The Environmental Justice Atlas

What is the Environmental Justice Atlas?

The text below is taken from the EJ Atlas website 

The Environmental Justice Atlas documents and catalogues social conflict around environmental issues, mapping ecological conflicts and resistance to injustice, and fighting for environmental justice. It is a teaching, networking and advocacy resource – a database used by strategists, activist organisers, scholars, and teachers, as well as citizens wanting to learn more about the often invisible conflicts taking place.

Across the world communities are struggling to defend their land, air, water, forests and their livelihoods from damaging projects and extractive activities with heavy environmental and social impacts: mining, dams, tree plantations, fracking, gas flaring, incinerators, etc. As resources needed to fuel our economy move through the commodity chain from extraction and processing to disposal, at each stage environmental impacts are externalised onto the most marginalised populations. Often this all takes place far from the eyes of concerned citizens or consumers of the end-products.

The EJ Atlas collects these stories of communities struggling for environmental justice from around the world. It aims to make these mobilisations more visible, highlight claims and testimonies and to make the case for true corporate and state accountability for the injustices inflicted through their activities. It also attempts to serve as a virtual space for those working on EJ issues to get information, find other groups working on related issues, and increase the visibility of environmental conflicts.

What is an ecological conflict?

Socio-environmental conflicts are defined as:

Mobilisations by local communities/ social movements – which might include support of national or international networks – against particular economic activities, infrastructure construction, or waste disposal/pollution, where environmental impacts are a key element of their grievances.

The atlas documents social conflicts related to claims against perceived negative social or environmental impacts with the following criteria:

  1. Economic activity or legislation with actual or potential negative environmental and social outcomes;
  2. Claim and mobilisation by environmental justice organisation(s) that such harm occurred or is likely to occur as a result of that activity
  3. Reporting of that particular conflict in one or more media stories.

These conflicts usually arise from structural inequalities of income and power. Dimensions of environmental justice include:

  • distribution over the burdens of pollution
  • access to environmental resources
  • the right to participate in decision-making
  • the recognition of alternate world-views and understanding of development.

The action repertoires may include formal claim-making, petitions, meetings, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, legal actions, civil disobedience, collective violence, international campaigns and other action forms. In the act of claiming redistributions, these conflicts often form part of – or lead to – larger gender, class, caste and ethnic struggles.

What are the drivers of these conflicts?

Growing consumption of resources is fuelling ever more conflicts globally. Most of these are used to satisfy the material needs of the rich segments of the world population. But over-consumption by the rich visits ecological violence on the poor. It is a story of luxury for some versus livelihood for many.

The search for resources to feed the growing global socio-metabolism of the economy also leads to an expansion of the “commodity frontiers”, with extractive projects now reaching the last untouched places on earth such as the Arctic, deep sea, remote forests inhabited by indigenous populations, or even the centres of industrialised economies, such as middle-class communities threatened by fracking. The EJ Atlas aims to expose and explain the material dimensions of socio-environmental conflicts related to extractivist economies, criminalisation of dissent, and lack of democratic participation and decisional processes.

Access to justice is often elusive for impacted communities as many companies enjoy impunity for grave human rights infractions, corruption, and other abuses. Through subsidiaries, for example, mother companies can escape prosecution for criminal acts. Local governments are often not able or willing to prosecute environmental crimes because they are desperate for much needed investment in strategic sectors, or have come to exchange agreements with them, or feel under threat by creditors and international finance institutions. At the same time, the home countries of the companies refuse to rein in their companies as their only objective is pushing their companies into new markets or getting geopolitical control over those territories. Increasing financialisation of the economy has made such global justice issues much more complicated, as the actors behind many decisions related to investments and projects are private investments funds, private equities, pension funds, etc which fall outside any democratic control.

To deal with this lack of accountability, civil society organisations argue for international mechanisms to deal with abuses, such as the Eradicating Ecocide initiative. Further, legal scholars argue that communities should have the right to seek justice in the home countries of the companies if it is not available at home.

In some cases, communities succeed in getting a seat at the table, changing laws and legislations and contribute to institutional changes that lead to more equitable outcomes and increased citizen participation in decision-making processes. Of the cases currently in the map, almost 18% have been qualified as “successes” for environmental justice by the reporter, when court cases were won, communities were strengthened, access to the commons was reclaimed, or projects were scrapped. These victories are a testament to the power of protest and the ability to impact the political process. They also show the transformative power of resistance, where communities gain in terms of self consciousness, community organising, political action and incisiveness, when they push forward alternative projects to the imposed ones and their own resistance narratives and life philosophy and cosmology concepts (like Sumak Kawsay, Ubuntu, Lekil Kuxlejal, Radical Ecological Democracy, etc).

To learn more about access to justice, watch this video: “Access to Justice and Extractive Industries”

What is Environmental Justice?

Environmental justice was born as a slogan for the first time in the United States during the 1980s among Black and Latinx communities. They mobilised against injustices perpetrated in their communities by polluting industries and waste disposal facilities. It later became an analytical frame, largely in relation to concerns about the unequal distribution of social and environmental costs between different human groups, classes, ethnicities but also in relation to gender and age. EJ draws attention to the link between pollution, race and poverty, and tackles socio-spatial distribution of “bads” (emissions, toxins) and “goods” (like green spaces and better services).

It later expanded as a concept and theoretical framework, including multi-dimensional and interlinked aspects of justice related to three fundamental dimension of EJ: distribution, recognition and participation, as explained above. It has also globalised, tackling issues such as trade agreements, the transfers of wastes, climate change and the Rights of Nature and has served to link up groups and networks within a common similar frame and understanding.

The global dimension is evident when it comes to trade and environmental degradation. A mine, a dam, a road in the forest are not isolated objects but connected sites along which value flows, accumulation occurs and costs are externalised.

Environmental Justice is both a social movement and an activist/mobilised science, and thus offers the potential to bring together citizens, researchers and scholars to create knowledge as part of a global and globalising environmental justice movement.

Explore the EJ Atlas here. Like it on Facebook, and sign up for the newsletter. Please use and share the resources in its resource library and blog. If you have information about a conflict not included on the map, you are invited to add it. You may register here. Share the website and maps and help be a part of a growing global movement for environmental and social justice.