In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to share a story about a truly innovative project that Islamic Relief pioneered this year — it quite literally transformed the environment and changed lives, so it seemed fitting. But first, indulge me for a moment of reflection.
Being a new member of a humanitarian organization that does relief work in some of the poorest pockets of the world has got me thinking a little differently about Earth Day this year. Amidst all the holiday slogans cycling through my feed and the clever planet-themed marketing, I can’t help but compare the environmentalism in America with the environment in slums scattered around the world’s cities, particularly in Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. For most of us, being an environmentalist means making choices that make us feel good about how we’re impacting the world around us, according to what we’ve learned in school and through awareness campaigns. We recycle and conserve and trust that the impact is there, but we don’t often see it. In the slums, however, saving the environment has a direct and immediate impact on health, livelihood options, and could be the difference between life and death.
This year, I see the celebratory awareness campaigns through a new lens — one tinted with images of slums shrouded in pollution, showcasing environmental degradation at its worst. There are no Earth Day banners in these slums, no Energy Star-certified appliances; here there is only desperation that’s turned the Earth toxic. These are literal wastelands, packed like a mad game of human tetris, where the Earth has been bartered for a few square meters of earth to call home. Earth Day in the slums is like a birthday party that no one shows up to. And while Earth is not a person, today I imagine her singing, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.”
This Earth Day, I feel a disconnect.
The campaigns we’re used to that focus on individual sustainable choices are great because they teach us that no impact is too small. I recall time spent in grade school planting trees and making recycled art that only a mother could love. I cleaned streams and learned how to read recycling labels. But it doesn’t seem like the responsibility towards the planet has evolved much with age; the scope is generally limited to whatever is “MEco-friendly.” For a lot of millennials, being an environmentalist means trips to Whole Foods to buy recycled toilet paper and organic sundries. Not knocking this path to conscious consumerism; I am known to splurge on eco-conscious organic cereal and an occasional overpriced coconut water. But the question I’m posing is, what are we doing, as individuals, to address the assaults on our planet taking place beyond our backyard? Why aren’t we asking what we can do for the areas of the world that can’t fathom the environmental boycott du jour? Where “reduce, reuse, recycle” lacks relevance because everything’s already so scarce? How do we reconcile an imbalance of protection and care, when we claim a responsibility to the Earth as a whole?
If you feel like I do, like you’re not doing enough to save the planet, then donating time or money to a humanitarian or environmental organization is a great place to start. You can support awesome programs that provide relief to the slums of the world, and you can track their progress and see the impact you’re helping make.
And that impact is huge.
Now, on with my Earth Day story.
It’s about a program that caught not only my admiration, but the admiration of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. It began with a desire to resolve a long-standing community sanitation problem with slaughterhouses in Dhaka, the site of some of the world’s most horrid slums.
For decades, the clean-up after a slaughter was left unregulated. To paint a more blunt picture, imagine the mess of slaughtering an animal in a confined space without ventilation, and just leaving that mess behind. Imagine the impacts of this practice on the environment. Such was the accepted norm, and the onus of the clean-up was left on the homeowners surrounding the slaughterhouse. One 85-year-old woman had been shouldering this burden since 1971 (unpaid, by the way). Her name is Khairunnisa, Arabic for “the best of women.” Fitting, considering what she ensured. Hoping to fix this problem, Islamic Relief knew that innovation would be the key to a sustainable solution.
What followed was the birth of the Eco-Friendly Slaughter House model, a complete redesign featuring drains, paved floors, and other elements that would allow for optimal sanitation. They also required butchers to pay a fee for use of the slaughterhouse, generating income for women like Khairunnisa. But that’s not even the coolest part — they also installed a machine that converts animal waste and organs into biofuel that’s funneled through lines to surrounding homes for free cooking fuel! Then, any unused part of the animal is turned into fertilizer for planting. Welcome to the future of sustainable, eco-friendly solutions, folks. And it’s an effective program to boot. Plans are currently underway to continue recreating this model in other areas of need.
The Eco-Friendly Slaughterhouse Model represents something worth celebrating this Earth Day.
A replicable and affordable sanitation model? That ensures safety while yielding positive benefits for residents? Way to bring the best gift to the party, Islamic Relief. Thank you for curbing pollution, creating jobs, and eliminating disease.
It’s one of many projects that Islamic Relief is rallying funds and support for to bring about sustainable changes to improve the planet. The programs address serious environmental challenges across the globe related to climate change and mass urbanization. If you’re looking for ways to do more this Earth Day, look no further, and welcome to the party!