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Price of environmental racism

The New Straits Times, September 9, 2001

By Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

AS we celebrated the 44th year of our nation's independence, the United Nations was struggling to liberate the world from racism through the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (www.un.org/WCAR/).

It opened in Durban, South Africa and ended last Friday.

The former colonial masters together with the slave traders were evasive about their commitment to the conference.

Reportedly, many feared legal action from those who have come to regard such acts as crimes against humanity, especially the indigenous population.

Others chose to withdraw from the conference citing "hateful language" as an excuse.

There is no better place to illustrate the reality of racism, in its varied forms, other than South Africa, the host country. While taking pride in its progress towards reconciliation, its president regarded the country as "two nations" — one white and rich, the other black and poor.

A legacy of apartheid, a policy supported for a long time by many western powers, had bred deep resentment, suspicion and impatience.

Not suprising then the effects of racism in South Africa is even more far reaching, extending well into the environment. Some aptly labelled the situation as "environment racism," a form of racism that was missing on the agenda of the Durban conference.

What then constitutes "environmental racism"? Generally, it refers to a situation when potential sources of pollutants such as incinerators, municipal landfills, toxic dumps, nuclear waste, coal power plants, hog farms, sewage plants and other threats to human health are placed in communities of a vulnerable group people.

One landmark study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States (1987) for example, described the extent of environmental racism and the consequences to the victims of polluted environments. It revealed that race was the most significant variable associated with the location of hazardous waste sites. Although socio-economic status was also an important variable, race was the most significant even after taking into account urban and regional differences.

The victims are particularly vulnerable because they are "perceived as weak and passive citizens who will not fight back against the poisoning of their neighbourhoods for fear that it may jeopardise jobs and economic survival." A 1992 US Environmental Protection Agency study pointed out that socio-economic conditions and race were the major factors determining environmental discrimination.

This situation could be likened to Deepa Fernandes' reference to waste-dumping sites just 10 minutes south of Durban, described as a "valley of toxic chemical pollution whose noxious  gases will be unavoidably inhaled, yet programmatically ignored".

According to Fernandes, "South Durban is an area, like Harlem and the South Bronx, where because the residents are poor and black, toxic waste has been dumped unregulated. "It is home to some of the worst industrial pollution committed by multinational companies and environmental damage the world over. It is also where scores of blacks and South Asians were forcibly relocated during the apartheid days as a labour source for the oil, paper, and chemical industries".

Unfortunately, even in this postapartheid era, environment racism seems to be alive and kicking. Indeed, some of the early conference attendees were treated to what they called the "Toxic Tour".

In terms of environmental racism, Harlem saw many similarities.

"East Harlem and the South Bronx are home to depots filled with diesel-fuelled buses and trucks, which have led us to have the highest rates of asthma in the US," says Cecil Corbin-Mark, programme director of the West Harlem Environmental Action.

It has been suggested that powerful industries are implicated in environmental crimes affecting people who lack the resources to pursue justice through courts of law, namely the poor and neglected.

As such these people are marginalised and easily forgotten. As mentioned by Corbin-Mark: "It is a wonder, therefore, how the UN Conference Against Racism organisers and attendees could possibly ignore what was right under their noses." In Malaysia, while discussions on increasing polarisation, some time bordering on racial tendencies, are raised, complaints about environmental racism is almost unheard of. While this may be a good indication, we should not take it for granted as environmental pollution is becoming more and more pervasive nationwide.

To remain vigilant against environmental racism, it is worthwhile to consider some of the recommendations offered by the Environmental Equity Workgroup of the US Environmental Protection Agency (1992). This will enable us to make more equitable environmental policy decisions, especially towards those who are prone to experiencing a more disproportionate share of the burden, namely the poor.

The recommendations (some paraphrased) include: 

  • Increase the priority given to issues of environmental equity.

  • Establish and maintain an effective database for assessing risks on the basis of income and race.

  • Create measures to reduce high concentrations of risk among specific population groups, communities, or geographic areas.

  • Integrate equity into environmental protection programmes by addressing high-risk communities in its permit, grant, monitoring, and enforcement procedures.

  • Establish mechanisms to include equity considerations in longterm planning and agency

In all these, we need to remind ourselves that no matter what our race, colour or creed is, we are all the same. Seemingly, over millions of years ago, we evolved from a common African ancestor.

Symbolically, we are all born in Africa, where for the third time the majority of the world's population through the UN is voicing their concern about the practise of racism.

As the UN Secretary-General told the Conference, it is essential to banish from the new century the hatred and prejudice that disfigured previous ones.

Without a doubt, environmental racism too needs to be banished.

Recommended site:  http://bioworldwatch.com/article1005.html 

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