Race, justice and the environment symposium
Wangari Maathai, the keynote speaker at the Symposium on
Race, Justice and the Environment held from February 22nd to 23rd, grew
up in Kenya when the government was transitioning from a colonial regime
to self-governed democracy. She watched the government sell off public
lands and cut down the forests to drive the production of cash crops such
as coffee and tea. She noticed how drinking water became scarce and how
her peoples' traditions and cultures disappeared with the forests. "God
spent from Monday to Friday creating all of nature, the birds, the animals,
the land," Maathai noted, "He spent only Saturday creating Man.
If Man was created on Monday, he would have been dead by Tuesday".
Maathai showed the symposium attendees how it was foolish to not realize
how humanity's pressing social issues and the environment are interconnected.
However, racial issues and environmental issues are rarely addressed on
the same page. Is it purely a coincidence that pollution ends up affecting
poor and minority communities the most? Is it coincidence that environmental
issues are usually the concern of Caucasian upper class society? Do minorities
just not care as much about environmental problems?
These and many other difficult questions concerning the
connection between environmental and social justice issues were addressed
at the symposium on campus this weekend. The conference began with the
Common Hour lecture by Barry Dana, Chief of the Penobscot Nation. Friday
night, the movies "Drumbeat for Mother Earth" and "Laid
to Waste" were shown, and there were small group discussions held
with those who later took part in panel discussions all day Saturday.
Panelists from around the world and from the fields of economics, political
science, law, medicine, biology, and history spoke on these issues concerning
What is environmental justice? Each speaker brought a unique perception of the environmental problems our world is facing under the increasing pressure of population and human consumption. Wangari Maathai, the keynote speaker for the conference, founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya which teaches women and community members how the governmental process works through lessons on how to plant indigenous tree species on their land. As a result of her activism, Maathai has been prosecuted by the corrupt Kenyan government, and been imprisoned.
Rebecca Sockbeson and Barry Dana of the Penebscot Nation explained how the federal and state government regulate the water quality of Maine rivers without taking into consideration how Penobscots rely on the fish as a source of food. As a result of eating fish poisoned with dioxin discharged from paper, babies are born with birth defects and cancer rates on the reservation are abnormally high. In the Rio Grande River Valley, Gilberto Reyes, Jr. explained how the local culture is being removed from the environment by the economic freedom introduced by NAFTA.
Panel member Eduardo Lao Rhodes from the University of Indiana
discussed how environmental problems could be assessed economically, and
Bowdoin professor Lance Guo discussed how economic development had changed
the nature of East Asian culture. Annette Dula of the Tuskegee Institute
spoke of how the Monsanto Corporation dumped tons of PCPs into a creek
near a predominantly minority community in Alabama, poisoning thousands
of people. She also how a 50 mile stretch of the Mississipi river from
Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Lousiana is now called "Cancer Alley"
because of the number of chemical processing plants and the resulting
high cancer rates. In Harlem, children suffer from asthma as a result
of poor air quality, diesel fumes from buses, poor housing, as George
Khaldun, Bowdoin gratuate and Chief Operating Officer of the Rheedlen
Centers for Children and Families, informed the panel. Even though environmental
concern is written into the Brazillian constitution, Vera Karam de Chueiri
explained how the regional government allowed a French car factory to
be built in a fragile watershed area, compromising the water supply of
the city of Curitiba. The list goes on.
Reducing these issues to simply environmental problems allows the public to ignore the awkward issues of social injustice. We hope that we left racism solved back in the 1960's and that since then great measures have been taken to eliminate social stratification so that everyone has equal access to wealth, happiness, and well-being. We don't like to think that 500 years of western exploitation of the New World's people and resources made the Renaissance and society as we know it today possible, as panel speaker Tony Affigne from Providence College reminded the attendees of the symposium. When action is taken against individual environmental pollution issues, difficult problems of racial equality arise and injustices are incurred in the jumble. It is easy to throw up your hands at the immensity of the problems and "become a guilt-ridden atheist" as Affigne warned. The speakers stories themselves however were indirectly one way of addressing the problem. Each speaker had chosen a small part of the problem, had become involved and did what they could to turn environmental racism around. However, Wangari Maathai provided the sage advice that everyone has to care about these issues if change is to occur. The panelists urged students to educate themselves about environmental injustice issues and to make a difference.