In the current concerns about climate change, it often seems like environmental degradation doesn’t discriminate: your economic class or color of your skin won’t necessarily save you from the thinning of the ozone layer or rising sea levels. On a more local level, however, researchers and activists have been concerned about disparate effects of environmental problems in poor and minority communities. Robert Bullard’s classic study of Dumping in Dixie connected the environmental hazards of African American areas of the South with conceptions of social (in)justice, spawning a new area of activism and research known as “environmental justice.” Manuel Pastor and colleagues from USC recently even linked environmental justice to climate change, arguing that climate change does not affect everyone equally, and it is people of color and the poor who will be hurt the most” in The Climate Gap.
Environmental risks here in the U.S. pale in comparison to what happens in the developing world, often the dumping ground for wealthy nations. The LA Times recently dedicates space for two longer-than-usual editorials on the suit of Ecuadorean indigenous groups against Texaco/Chevron. The discovery of oil in the Amazonian region of Ecuador in the 1960s created an economic boom, but also led to horrible contamination:
Today, a swath of the Ecuadorean Amazon the size of Rhode Island remains contaminated beyond imagining. At one site after another, oil hangs in the air, slides on the water’s surface and saturates the land. Pipelines and waste pits left behind years ago still drip and ooze. Advocates for the plaintiffs have called the former Texaco concession area the “Amazon Chernobyl.” Were it in the United States, it would easily qualify as a Superfund site. Neither side in the case disputes the devastation, only who should pay for it. Chevron says it is the state-owned oil company’s responsibility; the plaintiffs say it is Chevron’s.
Secoya Indians living in the village of San Pablo remember the day the river ran black. Old men tell of oil rushing down the waters, engulfing everything in its path and staining the banks. Then came the dead fish, floating on the surface. The people, however, continued to eat the fish, bathe in the water and use it for their cooking. They didn’t know any better.
The suit originated against Texaco but Chevron is now the defendant due to a merger. Formerly in collusion with oil companies, the Ecuadorean government and courts now are more disposed to support the indigenous communities. A verdict will come soon on this case, but the ultimate verdict on the links between a globalized economy, climate change and social justice is far from being settled.