Anthropology has many different sub-fields, and anthropologists study a variety of intersecting topics. For environmental anthropologists, a key part of their work is the concept of environmental justice.
What is Environmental Justice?
Environmental justice centers around the belief that all people have a right to a healthy living environment and fair treatment through environmental laws and regulations. In addition, environmental justice persists because of the existence of environmental injustices—ways that environmental issues such as pollution and natural disasters disproportionately affect vulnerable and disadvantaged people. These people include racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples, poorer communities, the very young, and the elderly. This theory is not just an anthropological one; many disciplines use environmental justice to guide their studies.
Examples of Environmental Injustices
There are endless examples of environmental injustices occurring all over the world. Here are two examples that I have selected; one is from the U.S., while the other is from Indonesia.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, those most affected by the storm were ethnic minorities and people living in poor communities. According to one source, over half of the 1,100 storm victims in St. Bernard Parish were over the age of 75. Another study states that overall, 51% of those who died in the storm were black, while 42% were white. This same study also notes that in Orleans Parish, which includes the city of New Orleans, black residents were 1.7 to 4 times more likely to die than white residents. These results support the idea of intersectionality—one’s race, socioeconomic status and location were all factors in how likely one was to fall victim to this natural disaster. Post-storm relief efforts also seem to be lacking in environmental justice, as the Kaiser Family Foundation Katrina Survey Project found that many New Orleans residents believe recovery efforts have disproportionately benefited white and wealthy residents of the city.
This video, directed by Reynaldo Morales, explores many of the environmental justice issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina:
Indonesia’s Palm Oil Industry
Palm oil is a common, lucrative product—it can be found in variety of products, from processed foods to cosmetics. In Indonesia, the every-growing palm oil industry has had a disastrous effect on the local environment, including an increase in pollution and destruction of natural forests. Those most negatively affected by the palm oil industry are Indonesia’s indigenous tribes. According to one source, Indonesian palm oil corporations are required by law to obtain consent from indigenous people before taking their land to use for palm oil farming, as well as pay a fair price for the land that they acquire. Studies and investigations have shown that this is not the reality for Indonesian indigenous tribes, as they continue to have their land taken by palm oil companies through unethical means, often for ridiculously low compensation.
This video by Al Jazeera gives a more in-depth explanation of how the palm oil industry has taken a toll on the quality of life of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples:
As I close out this post, I want to emphasize that issues of environmental injustice are not necessarily driven by individuals’ opinions or intentions. Instead, the driving force behind environmental injustice is the large political, economic and social systems that are designed to exploit vulnerable people.
Next time you hear about a natural disaster or other environmental catastrophe, consider how the most disadvantaged people in the affected area might be bearing the brunt of the destruction.
Environmental justice demands that these victims stop being overlooked.
List of sources linked to in this post:
Environmental Justice via ScienceDirect.com (great list of related articles here!)
Remembering Katrina: Wide racial divide over government’s response by Carroll Doherty via the Pew Research Center
New Orleans Ten Years After The Storm: The Kaiser Family Foundation Katrina Survey Project by Liz Hamel , Jamie Firth, and Mollyann Brodie
Hurricane Katrina deaths, Louisiana, 2005. (Abstract) by Brunkard J, Namulanda G, Ratard R. published in Disaster Med Public Health Prep.
Study of Hurricane Katrina’s dead show most were old, lived near levee breaches by Mark Schleifstein via NOLA.com
THE CONTENTIOUS FIGHT TO PROTECT INDONESIAN PALM OIL by Philip Jacobson & Hans Nicholas Jongjul via Pacific Standard
Palm Oil Controversies via Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University
Palm Oil Industries via the World Wildlife Fund