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Exploring One of the Most Acceptable Forms of Injustice: Environmental Racism

Environmental racism is a term not widely recognised by the general public. The concept was identified and coined in 1982 by Benjamin Chavis and involves the prejudice of ecosystems and their subsequent impact on the marginalised peoples which inhabit them. It includes a wealth of issues such as denial of access to resources, exposure to environmental hazards such as toxic waste, disproportionate flooding or lack of utilities[1]. These issues have plagued third world countries for decades, exemplified in hardship faced by the surrounding population of the Niger Delta. This area has been noted as the economic powerhouse of Nigeria, producing 40% of the world oil consumption. However, the majority of the country’s citizens live on less that a dollar a day. It is this dichotomy which serves as the basis for environmental justice; the vulnerable are usurped of what is rightfully theirs- they are excluded from land management proceedings and hold no share in the profits of their discrimination.

What will come as a surprise to many, is that these kinds of atrocities take place on our doorsteps. Across Europe, marginalised communities are subject to gross violations of human rights through the vehicle of environmental injustice. One of the largest and most prevalent groups affected is the Roma and Traveller communities. Their stereotypic nomadic lifestyle and proficiency for petty crimes such as theft have made them easy targets for racism across both the East and West.

Some of the more overt forms of discrimination against Roma include mass sterilization, lack of social support, lynching and increased risk of police brutality[2]. Children are forced to attend all-Romani schools, institutions characterised for their sub-standard quality of education and mistreatment of disabled or mentally-ill attendees. Governments have provided little explanation for their justifications for doing so, and the wider population seem to raise little issue with it. Many academics see this as an accepted form of ethnic cleansing in Europe. In fact, anti-ziganism is seen to be one of the only forms of acceptable racism left in Western society, therefore, it is not surprising that these communities are subject to gross violations of human rights via environmental injustice.

There have been multiple aggravating factors in the proliferation of such environmental discrimination, the most notable being the fall of the socialist regime in Eastern Europe. During this time, the focus was on the industrialisation of services in order to improve the economy, however, this came at the expense of the environment. The implementation of the Capitalist regime produced a huge ethnic underclass; Roma employees, who could previously work freely and earn a living, lost their jobs and were unable to compete economically with those who lived alongside them. As a result, Roma communities were pushed to the peripheries of society, both physically and metaphorically. They moved to the outskirts of cities, where there is limited access to education, sanitation facilities, and healthcare. From an environmental perspective, this geographical inequity has been the sole cause of widespread disease and illness. This can be exemplified by the situation in the Romanian town of Episcopia Bihor, in which a Roma community was built on top of a rubbish dump, overseen by the government In question[3].

Following the Cold War, the concurrent privatisation of water services and spike in Romani unemployment forced those affected to resort to shallow water wells for water collection. These settlements are in very close proximity to industrial sites and sewage treatment plants, thus, contamination via chemicals and agricultural fertizilier is an expected consequence. Furthermore, the general pollution of these areas has causes water-borne diseases, such as diarrhoea and dysentery to become an unrelenting feature of their society and daily life.

The tendency for commodification of resources is a further aggravating factor in injustice in the environmental sphere. The Romani communities possess no share in the land which they inhabit, or possibly even own- minorities are usurped of their property rights and their lack of social power and decision-making competence makes land acquisition incredibly easily, and even tempting, for multi-national corporations. As a result, the targeted communities have little to no access to the resources which are extracted from them, and as expected, receive minimal percentage of the profits generated. This environmental deterioration results in economic disinvestment, unemployment and up to a 90% poverty rate. The inhabitants are stuck in a cycle which is physically and economically impossible for them to break free from.

There has been an argument that postulates whether the Romani communities chose to inhabit these already industrialised communities out of their own free will, or rather that their community was impinged upon by large-scale corporations, with their focus on industrialisation at the expense of the environment. It is referred to as the ‘chicken or the egg’[4] argument and claims that the presence of the toxicities causes land prices to fall, and thus the minority communities settle in the resulting areas due to the affordability of industrialised land. However, this argument has been proven incorrect on multiple occasions. For example, a study was conducted on the matter in … and found that “TSDFs were built in neighbourhoods with a high percentage of minorities, and that percentage minority was associated with future siting”[5]. It has been a long-established principle of environmental racism that “pollution follows the poor”[6]- yet another difficulty to be dealt with by an already-suffering minority.

For decades, these competing paradigms have formed a balancing act between economic benefit and human rights, in which the latter is often compromised. However, we can no longer use the excuse of distance as a form of tacit compliance with these atrocities. This sense of hypocrisy is no longer justifiable- environmental injustice is rife throughout Europe, yet we abide by a constitution in which democracy and equality are supposed cornerstones. Therefore, in order to address the environmental hardship that the vulnerable face, we must first reassess our attitudes to those less fortunate to us. As a result, the environmental integrity of their communities, will indeed, be restored.

Claire McCloskey

Environmental Law Section Editor

27 December 2018


[1] D Pellow, Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice (1st edn, The MIT Press, 2007) 239

[2] Ibid (no. 1) 239

[3] D Nelson, Environmental Justice: A Reference Handbook (2nd, ABC-CLIO, 2009) 84

[4] B Lawson, Faces of Environmental Racism: Confronting Issues of Global Justice (2nd edn, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2001) 20

[5] Ibid (no. 4) p 86

[6]R Filčák, Living Beyond the Pale: Environmental Justice and the Roma Minority (1st edn, Central European University Press, 2012) 5

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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