State of the Planet

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The Art and Science of ‘Earth Repair’

Leila Darwish is a community organizer, bioremediation educator and the author of Earth Repair: A Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Contaminated Lands. Up until recently, Darwish was living in Louisiana, where she worked for the City of New Orleans in the Office of Emergency Preparedness, coordinating disaster response and recovery efforts for crises both natural and human-made. Whether responding to hurricanes in Louisiana or oil spills up in Canada, a common theme in her work centers on ensuring that communities, particularly frontline communities, have access to the proper tools and resources needed to recover and heal from environmental disasters and contamination.

Leila Darwish
Leila Darwish is a community organizer, bioremediation educator and the author of Earth Repair: A Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Contaminated Lands.

Darwish’s work addresses environmental contamination in its many forms. In one form, subtle and invisible destruction appears by way of chemical pesticides commonly used in the agricultural industry, which seep into waterways and food systems, slowly poisoning wildlife and causing cancers in humans. More visible and pronounced environmental destruction appears through notable disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which an oil rig explosion led to a nearly three-month long petroleum leak, resulting in over 4.2 million tons of oil seeping into the Gulf of Mexico.

A Canadian native, Darwish has taught workshops in various locations across Canada and the U.S., using her activism to not only empower communities to heal the land and their own psyches after environmental destruction, but also to prevent these occurrences from happening in the first place. We spoke over Zoom in July 2020. The discussion that follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

In your book you use the terms ‘bioremediation’ and ‘grassroots bioremediation.’ How do you define them?

Bioremediation is working with living systems and in particular working with fungi, bacteria and plants to heal contaminated land. When I talk about contamination, I’m talking about metals and chemicals. Essentially you are trying to find ways to either pull them out of the soil or water, or you’re trying to find ways to bind them, transform them and break them down. Whether you’re working with plants, bacteria or fungi, different organisms will do different things depending on the type of remediation you’re trying to do.

Working with plants is called phytoremediation. Working with bacteria is microbial remediation. And when you’re working with fungi, it’s called mycoremediation. You can do bioremediation on water, you can do it on land. The easiest, I think, is often when you’re working on land or shallow water. The moment you get into deep contamination in soil or water, then it starts to get out of capabilities of grassroots remediation or the community scale and into a more industrial scale.

The grassroots part of it for me was always about having bioremediation as a movement and having it be something that people in communities can do. In part because I first learned about bioremediation through permaculture [a system of sustainable ecological agriculture]. At the time, I was living in Alberta; I’m from Canada originally. I was doing a lot of organizing work with communities that were impacted by the tar sands and who were dealing with serious environmental and health impacts. When you’re working in that setting, you’re asking for justice and you’re asking the government and industry to clean up land that they were complicit in destroying. You’re asking a company to clean it up and in most of the cases that I saw, they did not have a genuine interest in doing that. You often saw that by their actions or lack of actions. I think coming from that experience, along with a passion for environmental justice and knowledge of permaculture and urban farming at the time, I was really thinking about, how do we get the remediation tools ourselves? As communities that care and who have a vested interest in healthy lands and waters, how do we ourselves do that work?

To me, bioremediation always had this promise; that we can work with bacteria, plants and mushrooms, it can be affordable and accessible, and it can hopefully help bring healing to damaged ecosystems.

In the beginning of your book, ‘Earth Repair,’ you write that bioremediation tools are still being developed and honed, and that many of them are facing resistance from governments, industry and some professionals, which is delaying their growth and ability to succeed. Where does this resistance come from? 

I think it’s complex. There’s a lot of different levels there. I think one, governments and companies go with what they know. Especially in a crisis. They tend to trust the expert. Extractive companies have positioned themselves as the experts in clean up. In the United States, you see oil companies training the Coast Guard on how to clean up oil spills. And these are the same companies that are pushing dispersants and remediation techniques that are often effective at hiding the problem or really focused on short-term fixes that get the company the least amount of negative publicity while all eyes are on the disaster. But some of these conventional clean-up techniques have toxic consequences for the environment and human health that become apparent later.

You also have whole industries that have been built up to excavate contaminated soil with ‘dig and dump’ techniques. There are whole industries that make the chemicals for dispersants. There is an empire behind conventional remediation. And so, I think there is a bit of a resistance to changing the tools and players there, because that would impact the profits being made. Also, I think when you look at all the ways that people do conventional remediation, it’s very much part of this extractive and colonial culture that destroyed the land in the first place. Right? That culture doesn’t look at the land as intelligent; we don’t look at the land as sacred and living. We look at it as something to move and grab and shred and mix. It works for us, not the other way around. In conventional remediation solutions there is a big focus on quick mechanical and chemical fixes where possible.

By contrast, when you look at bioremediation, it’s a diverse set of solutions and interventions that come from an ecological and biological toolbox. It’s not always easy to make plants or fungi grow in an environment that’s been destroyed. Bioremediation takes more engagement and management over many seasons and years. It takes working with the land and figuring it out as you go. It takes a different set of skills and a different set of understanding than what some of the conventional remediation industries have. It’s not one-size-fits-all, it’s not a silver bullet or quick fix. It’s not something that can sit on a shelf and be moved and dumped based on tight schedules. It takes more time and it’s a lot more sensitive.  

I want to take a step back and ask how you got into this work. Was there a particular experience or moment that got you hooked on bioremediation?

I think it was a buildup. My early career was doing environmental justice work. It was heartbreaking to see the environmental destruction caused by projects like the tar sands and oil spills, and the toxic impacts it had on beautiful people and beautiful landscapes. I’ve always been the kind of person that’s not comfortable in a world where we just talk about or post about the things that are wrong, while the Earth and impacted communities continue to struggle on the ground. The more “woke” people get does not necessarily translate into the land and the waters getting healthier and people not dying from things they shouldn’t be dying from, like the kind of cancers that come from living in contamination. I think that burn in my soul always propelled me to want to explore different ways to help that were meaningful, direct, and hands on. I had learned a bit about bioremediation from a few permaculture classes, and it got me excited as another tool to support justice and healing. I wanted to explore it more and see it get out to those communities and urban and wild places that needed it the most.

Writing a book is a big undertaking. How did that come to be?

Well I was learning about bioremediation and thinking who do I go apprentice under? Who do I go train with so I can be a practitioner? I looked around, and at the time, I couldn’t find that.

So instead I figured maybe I could find some neat folk to form a collective where we could all teach each other, learn bioremediation skills together, and make something happen from that. I ended up doing an intro to bioremediation workshop at a local anarchist book fair because I was trying to inspire some folks I was in a community with to collaborate.

A couple months later, after that workshop, I got a request from a publishing company. They were looking for someone to write a book on bioremediation. I was honest with them and I said “No, actually, I’m still trying to learn about it. I have a background in environmental science. I know permaculture and I’ve taught it. I know these things but I’m not an expert in this.” And the publishing company said, “Well write us a table of contents and tell us what you want to talk about and we’ll see if we like it.” So, I did and they liked it! Then I had to jump into learning a lot of it myself and try to meet and connect with the experts and practitioners doing the work to bring their experience and projects to the mix.

A book doesn’t drop on your lap everyday so when it does you have to say, “Okay I’m in!” From that, I got to meet amazing people who were doing the work in the field. This really informed the work I do, which then kind of snowballed into other things.

Since you wrote the book in 2013, what are interesting new advancements that you’ve seen arise in the field?

My life over the last few years has very much been in the emergency management world, so I am not as up to speed on all the new developments in bioremediation as I would like to be. But I do see interesting things coming up all the time. There’s a lot going on in bioremediation, lots of new studies coming out about which plants and fungi can work with what contaminants. Scientists are finding new species of fungi that are able to break down more contaminants, species that they didn’t know could do that before. I think that’s always positive. But when it comes to moving things into the field, there isn’t always a lot of big-scale projects.

I think when people are learning, they need to start smaller, perfect their knowledge and skills, and discover what works best where they are. Keep connecting the dots and integrating more diversity and complexity when it comes to different solutions. We still haven’t seen bioremediation at the scale of impact that I hope for. But I keep hoping it will happen more and more.

I’m heartened and inspired by a lot of the new people who are becoming mushroom cultivators and who are doing remediation work. I got to write an article for Permaculture Magazine last year that profiled women in bioremediation. It was great! I wish I had known about these women when I wrote the book back in 2013. I’m happy to share that my book is coming out as an audiobook later this year, and I was able to include a bit about their great work in the audiobook.

One recent development I’m especially excited about is the community-led bioremediation responses to wildfires coming out of California. Most of these efforts have been led by fire survivors and volunteers, and have focused on using mycoremediation tools and also some limited microbial remediation to protect sensitive watersheds from the toxic ash and debris from burnt structures. Some of these efforts, like the biofiltration project organized by CoRenewal, have been doing some testing too, to see if the bioremediation installations are effective and to learn more.

You use the term, ‘rewilding’ in your work. How do you define this word and what does it mean to you?

I love this word. There are certain words I just love. To me, ‘rewilding’ means bringing the ‘wild’ back. It means inviting it back to the spaces it has been pushed out of. Growing up in a city, and spending most of my life in urban spaces, I think it’s integral. I think it’s this beautiful, interesting dance of reciprocity, honesty, and courtship with the land and water. It is about living in a different way, in a way that goes against how we’ve been colonized to interact with the Earth and each other in a destructive manner. To me, it’s about deepening your connection with the land and watershed you live in, and uncovering stories and learning the histories of what was there before and how that got destroyed. And in any place where the wild was destroyed, there were often people already living there who resisted that destruction. Those stories need to be lifted up.

Arissa Lahr is a student in the Sustainability Management program at Columbia University.

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Claudia Dreifus
Claudia Dreifus
3 years ago

Great work, Arissa. You’ve introduced us to someone we need to know.