Environmental Justice & Indigenous Struggles

Matthew R. Fisher and Editor

Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income concerning the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

During the 1980s minority groups protested that hazardous waste sites were preferentially sited in minority neighborhoods. In 1987, Benjamin Chavis of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racism and Justice coined the term environmental racism to describe such a practice. The study conducted by this institution concluded that race was the most significant factor in determining where hazardous waste sites were located. Three out of every five African Americans and Hispanics were found to have been living in or near a toxic waste site.

Decisions in citing hazardous waste facilities are also made based on economics, geological suitability, and the political climate. For example, a site must have a soil type and geological profile that prevents hazardous materials from moving into local aquifers. The cost of land is also an important consideration. The high cost of buying land would make it economically unfeasible to build a hazardous waste site in Beverly Hills. Some communities have seen a hazardous waste facility as a way of improving their local economy and quality of life. Emelle County, Alabama had illiteracy and infant mortality rates that were among the highest in the nation. A landfill constructed there provided jobs and revenue that ultimately helped to reduce both figures.

In an ideal world, there would be no hazardous waste facilities, but we do not live in an ideal world. Unfortunately, we live in a world plagued by rampant pollution and dumping of hazardous waste. Our industrialized society has necessarily produced waste during the manufacture of products for our basic needs. Until technology can find a way to manage (or eliminate) hazardous waste, disposal facilities will be necessary to protect both humans and the environment. By the same token, this problem must be addressed. Industry and society must become more socially aware in the selection of future hazardous waste sites. All humans who help produce hazardous wastes must share the burden of dealing with those wastes, not just the poor and minorities.

Indigenous People

Since the end of the 15th century, most of the world’s frontiers have been claimed and colonized by established nations. Invariably, these conquered frontiers were home to people indigenous to those regions. Some were wiped out or assimilated by the invaders, while others survived while trying to maintain their unique cultures and way of life. The United Nations officially classifies indigenous people as those “having an historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies,” and “consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories or parts of them.” Furthermore, indigenous people are “determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations, their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples by their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.” Some of the many groups of indigenous people around the world are the many tribes in the United States (e.g., Navajo, Dakota, Lakota) in the contiguous 48 states, the Inuit of the arctic region from Siberia to Canada, the rainforest tribes in Brazil, and the Ainu of northern Japan.

Many problems face indigenous people including the lack of human rights, exploitation of their traditional lands and themselves, and degradation of their culture. In response to the problems faced by indigenous people, the United Nations proclaimed an “International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People” beginning in 1994. The main objective of this proclamation, according to the United Nations, is “the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, health, culture, and education.” Its major goal is to protect the rights of indigenous people. Such protection would enable them to retain their cultural identity, such as their language and social customs, while participating in the political, economic, and social activities of the region in which they reside.

Despite the lofty U.N. goals, the rights and feelings of indigenous people are often ignored or minimized. For decades, many of those in the United States federal government have pushed to exploit oil resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northern coast of Alaska.  The “Gwich’in,” an indigenous people who rely culturally and spiritually on the herds of caribou that live in the region, protested that drilling in the region would devastate their way of life. Thousands of years of culture would be destroyed for only a few months’ supply of oil. In 2020, 1.5 million acres of the refuge were officially opened to the oil and gas industry. Shortly after, however, the Biden Administration suspended this opening. Drilling efforts such as this have been stymied in the past, but mostly out of concern for environmental factors and not necessarily the needs of the indigenous people.

Undeterred by the protests of indigenous people, this exploitation continues today on indigenous land. The Willow Project, an $8 billion drilling project on Alaska’s North Slope, was approved by the federal government. Much of the controversy surrounding this decision comes from the vast impact on the climate this project will have, but ignores the effects on surrounding Native communities. Due to the project’s proximity to the home of the Nuiqsut tribe, this project will directly harm these indigenous people by producing deadly toxins and destroying the land they rely on.

Figure 1. Area 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, looking south toward the Brooks Range mountains. Credit: This work is in the Public Domain, CC0

The heart of most environmental conflicts faced by governments usually involves what constitutes proper and sustainable levels of development. For many indigenous peoples, sustainable development constitutes an integrated wholeness, where no single action is separate from others. They believe that sustainable development requires the maintenance and continuity of life, from generation to generation, and that humans are not isolated entities, but are part of larger communities, which include the seas, rivers, mountains, trees, fish, animals, and ancestral spirits. These, along with the sun, moon, and cosmos, constitute a whole. From the point of view of indigenous people, sustainable development is a process that must integrate spiritual, cultural, economic, social, political, territorial, and philosophical ideals.

Suggested Supplementary Reading

Miller, E. “Flint Water Crisis: A Turning Point For Environmental Justice.” WOSU Public Media.<http://radio.wosu.org/post/flint-water-crisis-turning-point-environmental-justice#stream/0>

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Indigenous Peoples. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/mandated-areas1/environment.html


Essentials of Environmental Science  by Kamala Doršner is licensed under CC BY 4.0. Modified from original by Matthew R. Fisher.



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Environmental Justice & Indigenous Struggles Copyright © by Matthew R. Fisher and Editor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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