24 August 2001

South Africa: Environmental Racism Shifts the Costs of Industry to the Poor


Environmental racism affects individuals, groups or communities differentially, based on race or colour. It combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for corporations, while shifting the costs to people of colour. It influences local land use, the enforcement of environmental regulations, the siting of industry and the areas where people of colour live, work and play.

Environmental decision-making often mirrors the power arrangements of the dominant society and its institutions, disadvantaging people of colour while providing advantages or privileges for corporations and individuals in the upper echelons. A form of illegal "exaction" forces people of colour to pay the costs of environmental benefits for the public at large.

Environmental decision-making and local land-use planning operate at the juncture of science, economics, politics and special interests that place communities of colour at special risk. This is especially true of the southern United States, which has become a "sacrifice zone", a sump for the rest of the nation's toxic waste. The Deep South is stuck with this unique legacy ñ a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and white resistance to equal justice for all.

The region is characterised by "look-the-other-way" environmental policies and give-away tax breaks. Lax enforcement of environmental regulations has left the region's air, water and land the most industry-befouled in the US. The Lower Mississippi river industrial corridor has over 125 companies that manufacture a range of products including fertilisers, gasoline, paints and plastics. Environmentalists and local residents have dubbed this corridor "Cancer Alley". Louisiana citizens subsidise this corporate welfare with their health and the environment; tax breaks given to polluting industries have created a few jobs at a high cost.

There is a direct correlation between exploitation of land and exploitation of people. Native Americans have to contend with some of the worst pollution in the US and their lands are prime targets for landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps and risky mining operations. Pollution from industries is showing up in the Akwesasne mothers' milk in New York. Native and indigenous peoples' lands in Alaska and Hawaii have been poisoned by military waste.

Native American reservations are under siege from "radioactive colonialism", operating in energy production (the mining of uranium) and the disposal of wastes on Indian lands. Mojave Indians in California are fighting to keep out a radioactive dump that would threaten their reservations. The Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining, a grassroots group, is fighting a proposal to permit a uranium mining operation near their homelands in Church Rock and Crownpoint, Mexico.

Environmental racism is also evident at the global level. Shipping hazardous wastes from rich communities to poor communities is not a solution to the growing global waste problem. Trans-boundary shipment of banned pesticides, hazardous wastes, toxic products and export of "risky technologies" from the US, where regulations and laws are more stringent, to nations with weaker infrastructure, regulations and laws, smacks of a double standard.

Global alliances have formed among the victims of environmental injustice. Environmental justice activists have mobilised in central city ghettos, barrios and villages from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Arctic Circle, from Alaska to south central Los Angeles, from South Africa to rural Native-American reservations, from the US-Mexico border to rain forests in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Brazil. These groups have organised, educated and empowered themselves to challenge government and industrial polluters. They have also elevated their message and struggles to the international arena, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, World Bank and World Trade Organisation.

The unwritten policy of targeting Third World nations for the waste trade received international media attention in 1991. Lawrence Summers, at the time chief economist of the World Bank, shocked the world and touched off an international scandal when his confidential memorandum on waste trade was leaked.

Summers wrote: "Dirty Industries: Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the [less developed countries]?"

Environmental racism manifests itself in the sub-standard treatment of workers. Thousands of farm workers and their families are exposed to dangerous pesticides on the job and in labour camps. These workers endure sub-standard wages and working conditions. But environmental racism also extends to the exploitative work environment of garment district sweatshops, the microelectronic industry and extraction industries. A disproportionately large share of the workers who suffer under sub-standard occupational and safety conditions are immigrants, women and people of colour.

More than 2 000 maquiladoras ñ assembly plants operated by US, Japanese and other foreign countries and located along the border between the US and Mexico ñ use cheap Mexican labour to assemble imported components and raw materials, and then ship finished products back to the US. All along the lower Rio Grande River valley, maquiladoras dump their toxic wastes into the river, from which 95% of the region's residents get their drinking water.

Environmental racism reinforces the stratification of people, place and work. It institutionalises unequal enforcement and trades human health for profit as it exploits the vulnerability of economically and politically disenfranchised communities.

Professor Robert D Bullard is director of the Environmental Justice Resource Centre at Clark Atlanta University in the US. This article is extracted from a paper prepared for the world conference on racism and public policy in Durban from September 3 to 5, sponsored by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

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