Environmental Justice and its Relationship to Minority Groups
Developed in the 1980s, environmental justice refers to fair treatment and involvement of people in the design and implementation of policies and laws that touch on the environment, regardless of their skin color, ethnic and cultural background or social status (Gillaspy, 2013).
This concept advocates for sustainable development whereby communities’ right to a clean and healthy environment is safeguarded, regardless of social status or race. The development of this concept was guided by the need to protect the minority groups in the society against environmental hazards arising from industries and other potentially risky activities, usually located in their neighborhood without their approval.
In the early 1980s, there was an increase in household and industrial waste being dumped near the minority groups’ place of residence, generating concern from human right activists (Martuzzi, Mitis and Forastiere, 2010). This was termed as environmental injustice, hence environmental justice campaign, which demanded that such environmental burdens be shared equally regardless of the people living in the area.
Governments across the world have a responsibility to promote health and equity among their citizens. Issues such as housing, transport and health are thus critical in ensuring environmental justice.
However, we still see poor people, considered the minority group, living in poorly ventilated and cold houses located in areas with inadequate transport network and social amenities such as schools, hospitals and playgrounds. Besides, such neighborhoods are usually vulnerable to risky activities such as location of heavy polluting industries and waste disposal sites, hence environmental injustice (Martuzzi, Mitis and Forastiere, 2010).
This is so because minority groups generally do not have a strong voice in the decision making process. Nevertheless, Environmental justice dictates that governments protect the rights of minority groups by upgrading their environments and involving them in all decisions that are likely to have an impact on their environment.
Environmental racism occurs when minority groups are denied environmental justice (Hamilton, 2007). For instance, government’s failure to come up with stringent laws to protect farm workers from exposure to pesticides can be considered environmental racism against the farm workers.
At the global scale, a typical example of environmental racism is the unsustainable extraction and exportation of forest products from underdeveloped countries to developed countries thereby degrading the ecosystems of poor communities in the underdeveloped countries. In simple terms, realization of environmental justice is a good step towards solving environmental racism.
Examples of Environmental Justice
Environmental justice cases have become common since the emergence of sustainable development concept. Most cases often point out environmental injustice being done against the minority communities. For example, the “common, but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” principle associated with climate justice addresses climate change from an environmental justice point of view in that it shields minority communities from discrimination when developing climate change policies and projects.
Cases of minority communities taking legal battles against decisions to locate potentially high risk activities in their neighborhood have also been reported in the past. For example, residents of Bayview district, San Francisco took a legal battle to stop the location of a power plant in the district, arguing that the district was already a host to several hazards and toxins.
Further, potentially toxic facilities such as landfills, incinerators and heavy polluting industries are usually located in the neighborhood of minority communities in most countries across the world without considering the health risks of such facilities (Martuzzi, Mitis and Forastiere, 2010). The situation is even worse in developing countries where waste dumping sites are situated in the vicinity of slum settlements posing a serious health risk to the residents. The concerned governments do not regulate such facilities, hence the poor state of the environment.
Gillaspy, R. (2013). What is environmental justice? – Definition, principles, examples & issues.
Hamilton, J.T. (2007). Testing for environmental racism: Prejudice, profits, political power? Journal of policy analysis and management, 14(1), 107-132. doi: 10.2307/3325435/
Martuzzi, M., Mitis, F. & Forastiere, F. (2010). Inequalities, inequities, environmental justice in waste management and health. The European Journal of Public Health, 20(1), 21-26.