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Combating Environmental Racism: An Indigenous Perspective



Written by Trisha Etringer


A Black civil rights activist by the name of Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. came up with the term environmental racism in 1982. He defined environmental racism as, “racial discrimination in environmental policy-making, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of colour for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of colour from leadership of the ecology movements”. Environmental racism is most likely to be seen within communities of color that often struggle with poverty, poor education systems, substance abuse, and high crime.


The same members of these communities are hardly ever consulted with when a destructive “infrastructure” project is proposed. If consultation takes place, communities are often left unheard and the project moves forward - with notes stating that consultation has taken place. Depending on the project that is built, communities of color then experience health disparities and no funding to alleviate any challenges that they face. For instance, the Dine Nation is still dealing with the repercussions from Uranium dumping on their lands and the First Nations in northern Alberta have been facing extreme pollution of their drinking water because of fracking in their lands. Meanwhile, billionaires line their pockets with money and leave the communities of color to fend for themselves.


Environmental racism is the byproduct of capitalism. Capitalism is enforced by colonization. Greed and the concept of control over another nation powers colonization. It was the Wampanoag nation who taught the first settlers how to survive by sharing their traditional ecological knowledge. In return, the first settlers killed as many of these First Nation peoples - and moved onto Turtle Island for their own selfish agenda. The remaining First Nations were then sent to prison war camps, or better known today as “Indian reservations.” The prisoner war camps were often undesirable land that the colonizers didn’t want. Black slaves were then able to work for their cut of the stolen land, but then the colonizers took it back from them too.


Throughout America’s history of the land, the government has segregated people of color by forcing First Nations onto reservations and enforcing Jim Crow laws on Black Folks. Today, this phenomenon is still occurring through White flight and gentrification. After World War II, Black American veterans and active duty members were denied the ability buy homes in the newly built developments because of their skin color. This then placed them in communities that were run down “ghettos.” Today, a majority of White people not only exploit and take from different cultures, but hardly uplift, support, or live in communities of color.


Some examples of environmental racism that Natives often experience is when fossil fuel extraction projects run through our sacred burial sites and endanger water and land. In 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe fought against the Dakota Access Pipeline which carried oil across four different states. The basis of the argument is that the original pipeline route was to cross underneath Bismarck, NE, but met strong opposition from the heavily White population. The pipeline was then redirected to cross near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation, which currently endangers their only source of water in the event of a pipeline leak. Although Energy Transfer Partners stated that they had consulted with the Tribal leadership - the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe strongly opposed the new proposed pipeline route. When the call was sent out for people to come and stand in solidarity with them - they were answered with militarized police and harassment tactics from the private mercenary company, TigerSwan. Protest bills were then enacted which basically stated that if anyone were to protest against fossil fuel extraction projects, they would be jailed for their actions. This is a blatant example of environmental racism.


I currently reside in the State of Iowa where CAFOs (concentrated animal food operations), meat packing plants, and other agricultural factories are embedded into the communities. These communities often experience health disparities such as onset respiratory illnesses and a shortened life span expectancy. The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the struggle of the immigrant folks as most of the workforce for meat packing plants is from this community. Immigrants work long, hard hours while receiving minimal pay and little to no health coverage. A recent investigation of the Waterloo, IA Tyson Fresh Meats plant discovered that managers placed bets on how many of their workers would contract the coronavirus in order to “boost morale.” This only perpetuates the behavior of colonial-capitalism. A non-Native person left with the welfare of Indigenous community members, but betting on whether they are going to survive the pandemic or not. Again, billionaires are still left with money lining their pockets regardless of the situation.


So how do we combat environmental racism? We can elect people of color who truly fight for communities of color. We can grow our own food. We can make our own goods and services. We can make this available to our own local communities. We can defeat colonial-capitalism by not engaging in it. We can become sustainable by working together and looking out for one another.


THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE CAN DO - IS TO INCLUDE THE INIDGENOUS VOICE IN THESE CONVERSATIONS. Indigenous peoples have survived centuries of environmental genocide. We will continue to find proactive approaches in order to self-sustain our communities and the next seven generations. Failure to include the Indigenous voice is a continuation of modern-day colonialism. We are still here.


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