The Conspiracy

The Global Citizen: Are Green Efforts Always Innocent?

AJWS logoThe Global Citizen is a joint project of New Voices and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Throughout the year, a group of former AJWS volunteers will offer their take on global justice, Judaism, and international development. Opinions expressed by Global Citizen bloggers do not necessarily represent AJWS.

It’s an odd mind-bender when noble ventures have unintended effects. Environmentalist and conservationist efforts are important, even noble, however both movements can overrun human rights if they are not careful.

While in Uganda, my AJWS volunteer summer grouped me with Mark Jordhal, founder of Conservation Concepts and an active people-minded conservationist working in Uganda. Mark spoke extensively about the innate tension between conservationists and many native peoples, and discussed some of the top conservation groups and their different reputations for how they approach native communities and their care of the land. I had never thought that environmentalism and conservationism could have unintended harmful consequences.

In the book “Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples,” Mark Dowie delves into this exact tension between conserving land and misplacing native peoples. In the Publisher’s Weekly review it says:

Dowie challenges the halos of the major multinational conservation nonprofits, including the Nature Conservancy and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, in this exposé of their disastrous treatment and expulsions of indigenous peoples living in nature reserves and parks… This American concoction of a pristine wilderness park, and the idea that humans are not a part of nature, was exported throughout the world, wreaking havoc among both dislocated indigenous people and the environments that they had nurtured with traditional knowledge, for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Much like Dowie, Mark noted that in almost all instances, the peoples living on the lands had not been harming its regenerating capabilities or ecosystems, and that is simply the kind of existence we’ve come to expect in the developed world.

The consequences domestically of environmental concerns often affect communities in a different, but equally unjust way: instead of being moved away from their homes, toxic waste and plants are moved to their homes. Similar to becoming a conservation refugee, issues of environmental justice (or more sordidly, environmental racism) are about people without power having the undesired consequences of environmental concerns, mostly of other classes, shoved upon them. In the United States,, middle- and upper-class communities will often lobby not to have trash plants emitting toxins near their homes, but that doesn’t mean that those plants no longer exist. They simply get moved to poorer neighborhoods that don’t wield enough political clout.

I recently had the privilege of going on a Toxic Tour by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), which is a tour of toxic plants and garbage disposal centers in the Little Village community, led by local youth. Along the way, the two boys leading would tell us a bit of the history of how plants got approval for building there, or how all of the City of Chicago’s garbage comes to the center in their backyard.

The following is a guided picture-tour of a bit of what we witnessed:

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The building on the right is part of the local elementary school, and the view beyond the courts if the emissions of some nearby plants.

This is a rubber pellet factory built on land promised to the town to become a local park during local official elections. After the elections, the land was sold and another factory was built on the desolate land rather than giving this community its first green space for miles.

This is a rubber pellet factory built on land promised to the town to become a local park during local official elections. After the elections, the land was sold and another factory was built on the desolate land rather than giving this community its first green space for miles.

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This factory has received many community complaints for leaving empty drums for toxic materials behind the plant, since children play with them and roll around in them without realizing the danger. The door here is halfway shut because this plant had also neglected the precautions involved with toxic materials for their workers, and provide no gear mandated by the government. The workers hastily shut the door when our group arrived, as workers are illegal and the owners know pictures of them without this gear are caustic to their profit margins and operation.

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This is just one example of a nearby road that is all loading docks and trucks for the factories. Kids are often caught playing under the trucks, as this and all the other photographs are only a few minutes from residential homes, or interspersed between them.

Yet another factory situated near the community.

Yet another factory situated near the community.

The reality in Little Village, which is only a microcosm of the United States in this regard, is that those most affected by the  toxic waste and emissions pictures here are people of color. The issues regarding the environment and conservation are complex, but thinking about actions that may affect some of the most disadvantaged people domestically and internationally and contain elements of rascism should play just as important a role in these decisions as the environment.

As evidenced by the presence of groups like LVEJO, this issue is beginning to gain momentum.  Groups like the Sierra Club and the Conservation Fund speak about working with local communities and ensuring human rights in their processes. Among the greatest evidence that environmental justice is gaining the momentum it deserves is the current video contest by Environmental Protection Agency (click here). This sort of international recognition is even noted in the review of “Conservation Refugees”: “Dowie comes to a surprisingly optimistic conclusion, noting recent collaborations between indigenous peoples and conservation organizations—who are beginning to realize that only by preserving cultural diversity can biological diversity be protected, and vice versa.” And change need not only come from the top down; LVEJO and many other grassroots movements, state-side and abroad, are the reason why these issues came to light and continue to be an amazing way to engage environmental and conservation justice. People are a part of nature, and are just as important to protect as well.

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One Older Response to “The Global Citizen: Are Green Efforts Always Innocent?”

  1. Aharon Varady
    April 22, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    The frame for this article is very confusing. If the issue is — as one might expect from the title — that environmental objectives sometimes conflict with human objectives, why then does most of this essay describes the authors experience learning about an environmental justice issue. What is the noble environmental venture of a factory operator polluting its surrounding communities?

    This essay is an odd mind-bender. Does philosophical motivation behind land use policy matter at all? On the basis of injustice, the author (I think) wants to draw a parallel between the expulsion of tribes (at the behest of conservation programs) in Africa and the phenomena of settled (urban, suburban, rural) communities located next to improperly zoned, poorly regulated, and badly managed factories in the US. But a comparison on this basis is overly broad and just confuses both issues.

    I’m very interested in how as an NGO, AJWS understands sustainable development. Perhaps a participant in one of its field trips could help explain this.

    I was also surprised that the author didn’t link to Jeffrey Goldberg’s exhaustively researched, 17 page report that just appeared in The New Yorker, “The Hunted: Did American conservationists in Africa go too far?” (04/05/2010, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/04/05/100405fa_fact_goldberg)… or any of the illuminating responses to it on “Paramilitary Conservation,” (see: http://www.vigorousnorth.com/2010/04/paramilitary-conservation.html and http://foolesnomansland.blogspot.com/2010/04/who-wants-to-save-elephants.html )

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