Campus News

Bowdoin Conference Papers May Lead to Book

Story posted April 04, 2002

Plans are now underway to publish a book containing papers and commentary from a conference on Race, Justice and the Environment that Bowdoin hosted earlier this semester.

The conference was the brainchild of John Rensenbrink, professor emeritus at Bowdoin. He said he was pleased with the outcome, which brought together scholars from the United States, Brazil, Kenya, and China and nearly 200 participants.

“The most important thing about the conference to me is that it pushed the envelope of consciousness about the problems underlying the relationship between race and the environment, justice and the environment, and race and justice in the context of the environment,” Rensenbrink said. “I have found that most people do not know about these relationships, or are just not accustomed to thinking about them in the same breath. So in juxtaposing these three terms, the conference jolted people into looking again and thinking harder.”

The overriding opinion of conference participants was that all to often, both in history and today, ideas about race have been used as a justification for taking and controlling natural resources; and control of natural resources has been used to maintain racial divisions.

“Too often the people who pollute are not putting their pollution where there is well-organized opposition, in wealthy communities, but in poorer communities
and our [political] leadership isn’t talking about this as a problem
but that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about it.” The conference opened with these words from Randy Stakeman, head of Bowdoin’s Africana studies program.

Among the topics covered were the following:

  • The balance of nature, and grass roots organizing in Kenya
  • Preventing pollution, and asthma, in Harlem
  • Reversing a cycle of racism and exploitation in the Americas.
  • The future of NAFTA in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Brief summaries and excerpts from a few of the discussions follow.

“Racial Regimes and Ecological Power in the Americas”
Tony Affigne, Co-founder, Interracial Caucus, American Political Science Association.

Affigne takes a stark view of the relationship between control (and abuse) of the environment and issues of race.

“Everywhere we look at the distribution of economic and political power in the Americas, it is racially stratified
.and linked to the control of the environment,” Affigne said.

This is true not only now, but throughout history, many of the most important struggles have been over resources, and many of them have tended to be racially structured, he said.

“The underlying structure of political power in the Western hemisphere is racially stratified
The descendents of European settlers
continue to own and control most things of value in the Western Hemisphere,” he said. This is despite the fact that in the Americas only five nations have a population in which the majority is of European descent.

“Most of the natural resources in the Americas are on land that is or has been in the control of indigenous peoples,” Affigne said. The power to exploit these resources has depended on the subjugation of the people that originally controlled them.

Affigne maintains that if we eliminated the racial stratification of society, it would be impossible to continue extracting natural resources in the way we do today.

“Racial regimes and ecological power are reinforcing systems,” Affigne said. He maintains that to resist ecological exploitation, one must recognize the implications of race. “We will suffer if we do not break this cycle of exploitation of both people and the land
If we want to break this cycle
then at some point we need to intervene and I would suggest that we can intervene in either place.”

“Environmental Racism: A Contributor to Poor Health of People of Color”
Annette Dula, Scholar/consultant, Tuskegee University National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care

“We’d never heard of environmental racism back when I was growing up in West North Carolina, but we knew who got the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs,” Dula said.

Since that time, Dula has found much evidence to support the existence of environmental racism. The evidence abounds in health statistics, patterns of pollution and siting of factories. African Americans tend to be sicker and not live as long as whites, and are more likely to suffer from health problems such as high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease. Death rates for blacks are higher for many diseases, including cancer.

Racism in the healthcare industry has sometimes been used to explain higher rates of death and disease among African Americans. Dula has no doubt that racism occurs in treatment of disease, but that’s not the only cause.

“For many, these injustices and the path to poor health start long before they show up at the hospital
communities of color are unequally protected by environmental laws
it takes communities of color 20% longer to be listed as a[n environmental] clean-up site.”

There is evidence that polluting facilities are more often located near communities with large populations of color. Some have argued that people choose to live in these communities, but in some cases the communities are established before factories build in them — and many families could not afford to live elsewhere even if they wanted to, Dula said.

Dula gave numerous examples of minority communities — in Alabama, in New Jersey, in Louisiana, in Pennsylvania — plagued by pollution.

“The examples I’ve presented do not necessarily prove causation, but they do suggest a very, very strong association among environmental pollution, health problems, and race.”

“Community Development: Race and the Environment”
George Khaldun, Chief Operating Officer, Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families

As Harlem goes, so goes the nation.

Well, not exactly, but Khaldun compares the situation in Harlem, and places like it, to the canary in the mineshaft. Environmental and health problems in a marginalized group, is the first sign of a danger to society at large.

Rheedlen is dedicated to improving the lives of the children of Harlem. About 12,000 people live in the area in which Rheedlen works; 47% of them live below the poverty line. Environmental issues began to concern Rheedlen when an investigation into children’s absences from school showed that many children in the area were having problems with asthma. A survey of three schools showed that 20% of the students had asthma compared to a national rate of about 4%.
Harlem residents die at five times the rate of other groups in New York City. The National Institutes of Health has found that poor communities are more likely to be the sites of pollution-emitting industries and thus suffer from poor air quality.

Rheedlen found that the way in which bus depots and bus routes were situated meant that 3,500 diesel-fueled buses were running through the streets of Harlem. Rheedlen has been lobbying the city of New York to relocate bus depots or shift to cleaner burning fuel. They are working to find ways to repair schools that are infected with mildew and are steam cleaning the carpets of families that can’t afford to do so themselves. Rheedlen’s asthma initiative is designed to educate parents about the dangers of asthma and to offer them information on smoking cessation.

“The Other Side of the Myths: The Green Belt Movement in Kenya”
Wangari Maathai, Co-chair, Jubilee 2000 Afrika Campaign and Dorothy McCluskey Fellow in Conservation, Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The balance of nature is a delicate one, and Wangari Maathai has seen first hand what happens when it’s disrupted. When she was a child in Kenya, Maathai lived near a small stream from which her mother would send her to fetch water. Near the stream there was also a fig tree. When she was sent to gather firewood Maathai’s mother told her never to gather wood from under the fig tree, for it was sacred.

When independence came to Kenya, so did commercial agriculture. Land was redistricted and Maathai’s family lost claim to the fig tree that once stood on her land. That tree, along with many others, was cut down to make way for fields of coffee and tea that could be sold to other nations.

“As the tree disappeared, so did my stream,” Maathai said. “I couldn’t help connect the disappearance of the fig tree with the disappearance of the stream.”

Women, many of whom had been complicit in the cutting of the trees, began to come to the government to complain of a lack of drinking water, and a lack of food, since the fields were full of coffee and tea rather than food to feed the families.

“ The women didn’t make the connection between the cutting of the trees
and the fact that now they were facing new problems,” Maathai said. Because of her scientific background, she saw a link and set out to find a solution.

Maathai began organizing the women to plant trees, and despite a laws prohibiting groups of more than nine people from assembling, she was able to train them. Since that time about 20 million trees have been planted and there are about 6000 groups of women working on reforestation.

“Profit and the Browning of the Lower Rio Grande Valley”
Gilberto Reyes, Jr, Instructor in History, South Texas Community College .

The Lower Rio Grande River Valley offers the change to preempt a negative future.

The history of the Rio Grande Valley is older than the recorded history of the rest of the country, dating back to the 1500s. The people of the Lower Rio Grande Valley have traditionally had three important secular relationships: a relationship with family and friends; a relationship with the rancher or employer; a relationship with the land. Up until quite recently, the land was viewed as one of the most important aspects of these people’s lives.

On January 1, 1994, this way of life changed. That is that date that NAFTA was implemented. Suddenly there was a lot of money to be made in the valley.

“Literally overnight the economic landscape of the Rio Grande Valley is transformed,” Reyes said. “I tell my students, there’s only one color that’s ever mattered in this country, and that’s green.”

For generations, the people in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have been as “malleable as the land,” he said. “Only in the last seven to eight years have we seen a change in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that the land and the people cannot adapt to
People are losing the natural environmental sensibilities that their parents and their grandparents had.”

While there are troubling changes breeding there, this part of the country presents an opportunity to learn from mistakes in other regions. “Environmental racism is pretty much a reality in the rest of the country
.In the Rio Grand Valley, environmental racism is the future,” he said.

Other addresses included:

“The Impact of Environmental Racism on Indigenous Peoples”
Rebecca Sockbeson, Director of Multicultural Student Affairs, University of Southern Maine and member of the Penobscot Nation.

Environmental racism has impinged upon the sovereignty of the Penobscot, their health, and their culture, according to Sockbeson. This has happened largely through pollution in the waters of the Penobscot River that the Penobscot people have had little say in regulating.

“De-Constructing the Law on the Environment: Justice in the Context of the Brazilian Constitution”
Vera Karam de Chueiri, Professor of Constitutional Law and Theory of Law, Federal University of Paraná, Brazil.

The Brazilian constitution has provisions guaranteeing its citizens clean air and water, but ensuring this in the face of industry proves complicated.

“The Challenge of Measuring Environmental Justice”
Edwardo Lao Rhodes, Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs, School of Public and environmental Affairs, Indiana University.

Discussions of environmental issues are often muddied by poor research methodology.

“Join the Race: Where to Place the Environment and Social Justice in the Power Game of Late Developments.”
Lance L.P. Guo, Assistant Professor of Government and Asian Studies, Bowdoin College.

China is finding that the increase in prosperity is also leading to an increase in societal problems, such as homelessness, and the breakdown of societal structures that supported communities for generations.

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