The 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 exposÃ© 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 doesnâ€™t mean that those plants no longer exist. They simply get moved to poorer neighborhoods that donâ€™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:
The reality in Little Village, which is only a microcosm of the United States in this regard, is that those most affected by theÂ 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. Â 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 organizationsâ€”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.