnerships, the highest ideals of Truth, Beauty and Justice attune people and nature in right relationship.