Environmental Racism and Economic Injustice

Denise Villalva
Translated by Carlrey Arroyo

México, sacred Wixarrika desert. indigenous land protected and prayed to for thousands of years. Photo and graphic from Altiplano Potosino.

Environmental Racism and Economic Injustice are the gap in capital that heightens the vulnerability and opportunities for Indigenous People and other communities that are marginalized. 

The term environmental racism was coined in the United States by researcher Benjamin Chavis after observing that industrial chemical pollution was dumped mostly in Black neighborhoods. The people who are the most vulnerable to the pandemic are low-income populations living in urban communities and Indigenous communities because they are also the most affected by environmental and public health problems. This gives rise to hypervulnerability, a term we can consider a product of false equity in global health emergencies, and in countries with limited resources and access.

In this sense, environmental racism is a term that exposes a historical separation between those who reap the fruits of economic growth and those who get sick and die due to the environmental consequences of that same economic growth. The set of systematic damage to the health of these vulnerable communities makes them especially susceptible to the worst effects of all current and future social-environmental disasters.

To overcome the global health crisis, we need to bring racism to the forefront of the debate. Historical patterns of structural racial discrimination, especially environmental racism, which disproportionately impacts people of Afrodescendant and Indigenous communities, need to be eradicated. Structural racial discrimination is the legacy of a colonialist and slave-owning social culture, that leads to extreme poverty and unequal access to territory, a healthy environment, and basic natural resources such as water, soil, and spaces with better air quality. This leaves communities exposed to the environmental dangers caused by natural disasters, poisoned natural resources, and the higher loads of environmental contamination due to toxic waste.

The structural racial discrimination present in the institutions of the States results in the absence of ethnic-racial approaches that take into account the historical needs of these people in the planning, designing, and implementation of environmental policies. Ladonna Bravebull, Indigenous activist against environmental racism, stated, “My people rise up for the water and they attack us. My people defend the graves of our ancestors and they attack us. My people defend their holy places and they attack us. I know this is America, this is the story of my people. America has always walked on the blood of my people.” 

The codes are changing but the results seem to be the same. Years ago Indigenous People stopped being portrayed as the bad guy in the movie. Now we see the romanticization of Indigeneity as a symbol of equality, representing us without having us present. Special programs for minority communities do not mean that the social and economic gap will be eradicated; until we are represented in a dignified manner within government councils, laws, schools, and streets it will remain. Thinking about the Earth is also keeping in mind those who have resisted the contamination or destruction of their land for thousands of years, seeking food, shelter, sharing traditions, food, and creations. Not keeping us in mind is wanting to erase ancestral memory of a series of historical actions of violence and destruction, to avoid them they will have to be recognized, they will have to be named.

An accelerated double death is caused by the arrogance of those who industrialize, supertransport, and capitalize on seas, land, air, and water. In the Anthropocene, as Donna Haraway names it, the tentacular forces are those of nuclear fire and coal. It burns the man who obsessively burns more and more fossils, creating more and more fossils in a grim parody of earthly energies.

The demand by the Indigenous world speaks to us of full awareness of ethnic belonging. A living example is the legitimacy of the Zapatista movements and the inclusion of the other, the different, the right to be different, the overcoming of  marginalization, the rejection of the reduction of institutional frameworks, and the representation of another view that does not represent savage capitalism, where we are clearly devouring each other.

On August 17, the Caracoles of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) celebrated 19 years since their creation. Currently, the solidity of the political project is reflected in the Caracoles, their form of organizing, their way of seeing life, their conviction that other worlds are possible through healing, the care of the earth, respect for languages, of ancestral knowledge, and the defense of common territory and goods. This all reveals it as a horizon against climate catastrophe.

Let’s listen and raise the voice of another, and other worlds, because other worlds are possible.

(scientific/ graphic-animation-audiovisual/cultural manager)

Immigrant on Wiyot land, born in Mexico City, is a specialist in Paleobotanist and collaborated for 7 years at the Geology Institute of UNAM as editor. Her collective graphic-audiovisual, and scientific work has toured Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and other countries such as Germany, Spain, China and the United States. She dedicates her time to promoting ecojustice and the human rights of immigrant Indigenous Peoples, seeking platforms for expression, production, and accompaniment of local talents where the diversity of artistic expressions work as a method of healing towards the exercise of our traditions, colors and forms, communicating who we are, how we fight, resist, and dream of better opportunities.