Not a “Third World” Problem

by Aaron Hersum

Environmental justice has many faces – I, for one, define it in many different ways. Sometimes it appears as a public health issue, as was the case in Flint, Michigan. Other times, it takes the shape of combatting rising sea levels, as coastal communities attempt to update their infrastructure, utilities, and homes to prepare to live on what was once dry land. Nonetheless, one unifying dynamic is that multiple groups of stakeholders must figure out how to communicate with one another to ensure that everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected. However, when this communication breaks down, or is outright ignored, environmental justice is threatened and livelihoods are put at risk.

When Kerry Bowie, Managing Partner at Msaada Partners, commented on this common communication failure at this month’s BASG forum, his remark felt very personal to my own experience in sustainability. During my travels, I have spoken with people in various communities whose lives have been affected when a large company, organization or government decided that they could benefit from a project involving the resources of those people. In Mexico, a community of indigenous people were being pushed off of their land through the efforts of a Canadian mining company. In New Zealand, a Maori “whanau” (best translated as extended family) was struggling to maintain control of its sacred mountain and river as tourism and land development clashed with cultural heritage.

The experience that stands out the most in my memory, however, comes from my time in India. We drove for hours on dirt roads in jeeps, finally to arrive at a village, our clothes and faces covered in red dust. The villagers took us to their meeting place, a peaceful hilltop overlooking the surrounding gullies and hills of brown and green. Beneath their meeting tree, in the warmth of the sun, we were told a somber story of how the regional government, in a land grabbing effort, had burnt the houses of the villagers to the ground. Unbeknownst to the arsonists at the time, a mother and her baby were in one of the homes, and both died in the fire. The villagers walked, walked over 100 miles to Delhi to protest the transgression and save their land.

But this is not a “Third World” problem, a developing countries problem, a problem that “other” people face. We have the same injustices here, in America — coal mining in West Virginia documented in The Last Mountain and the disaster in Flint, Michigan — elected officials poisoning their own people.

Perhaps land grabbing, mining, and polluted water go beyond a simple lack of communication among parties. I think the underlying issue, however, is more important: accountability. Organizations, like the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA), whose leaders holds themselves accountable, work to serve their communities. Listening to Stephen Estes-Smarglassi, the Director of Planning and Sustainability for the MWRA, speak, I noticed how much pride he took in their efforts to be transparent with constituents, and to initiate beneficial projects for communities.

On the corporate side, I spoke with Wanda Ratliff, an environmental consultant and longtime BASG attendee, after the talk. She shared some of her experience consulting companies on environmental justice concerns. She noted that while many companies do not engage with the public because they are not required to, some companies take a proactive approach to community stewardship. “In some cases, the companies did hold public meetings to provide information to abutters and to respond to questions.  For example, when I was environmental manager for a utility company, the utility company had a public relations department that was proactive about communicating with customers and nearby property owners.  The utility company was trying to be a good neighbor and a good corporate citizen, and I applaud them for that.”

My experience has shown me the worst of environmental injustice. I tend to be quite cynical about such matters, likening conflicts between communities and project proponents to a battle of David versus Goliath, except this David doesn’t have a sling. But listening to speakers like Estes-Smarglassi and Sam Lipson, Director of Environmental Health for the Cambridge Public Health Department, or hearing stories from people like Wanda Ratliff, reminds me that there are people in Goliath’s position who take environmental justice seriously. I think my ultimate takeaway from the event is that as a community, we can call for greater accountability of people in power, and have a responsibility to help each other fight injustice, wherever that injustice might be.

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