Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Campaign to save heritage village of Aranmula

This is a map of Aranmula, a heritage village in Kerala, southwest India. At the top of the map, on the bank of the Pampa River, the Aranmula Temple is marked. Below, you can see that the area is mainly fields and forests. This is an ecologically diverse area of wetlands and paddy fields. At the bottom of the map, to the right, is a long, pale brown strip. It has been filled in for construction of an airport. A far larger area has been notified for the airport and an industrial zone. About 3,000 families may face eviction. The negative ecological impacts include loss of biodiversity and depletion of groundwater.

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A great many reputable organisations report that the land acquisition, and filling in of wetlands, is illegal. Supposedly, the new airport will bring in more tourists, but it would destroy much of what is attractive to visitors. Moreover, there are already two airports nearby, one of which, Cochin, is only about 90km away. The project site is very close to Aranmula’s famous temple, and aircraft noise would hardly be conducive to peaceful contemplation. This is the website of the group campaigning to preserve Aranmula. The Aranmula Paithruka Grama Karma Samithy aims to protect Aramnula and its heritage. Below is my letter of support to the campaigners.

To the Aranmula campaign,

It is wonderful to be in contact with your campaign, all the way from England! I support your campaign to save Aranmula from an airport which would concrete over so much of your farmland and community. Thank you for sending me more details of what is happening, which I will study, and I will help to raise awareness of your work.

I have researched aviation policy in India and am astonished by the aggressive land acquisition in Aranmula and all over the country, and the extent of policy support and subsidy which drives expansion, in particular for domestic flights which are the easiest to replace with surface transport. For example, I saw this article which outlines aviation ministry plans for subsidy to increase air traffic to 89 small airports - expecting state government to provide free land, airport infrastructure, waive property tax and reduce fuel tax. 

So many plans for airport expansion, and new airports, threaten to destroy farmland, or wildlife habitats. There are groups opposing similar projects all around the world, so the good news is that a growing number of projects are meeting with strong opposition from local groups, and collaboration between groups is building into a broader movement. Also, non-governmental organisations are challenging the support for aviation expansion in the form of favourable policies and subsidies. We can build on the work of local, national and regional coordination, and build a worldwide movement against unsustainable aviation expansion, and to achieve a shift to surface transport.

I live in northern England and the biggest airport in my region is Manchester. There is a long-term campaign against the airport’s expansion, of freight warehouses and other commercial development, over land designated as ‘greenbelt’, a rare urban green oasis hosting rare species such as newts. See the blog SEMA (Stop Expansion at Manchester Airport).

The biggest airport in the UK is Heathrow, which wants to expand its concrete footprint even further over the southeast of England. It is so enormous that it is like a city in its own right, a noisy and polluting city that blights a wide area. HACAN (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) led a campaign which achieved historic victory against a third runway, in 2010, with all major political parties stating they would not support the development. But the UK’s Conservative led coalition government betrayed their pre-election commitment, and it turns out that Heathrow’s plans for a third, or even fourth, runway are dormant rather than dead.

On the south cost of England, Lydd Airport Action Group is fighting a legal battle against Lydd Airport’s runway expansion plan, which would ruin important wildlife habitat in Romney Marshes. There are groups opposing new runways, new terminal terminals and night flights all over the UK. See the Airport Watch website Campaign Community page list. Also, check out Plane Stupid. As well as critique of the aviation industry this group has undertaken direct action such as occupying runways and terminals and a rooftop protest at the House of Commons.

There are effective protests against airport expansion all over Europe. Most of the projects pose the threat of encroachment on farmland and important wildlife habitats. In France, thousands of protestors camping out to demonstrate their opposition to a new airport for the city of Nantes, on farmland in Notre Dame des Landes. Last autumn, the protest camp was removed by police, but this triggered more supporters from all over Europe to flock to the site to help prevent the development. In Germany, every Monday thousands of protestors gather in the terminal at Frankfurt Airport to protest against the new fourth runway, which was built on land which was previously forests hosting a wealth of biodiversity. Plans for a third runway at Munich Airport have been stalled by a citizens’ vote that rejected the proposal, winning the vote with far less resources than the pro-new runway lobby.

It is very exciting in Europe now, as a coordinated movement is gaining strength, sharing knowledge and strategies. Cooperation between the different groups and countries also counters one of the key justifications for expansion - that other, rival, airports are expanding unopposed, and if the airport in your area does not expand, its traffic will not keep up and economic activity will drain from the region. See this report - Sea of Protest, community opposition has led to plans for two new airports in Italy, at Siena and Vicerbo, being cancelled.

The UECNA (European Union Against Aircraft Nuisances) website has information from groups in many countries, and a report from a conference that brought together 250 campaigners, from communities affected by airports. The non-government organisation Transport and Environment (T&E) addresses aviation and related policy at the European level. Greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change, are growing faster from aviation than from any other transport sector, and currently constitute about 5% of world total emissions, but journeys by plane emit higher levels of greenhouse gases than by road, rail or ship, and the benefits of flying are only enjoyed by a relatively wealthy minority. Also, T&E has calculated the value of subsidies to aviation through tax exemptions, most notably on fuel. In Europe it is estimated at about £33 billion per year. Another issue that is being investigated is state aid to airports and airlines. This has continued even as governments impose austerity on citizens, cutting back on benefits to the ill and unemployed and on vital health and education services.

Peotone was selected as the site for a third airport for the city of Chicago more than 30 years ago. The site is mostly prime quality farmland. Even though air traffic to the city has declined, the new airport is still being pursued and people could face eviction from their homes and farmland. Chicago. This is the website for the campaign group Shut This Airport Nightmare Down (STAND). There is a campaign, Airport2Park, which is campaigning for Santa Monica Airport, in a residential area and used for recreational flying and flight schools, converted into a park. There are lively campaign groups all over the US. Aviation Justice brings together airport communities and campaigners for climate justice. The website has a state by state listing of local airport campaign groups.

In Canada, there is a strong campaign against a third airport for the city of Toronto. The site, in Pickering, is prime quality farmland and the campaign for over 40 years with successive rounds of land expropriation and evictions. The Land Over Landings group has worked tirelessly, aiming to establish a land trust to preserve the land for farming, in perpetuity. In the same city, there is a campaign, NoJetsTO, against expansion of the airport on the waterfront to accommodate larger aircraft. 

I have written a book about aviation, Plane Truth: Aviation’s Real Impact on People and the Environment. It includes a short section on Aranmula and other greenfield airports in India – at various stages of planning, approval and construction, all on farmland and involving aggressive land acquisition, and all meeting with vigorous opposition from predominantly agricultural communities facing displacement and low rates of compensation – in Mopa (second airport for Goa), Andal, Kushinagar and Sriperumbudur. A proposed new airport for Mumbai at Navi would remove mangrove habitat and agricultural land. I would be interested in your views of the new Land Acquisition Bill that has been passed and any effect this might have, if the promise for fair compensation and an end to forcible land acquisition will be upheld. I wonder if there will be an improvement in the protection of farmland against industrialisation. The book is published by Pluto Press later this month.

Yours in solidarity,

Rose Bridger


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