The sense of place in environmental protest: Insights from County Mayo, Ireland

Environmental protest very often appears in localised forms: grassroots opposition to ‘development’ projects that grows out of an intuitive sense that a particular project is inappropriate. Such locally based campaigns are almost always accused of selfish or reactionary ‘nimbyism’, simply because local groups only appear to be interested in the locality. It seems that the lack of a national organisation, paid staff, bureaucratic processes and an endless stream of policy verbiage somehow offends the Establishment: if you don’t speak their language and play their games, they won’t acknowledge your interest in the issue on your doorstep.

Nevertheless, there is great strength in grassroots organising and a locally based campaign. Irish academic and activist Mark Garavan has recently provided some wonderful insights into this strength by examining the (still ongoing) opposition to a major gas refinery project in North Mayo, north-west Ireland.

Very briefly, the specific issue is as follows. A consortium of oil companies led by Shell and Statoil wishes to build a pipeline to bring untreated gas from the Corrib gas field ashore at Rossport and then to a refinery to be built 9km inland at Bellanaboy, with wastes to be piped back to the sea at Broadhaven Bay (further information here and here).

Garavan, who has been a spokesperson for the campaign, writes: “From the beginning of the Corrib gas conflict, the concerns of locals were dismissed by crude stereotypes. They were accused of seeking greater financial compensation. They were accused of not understanding what Shell was proposing. They were accused of being left-wing ideologues. They were accused of being luddites and anti-progress.” That is to say, local opposition to ‘development’ projects was portrayed in the usual manner.

By contrast, “The Corrib gas project itself was imbued with some of the most dominant myths of modernity, that industrialisation equals development, that industrial development equals progress, that fossil fuels must always be exploited.”

But there is something in the North Mayo gas refinery campaign that has been powerful enough to challenge the myth of modernity and bring the forces of industrial development to a grinding halt.

That ‘something’ is the sense of place that is expressed through grassroots activism.

Garavan describes how the refinery proposal forced people in North Mayo to “reflect on the nature of their cultural identity and the value of place.” The threat to health is the central concern, along with the threat to the local economic activities of farming, fishing and tourism. An important lesson for greens that emerges from Garavan’s research is that the ‘environment’ as an abstract concept isn’t the most significant issue for opponents of the proposal, and such ideas carry no mobilising potential among the community. When participants do discuss their environment they refer to more than just the physical beauty of the area – they talk about the beauty of “a way of life that [is] regarded as valuable and unique.”

Some participants in the North Mayo refinery campaign who have stood firmly for their values, their way of life and their unique place have felt the full force of the law in response. In 2005, five landowners who defied a court order allowing Shell access to their lands were imprisoned – rather unbelievably – for an indefinite period. But, as sometimes happens when state power overreaches itself, the judgement rebounded on the refinery consortium. 94 days later, when the Rossport 5 were released, they had become national heroes and Shell’s work had been brought to a complete standstill. Such is the might of civil disobedience.

The refinery site remained closed and picketed by local people for over a year until it was reopened by police force for the recommencement of building work in October 2006. However, the original pipeline route has been abandoned and, as of February 2008, consultants are yet to report a decision on a new proposed route.

Reflecting on activists’ arguments over the years of protest, Garavan sees an initial reaction to the refinery project progressing to a positive affirmation of the set of values exemplified by the local community as “two versions of being-in-the world, two versions of development, are placed side by side and judged in the light of each other.” This is an appreciation of ‘the good life’ or ‘quality of life’ as a very real experience, rather than a vague wish.

In conclusion, we can see that what are often characterised as ‘local’ protests often carry significant political and cultural implications within them; and what are often characterised as ‘environmental’ campaigns often embody a diverse range of issues such as health, local economic security, and the meaning of ‘development’ and ‘quality of life’. Greens can help to draw out the underlying implications of particular campaigns and make connections with the deeper ecological critique for the wider public.

And if the deep connection with real places is what drives so much ‘environmental’ activism, a lack of this connection may explain why so many green issues fail to capture the public imagination. Mark Garavan’s work suggests that greens must ground their own discourse on broader, rather abstract, ecological/political concerns – such as economic growth, global warming, sustainability, quality of life and so on – in meaningful local issues in order to bring them alive.

Sources

Mark Garavan (2006) The Rossport 5 – An introduction. Mark Garavan (2007) Resisting the costs of ‘development’: local environmental activism in Ireland. Environmental Politics, 16(5), 844-863.

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