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New Community Guide to Environmental Health Tackles Resource Rights from the Grassroots

June 2008

Friends and supporters of Grassroots International may be familiar with Hesperian Foundation, a non-profit publisher of community health education materials, best known for Where There Is No Doctor, recognized by WHO as “the most widely-used health manual in the world.” With this month’s publication of the long-anticipated A Community Guide to Environmental Health, Hesperian celebrates more than just the release of another book. It allows us all to celebrate and learn from the myriad ways in which people at the grassroots can and do take control over their own environmental health.

A Community Guide to Environmental Health, written in simple language and profusely illustrated (an average of two line-drawings per page), spans the range of environmental health topics, from water and sanitation issues to toxic contamination, from soil erosion, watershed management, and sustainable agriculture to solid waste and harm reduction from extractive industries. In developing the material chapter by chapter and topic by topic over the course of a decade, Hesperian worked with hundreds of community-based activists at the forefront of the movement of movements that is bringing about the better world we all know is possible.

Much of the Community Guide focuses on hands-on solutions for poor communities, rather than on political advocacy as such: you can learn how to start a tree nursery, how to prevent soil erosion, how to purify drinking water, and how to start a community resource recovery program to deal with solid waste. But it has been clear at every stage of developing the Community Guide – as with Hesperian’s other books – that in order for communities to protect their health and practice sustainability, they must have the right to determine their own development paths and to control essential resources such as water, land, and food.

Whether we are dealing with improvements to community sanitation, implementing a forestry or watershed management program, planning resource extraction (or resisting resource exploitation), or approaching any of the other issues that come under the broad rubric of environmental health, we come up against questions of equity in access to resources, of human rights, of social justice. Communities forced to live on marginal lands or subject to forced migration, for example, will not invest in sustainable agriculture any more than those who live in temporary, informal settlements might be expected to landscape the front lawn.

Bottom-up sustainable development depends on equity, dignity, and autonomy in decision-making. Which means, in short, shifting the balance of power, locally and globally to allow communities themselves to make the decisions that will affect them. It is in this sense that A Community Guide to Environmental Health might also be titled A Community Guide to Grassroots Development.

Doctor Ana Leung, who reviewed and field-tested the chapters on mining and toxics with the Save the Abra River Movement struggling against abusive gold mining in the Philippines’ Northern Cordillera points out that A Community Guide to Environmental Health “reflects the collective knowledge and experience of grassroots organizations struggling to assert their rights in a toxic world.”

As such, we think that the book will be of interest to supporters of Grassroots International, and we hope you’ll help us spread the word about this important resource.

A Community Guide to Environmental Health rolls off the presses on June 18th, as a book or on CD as a PDF. Like all of Hesperian’s publications, the book has an open copyright, allowing it to be freely used and adapted on a not-for-profit basis, and it is already available for preview or free download on our website. To better understand the relationship between people’s health and environmental degradation, read this book. And if you work with a community struggling to maintain its right to equitable development and a healthy future, share your copy.

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