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9.3: Environmental Justice and Health

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    Interdependence and the Environment

    Indigenous traditions tend to view aspects of the environment as relational rather than as being separated from human society and communities.46 This perspective underscores the importance of environmental factors to both individual and community health. For example, pollutants in the air and water affect individual health and can also increase a community’s risk for various diseases like cancer, heart disease, cholera, hepatitis, dysentery, respiratory diseases, and much more. Further, the denigration of natural environments also harms plants and animals, which can affect food supplies, water cycles, and natural recreation areas. In Figure 9.3.1, this idea is represented through the image of a child looking into the water to see the outlines of adult figures, which is captioned with the sentence, “What we do to water, we do to ourselves.”

    A child sees the outline of familial figures in a river, with the caption, “What we do to water, we do to ourselves.”

    Figure 9.3.1: "What We Do To Water, We Do To Ourselves" by Bec Young, Justseeds is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

    Structural Inequalities and the Built Environment

    Structural inequalities in society mean that unhealthy environments tend to disproportionately impact communities of color, low-income areas, and immigrants. Chicanx and Latinx communities are more likely to live in areas that have air pollution by industrial factories and large-scale agriculture. This can lead to high rates of preventable illnesses like asthma. In the context of climate change and global warming, the risks to the environment have become more pronounced and severe. This can be observed in places like Puerto Rico, which has suffered an onslaught of devastating natural disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes. The negative impacts of these events on everyday residents’ health and well-being are made much worse by the prevailing U.S. political and economic interests that operate on the island.47

    As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is politically vulnerable. While the U.S. is responsible for the island, there are no elected officials who have the authority to hold the government accountable for its response at the federal level. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, the sitting U.S. President downplayed the effects of the hurricane on the island, delayed federal aid, and turned the event into a political sideshow. The island is also threatened by inadequate infrastructure. In 2022, after Hurricane Fiona, nearly a million residents remained in an extended power outage, despite paying some of the highest electricity rates in the country. The existence of laws like Act 22, which allows individuals to operate in Puerto Rico without paying any capital gains taxes, encourages predatory capitalism that has left the island in a constant cycle of exploitation. 

    These same dynamics that are present in Puerto Rico are reflected in Chicanx and Latinx communities throughout the U.S. and Latin America. For example, critical infrastructure and conservation projects in Latin America are threatened by widespread corruption and political instability, which has been encouraged by decades of U.S. intervention in Latin American elections, especially through the CIA and organizations like the School of the Americas. In the United States, Chicanx and Latinx communities are disproportionately excluded from political representation through the disenfranchisement of individuals with a criminal record and the fact that immigrants cannot vote in U.S. elections. This means that Latinx communities are much less likely to receive funding for neighborhood improvement projects, the development of public parks, and environmental protection efforts. 

    Environmental Justice Advocacy and Activism

    An environmental justice perspectives takes into account the interwoven social, cultural, geographic, and systemic factors that influence who has access to safe, healthy, productive, and sustainable environments. Environmental justice refers to addressing environmental concerns in conjunction with other aspects of exploitation and oppression, including white supremacy, capitalism, cisheteropatriarchy, and settler-colonialism. Chicanx and Latinx communities often suffer the direct effects of pollution and industrialization, with power plants, chemical refineries, and factories located in disparate proximity to housing.48

    For example, in Oxnard, California, the group Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) successfully advocated against the building of a new large fossil fuel power plant in 2018 called the Puente Project.49 This required four years of advocacy, which was driven forward by grassroots mobilization led by Latina women in their local neighborhoods. The concentration of agricultural business and infrastructure in the city has led to stark rates of health disparities for this majority people of color and heavily immigrant community. While people have long felt the effects of these disparities, CAUSE was able to lead a campaign that prevented the supposedly inevitable growth of the power plants and industrial pollution. Through a combination of raising political support and taking direct, creative public actions, everyday people led by Latina/x activists were able to prevent the Puente project and create a platform for clean energy, which benefits the people of the city and all of the surrounding communities.


    46 Medina and Gonzales, eds., Voices from the Ancestors; Rodríguez, Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother.

    47 Jason Cortés, “Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria and the Promise of Disposability,” Capitalism Nature Socialism (Taylor and Francis, 2018); Carmen D. Zorrilla, “The View from Puerto Rico—Hurricane Maria and Its Aftermath,” New England Journal of Medicine 377, no. 19 (2017): 1801–3.

    48 Anguiano, Claudia, Tema Milstein, Iliana De Larkin, Yea-Wen Chen, and Jennifer Sandoval. “Connecting Community Voices: Using a Latino/a Critical Race Theory Lens on Environmental Justice Advocacy.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 5, no. 2 (May 2012): 124–43.

    49 Khan, Sabithulla. “Puente Power Plant Crisis: Lessons in Planning for Local Administration.” In SAGE Business Cases. SAGE Publications: SAGE Business Cases Originals, 2019.