Interview with Jane Bremmer by Dan Abril
Jane Bremmer is one of Asia Pacific’s prominent and outspoken environmental advocates. However, with two Arts degrees and a Sound Design major, her involvement in environmental activism was something she didn’t quite expect or envision. She shares, “We had just moved into an old house with our 4-month-old baby and we were planning on a ceramics business when we discovered we were living next door to Western Australia’s worst contaminated site – a massive 38000 m3 pit of waste oil.”
Heavily involved in social activism back in university, Jane was not the type to hold herself back; and so, together with others in the community, they formed a group and managed to get the site cleaned up and relocate those residents most affected by the contamination.
Known then as The Bellevue Action Group, it soon joined with other communities facing environmental justice threats and morphed into the Alliance for a Clean Environment (ACE)
25 years later, the alliance has seen ordinary folks become heroes: from holding industrial polluters to account to getting involved in campaigns against waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerators, and climate change. As ACE’s pioneer, Jane Bremmer sat with us to discuss the joys and challenges that come with coordinating and leading such an alliance.
What are ACE’s main ongoing campaigns?
ACE continues to support environmental justice communities facing pollution threats. In addition, we have two large WTE incinerator proposals here in Western Australia (WA) and so to counteract their waste disposal narrative, we are focused on supporting Zero Waste Campaigns here.
Aside from that, we are also working on the impacts of pesticide use in both agricultural and urban environments. A lot of people are interested because they are tired of seeing children’s playgrounds drenched in pesticides.
What are your biggest accomplishments/achievements?
Our campaign on contaminated sites resulted in the state government introducing the first-ever Contaminated Sites Act. This was a great achievement and outcome for our campaign, ensuring no community in the future would face the same situation.
ACE was also able to prevent a fifth brickworks from being built in an already heavily industrial-impacted neighbourhood where air quality had long been compromised. We consider that every time that our government listens to us, and acts to protect our health and environment, it is a win for us!
In 2005, ACE was also bestowed with a Sunday Times Pride of Australia Award for the Most Outstanding Environment Work Award.
What challenges are you facing? How is your work impacted by the COVID crisis?
ACE is a very independent voice and one of the significant challenges of an environmental justice campaigner is that you are often criticizing corporations and the government – and that is not a great way to make friends or get funding. In WA, mining corporations fund everything, even the academe is very industry-captured here and as such, it is very difficult for us to get the financial support we need.
Another concern is that the world is changing very rapidly and people have less time now and people are feeling jaded and cynical. Compared to 20 years ago, people were more willing to take action and get involved in their local communities to defend their health and environment. Today, people are less interested and often accept government and industry platitudes without question.
Our working model is to focus on providing resources that frontline communities need to raise awareness and engage their own communities and connect with experts and other contributors.
COVID posed another problem, people became reluctant to meet – Australia has been so lucky dealing with the pandemic but I understand that the pandemic caused so much stress to so many other people, especially in the Asia Pacific (AP) region.
What are the main environmental issues that your country/region is facing?
There are many issues but climate change is right at the top. The fossil fuel industry, the petrochemical industry, and the pesticide industry are a deadly trio that wreaks havoc on climate, economics, trade, and people’s health.
How do you see your organization’s work evolving in the next years?
ACE is currently considering its future right now. Our membership often fluctuates according to the campaign – so whether we will still be ACE in 10 years or evolved into another organization, I don’t know. People retire and move on. My hope is that I will see me and my colleagues in our old age sitting in the back while all these awesome, young, energetic campaigners will take up the reins and lead ACE forward. Whatever happens in the future, ACE will still be around in some shape or form. This oasis will always be here.
What are your thoughts on the waste crisis that many countries in your region (and in the world) are living in right now?
Every single state in Australia is facing an incinerator threat. Two big ones have already been approved in WA, while New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, and Queensland are now facing numerous incinerator threats. South Australia (SA) meanwhile, has been quietly burning waste all this time and has massive expansion plans for refuse-derived fuel (RDF). The ‘waste disposal sector’ dominates in Australia driving a narrative of false solutions like waste incineration while failing to invest in sustainable Zero Waste policies and redefining a Circular Economy to enshrine waste burning. The waste disposal industry does not talk about Zero Waste and as such, government finances are funneled into waste incinerator projects and not source segregation.
I have a bit of hope here though. Industry heads have acknowledged that they do not have a social licence to operate in Australia. When they say that, I know that we are being effective.
While Australia’s world-first waste export ban was a step in the right direction, it is simply enabling further waste dumping in the AP region through a simple redefinition of waste as a fuel commodity that can continue to be exported. This will exacerbate the global waste crisis and push incineration projects into the AP region. This will be a disaster for our climate, health, and environment. The vulnerable equatorial region on our planet is no place for dangerous highly polluting waste incinerators. The AP region knows how to implement Zero Waste policy and have long been leaders in this area. They just need respect and support to scale up. Imagine a world without waste incinerators or coal industries!
To look at the other positives: Australia has seen some major waste policy improvements such as single-use plastic (SUP) bans, container deposit schemes, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, and now has a national food and garden organics (FOGO) programme diverting this waste from landfills to composting.
Do you collaborate with partners in other regions? If so, how?
We work with a number of other organizations – from local groups such as the Conservation Council of WA to international networks as the Basel Action Network (BAN), International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), and of course the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
How does your work on waste relate to social justice?
Most environmental justice threats disproportionately impact Indigenous peoples (IPs) and other minority groups and Australia is no exception. It is well-documented that communities hosting industries in their neighborhoods are often negatively impacted by those industries. ACE’s fight against air pollution is a battle for human rights. Everyone has a right to clean air, water, and soil.
Who do you admire most in environmental work (in your country or in the world)?
There are so many great women in Australia and around the world who work for environmental justice, whether it’s petrochemicals, pesticides or plastic. They deserve much more recognition. Noting the work of Dr Mariann Lloyd- Smith who founded the National Toxics Network (NTN), Lois Marie Gibbs, who lifted the lid on dioxin and its impact on communities in the US, Theo Colburn and her incredible work on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, and Rachel Carlson who wrote “Silent Spring”. I have come to cherish and rely on them all.
There are lots of incredible women who are doing amazing things in environmental justice spaces and a lot of women are simply standing up for their kids and communities – and they inspire me to keep going.
The Alliance for a Clean Environment (ACE) is in need of funding to continue its work on exposing the threat of waste incinerators and its campaign against the use of pesticides in urban areas. Reach out to ACE via their website or their Facebook group to learn more.