Environment, inequality and racism

Image: Cyrus Saurius


Environmental inequality affects the dispossessed in the expropriation of their environments and in the precarious conditions that characterize their location in cities

The notion of environmental justice emerged in the 1980s as a category of denunciation voiced by the North American black movement. It called into question the unequal distribution of the benefits and harms of commodity production: the benefits remain with high- and middle-income whites, while polluting waste is sent to areas inhabited by black and poor communities. By observing the regularity with which trucks transported toxic waste to deposit it in neighborhoods inhabited by black communities, the movement raised the hypothesis that it could be a discriminatory practice – the result of the convergence of decisions that configure racial inequality. Thus, with the support of the university, for the first time, in 1987, a map of the distribution – which proved to be unequal and discriminatory – of waste from the chemical and petrochemical industry in the USA was drawn up.[I]. Environmental inequality was proven and measures were demanded that would lead to a fair situation. This gave rise to the notion of environmental justice as a category of struggle, based on the perception of the validity of observable indicators of one of the forms of inequality. That is, a type of empirically verifiable inequality, expressed in quantitative indices applied to the spatial distribution of environmental damage. It was this finding that opened up new debates about fair and unfair, permanent objects of discussion, according to the historical, political and cultural contexts, from then on, also applicable to the environmental dimensions of social life.

In its origin, the notion was applied to socio-spatial processes located downstream of the production of goods – at the end of the productive processes; that is, the spatial location of the non-saleable objects of commodity production – waste, effluents and gaseous emissions. As shown by the various maps of environmental inequality made so far, these hazardous materials are currently disposed in the vicinity of areas inhabited by more dispossessed social groups. But there are also situations of environmental dispossession that take shape upstream of the goods production processes – that is, in the phases of space occupation and material extraction that precede the processes of industrial transformation. In the case of Brazilian indigenous peoples, for example, environmental harm comes more strongly from the invasion of their lands by agribusiness, land grabbing, large-scale mining, loggers and miners: these peoples are, through these mechanisms, dispossessed of their environments – of the waters and the forests they require for their biological and cultural reproduction. There are Indians, however, who live in cities, as well as Indians who commute between cities and villages. They tend, therefore, to be exposed, at the same time, to two types of processes – the degradation of their housing conditions in the cities, living in devalued and precarious urban areas, and the intrusion and spoliation of land in their villages.

Environmental inequality in the USA began to be proven as a result of – immediately social and political processes – decisions on the location of undesirable residues of capitalist production, inegalitarian micro decisions underlying the functioning of the land market and the socio-spatial and racial segregation of housing spaces. Then, notably after the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it was verified that the so-called natural disasters also affect blacks and the poor more than proportionally - unequal access to information about the risks, priority protection of dikes in high-income neighborhoods, civil defense absent due to being involved in the Iraq war. Now, we see that the pandemic – a biological and health phenomenon – also affects blacks and indigenous peoples more than proportionally, and with greater lethality. Both groups have less access to quality health services, among other vulnerability factors. Indigenous peoples, in particular, are made more vulnerable given their own immune conditions: they have solid defenses to deal with the microbiology of the forest, but are poorly equipped to deal with the microbiological environment of the surrounding society, the whites. This inadequacy manifests itself with particular force when there is the illegal occupation of their territories, which makes the virus reach them in an uncontrolled way. Environmental inequality affects indigenous peoples, therefore, at both ends, in cities and villages; in the expropriation of their environments and in the precarious conditions that characterize their location in cities.

Added to this structural situation, as we have seen, is the anti-environmentalist agenda of the current government, which joins the historically constituted racism, configuring a racialized anti-environmentalism that takes up colonial ideology, Brazilianizing the discrimination that has long is denounced by US civil rights movements. There, racism is denounced by the fact that authorities and companies penalize low-income black communities, deciding to locate, in their areas of residence, the harmful residues of wealth accumulation. Here, alongside this same practice, we see racism also expressed by the recrimination of quilombolas and indigenous peoples for occupying environmentally preserved spaces that are being required by agribusiness and mining to expand their profits, in an extensive and unproductive way, given the large extensions of the privatized land they already have. This racialized anti-environmentalism is, therefore, a manifestation of structural racism that came out of the wings and gained visibility in the formal political sphere, with the explicit adoption, from the 2018 electoral campaign, of discriminatory purposes and decisions in relation to blacks and indigenous peoples. .

When verifying a condition of environmental inequality affecting the non-white population in a more than proportional way, the notion of environmental racism has been gaining increasing visibility, evoked on two levels - at the level of empirical observation and at the level of perception and expression of the subjects themselves. social. In the case of the US, it was the interface between the insight of the black movement and the empirical proof of the map prepared by sociologist Robert Bullard that the debate arose. In the case of Brazil, at the empirical level, evidence of convergence between practices associated with structural racism and those that produce environmental inequalities has been growing – notably when looking at data on precarious urban settlements, lack of basic sanitation and populations living at risk of disasters. The various mechanisms through which, after the abolition of slavery, black populations were discriminated against – excluded from access to land, education and rights are known. This set of discriminatory acts converged in such a way that non-white citizens, descendents of slaves and indigenous people came to inhabit areas less valued by the real estate market, where there is an overlapping lack of sanitation, air quality, green areas, located close to risk sources such as transmission lines, oil pipelines, tailings dams, etc. The case of the collapse of the Samarco dam in Mariana in 2015, for example, showed that in the districts of Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu de Baixo, the most immediately affected, more than 80% of the local population, according to the 2010 census, declared themselves black and brown, when in the state of Minas Gerais as a whole, 56% did so[ii]. To give statistical support to the results of racially discriminatory practices, it is assumed, preliminarily, that the State accepts social pressures for classification systems that produce equivalence between different individuals that can be grouped according to the same condition of exposure to racism. Gabriele dos Anjos' article on color and race in the censuses shows how the codification and ways of collecting this information depend on the political context and the history of racial relations in the country[iii].

In Brazil, for example, data on the color of those affected by COVID took some time to register. The Black Coalition for Rights, scientific associations and public defenders insisted, together with the State, that such records be made. In June 2020, the epidemiological bulletins of the Ministry of Health began to publish them, as some units of the federation already did. The hypotheses began to be confirmed. In mid-June, the IBGE announced that the lethality rate was higher among blacks affected by covid-19 than among whites; that income and color inequalities cause black people and low-income groups to be affected by the epidemic in percentages greater than their participation in the population as a whole. This experience shows us the mechanisms through which the social construction of racial issues can be reflected in the public machine.

On the other hand, in the experience of convergence between environmental inequality and racism, subjective conditions were created through which the social actors themselves perceive the validity of the discriminatory condition as such. The US Environmental Justice Movement was born out of a process of “environmentalization” of the black movement. The environmental issue, which previously seemed, to its members, a demand of the conservationist white middle class, has shown itself, from the elaboration of the map of environmental inequality, to be a question of life and death. A repertoire of expressions and mobilizing notions was then created, such as environmental racism, toxic colonialism, sacrifice zone, etc. A commission of representatives of US grassroots organizations came to Brazil in 1998 to articulate with the Brazilian black movement with a view to preventing the export of environmental injustices from the US to Brazil. The “environmentalization” of the black movement in Brazil took place at its own pace, causing some entities, from the 2000s onwards, to evoke the category of environmental racism to designate the more than proportional impact of environmental ills on black communities and indigenous peoples and the loose application of government environmental regulations to protect these same communities[iv].

On the occasion of the 2005st Brazilian Seminar against Environmental Racism, held in Niterói, in XNUMX[v], both the debate and the application of this notion incorporated indigenous communities and encompassed a wide range of environmental ills, unlike its current use in the US, which is more strictly focused on the issue of the location of toxic waste dumps. The impudence of the presence of racist discourses and practices in the spheres of power, as well as government efforts to encourage environmentally predatory practices – which penalize blacks and indigenous people more than proportionally – are justifying the trends towards a growing articulation between anti-racist and indigenous mobilizations. denunciation of Brazilian government anti-environmentalism.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] In an interview given to anthropologist Cecília Mello in September 2001, Robert Bullard, a sociologist linked to the US environmental justice movement, described this process as follows: “When people started to look around – this in 1978, when I was living in Houston, Texas – were able to see where landfills were located, where incinerators were located. So we found out that these things were only allocated in poor, mostly African-American neighborhoods. Not only was the land unevenly distributed, it was distributed in a very predictable pattern. And that's how the idea of ​​environmental discrimination began to emerge. Discriminating is against the law. Therefore, we say that environmental discrimination and environmental racism are illegal and should be seen as other forms of discrimination.” Environmental Policy Bulletin, IBASE, Rio de Janeiro, 2001.

[ii] Bruno Milanez, Luiz Jardim Wanderley and Tatiana Ribeiro, What was not learned from the tragedy in Rio Doce, SITRAEMG, Belo Horizonte, 9/8/2017, http://www.sitraemg.org.br/post_type_artigo/o-que -no-learned-with-tragedy-in-the-rio-doce/

[iii] Gabriele dos Anjos, The issue of “color” or “race” in national censuses, IFEE Economic Indicators, Porto Alegre, v. 41, no. 1, p. 103-118, 2013

[iv] Robert D. Bullard (ed) Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the GrassrootsBoston: South End Press, 1983.

[v] S. Herculano, T, Pacheco (eds.) Environmental Racism – I Brazilian Seminar against Environmental Racism, BSD/PHASE; LACTTA/UFF, 2006

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table