Intersectional Equity in the Environmental Context : Exploring the Links between Climate and Social Justice

A water hole located in the hot arid and dry landscape of Rajasthan, India

One of the major shortcomings when it comes to public policymaking to combat issues like climate change across the globe has been the division of environmental and social issues into two different domains of interest. The myth that environmental and social issues are two completely separate and disjoint problems and environmental issues are those pertaining only to the natural world is not only misinformed, but also dangerous. It tends to view the relationship between man and wild as superficial and surface rather than elemental, essential and interconnected. It tends to foster a culture that views man as being outside of or different from nature - an entity sprung from but not tied to the setting it inhabits.

This ideology that views man as being outside of or different from nature often leads to misguided attempts by governments to secure forested areas by pushing out local communities and indigenous tribes who have inhabited and protected their ancestral land for generations. This leaves them homeless, jobless and often destroys their local culture and language, something that actually parallels extreme racism but is often cloaked by deeming it a ‘sacrifice for public good.

To keep cities pollution and waste free, big corporations pay large sums to set up most factories away from urbanisation and in rural or forested areas. This deeply affects the living conditions of those who live in or near forests by polluting their rivers and water supply, polluting their air and degrading their soil with chemicals. Minority and low-income communities were statistically more likely to live in neighbourhoods exposed to toxic waste, landfills, highways, and other environmental hazards.

A study in 2018 by scientists from the Environment Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment found that people of colour are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air in the United States of America. It found that people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above poverty. People of colour also have a 35 percent higher chance of living near emission polluting facilities than their white counterparts. Similarly a 2017 study found that low-income, black Americans are disproportionately exposed to toxic air pollution from the fossil fuel industry. It further showed how African Americans are 75 percent more likely than Caucasians to live in "fence-line" communities—those next to commercial facilities whose noise, odour, traffic or emissions directly affect the population. 

This is known eco - racism : a process deep rooted in the existing racism and inequalities in society which favours the elite and allows the rich to buy out others – usually communities belonging to ethnic and racial minorities and the poorer, weaker sections of society. Not only does this accumulate over generations and generations of affected communities and deprive them of a good standard of living and income, but it also causes them to be murdered, kidnapped and threatened to let go off their lands.

Due to this chain of racism and deprivation, most people living in such areas and communities currently are people of colour, indigenous and marginalised. It’s important to take into account which communities are already struggling to be protected equally by laws so they can have equal access to a safe environment. Without accepting that environmental issues are often deeply tied if not rooted within social issues, it is difficult to successfully tackle problems like climate change, pollution and water scarcity.

Exactly this interconnectedness between climate and society and representation of minority groups in the collective fight against climate change has been analysed, studied and explained in my research paper ‘Intersectional Equity and Identity Politics in the Environmental Context: The Links Between Climate Justice and Social Justice’, co written by Anvita Arora, managing director and CEO of Innovative Transport Solutions (iTrans).

With case studies detailing not just the discrimination faced by minority groups in the aftermath of climate crises in different regions around the world but also the initiatives that have been taken to empower such communities and integrate them back into society, the research paper focuses on stories from Africa, India and America while tying them in with the current relevance of racial justice and an independently conducted survey studying over 3290 individual responses to over 10 questions.

First hand interviews such as one with indigenous activist Archana Soreng, a Member of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to  the Secretary General of the United Nations from the Khadia Tribe in Orissa help in understanding the ground reality of the situation of indigenous people in the modern age.

The first case study revolves around Africa and the gender equity crisis that is partly rooted in and fuelled by the climate crisis. In Africa, millions of women face the daily threat of gender discrimination - at home, at work and in society, which is severely amplified and in some cases even caused by the effects of the climate crisis. There is a direct relationship between gender equality and women empowerment and the impact of climate change on women. That women are affected disproportionately by the climate crisis is a fact, often exhibited visibly and commonly in low income communities and nations.

From walking for hours to fetch water for their families to facing increasing economic insecurity and dependence on their male counterparts in times of drought and heatwaves, women face a series of challenges when living in drought prone areas. Girls are even made to miss out on school so they can take part in the activity, while boys are often exempted from such chores.

A study by the UNDP elaborates the root causes of this disproportionality- “Women are more exposed and vulnerable to climate change because they are often poorer, receive less education, and are not involved in political and household decision-making processes that affect their lives. Cultural norms related to gender sometimes limit the ability of women to make quick decisions on whether to move to safer grounds in disaster situations until it is too late. Similarly, a gendered sociocultural ethos does not encourage girls to learn skills such as swimming and tree climbing that help people to survive during floods.” (Overview of linkages between gender and climate change – UNDP)

The aftermath of climate disasters also affects women more – they are at a higher chance of facing displacement, sexually assault, kidnapping and unemployment, leading them towards poverty and homelessness along with prolonged periods of unemployment. This often culminates in financially handicapped and untrained women becoming climate refugees with no place to go and no gainful work to support their families. 

The second case study elaborates the atrocities against indigenous people in countries like Colombia, Brazil and Nicaragua. Indigenous communities too, across the world, have come under the radar of land mafia and logging groups and have been mercilessly targeted, supressed, kidnapped, sexually molested, threatened or even killed for defending their homes. Using the support of the state or big corporations, the voices of these native inhabitants are easily silenced, their lands snatched away and their cultures and traditions lost.

Already marginalised and stereotyped as being wild and primitive, tensions heighten when disputes over land occur and this leads to further hate towards native people, who are seen as obstructers to development and projected as enemies of the public. Hence existing inequalities and stigma towards the indigenous is amplified multi-fold over issues of land, resources and forest.

An example of such problems can be seen in Nicaragua, where the Mayagna community stands with diminishing freedom and right over its lands as the same grab, push and exterminate policy is adopted by armed groups to snatch land. Globally, the statistics speak of the grave dangers faced by indigenous people all over the earth.  In 2018, at least three people were killed on average every week trying to protect their lands  and livelihoods from destructive industries such as mining, logging and agribusiness. In Columbia, the indigenous people were linked to terrorists by the government. Philippines became the deadliest country in the world for land and environmental defenders, according to Global Witness. The mining industry has been linked to the most land and environmental defender deaths in 2019, being followed by agriculture, logging and criminal gangs.

After carrying out an independent study through an online survey created by me with 10 questions in total and the number of respondents varying from a minimum of 215 and maximum of 486 and a total of 3291 responses, I uncovered some interesting patterns. 69% of the respondents to a particular question felt that they had in some way or the other faced racial or gender discrimination in their life. 73% and 53% respondents respectively felt that their country was dangerous for environmental defenders and that the violence was state/police supported. 69% respondents also successfully identified race as being a major contributing factor to the amount of toxic material/pollution a community is exposed to near or in the particular land they inhabit. 

However, a deeper understanding of the issues of environmental justice seemed to be lacking among the respondents. With only 31% and 49% agreeing that climate change is a gender and race issue respectively, while the obvious and surface questions seemed to be well understood by the respondents, the larger and more complex elements of the disproportionate effects of climate change on gender and racial minorities seemed to be confusing and foreign concepts for a lot of respondents. While the study was spread across respondents from different age groups divided into 13-17, 18-24, 25-34, 34-44, 45-54, 55-64 and 65+ with 66% of the respondents from India, most respondents seemed to lean towards pro-minority and pro-equity concepts and solutions, along with a small percentage voting ‘not sure’ (7.16%) and 30.84% of people having anti minority/contrasting opinions. 

What was most noteworthy in the study was how a focus on empowering minority communities does not only help integrate them into the national economy and society, but can also serve as a powerful tool to reduce climate inequalities. Taking two cases from tribal villages in India, the empowerment schemes undertaken not only helped uplift tribal communities and women but also to create more green sector jobs and propagate the use of solar energy as a cost effective, job creating and efficient source of energy for rural India. For example, in 2016 in Rajasthan, India, tribal women were taught skills and given training to function as efficient lady engineers making and fixing solar lamps - transforming them from uneducated and unskilled women to green tribal entrepreneurs. Similarly, the Mlinda organisation is empowering indigenous women in rural Jharkhand to start small scale rice hulling ventures , thus ensuring greater profits and income to the tribals as well as making the women financially independent and economically secure..

Conclusions of the study focus on the need for investment and interest in more projects and policies that aim to reduce climate inequalities across the world and especially and lesser educated or rural areas and Global South countries. The ancestral knowledge of indigenous people has always helped preserve forests. This knowledge now is more important than it has ever been in the fight against the climate crisis. With their rights protected, indigenous people are perhaps the best shot we have at tackling the current stage of ecological breakdown and restoring ecosystems.

The importance of women in the fight against climate change cannot be overlooked, and women centric initiatives are in need of immediate investments to take off in rural regions. Initiatives such as these can help integrate indigenous communities and women from weaker sections of society not only into the national economy by increasing their income, creating more green jobs and reducing unemployment but also integrating them into society by empowering and uplifting those who have always been viewed as living on the brinks of society. There is a dire necessity for empowerment and upliftment based initiatives to move towards a more equal and equitable chance at fighting climate change for all communities. 

References (All mentioned in the actual research paper) 

'Money runs out, while land is permanent. What good is money if the people have no land to live on, grow food off or socialise in as a community?'
- Archana Soreng, member of Khadia Tribe from Orissa, India and Member of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change to the Secretary General of the United Nations