For most of the past decade, Eric Ini has worked with communities fighting for environmental justice. Human health is inextricably linked to the environment in which we live. And health inequalities, exacerbated by local pollutants, are often linked to deep-rooted inequalities and injustices.
As a Greenpeace activist in Africa’s Congo Basin, Eric helped local communities conserve the rainforest sought for palm oil plantations. Last year he moved to Michigan United, drawn to the group’s work protecting the health of frontline communities after its members helped pressure Marathon Petroleum Corporation into paying $5 million to buy out residents in the predominantly black Boynton neighborhood, which has been hit by years of pollution from the company’s south Detroit refinery.
He is now Michigan United’s Director of Environmental Justice and part of a coalition against Ajax Materials Corp. for State Approval for Asphalt Plant near Flint, Michigan and calling for public health protection measures. The State Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) granted the permit last year, despite overwhelming opposition and demands from the EPA to assess the cumulative impact of emissions from the Ajax facility and the many industrial facilities already in place on the community surrounding the area .
I sat down with Eric to learn more about his environmental justice efforts and the lessons he’s learned while working with communities, governments and businesses on multiple continents.
The text has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Terry Hyland: You joined Michigan United just over a year ago to expand the work of the environmental justice organization. Tell us about Michigan United’s environmental justice actions.
Eric Ini. One of them is the Ajax campaign. Michigan United worked with partners to put together a very strong coalition that fought vigorously against Ajax.
Although Ajax eventually got the go-ahead, the campaign attracted not only local but also national attention. We’ve seen the EPA get involved, and the EPA recently chose to do so review the process for obtaining this permit. And now Michigan United and coalition members have sued EGLE too. We are still campaigning, the coalition is still strong.
We also applied for an EPA grant to purchase air quality monitors for Flint. Our goal is to collect data that we can use for advocacy, community building and organizing.
terry cloth. Can you tell a bit about your own path?
Eric. I was born in Cameroon – West Central Africa. And I had the opportunity to work, live and study on four continents. I have also been an organizer on four continents: Asia, Europe, Africa and the United States.
Before coming to Michigan, I worked as a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, primarily focusing on the Congo Basin (the second largest tropical rainforest after the Amazon).
I joined Greenpeace after reading that an American company had bought about 100,000 hectares in Cameroon – my home country – to start a palm plantation. Through organization and outreach, we were able to give back about 80% of the land to the local communities. That’s the spirit I have when organizing. I always like to give people hope that if we come together and fight, we will win.
“So we’re taking the story of hope and letting people know that tomorrow will be a better day.” – Eric Ini
I later learned of communities in Detroit affected by pollution from Marathon Petroleum’s refinery. The company initially agreed to buy up white neighborhoods but not black neighborhoods. It felt like my country – the more powerfully oppressed, the less powerful.
I became interested in Michigan United after hearing that the organization and its members were pressuring Marathon, who eventually agreed to pay $5 million to also buy out black residents.
terry cloth. What are some of the most important lessons or insights you have learned in your church ministry?
Eric. I think that when organizing you should always try to look around the room to see who is there and then try to understand the person first, individually, then collectively. Cultural differences really need to be considered in organization – and in everything you do.
Also, we must always listen to the communities and see where their self-interest lies. Because if we choose to just do what we want to do, we may not be able to bring those communities with us. We have to listen to them.
terry cloth. What’s next?
Eric. Climate change is a big issue. In places like Michigan, we’re seeing the effects like flooding, power outages, and increased winter storms.
At Michigan United, we’ve assembled a coalition of organizations called the Statewide Decarbonization Campaign that is trying to remove the barriers to decarbonization.
Many cities across America and Michigan are passing resolutions for decarbonization action plans. Despite the plans, obstacles to implementation often remain. For example, Michigan has a 1% cap on distributed generation, which limits the number of small solar projects that can be installed. So the coalition supports a bill in Congress in Michigan HB4236this bill would remove the 1% cap.
In addition to climate change, our intent is to continue building power in Michigan by building strong coalitions and organizing people.
So, We continue the story of hope and let people know that tomorrow will be a better day.