#1: Environmental Racism

Read time: 12 minutes-ish

Photo: James Eades, Unsplash

As I write the first issue of this newsletter, the world is in a state of social upheaval. Protests across the United States calling for an end to police brutality and institutionalised racism against Black people have entered their second month.
In Australia, there is growing, long-overdue recognition of a parallel history of racism, police brutality, and social inequality experienced by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Black communities. As the struggle for social justice continues, there remains the backdrop of Covid-19, still spreading at terrifying speed around the world.
It’s easy to leave environmental issues to the wayside as we direct our attention towards the immediate injustices against Black and Indigenous people. Thinking this way, however, overlooks the complex interrelation of environmental and social issues.
Environmentalism does not exist in a vacuum cut off from all other areas of society. Advocacy for a healthy planet must include, in tandem, advocacy for social justice. Racial and environmental justice are deeply, deeply intertwined.

(This podcast goes into why viewing environmental issues in isolation is dangerous).
For the first issue of Environment Monthly, we’re going to be exploring the topic of environmental racism. I’ll unpack what environmental racism is, explore its history, take a closer look at how it exists in Australia, and finish up with some Actual Things you can do to get involved. Putting knowledge into practice is the most direct route to affecting change in yourself and in the world around you.
Consider this newsletter a springboard into your understanding of environmental racism. I encourage you to do further research, engage with the links throughout the piece, and seek new information on things about which you’re curious or unfamiliar.
Let’s get into it.

What is environmental racism?

Environmental racism refers to racial discrimination in decision making, resulting in the effects of environmental hazards experienced disproportionately more by Black, Indigenous and communities of colour (in comparison to White communities). The concept is the predecessor of the environmental justice movement which began in the United States during the 1970s-80s.

In an expanded definition by Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., African American civil rights leader and pioneer of the environmental justice movement, environmental racism involves:

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.

It’s a big, broad definition, reflecting the pervasiveness of racism in policy, decision-making, law enforcement and environmental degradation worldwide, as well as the dominance of White people in environmental science and advocacy at the exclusion of non-White people.
The concept of environmental racism emerged from circumstances not unlike that which we’re seeing in cities across the United States at the moment. In 1982, Black and White activists used non-violent civil disobedience (aka, protesting) in an attempt to prevent the creation of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in Warren County, North Carolina, a largely black community.
The campaign failed, however national attention was drawn to the prevalence of situating hazardous waste sites in close proximity to black communities. A subsequent report by the US General Accounting Office revealed that “three out of four commercial hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast United States were located in black communities.”
A few years later, in 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ) published a damning study, with the finding that “race is the predominant factor related to the presence of hazardous wastes in residential communities throughout the United States…[more so] than even socioeconomic status.” Rev. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., Field Officer and Program Director for the United Church of Christ, then pioneered the term environmental racism to encapsulate the widespread prevalence of environmental hazards imposed on minority communities, rooted in systemic racism.
In 2020 little has changed, and environmental racism remains endemic – both within countries and across borders. It exists in a number of different forms, underscored by legacies of white colonialism around the world.

It exists in our clothing supply chains: garment production outsourced to countries such as India and Bangladesh, where toxic dyes and chemicals contaminate waterways and soils used for subsistence farming and agriculture, while workers are paid a grossly inadequate wage. It exists in mining companies extracting uranium from the territories of Indigenous communities and contaminating the land for future generations (Ranger case). It exists in decisions by governments and councils to situate waste sites in close proximity that are predominantly home to Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC).

It exists because we have designated areas of the world as sacrifice zones to justify the environmental degradation we cause in pursuit of growth. “You can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism.”
The other side of the coin is that BIPOC will experience the impacts of a changing climate more quickly, and with greater intensity, than white communities – despite statistically having the smallest impact on global emissions. BIPOC communities already experience a myriad of social inequalities, from lower life expectancy, to higher prevalence of chronic illnesses, to reduced educational attainment rates and access to affordable healthcare.
Research already links air pollution to reduced cognitive function, with implications for an individual’s ability to fully engage in all of the social aspects we take for granted: schooling, fulfilling work, leisure time. The links between social equality and environmental justice are deeply intertwined. Both must be fought for at the same time.

Environmental racism in Australia

Recognition of environmental justice and environmental racism in Australia is relatively new. We do not, as yet, have a defining moment that changed the narrative such as in the US in the 1980s – despite the number of examples of environmental racism that have gained at best brief traction within the Australian environment movement.

The dominant focus of environmental justice in Australia advocating for a Just Transition. This identifies certain types of employment (mining, construction, etc.) and rural locations as predictors of proximity to environmental hazards.

Despite scarce research into environmental racism in the Australian context, its existence is hard to deny. It’s there in the prioritisation of mining interests over the heritage and wellbeing of Aboriginal communities; in the condescension of Australian politicians towards Pacific Island nations, already threatened by the impacts of climate change on their communities; in Australia’s export of waste to Asian and South-East Asian countries like China, Thailand and India, where workers often work with dangerous substances without adequate protections or safeguards in place. In each of these examples, we see a combination of environmental damage and the undermined health and safety of BIPOC.

Having a quick look at Sustainability Victoria's map of waste sites in Victoria reveals concentrations of waste sites (including landfill, organic waste and industrial waste) in several areas: Dandenong, Clayton South/Springvale, Campbellfield, Derrimut. These suburbs are culturally very diverse, and home to significant percentages of people from North African, Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds. There’s more research needed to establish correlation, but the observation is notable.
Source: Sustainability Victoria

Deep dive: Aboriginal communities and mining 

A long history

The last few weeks alone have seen public outrage at the destruction of Indigenous lands by egregious mining companies. First there was Rio Tinto, which at the end of May destroyed Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, a revered and sacred Aboriginal site, in order to expand its mining territory. Juukan Gorge is over 46,000 years old and provided a link between the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners of today and their ancestors of 4,000 years ago. Two weeks later news broke of another mining behemoth, BHP Billiton, granted permission to destroy as many as 40 important Aboriginal sites also located in the Pilbara region of WA – for the purpose of, like Rio, expanding its mining capacity.

These are not the first instances of Aboriginal communities experiencing harm at the hands of mining companies. The Ranger Uranium mine in the Northern Territory on the land of the Mirrar people released over one million litres of radioactive liquid in a spill in 2013. The Redbank copper mine contaminated surrounding waterways due to poorly sealed facilities after closure in the 1990s. Newly approved is the Yeelirrie mine in Western Australia, approved by the government despite opposition from the Tjiwarl Traditional Owners. These examples are few of many, and the list will likely continue to expand.

Common to all the examples is the disregard for meaningful consultation with Traditional Owners by mining companies and the government, and the absence of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). Though I would love to get into it here, there’s only so much I can cram into a newsletter without it becoming closer to a novel – here is a very good resource on the importance of prioritising FPIC, and here is another one examining why Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Laws – designed to protect and elevate the voices of Indigenous communities – continue to fail them in favour of mega companies.

So, we know mining has a long history of adversely impacting Aboriginal communities. But what do these impacts look like?

(Un)intended consequences

Aboriginal communities are more likely to be directly affected by mining activity than any other community, with 60% of mines located in close proximity to Indigenous communities. The impacts themselves are pervasive, dangerous and long-term.

Polluted landscapes
Environmental pollution from mines both retired and still operative is a serious concern. When the above-mentioned Redbank copper mine was closed, improperly sealed waste leaked from a pit into local waterways, and water tested seven kilometres downstream returned an acidity level equivalent to battery acid. Near the McArthur River mine, a lead, silver and zinc mine, toxic lead was detected in fish and nearby cattle, and remains under investigation. Toxic substances and impermanent constructions contaminate the bush, and thick dust clouds the air and settles on everything.
Pollution disrupts local ecosystems – ecosystems which local communities are reliant on for food and spiritual practice. In some cases, fish and plants become contaminated with poisonous substances which are then ingested by people. In other cases, entire populations of animals are eradicated, leaving the ecosystem barren and unable to provide sustenance for a local Aboriginal communities, whether through farming or hunting. We are well acquainted with the dangers of pollution, and yet our government continues to enable and poorly regulate destructive mining.

Health problems

From polluted environments invariably come associated health risks – this much is certain. Among the most common health problems that emerge from proximity to mining are respiratory problems, attributed to inhalation of fine dust particles and gases expelled by mining activity; heavy metal poisoning, through the contamination of waterways and food which is then ingested, and; cancers, through exposure to radioactive and other hazardous mining substances. Though these effects are experienced more intensely by mine workers (of which, Aboriginal people comprise a significant number relative to their proportionate representation in Australia’s population), they are also experienced by communities situated near mine sites.
Compounding the above health risks is the overall higher burden of disease experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) report linked above is a great resource to better understand the interconnected health and social issues experienced by Aboriginal communities. Indigenous people suffer from diabetes, kidney disease and cancer at significantly higher rates than non-Indigenous people; suicide affects more Indigenous people than non, and Indigenous communities have higher child mortality rates, lower life expectancies and poorer maternal health than non-Indigenous people. Our current health and social systems are failing Aboriginal communities, and the consequences of these failures are exacerbated by environmental destruction and climate change.

Cultural erasure and spiritual harm

Land has a fundamental social and economic importance to indigenous societies, one that can be disrupted and substantially transformed by mining operations… the development of mines in the area brings increased presence and pressure by non-Aboriginal cultural practices, institutions, and economic values, entrenching the dominance of non-Aboriginal interests.”

The importance of the relationship between land and people in Aboriginal culture should not be understated. Without an adequate understanding of this, it’s impossible to comprehend the psychological and spiritual damage that the destruction of sacred sites has.
It is this spiritual connection to the land that puts Aboriginal communities in opposition to uranium mining, in the words of Adnyamathanha woman Jillian Marsh: “it is the traditional landowners’ ‘cultural and spiritual connection to the land’ that makes Aboriginal communities fundamentally opposed to the mining of uranium on their country.”

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Mirrar traditional owner Yvonne Margarula acknowledged the deep sadness felt by her community at the knowledge uranium from their land had been used to fuel the reactor.
Mines – owned by wealthy and often White people – are repeatedly given priority over the physical, mental and spiritual health of Indigenous people. Mining displaces Aboriginal communities from their ancestral lands, encroaches on their freedom and wellbeing, and deeply threatens cultural and spiritual health and practice.

Photo: Ben Carless, Unsplash

A way forward

What is abundantly clear when you look at the history of the relationship between mining companies and Aboriginal communities is the repeated silencing of the voices of Traditional Owners. In order to protect Aboriginal communities, their voices, and meaningfully address environmental racism against Indigenous people, the solution is multifaceted.
It requires law reform. The Uluru Statement of the Heart articulates the kind of structural change needed. In terms of existing laws, reform is needed for Aboriginal Heritage legislation, the Native Title act, and Australia’s main environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act (currently under review). Australian federal and state legal mechanisms do not enshrine the voices of Indigenous communities, nor deliver adequate government representation. They give Indigenous communities no clear avenue to veto mining operations. They fail to secure the rights of Indigenous communities under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – three significant shortcomings of many.

It requires pressure on government – that’s something we can all do. I’ve said it a thousand times and I will say it a million more: we have a voice. As citizens of a democracy, our elected representatives (chosen by us) have an obligation to listen. We need to use our voices.
And it requires the elevation and preservation of Indigenous representation and self-determination. Better institutions for Aboriginal leaders to make decisions for their communities, more funding for Indigenous initiatives and organisations, and the enabling of greater self-determination in all matters of society, from healthcare to environmental protection and education.
Returning to where we began, environmental issues do not exist in a vacuum. The disadvantage and inequality experienced by Indigenous communities is a conglomeration of environmental destruction, inadequate health and social services, limited access to education and employment. All of these things are rooted in colonisation and the displacement, dispossession and violence imposed on First Nations people.  
This is environmental racism.

What can we do?

I’ve given you a lot to digest, I know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. I hope you talk about it with people in your life, engage with some of the extra resources I’ve linked below, donate to an Aboriginal organisation fighting for their land and representation. The lives of Black, Indigenous and people of colour and the environment are more important than profit and business.
Environmental racism is a big issue. It is systemic in its very nature and therefore cannot be solved by individual action alone. The collective power of our individual actions, however, is capable of shifting this system of destruction, devaluing, discrimination.

Photo: Clay Banks, Unsplash

Change begins with knowledge. Reading this newsletter is a great start. To take it further, have a look at some of the resources I’ve linked below that delve further into environmental racism.
A key component of addressing environmental racism – for white people, like me – is examining our own relationship with racism. We most likely do not consider the implications of race, of living in a country where Indigenous lives were sacrificed for the establishment of a white, European society. As a result, we have unconscious bias and an understanding of history that favours whiteness. It’s an uncomfortable thing to think about, but we have to think about it. BIPOC communities think about it all the time. Systemic racism thrives on our unconscious bias and social messaging. When we become aware of the biases we carry, when we learn to challenge them, that’s when they lose their power.
Beyond self-examination, learning about environmental racism in various contexts is useful, because it takes many different forms. Here’s a collection of resources to get you started, each looking at a different example of where significant environmental hazards are imposed on BIPOC communities:
A super easy way to stay informed is by subscribing to the social media accounts of various activists + organisations working to combat environmental degradation and social inequalities. Here are a couple to get you going:
I’ve rounded up some petitions to click through and sign. Petition signing is a meaningful action and it’s the next step after learning more. It’ll take five minutes of your time and, if you can, share them with other people in your life to maximise the impact. It’s also a good opportunity to talk to someone else about environmental racism and spread the awareness further.
Something that’s becoming a bit of a catch phrase for me recently is talk to your politicians! They care what you think! It’s the truth: politicians are our elected representatives and their job is literally to listen to the needs of their communities and address these. We are the whole reason they are in the seat they’re in. Even if your local politician is not from a party you support – they don’t know that! All they know is that you’re a member of their community and you’re raising with them an issue that you’re concerned about. If they want your vote, they’ll listen to you.
Pep-talk finished, writing to your local council, State and Federal politicians has a big impact. This is especially true for council, who operate on a much smaller scale within your local government area, where you’ll likely see action far more quickly than higher tiers of government. Template letters exist online for various causes, where you can insert your details and send it off. Alternatively, and better yet, write your own. A personalised letter carries a lot more weight than a template one, and takes about fifteen minutes to write, if that. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website is the easiest way to find your Federal electorate, and typing your postcode + “state electorate” or “council” will bring up your State politicians and councillors.
The same goes for big companies, organisations, literally anyone. Identify the bad guy, and email them. Identify the good guys, too, and ask for help! The case I mentioned before about BHP Billiton’s decision not to blow up important Aboriginal sites following public outcry is an example of how effective people power can be.
Spread the word!
Talking can be a challenging idea, especially if people in your life aren’t super politically engaged. But actually, that’s the broad percentage of our population. Most people only superficially engage in politics, usually because other life things take precedence. If I had it my way, we’d all be politically engaged – to not be is to deny yourself the inherent power you have in being a citizen in a democracy. 
One way to do it is to bring the conversation up in an already-established part of your life. In a book club? Great! Here’s a book list on environmental racism – pick one and make it the focus of your next book club meeting. Organise a movie night with some friends for a screening of a documentary on environmental issues or the experiences of BIPOC communities. Something that can be really helpful is understanding what issues somebody cares about most and joining the dots between their issue and the one you want to discuss. 
If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, money is another form of power. Making a regular donation, no matter how small, to an organisation really enables them to achieve the change they’re advocating for. And, in the case of Aboriginal organisations, it furthers the goal of self-determination: a key component of undoing the continuing legacy of colonisation. Here are a couple of organisations you might like to donate to.

If you’ve stuck with me all the way through – amazing, thank you. Making political information and political engagement accessible to all people is something I am really, deeply passionate about. I’m aiming to get these newsletters out every 4-6 weeks - we'll see how that goes.

Thank you again for reading, see you next month!
Environment Monthly