Success Stories of Environmental Justice

So many people regard the environment either as a commodity (exploit without limit) or a sanctuary (no humans allowed) that we lose sight of a practical reality: the most sustainable environmental improvements will come from local communities working constructively with the natural environment.

A refreshing new report by the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass, Amherst, describes a diverse array of initiatives that successfully combine economic development, environmental protection and social justice. The report, “Environment for the People,” provides both a general philosophy for “building natural assets,” as well as a fascinating international survey of success stories.

In Somalia, for example, where war and poverty have decimated the acadia tree, pastoral nomads are reviving an ancient technique for conserving water – the building of “rock dams” that create water pools in gullies. This allows academia trees to survive and grow, which in turn helps the soil retain water, which in turn grows grass that can feed livestock. The trees also provide shade in the hot desert.

In the savannas of West Africa and the Amazonian jungles of Brazil, the West is finally discovering what locals have known for centuries – that forests can be created through an active human collaboration with nature. This implies a new approach to environmental protection. Instead of centralized, top-down approaches in which locals are assigned “responsibilities without rights,” “ community forestry” is more likely to renew the forest while providing timber, water and shade. In India, Peru and other nations, redistributing natural assets to the poor is an indispensable step toward protecting the environment.

“We humans are not apart from nature,” write Elizabeth A. Stanton and James K. Boyce, authors of the report. “How well we treat the natural world depends on how well we treat each other. Great inequalities of wealth and power enable elites to squander the Earth’s bounty while other people – of both present and future generations – bear the environmental costs. Human inequality is the enemy of environmental quality.”

The booklet offers four general environmental protection strategies: Add value to natural assets. Capture the benefits of good environmental stewardship. Democratize access to natural resources. And defend the environmental commons. You can download a pdf of “Environment for the People” here.