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Environmental Racism and Seeking Environmental Justice

Image Source: Goldman Prize

In the 1970s, the Grassy Narrows Reserve in Canada, home of the Asusubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek, discovered dangerous levels of mercury in the fish and water from their river. An investigation concluded that this was due to mercury dumping in the river from the Dryden paper mill located upstream.

Because mercury can cause serious health problems, such as brain and nerve damage, this discovery caused an immediate end to the Grassy Narrow First Nation’s ability to access clean water and participate in their traditional fishing economy. Overtime, the Grassy Narrows First Nation has seen brain and nerve damage impact their people.

Since the discovery, the Canadian government promised to assist the Grassy Narrows Reserve by removing the mercury from the river, but it has yet to do so. Making this promise without action, while at the same time recognizing the ongoing negative impacts of mercury on the Grassy Narrows people, is an example of environmental racism.

A simple way to understand environmental racism is to break the phrase down. The environment includes almost everything around us, including the earth, the trees, the water, the air, our homes, our schools, our roads, and so on. Racism is when a group of people are mistreated because of their skin tone or their cultural/religious background. Environmental racism, then, is a form of racial mistreatment where the government, corporations, and other authorities, create environmental rules (or policies) that negatively impact Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities.

Most often, marginalized communities are simply not considered in policy discussions that impact the environment (which is wrong), but sometimes they are left out on purpose. Environmental racism has existed on Turtle Island since settlers arrived and began to harm Indigenous lands and peoples through clearing forests, dumping waste into waterways, extracting oil and natural gas from the ground, and taking from the earth without recognizing our reciprocal relationship with the land, water, animals, air, and plants.

Environmental racism is not something that only impacts Indigenous people in the United States and Canada. It happens frequently in other countries that also have Indigenous communities. An example is the clear cutting of the Amazon Forest, where many Indigenous groups in Brazil live. The research has shown that a person’s race is a good predictor of how close they will live to a source of pollution. Living closer to pollution is related to an increased risk for a variety of health problems.

The work being done to combat environmental racism is referred to as environmental justice.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, an Indigenous activist and author, says that when we center environmental justice around Indigenous and human rights, we see better results than if we just focus on the environmental impact. Many non-Indigenous people see the land and water as something that does not deserve as much respect as humans deserve. Many Indigenous people know this is not true. By focusing on the impact environmental choices have on Indigenous people (and people in general), we can prevent governments, corporations, and other authorities from harming the land and water. We can also help protect humans and animals for generations to come.

Environmental justice is tied directly to the Land Back Movement, and like the Land Back Movement, environmental justice demands direct action. Organizing and calling representatives to make policy changes, protesting at pipelines, government buildings, and corporations, and donating to human-focused environmental causes are all ways in which we can seek environmental justice for our relatives whose communities, cultures, land, water, and air have been harmed by environmental racism.

To learn more about environmental racism, consider checking out these resources:

Originally from Oklahoma, Summer Lewis is a Muscogee and Seminole woman who works in Tribal public health. Summer is an MPH student at the University of California-Berkeley who will graduate in 2023. She enjoys baking, beading, and being outdoors. 

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