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People are Part of the Solution in the Gulf

Q&A with Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America

As restoration continues in the Gulf of Mexico, there is still much work to be done; restoring the Gulf will not be easy or quick, but it can be done. And to be successful, restoration must focus as much on the needs of and benefits to people as it does to the lands and waters. To that end, the Conservancy is proud to partner with Oxfam America to promote restoration in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Conservancy’s goals and capacities lie in helping to restore the Gulf’s degraded ecosystems for the benefit of nature and people. Oxfam’s capacities help make socially vulnerable coastal communities more resilient. Since 1994, Oxfam has been committed to working in the Gulf Coast—a region where the people are uniquely linked to the environment, and thus particularly sensitive to disruptions. Oxfam has worked tirelessly with community groups on proposing solutions for both the economic and environmental problems that have increased with every disaster—whether man made or natural. They bring a unique ability to formulate long-term solutions that address underlying conditions, and enable people to work their way out of poverty and into more stable economic, environmental, and social situations all the while demanding that the communities be an integral part of the process.


Minor Sinclair is the regional director for the US program for Oxfam America.

TNC:

What does Oxfam see as the greatest challenges in the Gulf of Mexico?

Minor Sinclair, Oxfam:

The Gulf Coast region is a very special part of our country. It’s a place where all kinds of factors come into play. Culturally, it’s home to Cajuns, Native Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese, and more; many of us visit for the food, the music, the spirit of the place. Economically, it’s got resources that drive many of the engines in the rest of the country: seafood, natural gas, oil, shipping routes. And the environment itself is an astonishing sanctuary for plants and animals.

That said, it’s also a region that has a sometimes difficult and complicated history, both socially and economically. And that story has left a heritage of uncommon poverty, under-education, and under-employment; roughly 80 percent of US counties that experience persistent poverty are in this region. So you see a population that is socially vulnerable in a variety of ways.

You also have a population that, perhaps more than any other in the U.S., makes its living from the land and water: fishing, shrimping, tourism, agriculture. Their livelihoods depend on natural resources in a very real way. Any disruptions to the environment—whether natural or man-made—can strike a devastating blow to businesses and communities.

Combine these two factors—social vulnerability and high likelihood of disasters—and you have a population that experiences risk in a fundamental way. It can be unnerving, but also threatening.

Oxfam works to explore this particular nexus of factors—the point where social and environmental risk factors collide—and, more importantly, to find lasting solutions to the problems. We work with a variety of people and groups who have deep roots in the communities, and try to find ways for people to get the tools they need to be more resilient and thrive.

These solutions take many forms, but most of them aim to find ways to engage people in jobs that are sustainable and create career pathways by working with the environment. At the same time that we aim to find ways to protect the environment and deal with climate change.

Our watchword is resilience: to empower the people and to safeguard the environment—so that when disaster strikes, both can bounce back.

TNC:

How does conservation and restoration fit into Oxfam’s vision for the future of the Gulf?

Minor Sinclair, Oxfam:

Oxfam brings a special perspective to many of the efforts to restore the Gulf: we look to the incredible resources and beauty of the environment, but we also care about the people who live and work on the lands and water. We believe that they know best how to steward and conserve our natural resources, for a long-term, sustainable relationship between people and the environment.

In the short term, and currently, we are focusing on three areas:

1. Working to make sure oil spill fines and penalties are earmarked for the Gulf Coast region and coastal restoration projects;
2. Finding ways for vulnerable communities to have a say in the decision-making processes about restoration projects;
3. Setting up methods to ensure that restoration projects provide jobs and economic opportunities for impacted, low-income, and disadvantaged people.

In the longer term, we are doing vital research that shines a spotlight on the particular vulnerabilities of the environment and the people in this region; and encouraging fundamental changes in the ways we think about and respond to climate change.

TNC:

What does success in the Gulf look like?

Minor Sinclair, Oxfam:

I believe that the people who live and work in this region also have an abiding love and understanding of the environmental resources. They know how essential it is to keep the land and water and creatures healthy. One aspect of success is when they are engaged in the process of conservation and restoration, and are empowered to make wise decisions about our—really their—resources.

A larger aspect is when people and environment are working in harmony—not against each other. We’ve seen models of this in our work globally and we believe there is no better place than the Gulf to implement that in the U.S.

TNC:

What gives you hope?

Minor Sinclair, Oxfam:

With any luck, Mississippi will soon pass legislation that puts “Mississippi First.” The bill provides incentives to contractors and businesses that receive disaster relief funds to look to hire local people first. It may seem like an easy call, but it’s surprising how often employers default to other ways to hire. Louisiana is considering similar legislation.

I mention these bills because Mississippi and Louisiana are so often not first—in fact, are often last. Census statistics from this region are often discouraging.

But the region, and the states, are starting to show leadership, and understanding of the political process. Legislators are working for vital protections and means to restoration; community groups are partnering to advocate for programs that educate and train their members; the people are thinking about the ways they can find, and direct, the billions of dollars that should flow into the region.

One sign of that leadership is the Louisiana Master Plan for Coastal Restoration. The plan is expected to pass the Louisiana legislature in this session and itemizes $50 billion in projects to restore Louisiana’s coastline. This is a remarkable achievement as no other state in the country has developed a plan more thoroughly to address the impacts of climate change—sea level rise and storms.

At the federal level, we look to the broad base of support in Congress, from both Republicans and Democrats, for the RESTORE Act that sends oil fine moneys to the region.

This is a place that inspires, after all. The people have a unique understanding that we are all part of the same fragile ecosystem; that if one part of it is unhealthy or broken, it affects all parts of it. Their voice is critical in the efforts to restore and conserve.


As the regional director for the US program, Minor Sinclair oversees the Oxfam America’s domestic program on poverty and economic injustice and serves as the lead regional manager for Oxfam International’s domestic poverty programs in four countries. The US program focuses on the right to livelihood for rural people, including small scale producers and workers in the food system. Minor has served with Oxfam for sixteen years including posts as the Cuba program officer and co-Representative for the Caribbean. Previously, Minor worked on refugee and foreign policy issues and served as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee in Central America. Minor has edited and authored several publications, including the book The New Politics of Survival: Grassroots Movements in Central America (Monthly Review Press/EPICA: 1995). He obtained a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a Bachelors degree in International Development from Davidson College in North Carolina.

To follow the Conservancy’s work in the Gulf and to keep track of the progress of the important RESTORE Act in Congress, you can join our Gulf of Mexico Facebook page and visit us on the web at nature.org/Gulf.

For more information about Oxfam America’s efforts in the Gulf Coast, please visit www.oxfamamerica.org/campaigns/us-gulf-coast-recovery

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