Where on earth is environmental justice?

Protesters striving for environmental justice

Due to media representations and the way our culture is structured to think, it may seem to the majority of the population that there is much more injustice than justice in the world. In terms of environmental justice, it seems that more often than not the issues that are highlighted are significantly focused more around the injustices people and places are suffering. Whether this is because people are more interested in reading, talking or writing about injustices or just that they think there is more injustice in the world is irrelevant, because the point is, environmental justice is happening all around us, every day.

It would be a lie to say there is not a huge amount of environmental injustice all around the globe. But why is it only this that is ever really talked about? If people pay as much attention to the justice that is happening in the world, then maybe things would not seem so bad. From grassroots levels of indigenous groups campaigning and protesting relentlessly for land rights, to global policies trying to combat climate change, things are being done. There is good in all bad, and now might be the time that people need reminding of this.

Why aren't environmental protests like this documented as much as issues regarding injustice?

As a large scale example, the Durban climate change talks 2012 took a long time for the countries involved to come to any form of agreement and it will be even longer until these agreements start being implemented. The Kyoto Protocol and policies like it are far from perfect and the opinions of many people and places are still missing. However, it is something towards finding justice for all the people and places who are currently suffering from the effects of climate change. There are so many differing and conflicting opinions in the world that it would be impossible for everyone to agree. So what can we do? We have to start somewhere. There are millions of people who are working with what they’ve got, yet people still seem only to recognise the injustices that are simultaneously happening.

The main issue here is that not enough people know both sides to all the issues which are going on. We are therefore in need of someone to voice the opinions of the people and places who would not otherwise get a say.  Geographers are “uniquely poised to understand human environment relations, spatial and social distributions of environmental goods and bads”, which puts them in the ideal place to be able to spread this invisible knowledge. Eventually through this role which geographers play, the environmental justice which is happening all over the world will be recognised. This will hopefully allow people to think more optimistically and be educated in the ways in which they can help with environmental justice issues themselves. So where on earth is environmental justice? The truth is that it is all around us, people just need to open their eyes.

Harvey, F., and Vidal, J., (2011). Global climate change treaty in sight after Durban breakthrough. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/11/global-climate-change-treaty-durban. Last accessed 14th March 2012.

Lucas, J., (2011). Durban climate talks: we still have a chance to talk about success. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/dec/05/durban-climate-talks-success. Last accessed 14th March 2012.

Reed, M., and George, C., (2011). Where in the world is environmental justice? Progress in Human Geography. 35 (6). 835 – 842.

Tutu, D., and Robinson, M., (2011). Climate change is a matter of justice. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/dec/05/climate-change-justice?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487. Last accessed 14th March 2012.

The real power of environmental justice movements

Indigenous land rights conflicts are widespread today, often as the result of certain global power structures. Western favoured capitalistic and economic views of the environment are coming increasingly into conflict with the cultural and highly spiritual beliefs of various indigenous populations. But what happens after the land rights conflicts are established? The conflicts don’t merely simmer out; one of the two competing groups is almost always eventually displaced.  It is frequently the case that economic values of the environment prevail, and the groups which are in favour of it are able to come up with a list of reasons which make displacing the indigenous groups justifiable. Indigenous groups are increasingly viewed has having little power compared to official bodies in their country – and other countries – which means that their arguments are rarely backed up by enough reasons or people, creating a situation where they yet again suffer injustice.

So, what happens in the opposite situation, where indigenous groups do stand up for themselves and do not back down? The Dongria Kondh people are a highly spiritual indigenous group in the Niyamgiri hills, East India, who have had to fight for their land, their culture and their lives. The British mining group Vedanta had claims to set up an open-pit mine on the Dongria Kondh’s most sacred mountain in order to extract Bauxite. Survival International successfully led the campaign to support the land rights of the Dongria Kondh in which there were 10,000 letters sent to the Indian Government, 1000’s of demonstrations all over the world and eventually over £42 million disinvested by Vedanta shareholders. This victory has been described as “stunning”, “historic” and one which “nobody would have believed possible”. Most people would have deemed Vedanta, the $8 billion company to have the most power and to come out on top in a conflict between them and the almost entirely illiterate Eastern Indian tribe, which makes their victory even more unbelievable.

This land rights battle was never easy for the groups on either half, but especially not for the Dongira Kondh people.  They were up against a huge multinational company, who had the power to claim that their environmental policies were among the best and that the marginalised tribe was always considered with best

'The real Avatar Tribe'

interests. When people within the tribe first started to protest, some were physically abused and almost all were illegally pushed out of their homes which were often bulldozed down. Yet, the Dongira Kondh people stood together and refused profoundly to let Vedanta win the conflict, and with the help of Survival International, groups and individuals all over the world, won the right to live and worship on their sacred land and mountain. It is with the help of people, especially human geographers – who can apply their knowledge of the environment, culture and the reasons behind exploitation of  natural resources – that both sides of issues like this can be spread publicly, allowing the general public to voice their opinions. This is ultimately what a social movement is; a large group of people who all believe the same thing protesting in a variety of ways. It may be that after hearing both sides of such a conflict, the largest percentage of people still favour the interests of the multinational company, such as Vedanta in this instance. This would be fine, because at least that decision would be informed. The real problem here is that marginalised indigenous groups such as the Dongria Kondh often struggle to get their voices heard, meaning that no one can ever even begin to consider their side of the story. It is therefore incredibly important that human geographers, groups like Survival International or anyone else who has the ability to, spread the word of both sides of any conflict, give a voice to the marginalised groups and give people’s beliefs the justice they deserve.

This triumph can be used as an example of the power of social movements and to help people see that all people’s opinions and values need to be considered equally in order for the decision-making people to make a fully informed decision.  Despite this, the success  of the tribe is threatened as India’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case, suggesting that the world still has a long way to go before the values and beliefs of all different groups from all parts of the world are considered to be equal.

Anon., (2010) India rejects Vedanta plans to mine tribal land. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11067678. Last Accessed 10th March 2012.

Brett, C., (2002). The indigenous environmental movement in the United States. Organization & Environment. 15 (4) 410-442.

Grammaticas, D., (2008) Tribe takes on global mining firm. Available:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7486252.stm. Last Accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, (2010) David v. Goliath: Indian tribe in ‘stunning’ victory over mining giant. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/6385. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, The Dongria Kondh. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/dongria. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

Survival International, Mine: Story of a Sacred Mountain. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/films/mine. Last accessed 10th March 2012.

More than a land rights conflict?

The Guarani

The Guarani Indians in Brazil are three groups of indigenous peoples who have suffered from land rights injustice for decades in the past. Recently, it has been highlighted much more by the media as people have started to question the breaching of laws and rights by Brazilian governments and constitutions. There has been conflict over the rights of the land traditionally inhabited by the Guarani since 1960 when they got displaced to make way for cattle ranches.  Since 2009, the Guarani have been forced to live by dangerous road sides, in completely unsuitable living conditions and most vitally, away from the land that holds so much value to them.


Makeshift reservation at the road side.

The land in question holds much more than physical value to the Guarani, as their      culture is completely centred around the land which their ancestors have lived on for hundreds of years. They believe that their “ancestors built the base for constructing the ‘land without evil’”, which is ultimately what their culture lives for. Most of this land has been destroyed and large scale deforestation has taken place to make way for predominantly cattle ranches and sugar cane plantations. The rights of the Guarani have been actively ignored, which is not actually all that surprising due the fact that the treatment of indigenous people in Brazil has been known to be marginalising and discriminatory throughout history. Until only a couple of decades ago, Constitution Brazilian law “treated indigenous people as minors” and generally failed to visibly enforce the rights of indigenous people as they exist in writing.

The most obvious conflict here is in the valuation of the environment, differing between the importance placed on cultural and economic value. The Guarani suffer the effects of this injustice everyday as they and their homes are mistreated and destroyed in favour of other people’s interest in the land for economic reasons. The Guarani were forced into tiny and massively overcrowded reservations, with appalling living standards and little access to food. Due to this, many people have died due to malnutrition and several of the Guarani have taken their own lives due to the loss of their land on which they depended on for both physical and mental well-being. This brings up the prevalent question of who has the right to decide who land valued in this way belongs to, and how is it fair to start questioning the inhabitancy of certain groups of people who have lived there for hundreds of years?  Furthermore, how is it fair to treat any group of people in such a discriminatory way to favour economic benefit?

Although the Guarani are inherently and undeniably concerned with losing their land due to the sacred role it plays in their whole society, I aim to encourage broader thinking in which deeper meanings behind this conflict may be recognised. Do the conflicts between the indigenous communities and the state run deeper than merely valuations of the land? Are the Guarani putting up such a fight in this example to desperately gain recognition and a higher level of sovereignty within their country? If the Guarani stay true to their beliefs and end up winning the conflict over land rights, they will have diminished the injustice they were suffering and end up with a greater amount of power than they have ever had before.  Whatever the Guarani have been doing, and for whatever reason, they have been doing something right as within the last month judges in Brazil allowed them to stay on parts of their ancestral land, after bravely and desperately re-occupying it in 2011.


Coombes, B., Johnson, J., and Howitt, R. (2011). Indigenous geographies I: Mere resource conflicts? The complexities in Indigenous land and environmental claims. Progress in Human Geography 36 (2). 1 – 12.

O. Carvalh, G. (2000). The Politics of Indigenous Land Rights in Brazil. Bulletin of Latin American Research. 19. 461-478.

Survival International, (2010) A Survival International Report to the UN Committe. Available: http://assets.survivalinternational.org/documents/207/Guarani_report_English_MARCH.pdf. Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Survival International, (2011) Tension mounts as Brazilian Indians retake land. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/7319 Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Survival International, (2012) Judges allow Indians to remain on ancestral land. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/8088. Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Survival International, The Guarani. Available: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/guarani/fightingback#main. Last accessed 2nd March 2012.

Are we responsible for the effects of climate change?

‘Climate change’ has recently become a household term in the global north, but very few people stop to actually think about what causes it and the effects it really has. There has been much debate over the extent to which human activity has exacerbated the effects of climate change and the rate at which it is occurring. The effects of climate change are broad and dynamic, and have already started being visible throughout the world. If any of these issues are caused or even just partially heightened by human activity, then this brings the issue of environmental justice to the table. How is it fair that the selfish actions of human beings in one area of the world negatively affect the lives of innocent people living in another?

Take, for instance, the northern hemisphere heat wave in summer 2010. Temperatures were at an outstanding high, which impacted the environment and the societies within it on a number of scales. In Russia, the heat wave of 2010 was the worst in 1,000 years of recorded history and had a “substantial impact on that year’s wheat harvest, leading to economic losses of more than $15bn”. Although this happened in 2010, there has since been much discussion over whether it was a result of anthropogenic climate change or simply a natural occurrence. In a recent article from the guardian, however, it has been claimed that this specific heat wave was “made three times more likely because of man-made climate change”.  This means that the greenhouse gas producing behaviour of people (generally in the global north) significantly increased the chance of this phenomenon, which in turn destroyed people’s livelihoods and incomes. The injustice here lies in the fact that individual families who are reliant on certain sources of revenue are suffering because of a problem that their country has a whole managed to ignorantly create. What is even worse than this is when countries who have played a very minimal role in the contribution to climate change are the ones who are suffering the most as a whole.

Developing countries are arguably the ones affected the most by anthropogenic climate change but also the ones who have contributed to it the least. Most greenhouse gases which are released spread out into the whole atmosphere, thus having an effect on more countries than just the one which emitted them. This creates an unjust system whereby the globe as a whole is paying for the mistakes of a few selfish countries.
A high percentage of developing countries depend heavily upon revenue from agricultural work and it has been said that “a further increase in temperatures will make many agricultural areas less productive—and some completely unsuitable for farming”. So when the populations of those countries are stuck in the middle of a threatening heat wave, where the majority of their crops are ruined, how are they expected to earn a living to allow them to grow economically? Developing countries are struggling to gain a stronger place in the global market as it is, so the threat of climate change affecting their main source of income is a serious one. The most shameful part of this story is that developed countries are continuing to behave in an environmentally destructive way, despite knowing the affect it has on other countries, families and individuals in the world. It is true that not all climate change is caused by human activity as much of it is actually natural. But when there are suggestions to say that our behaviour can increase or decrease the risk of it significantly, I encourage you to help to try and stop this injustice. Think of those families in developing countries who are struggling to yield a crop whilst you casually disregard ‘climate change’ as an ‘out-there’ concept with little real meaning or value.

Picture – http://severe-wx.pbworks.com/w/page/15957981/Droughts%20and%20Heat%20Waves. Last accessed 24th February 2012.

Jha, A. (2012) Climate Change increased likelihood of Russian 2010 heatwave – study. Available:http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/21/climate-change-russian-heatwave. Last accessed 23rd February 2012.

McElroy, D. (2010) Russian heatwave kills 5,000 as fires rage out of control. Available:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/7931206/Russian-heatwave-kills-5000-as-fires-rage-out-of-control.html. Last accessed 23rd February 2012.

Mendelsohn, R and Dinar, A., (1999) Climate Change, Agriculture, and Developing Countries: Does Adaptation Matter? World Bank Res Obs 14(2): 277-293

Will there be plenty more fish in the sea?

Recent news has highlighted that overfishing in European waters is costing the EU £2.7 billion per year. In response to this, the European commission has proposed major changes to the Common Fisheries Policy which are intended to be in place by January 2013. One of the main aspects of this is that European stocks of fish are being left depleted, so a reduction in the amount of fishing allowed to occur would successfully help the biosphere to recover itself. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) claims that fishing would be more successful in the future if there is a reduction in the amount of fishing carried out at present, suggesting  a ‘for the greater good’ outlook.

This brings into context the infamous debate regarding the rights of the environment vs the rights of the people living within it, who have to utilise the environment in order to make a living.

It is easy to appreciate the concerns of the government regarding the depletion of natural resources, which is relevant in a number of contemporary contexts not just in terms of fishing and food revenues. Joe Borg’s article (2009) briefly discusses the contention that European fisheries are massively overfished, which would “do little for the future sustainability of the sector”. With the ever increasing spotlight on global population increases and decreasing natural resources, a positive attitude, he claims, towards preserving a substantial amount of these natural resources is necessary and needs to be paramount in this area of contemporary government legislation. However, the implementation of such legislations and policies has a significant effect on communities who are dependent on such revenues and the repercussions of this can be seen on a day-to-day basis.

In light of this recent issue, concerns around environmental justice are being contested as different opinions are coming increasingly into conflict. An Island Parish (January 2012) is a recent television documentary which is often regarded as a modern insight into the repercussions of new policies on an actual fishing community in the Island of Barra, off the coast of Scotland. It highlighted a conflict over the future of the fishing industry in this village as a rare coral has been discovered, which along with the pressure to meet EU targets, the Scottish government had discussions about creating a conservation area with would incorporate a ban on fishing.       The local residents had concerns about this policy being applied as it would have impacts up many aspects of their daily lives. A BBC News article discussed this general issue, and said that Charlotte Cawthorne, ISU marine programme manager recognises that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but, “three things were essential: scientific understanding of the ecosystem, funding for the transition, and sound management.” The residents of the Island of Barra, especially the fishermen, contest this as they argue that they know the best way to look after their environment sustainably as they have fished there for years. Aside from that, they claim that they don’t actually need to damage the rare coral by fishing there anyway.

This only touches the tip of a large and ever popular debate regarding environmental justice in terms of sustainability vs human needs, but can highlight how these different opinions have and will likely continue to come into conflict. Whilst these EU policies may make way for plenty more fish in their seas, communities who are dependent upon fishing revenues may feel as though they are being drowned out…

Borg, J (2009). Why European Fisheries Need Fixing – And Why We Need To Get It Right. Environmental Policy and Law, 39/6. 308.

Harvey, F (2012) Healthy European fish stocks would be worth £2.7bn a year – report. Available:http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/feb/10/healthy-european-fish-stocks. Last accessed 18th February 2012.

Kinver, M (2012) Overfishing ‘costs EU £2.7bn each year’. Available:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16979976. Last accessed 18th February 2012.