Environmental Justice: Taking responsibility for our actions.

Photo by Ikhlasul Amal | flickr.com

Have you ever thought about where your old toothbrush ended up, when you got a new one last year? Or what became of the fuel you emitted the last time you drove home? If you can’t recall feeling the direct impact of all the waste you’ve produced over the last few years, it is not unlikely that someone else has.

Often when we discuss environmental issues we worry about tomorrow, and what could be. But for many marginalized populations, the negative impact of pollution is a daily reality. It is today’s problem.

I’d like to bring to light the issue of environmental justice and injustice. This is not a simple topic by any means, and many questions remain unanswered. According to good ol’ wikipedia, environmental justice refers to an equitable spatial distrubition of burdens and benefits to groups such as racial minorities, residents of economically disadvantaged areas, or residents of developing nations. The topic is often put into the context of human rights. The UN Draft Principles on Human Rights and the Environment began with these three statements:

(1) Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.

(2) All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. This right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible.

(3) All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment (DDHRE, UN 1994).

That being said, there are many examples of where these rights have not been upheld. For example, above is a photo of the Citarum River in Indonesia – not an odd, narrow landfill as you may have considered. Approximately 30 million people rely on this water basin – that’s almost the entire population of Canada. In some small villages, the only filtration this water goes through is a sock wrapped around the tap. This is the water villagers use to bathe, wash, and cook.

When a Texaco-Gulf consortium discovered oil in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, a number of foreign private companies took over, building and operating most of the oil infrastructure in the area. Since 1999, the companies have been legally required to monitor pollution and send reports to the Government of Equador. Although they found that streams in the community contained 500 times the limit of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) allowed by European Community regulations, they stated that their results were acceptable. Communities in the area have been shown to suffer from a higher occurance of abortion, dermatitis, skin mycosis, malnutrition, gastritis, headaches, diarrhea, and cancer. A lawsuit was filed against Texaco, an oil company working in the region for over 20 years. The plaintiffs (30,000 indigenous persons and peasants) declared that the oil copmany had caused irreparable damage to the rainforest. The suit was dismissed and sent to be resolved in Equador, where it has dragged on as local community members continue to wait for action to be taken to lessen the burden of the damage. Ecuadorian President Correa sides with the plaintiffs, saying that Texaco left behind a mess.

Acts of environmental injustice like these stem from poverty, inadequate technical resources, and inadequate legal and financial resources for the effective implementation and enforcement of environmental policies. The urgency of this disparity continues to increase as globalization continues, large urban centres industrialize, and economies are liberated through the expansion of manufacturing and service sectors. Processes such as the growth of multinational companies, the development of free trade zones, and the declaration of multilateral free trade agreements have exacerbated the problem by, for example, taking blatant advantage of lax environmental regulations in developing countries.

We must take global responsibility for our actions. As air and water continue to flow freely across borders and around the globe, others are subjected to our carelessness. I encourage you to look further into cases of environmental injustice, for example from the Environmental Justice Foundation. Innovative solutions are out there, as can be seen through the recent establishment of the Green Climate Fund during UN talks in Cancun. This fund will attempt to raise and disburse $100bn a year by 2020 to protect developing countries against climate impacts and assist them through a process of low-carbon development. Other measures have been taken to ease the burden of climate change and deforestation in developing countries and support them in developing policies. Whether developed countries follow through on these funding commitments, however, remains to be seen.