Celebrating 30 years of love and rage

By Elf

Empowerment, nature and everyday heroes honoured at ELF’s 30th anniversary event

This month the ELF community came together to celebrate 30 years of community activism and pro bono support from the legal, scientific and academic professions – helping ordinary people and communities find their voice to protect the places they love.

ELF is the only national UK charity dedicated to using the law at a community level to challenge actions and decisions that harm the local environment.

We have also been celebrating the 21st annual Pro Bono Week, which took place this year during 7th-11th November to recognise the voluntary contributions made by the legal profession in helping people and communities to access social and environmental justice.

Our 30th anniversary event took place in November at UCL’s Faculty of Laws, where we were joined by prominent environmentalists Chris Packham and Dr Mya-Rose ‘Birdgirl’ Craig, alongside distinguished environmental lawyer and ELF trustee Carol Day, to reflect on ELF’s past work and today’s challenges.

Celebrating solidarity

The enormous amount of love and affection in the room for ELF and its work was evident, where ELF friends and family – including volunteers, community activists and well-known names and faces from the environmental movement – mixed with law students new to ELF, wanting to learn more and to get involved. There is huge respect for ELF co-founders Martin Polden and Diana Schumacher, who were in attendance and wrote so passionately about standing up to vested interests in our earlier blog.

ELF’s Joint Executive Directors, Emma Montlake and Tom Brenan, introduced the evening by reminding us of the challenges facing communities, and how pro bono expertise from ELF’s volunteers has given hope to those who otherwise would have no access to affordable professional help. Emma updated guests on Woodcock Hill Village Green’s ongoing fight against housing giant Taylor Wimpey, before handing over to Carol Day to chair the guest speaker discussion with Chris Packham and Mya-Rose Craig.

Protecting what matters

Amid the festive atmosphere, the panel swiftly acknowledged the rage that drives our work with communities challenging vested interests that destroy nature and community assets for private profit. Chris has decades of experience standing up for wildlife, and pulls no punches in decrying failings amongst larger players within the environmental movement for insufficient support against tangible local threats. We reflected on concerns and anger around the Public Order Bill, which could restrict the rights of communities to peaceful protest, and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill that threatens to strip away many of our existing legal protections for wildlife.

Despite these challenges, the law will continue to be a key tool for environmental protection. Carol highlighted the important role of ELF’s professional and student network, whose members freely give their time empowering communities to stand up to harmful interests using the law. We recognised and honoured the heroes within these local communities, who work so determinedly in mobilising their neighbours, spending late nights on research, willingly taking on difficult, time-consuming responsibilities to protect the local environment and defend access to nature for their community.

Who is local nature for?

At ELF, we primarily aim to help socially and economically disadvantaged communities, who are most affected by environmental damage and least able to resist it. Connection with nature is a critical starting point for local environmental awareness and action. There are stark issues within the environmental movement around lack of diversity, which reduces opportunity for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds to see the personal relevance of building a connection with nature. Mya-Rose reflected on the racism and Islamophobia she has experienced as a British Bangladeshi birder, but also on the elitism that pervades and affects people’s enjoyment of nature – at times wondering whether she could legitimately call herself ‘Birdgirl’ without a comprehensive knowledge of Latin names and other details. The panel considered how technocratic attitudes can serve as a gatekeeper to the natural world, determining who has the ‘right’ to identify as a nature lover and preventing some people from feeling welcome in connecting to green spaces in their community.

Both Mya-Rose and Chris reflected on how critical their experiences with nature are to their own sense of wellbeing. We recognised that everyone needs to feel they can develop a relationship with nature, and feel part of nature, both for our own mental health and to ensure society values the natural world. People cannot be mobilised to protect things they think are not relevant to them – with which they have not had opportunity to develop a personal connection.

Pursuing the possible

Nature matters: intrinsically, through our personal experience, and as the foundation of our society and economy. Turning to the future, we considered how personal and collective action is needed to protect it. Chris spoke powerfully about how important it is to show leadership in standing up to harmful practices, and not to be afraid of rocking the boat. Mya-Rose advocated for greater engagement with our democratic representatives, making sure they know we are watching their actions and will hold them to account.

We also reflected on the role of younger people in shaping the future. ELF has always looked to engage new professionals-in-training in its work, and currently has a network of nearly 20 universities whose students provide clinical support for communities in need. The panel recognised the benefits of bringing older professional experience together with the vantage point of youth, which offers clear eyes and uncluttered thinking on the actions needed to safeguard the future, however difficult these may be. As we are embroiled in the bureaucracy of daily life, we can so easily find ourselves steered towards what is easy – while sometimes forgetting what is possible.

‘Standing up for nature – harnessing the power of local communities’ was held on Tuesday 1 November 2022 in London. We are grateful to UCL’s Centre for Law and Environment for hosting the event, to our speakers Chris Packham, Mya-Rose Craig and Carol Day, and to all those who have funded, supported and participated in ELF’s work.

A recording of the event is available here.