Environmental justice, explained by five experts

  • Five renowned activists explain the importance of environmental justice
  • “You care about animals, science, pollution, racism or machismo, everything is related to the climate crisis”
  • “82% of the garbage processed in Houston between 1930 and 1978 ended up being dumped in black neighborhoods when blacks were 25% of the population”

Racialized people, indigenous peoples, and lower-income population layers suffer the worst consequences of ecological risks and climate disasters. Some of the most bleeding examples are lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan; petrochemical contamination in the ‘cancer belt’ of Louisiana; or the river that is born in the United States and disappears at the moment it reaches the border with Mexico. A river that leaves Mexicans without water.

All these cases have promoted the mobilization of the affected communities and whose activism can inspire others to do so. Five of the most recognized people in the global movement in defense of environmental justice explain the importance of this concept.

Doctor Bullard: “Father of environmental justice”

The father of “environmental justice,” Robert Bullard, is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at the University of South Texas.

How did the environmental justice movement begin?

I started working on issues related to race and the environment back in 1978 or 1979. Then I was looking for landfill data for a class action lawsuit my wife filed against the city of Houston and the state of Texas, a civil rights issue. That study found that 82% of the trash processed in Houston between 1930 and 1978 ended up being dumped in black neighborhoods when blacks were 25% of the population.

It was about explaining that it was not random or isolated, it happened regularly and intentionally by all the southern states and throughout the country. We lost our minds, but the concept of environmental racism was born.

From that legal fight were born the principles of environmental justice adopted by the National Summit of People Racialized for Environmental Leadership, a meeting that took place in 1991 and from which a movement for social justice was born that has spread throughout the world. Today, the same discrimination and racism that motivated that meeting, continue to dictate who receives resources and who are abandoned when mitigating the damage caused by floods, forest fires and natural disasters in general.

Of course, those who own wealth have more political influence, who has money, in addition, can buy bottled water or move out of the house. The poor can never go anywhere.

Kandi Mossett-White: Adalid of indigenous rights

Kandi Mossett-White, belonging to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations in North Dakota, is the native coordinator of campaigns for the energy and climate of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

How does environmental discrimination affect indigenous communities?

We cannot speak of environmental injustice without understanding the historical context of colonization and capitalism. The federal government placed us inland reserves that I thought were worthless, but later it turned out that many of them were rich in “resources,” which means we could benefit.

In many cases we do not want megaprojects to be developed that destroy our land or endanger our water, but, despite everything, it happens. The situation is even worse for our sisters and brothers in the South, where they are also silenced, they are made to disappear and they are killed for the economic benefit and without hope that justice will be done.

I grew up in a community crossed by environmental injustices without being aware of it. I met many people, young and old, men and women, who got cancer. Myself during my second year of college. I thought it was normal, but no, our land is contaminated by the coal industry, uranium mining, excessive fertilization, and oil.

Environmental injustice is a tangle. It goes far beyond mere pollution. Wherever a new megaproject appears, there is a human invasion, money flows and organized crime ends up appearing. After the 2007 oil boom, the number of missing and murdered indigenous women increased, as did drug trafficking. Gangs arrived and recruited our youth for drug sales. Many of them ended up in jail or dead.

Mustafa Ali: He left office in the government when Trump came to the presidency

Mustafa Ali is a public policy expert and activist. He directed the environmental justice program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and resigned in 2017 when the Trump administration began dismantling the institution.

What role does the State play in creating inequality?

Environmental injustice happens when the State sacrifices certain areas in which to place what nobody wants. Economic justification is always used to explain the reasons why a chemical company is installed on land considered cheap, where racialized people or people with fewer resources live. If that land is cheap, it is because first, it has ended its wealth, with its economic possibilities. People who live there are neither seen nor heard nor valued.

Environmental justice allows communities to demand their power. As happened when Spartanburg, in South Carolina, received $ 20,000 (18,000 euros) from the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up contaminated places by industry thanks to a grant supporting environmental justice. With that capital as a starting point, they managed to raise almost 300 million dollars, about 270 million euros, [from public and private donors to build housing, a vocational training center and health centers in the rehabilitated areas].

It took a long time to create a relationship of trust between the various communities that would then allow the drafting of statutes and the development of programs. Now, all that work is being dismantled. The Agency budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration are aimed at protecting the industry that pays for its campaigns, the power structure, and the discrimination system. The message to racialized and disadvantaged communities is that they can do with them whatever they want because their lives don’t matter.

Jamie Margolin: Mobilizing the Younger

Jamie Margolin is a young climate activist who founded the #ThisIsZeroHour movement

The fight for climate justice has become the cornerstone of the movement for environmental justice. Why are young people getting involved with such intensity?

Climate justice has mobilized young people because it affects us all. You care about animals, science, pollution, racism or machismo, everything is related to the climate crisis in the worst possible way. Poor people and racialized people are much more likely to die from a climate disaster than people with more resources. That is why we must act against racism, colonialism, and patriarchy. Inequality does not happen in a vacuum. The climate crisis either. It is the result of other evils that afflict society.

In my case, the climate crisis has been hovering over me since I was born and will continue to do so all my life. In 2017, three things happened that motivated me to act: the United States abandoned the Paris Agreement, Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico and a series of forest fires in Canada caused a dense shade of toxic fog over Seattle that made it feel that the apocalypse had arrived. When I started to dream and organize the #ThisIsZeroHour (It’s zero-hours) campaign, I wanted to mobilize young people in a march through the weather. It grew and grew and now there are about one hundred local groups. For now, it is very focused on the United States, but it is already beginning to change.

LeeAnne Walters: The most recognized Flint activist.

LeeAnne Walters, a resident of Flint, an activist, and winner of the Goldman 2018 award. She was one of the first and most active inhabitants of the city when it came to demonstrating that the problems of water in Flint had to do with lead-contaminated water.

What are the learnings of the Flint crisis and the exposure of more than 100,000 people to running water contaminated by lead?

What happened in Flint showed the United States and the world that access to clean water in the United States is not something we can take for granted. He showed that our mechanisms to verify quality do not work properly and it is necessary to repair them, also that sometimes people whose job is to protect us do not do what is best for us.

My personal mission is to make sure we get a federal copper and lead law passed that limits the concentrations of those heavy metals in the water we drink. I want everyone to know that today, EPA has not kept its legislative promises and continues to allow states to lie about water assessment.

How can one be involved in the fight for environmental justice?

I was just one more, a normal citizen who felt that I had to take action on the matter after noticing that my children were covered with rashes, screaming agonically when taking a bath, getting sick for no reason and losing hair. Then I was told that the problem was specific to my house although the same thing happened to other children throughout Flint.

I decided to learn about water treatment, about federal legislation and how its quality is controlled, I was disgusted that government officials lied to my face. When these situations occur, people must protect themselves. You have to follow your instinct when you feel that something is not working. We have to unite because together we are stronger.

You have to sit next to the nearest circle, in the community to which you belong, and be clear about the strengths you have. There will be victories and we can rejoice when they happen. The environment plays a fundamental role in our health and in that of future generations, so it is our duty as citizens to protect ourselves and return the blows. We can get things to change.

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