The Intersectionality Between Environmental Degradation and Ethnic Inequalities

Julia Nicolls
Staff Writer

As numerous environmentally-focused statistics increasingly demonstrate the damage inflicted on the Earth, their effects are becoming more widely known. Whether it is the bleaching of coral reefs, the heightened number of natural disasters like Hurricane Maria and super typhoons in Southeast Asia, or wildfires displacing Koalas in Australia, these events not only affect the wellbeing of the Earth, but that of societies, communities, and individuals around the world.

There is a line frequently drawn between environmentalism, human rights, and national security, with most assuming they do not bleed into one another. While climate change does not discriminate based on skin color, ethnic group, or economic class, the leaders responsible for fixing these challenges do. When the homeland of the indigenous Peruvians burns, the world remains silent, yet as the match is lit in Silicon Valley, California, it is put out without a blink.

There is a connection in the effects of environmental degradation and racial and ethnic inequalities across the globe. For instance, take Kenya. The country has no legislation protecting indigenous peoples and has not signed onto the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). It was only in 2010 that minorities and indigenous peoples were included in the new constitution – despite this, the constitution passed without specific protections, as stated by The International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

At the same time, Kenya launched its “National Climate Change Action Plan” in 2017, developing a low carbon plan for a more sustainable future. From the outside, Kenya, despite its geographical disadvantages, has responded remarkably well. The Smithsonian Magazine cites “How Climate Change is Fueling Innovation in Kenya.” Additionally, according to Climate Change Tracker, Kenya remains 2 degrees Celsius compatible as it trends toward the goals of the Paris Climate Accords.

At face value, little connection is drawn between Kenya’s climate change action and ethnic inequality. Yet, when examining indigenous communities like the Sengwer people, that is hardly the case. As a group that has historically protected and cared for the Embobut Forest, the health of the forest and the group are interlinked. In addition to understanding the patterns of the forest and having the skills to nurture its growth, the Sengwer people also possess historical and cultural claims to the lands predating the existence of Kenya as a state. The Embobut Forest is the largest indigenous forest in East Africa and its existence is critical to the biodiversity of the region.

However, in the name of environmental action, the Kenyan government has forced evictions of this group to curb illegal deforestation. Irungu Houghton, Amnesty International Kenya’s Executive Director, said “The Sengwer people were never genuinely consulted nor was their free and informed consent ever obtained prior to their eviction. This is a flagrant violation of Kenyan and international law.” As illegal logging and deforestation persisted, Kenyan Forest Service eventually blamed and persecuted the Sengwer Tribe for actions the government executed.

These “green efforts” were funded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund until significant outcry grew over the evictions, according to Minority Rights. This type of top-down decision by the Kenyan government is now discouraged, and the United Nations rapporteur in the country has asked for evictions to stop. Despite this, actions that diminish indigenous and environmental rights continue.

A similar situation is present for indigenous peoples in Peru. While Peru has ratified the UNDRIP, the country’s 55 indigenous groups still face significant disadvantages beyond the reach of international law. The majority of the indigenous groups located in the Peruvian Amazon; 75 percent of this area is rich in oil and gas concessions according to IWGIA. Extraction techniques disrupt geological stability and territorial cohesion, resulting in increased and uncontrolled oil spills.

Yet a different issue faces the Shawi people of the Amazon as erosion and food insecurity threaten the existence of this community. The Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, meaning its success is not only critical to this group, but also for global wellbeing. As tourism and government-sponsored development projects flourish, so do the problems that they cause. While these projects increase the short-term economic benefit of the state, they further malnutrition and food insecurity for the indigenous peoples in the Amazon. As the region becomes more globalized with foreigners moving into the area, new roads are built and soda machines added to local stores, putting pressure on indigenous groups to accommodate.

The Indigenous Peoples would travel to the surrounding land and forest to hunt deer and collect crops before these developments were built, but are now left hungry as those crops are shipped out to meet the growing population’s demands. This food insecurity only worsens the deforestation and lack of biodiversity within the area. For many Shawi people, the only way to afford and access food is through illegal logging.

Another aspect of degradation to the portion of the Amazon historically attributed to the Shawi people is mineral mining, specifically for gold and silver. Much of the localized mining efforts operated by the Peruvian government are owned by the Canadian firm Royal Road Minerals Limited. With the power wielded by the Canadian firm and the Peruvian government, the economic odds are stacked against the Shawi people. As a result, the Shawi indigenous group, among others, have protested the contamination of their water sources, increased disease potential, and health concerns that the mining corporation has caused. These protests have lasted over ten years, having started in 2009 but with little to no support from the Peruvian government or neighboring states, according to the World Rainforest Movement.

The common thread between these cases is how governments enable and perpetuate the threats to environmental and human rights. Most governments turn a blind eye to ethnic minorities and/or environmental concerns in favor of the immediate economic benefit. When the opportunity suits, the government is on the side of monetary benefit rather than the indigenous peoples of their country. Doing so hurts the global biodiversity in the long run, especially considering that deforestation costs $4.5 trillion each year through the loss of biodiversity. At what point will the long term become the inevitable short term?

A future in which indigenous communities are further oppressed and these regenerative resources have been near depleted is likely if governments do not change their methods. Without large-scale change by state governments through following international law recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the status quo will be maintained.

Most large-scale environmental negotiations have not resulted in the necessary change required. Nevertheless, years after the Montreal Protocol was implemented, the recovered ozone layer has slowed the effects of climate change, according to National Geographic. Progress must be made to continue the work of that treaty and others; however, it does not look promising, as the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement in June 2017.

The connection between environmental and humanitarian issues may cause similar disruption among the public. For example, there was a public outcry as a turtle choked on a plastic straw in 2019 and the beginning of the Greta Thunberg movement, just like the movement for human rights after the release of the Kony 2012 video. The public is not blinded by the immediate economic gains that governments usually narrowly focuses on. Nevertheless, if the public listens and acts for the sake of threatened indigenous communities, these threatened peoples could see a progressive response by governments.

Courtesy of Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team (Wikimedia Commons)

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