A Wonderful World Withering Away: Crude Oil, Cruelty, and the Climate Crisis

I wanted to include a visual image of how much impact oil spills can have.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an oil spill over a body of water that caused a fire to break out.

As gas prices continue to skyrocket in response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, many people are feeling the impacts of our global reliance on nonrenewable resources and reconsidering the pros and cons of our collective consumption of these natural resources. Many nations are worried about how their access to natural resources is closely related to the foreign relations and policies they support. Others, like Germany, see this as an opportunity to relieve their dependency on nonrenewable resources as a whole, and to transform their societies to use greener, more sustainable, renewable resources, such as solar and wind energy. As climate change continues to be a growing threat to the future of humanity, transitioning our societies and our infrastructure to support and even incentivize the use of renewable resources can serve the purpose of not only combating climate change but can also create new job opportunities worldwide. To comprehend the need to shift to a more sustainable society, we need to focus on the details of the oil development process. This includes the development, transportation, and distribution of the oil products, and how oil wastes are managed. Examining these issues more carefully can help us better understand how these processes impact the environment around us. The oil and gas industry is responsible for countless environmental and human rights violations, and their practices and international influence have horrifying consequences. It is crucial, now more than ever, to realize just how dependent we are on this resource, how that dependency can lead us to make flawed foreign policy decisions, and why that can have irreversible consequences on the future of mankind.

Crude Oil and the Environment

Crude Oil Extraction and Development

I wanted to provide an image of some of the technology used in oil extraction
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting some of the oil development infrastructures, like the oil rig in this image.

The process of developing and refining oil is a complex one, in which the crude oil is separated into many different products throughout the process. Crude oil is separated into gasoline, diesel, petroleum, jet fuel, and even propane gas, to name a few. To explain a complex process simply, oil development infrastructures are built near sites rich with natural oil and gas, and this infrastructure drills the resources out of the ground in an extraction process. The extraction process, after the initial extraction of the resources, also includes the practice of fracking. The process of fracking includes the use of fracking fluid, made up of water, sand, and chemicals, which are injected back down the drilled site forcefully, in order to extract any remaining amounts of oil and gas hidden inside of rocks. The extracted oil, known as crude oil, is then processed in various ways to refine the crude oil into petroleum products. Crude oil goes under a distillation process, where it is heated up in a furnace and distilled in a tower that separates the various products based on varying temperatures and density and is treated in special vacuum units and cracking units to deliver the final set of products. The special vacuums help separate the various products based on temperature and density, and the cracking units alter the molecular weight of hydrogen atoms to form the final products. Each barrel of crude oil can produce about half a barrel of gasoline, a quarter of a barrel of diesel fuel, a tenth of a barrel of jet fuel, and the rest can be refined to be used as other petroleum products.

In this part of the oil development process, one of the most environmentally impactful practices is the process of fracking. This process has harmed both the environment and its residents, and in this way, can have long-term consequences. It includes the possibility of fracking fluids leaking into groundwater, or surface water, and polluting these sources with cancer-causing chemicals. Also, the process of fracking alone requires tremendous amounts of water to extract the last bits of oil and gas trapped inside rocks. In this way, fracking is not only polluting the underground and above water sources, it is also using the remaining clean water for the fracking itself. Since the rise of fracking practices over the past few decades, even American residents who live in places such as Flint, Michigan, have been struggling with health concerns and having access to clean water due to fracking practices in their community. These are all consequences of simply one part of the oil development process. Once the oil is developed, how is the waste from the process managed?

Managing the Waste from the Oil Development Process

I wanted to visually portray some of the real consequences of irresponsible disposal of waste.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of an unlined sludge pit, where the wastes from the oil development process are being stored without a barrier between the waste and the soil. This can lead to polluted groundwaters and aquifers, as well as cause soil pollution.

Following the extraction and refinement of the crude oil, the wastes that are derived from this process, which is a mixture of water, minerals, chemicals, oil waste, and the toxins released from the process, are required to be treated, stored, and disposed of in specified ways outlined by regulatory legislations. These requirements maintain that the oil waste referred to as sludge, is to be treated so that hazardous chemicals are removed from the sludge, stored in safe areas, (such as above-ground pits that are lined to prevent the wastes from seeping into the soil or the groundwater), and disposed of in secure, underground landfills with specific disposal instructions.

Failure to adhere to the safe disposal of these hazardous wastes can cause environmental, physical, and social harm. Even during the disposal process, including treatment of hazardous waste, storage of the sludge, and safe disposal of this waste, pose incredible risks to both the environment and the health of both the employees and the local residents exposed to this waste. Hazardous waste is generally treated through various methods, like incinerating the waste, which leads to greater air pollution in nearby areas. These chemicals in the air can then be breathed in by employees, or can even be carried to nearby civilian populations, increasing the risks of respiratory illnesses among its citizens. As with the case in Ecuador, (explained below), some oil and gas companies have been reported to store these wastes in unlined pits, and incinerate them in the open, instead of in an enclosed, controlled environment. These corrupt practices further cause respiratory issues for local residents in the area.

Water is also used throughout the oil development process, and because it contains chemicals and toxins that have mixed in with these products, the leftover sludge is supposed to be treated and disposed of with extreme caution at the end of the process. In order to do this, massive pits are dug up and lined in the ground, where the sludge is stored until it can be treated and disposed of. Not doing so can endanger the surrounding environment, as the sludge can leak into the ground, polluting the soil and rendering it infertile for plant growth. It can also seep into nearby streams and rivers, polluting drinking water used by local populations and the area’s species alike. Similarly, although many nations have strict laws on the books requiring oil companies to store waste in lined pits, many wind up storing the sludge in unlined pits, polluting the nearby waters, and leaking oil sludge into the soil. This not only impacts the ecosystem that depends on the soil and the nearby water sources but also prevents the polluted soil from being used for agriculture, impacting the local food security.

I wanted to showcase how oil spills impact wildlife and marine life.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image of a pelican covered in oil. This is an example of what happens to the wildlife that encounters oil spills.

Additionally, people who use those streams for recreational purposes, end up developing skin rashes, cancer, and other health issues. When disposing of hazardous waste, if it is not done properly, or if the waste begins to seep into the earth, it can continue to accumulate and pollute our lands and waters. Furthermore, because of the longevity of these hazardous chemicals, if they contaminate our groundwaters or aquifers, they can be very hard to treat, and the water can stay contaminated indefinitely. These chemicals can even accumulate in the species that use these waters for nourishment, and as a result, bioaccumulate inside humans through the web of consumption. Throughout the process of treating, storing, and disposing of the sludge, oil companies attempt to extract and reuse as much of the exploitable oil from the process, attempting to recycle as much of the resource as possible. Even though this process of recycling the resource is less wasteful, it still ends up adding pollutants into the atmosphere and environment and impacting the lives of all the organisms sharing the land and its resources. Although we have been exposed to the countless impacts oil development, and oil waste treatment have on the environment and its life forms,   the transportation of oil poses risks that are equally horrifying.

Oil Transportation and Distribution

I wanted to include this image to show how dangerous it can be for the local residents if there are leaking pipelines. The massive lengths of these pipelines increase the damage their leaks can do.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image showcasing how long and disruptive pipelines can be to the environment, and some of the potential hazards from defective pipelines

The dangers that come from the irresponsible handling of oil and gas do not only pertain to the development of the oil products, or the disposal of their waste. The oil can pose grave dangers to the environment through the process of transporting refined goods, either by land or across the seas. Pipelines have been constructed to transport oil domestically and they run along hundreds of miles of populated land putting the residents near these pipelines at risk. Many protests have broken out against the building of new pipelines. One such example is the protests that broke out against the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to be built over the Ogalala Aquifer, a source of water for residential and agricultural use that serves millions of Americans living in nearby states. Many people opposed the pipeline being built because of the danger of oil spills polluting one of the main sources of drinking water for people in this area. These pipelines can also cut across the migration routes used by many species that reside in those areas, injuring, or even killing many organisms that travel these routes and further jeopardizing the biodiversity of the impacted areas. Biodiversity is an essential element to the survival of all life forms on Earth. Each organism plays an important role, (no matter how small or insignificant it may seem to us), to maintain the functionality of various ecosystems. Part of the dangers posed by this threat to biodiversity comes from the fear of losing keystone species, ones that play a fundamental role in the existence of certain ecosystems. Without these players, the entire ecosystem can be altered in disastrous ways, and this would in turn lead to more loss of biodiversity, feeding into a positive feedback loop that helps accelerate the climate crisis.

Furthermore, there are many dangers posed by shipments of oil across large bodies of water, including the possibility of oil spills occurring in the middle of the ocean or large bodies of water, destroying marine biodiversity. Oil spills are not only damaging marine life but are also tremendously difficult to clean up on large bodies of water. This has been a constant issue that the oil industry has struggled with. Some of these massive spills, such as the Exxon Valdez spill, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, have left the impacted communities with immense consequences. The Exxon Valdez spill was responsible for spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, destroying countless species of fish and marine wildlife, and polluting the waters, impacting the livelihood of the local communities whose economies depended on the marine wildlife. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which occurred off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, was caused by the fracturing of a weak core inside the oil rig. This fracture released natural gas into the rig, and caused an explosion, allowing for the leakage of oil into the gulf. Approximately 134 million gallons of oil spilled into the waters, marking this event as one of the biggest oil spills in American history. Along with the environmental impacts that both these spills brought about, the process used to clean up the oil spill also uses many chemicals that can lead to a number of health issues, including cancer, developmental and reproductive issues, respiratory issues, and even food poisoning from consuming contaminated seafood and wildlife. These health issues impact not only the people that live near these spill sites but also the workers who are part of the clean-up team, inhaling the fumes and toxins from the cleanup process.

I wanted to include this image to showcase just how intense the clean-up process can be after encountering an oil spill.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a clean-up crew, dealing with the aftermath of an oil spill

Environmental Racism and Big Oil

Environmental Racism

After learning about how oil is produced, distributed, and the ways in which oil waste is disposed of, it is equally important to examine who is largely impacted by these practices. As with many other industries that have practices that cause pollution, oil companies have long been accused of being negligent and careless when operating in disenfranchised areas, whether it be domestic, or international. In America, oil infrastructures and waste disposal sites are generally located in impoverished areas, and these areas are largely occupied by people of color, especially African Americans, and Native Americans. African Americans have historically been forced into impoverished and polluted spaces, and forced to work the most dangerous or strenuous jobs. The targeting of Native Americans by these industries is especially cruel due to their spiritual bond with the environment and its many wonders, and their cultural dependence on the environment as a whole. In a similar fashion, on the international stage, the disproportionate exposure from the oil infrastructures seems to be more prominent in poverty-stricken nations, and because the oil companies operating in poor nations have a greater political and economic influence over the governments and their people, they are able to evade the strict environmental regulation policies, endangering the planet, and its people in the process.

The reality of environmental racism in the oil industry, and its negligent practices, may be influenced by historical tones of colonialism and imperialism. Ecuador is one such nation that has been exposed to environmental racism, and one that has been fighting for environmental justice from the recklessness of the oil industry for over twenty years. Ecuadorians have been struggling to hold Chevron accountable for its faulty oil infrastructure, and the consequences to the environment and the local residents as a result of its operations. Commonly referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” the oil development process in Ecuador has had environmental and health impacts that are magnificently larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. During its operation in Ecuador, Texaco, (and Chevron, through its ownership), has been responsible for spilling over 17 billion gallons of oil into Ecuadorian lands, and over 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the local sources of water. The Ecuadorians addressed many of the health issues that were caused by the operation of the oil infrastructure and brought attention to the corrupt practices of Chevron. The Ecuadorians argued that Texaco, (which was bought by Chevron in 2001), had dumped their toxic wastes into unlined landfills and water sources both above and below the surface. Over 900 unlined pits were discovered through the investigation process of the class-action lawsuit filed against Chevron. At times, when the pits were overflowing, the oil company would just spread excess amounts of crude oil wastes onto the roads traversed by locals. Additionally, they argued that Texaco had violated their right to live on their ancestral lands, forcing them to migrate away from the water sources that were crucial for their survival. Furthermore, Texaco’s practices polluted their soils and waterways, endangering their food sources, and destroying the biodiversity of the environment. The Ecuadorians filed a class lawsuit against Chevron, arguing that Chevron had lied about its remediation attempts, (where the environmental damages are addressed and reversed), insisting that Chevron had just covered over large unlined pits with mounds of soil instead of properly treating the wastes. This lawsuit as investigated and processed in Ecuador recognized the pain and suffering of its Ecuadorian plaintiffs and rewarded them with a $9.5 billion settlement from Chevron. Instead of paying this settlement, Chevron has continually tried to downplay its egregious acts and has been attempting to shift the attention from the Ecuadorian lawsuit, to propose unfounded claims of corruption during the trial process in Ecuadorian courts. Chevron’s response to this lawsuit has been a massive overreach of corporate influence over the judicial process, in which they have been attempting to control the outcome of the lawsuit against them. Chevron’s latest attempts at influencing this outcome have been to harass human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who worked on the Ecuadorian case against Chevron.

The Ecuadorian case is just one example out of many that exist around the world. Poorer nations are exploited for their resources and their cheap labor, and exposed to harmful chemicals and the pollution of their air, waters, and lands, slowly killing off the inhabitants of the Global South, or leaving them behind with multiple health issues and contaminated resources. These negligent actions are impacting the immediate areas of oil development but also wrecking the livelihood of its inhabitants nearby. Although the impacts of the oil industry’s practices are so widespread, because of its scope and political influence on the global stage, Big Oil continues to exploit vulnerable populations without much regulation or accountability.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how easily freshwater sources and groundwater sources can be polluted by the process of extracting, transporting, and irresponsibly disposing of oil sludge.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a river polluted from an oil spill

Big Oil and its Impact on International Affairs

Big Oil, referring to the massive influence the oil and gas industry has worldwide, is largely responsible for the public belief that oil and gas are necessary resources for human survival, and as a result, holds a great deal of influence over policies both domestic and abroad. There are many reasons behind Big Oil’s power, and its massive wealth (and its access to resources as a result), allow the industry access to political leaders (and policy decisions) throughout the world. Some of these oil companies have more money than the financial capabilities of entire nations. For example, according to Business Insider, Chevron, alone, has enough wealth to rank as the 46th largest nation in the world. They have more wealth than the GDP of the Czech Republic.

Along with this massive wealth, comes an immense amount of political power, especially since these oil companies have access to markets worldwide, and rely on the vulnerabilities of Global South nations as a cheap labor source. Big Oil companies are usually multi-national companies, where they have access to global markets, and due to the sale of highly valued resources such as oil and gas, these companies also have immense influence over how regulatory laws are created in economically vulnerable nations. In exchange for the host nation’s connection to the global market and an increase in job opportunities, these companies, like other multi-national companies, employ locals for a cheaper labor force, under loosely regulated conditions, to maximize profits. In this way, nations with harsher environmental regulations, predominantly Western nations, and even within them, communities with more environmental oversight (predominantly wealthier communities), are less vulnerable to the predatory ways of Big Oil.

To maintain this global influence, Big Oil has helped launch and has funded campaigns against climate change. Many of the think tanks that propose “evidence” to debunk climate science is funded by Big Oil. These climate deniers have transformed the climate issue from an existential crisis that requires global cooperation to a controversial issue, delaying the much-needed global actions to stop climate change from destroying the planet. In this way, big oil controls the geopolitical policies among nations, and because of the global dependence on these resources, Big Oil has immense control over the climate discourse and the global struggle against climate change.

What Can We Do?: Releasing Big Oil’s Global Stronghold

There are various levels at which this issue can be addressed. Globally, all nations need to shift from an economy that depends on nonrenewable energy sources, to one that is more sustainable and greener. This means transforming our infrastructure to support renewable sources of energy, preserving what little biodiversity we have left, and engaging in a global remediation project to possibly reverse some of the effects of climate change. On the international stage, the United Nations needs to establish a system that is in charge of regulating multi-national corporations and holding them accountable for instances of human rights violations, such as exploitation and environmental racism, and propose an environmental rights charter in the same way we have charters on civil, political, social, economic, and cultural rights. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), like Amazon Watch, are bringing attention to the exploitations and environmental degradations of the Amazonian Rainforest, and its impact on the local residents. Supporting such organizations can be a start. We can also pressure our representatives and political leaders to vote on greener legislation and denounce subsidizing oil companies. Additionally, we can urge our lawmakers to help shift the society and economy to support a more sustainable future. This can only be done by holding policymakers accountable for their campaign donations, urging them to refuse campaign funding from Big Oil companies, which can influence their loyalties on policy positions. We also need to be in favor of bettering our infrastructure and public transportation systems. Doing so would allow us to be less reliant on oil and gas for private consumption while improving our public transportation systems to provide better access to all those living on the outskirts. On the state and local levels, we can pressure our school boards to include teaching environmental science in the core curriculums. Doing so would introduce younger generations to living more sustainable lives, and in the process, establish the global realities and consequences of anthropogenic climate change. There also needs to be more discussion about instances of environmental racism and how best to combat it with social policies. Finally, if you want to make personal changes to your lifestyle instead, you can do your part by paying attention to what’s going on around you. You can stand up for the plight of those who are being forced to deal with environmental racism by educating your friends and family. Also, you can make incremental changes to your behavior to transition your lifestyle into a greener, sustainable one.

 

Profile in Justice : Catherine Coleman Flowers

Activists come in many forms. An activist can be defined roughly as “one who advocates or practice activism a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue“. Activists may be seen as nuisances or annoyances to society at large, but their perseverance as changemakers drive society forward by bringing attention to the real issues that affect marginalized groups within our society. Alabama, a southern state with a rich and diverse history, has produced many an activist. There are a multitude of reasons for this, including Alabama’s long history of racial injustice and other issues which affect the working class. Alabamian activists include titans of American history such as Rosa Parks, famous civil rights activist, and Hellen Keller, author and disability rights activist. Despite Alabama’s current national reputation as a backwards and deeply conservative state, many Alabamian activists are fighting the deep inequality still present in our state. One such activist is Catherine Coleman Flowers, who came upon the defining issue of her advocacy “by accident”.

Catherine Flower
Catherine Coleman Flowers is an Alabama native and environmental advocate who has spent over twenty years fighting environmental racism after discovering horrific sanitation conditions in Lowndes County, Alabama. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

Crisis in Lowndes County

In the early 2000s, Flowers was working as an economic consultant in Lowndes County, Alabama. Lowndes County is a historically black county in rural Alabama, and was part of the route during the historic civil rights march between Selma and Montgomery in 1965. Visiting with some of her constituents over threats of eviction and arrest, Flowers was shocked to find “a stream of brown fluid flowing down the road…a pool of dark foul-smelling effervescent water that had collected around a pipe running from the church” that she was visiting. She quickly discovered that Lowndes County, deeply entrenched in generational poverty and harsh neglect from local officials, had a severe lack of public sanitation. Flowers was shocked to discover that the burden of sanitation needs fell on residents, and private septic tanks were often beyond the means of Lowndes County residents. In what she later came to call “America’s dirty secret”, Flowers was seeing that basic sanitation was not a guarantee for all citizens in the wealthiest nation in the world.

Flowers, who quickly reported the incident, saw little action from the “predominantly white and Republican-controlled local government”, who instead continued to threaten Black families in Lowndes County with eviction or even jail time. While shaken by the horrific sight, it set Flowers on a path of working towards environmental justice for BIPOC Americans. She states that her mission is to “expose the reality of life for the rural poor, and the racism and negligence that lies behind it”, saying “We see this as a third world problem, whereas in actuality it is right among us in a country that has allowed such inequality to exist since our founding as a nation”.

As Flowers continued her work, she came across more and more violations of human dignity. She spoke with the mother of an autistic child who was being threatened with jail time because she did not have a septic tank, though the cost of installation was more than ten times that of her monthly income. Other families she spoke with had no proper air conditioning or heating systems, and would huddle together in the winter time to keep warm. After one house call in which she came in close contact with an open septic pool filled with mosquitoes, Flowers developed a severe rash over her entire body, and she began to wonder if tropical diseases, which are considered extremely rare in the United States, may be affecting people in Lowndes County.

lowndes county map
Lowndes County is a historically black county located in rural, Central Alabama. Lowndes County was part of the route between Selma and Montgomery during the historic 1965 Civil Rights March. Today, over 90% of Lowndes County residents do not have access to proper sanitation. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

International Attention and Continued Advocacy

Flowers organized a scientific study to reveal the affects of improper sanitation of the health of residents within Lowndes County. Horrifying results awaited her. The study found that “34% of those surveyed tested positive for genetic traces of hookworm, a parasite that thrives amid poverty and that had been thought to have been eradicated from the US in the early 20th century”. The disease is thought of as normally associated with central and southern Africa and Asia, and is known to have lasting negative effects on physical and cognitive growth in children. Hookworm treatment, which normally consists of one dose of albendazole, has a high cost in the United States and is unattainable for many residents of Lowndes County. Flowers confirmed her dark theory with this study, and her advocacy for the end of discrimination against poor, Black Americans in rural counties led to a wake-up call for America. Through Flowers’ work and advocacy, the United Nations became involved in an investigation of extreme poverty that centered around Lowndes County, Alabama, as well as areas in California, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico. Despite criticisms from those in local government, Flowers continues to work towards eradicating the “deeply ingrained inequality” in our nation, authoring a book entitled Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Flowers has also founded an advocacy group – the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. Many prominent figures in U.S. politics, including former Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have taken Flowers up on the offer to tour Lowndes County, increasing awareness for the extreme poverty that still exists in our nation today.

Over twenty years into her fight, Flowers has still not seen the changes she has been fighting for across America. Figures from 2021 state that over 90% of Lowndes County residents still do not have access to proper sanitation. Flowers has also seen the issues of environmental justice extend beyond even Alabama or the southern United States, seeing issues in all American locales where poverty and public neglect continue to coexist. Despite this, Flowers continues to advocate for the rural poor across America. The beginning of the 2020’s decade has been marked with cautious optimism, as day one of the Biden administration saw several executive orders aimed at reversing the Trump administration’s anti-environmental legacy.

Worldwide consequences of the Russian occupation of Ukraine

I wanted to include this image to portray some of the realities of what Ukrainians are facing.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine being attacked

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has devastated both nations, with the people of Ukraine struggling to defend their homes against the more advanced Russian military, the people of Russia struggling financially in the face of global sanctions, and has spread anxiety to many nations of the possibilities of another world war, or even worse, the escalation into nuclear warfare. While there is a lot of coverage regarding the many attempts at diplomacy, the bombings and other military attacks on Ukraine, and the reactions of both Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, as well as Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, there are many consequences of this crisis that need to be brought to attention. It is important to focus on the impact of this crisis on the civilian populations of both nations and equally important for people to recognize that this crisis, along with similar crises around the world, is further fueling the climate crisis, even without the threats of nuclear warfare dangerously being dangled as an option. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces of resistance are essentially complex; on one side, ordinary Ukrainian citizens should be honored for their bravery and resistance at defending their nation from foreign invasion, but on the other hand, it is necessary to recognize that the Ukrainian military also includes the Azov Battalion, the neo-Nazi Special Operations unit in the Ukrainian National Guard. These are some delicate times, and transparency can help increase the trust among nations. Just the same, in the wake of this crisis, the world should not ignore the other brutalities taking place globally, many of which have participated in egregious violations of human rights. Finally, it is pertinent that people be aware of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia and hold them accountable.

The Human Impact

I included this image to show how the same location from the previous image looked prior to being bombed.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of Ukraine’s nightlife to capture its beauty before Russia’s invasion

While this crisis is a result of drastic measures taken by Putin and as a response to Putin’s aggressions, Zelensky, the civilian populations are the ones that are most impacted by it. On the one side of the conflict, Russian civilians are facing tremendous economic struggles, as sanctions are being placed on Russia from countries throughout the world. Among those who placed sanctions against Russia were the European Union, Australia, Japan, and even the famously neutral Switzerland. The European Union promised to cause “maximum impact” on Russia’s economy, some states like Japan and Australia chose to sanction the oligarchs and their luxury goods, and the United States sanctions included a freeze on Putin’s assets. With that being said, it is important to analyze how these sanctions can harm everyday Russian citizens. Civilians are lining up at ATMs and banks to withdraw their cash as stocks are plunging and the Russian currency, the Ruble, lost its value by 25%. Many Russian-made products are being boycotted around the world, and even Russian participation in events like the Paralympics is being banned. Russian citizens are unable to access their money through Google Pay and Apple Pay, as both have been suspended in Russia. For fear of Russian propaganda, the United States has even banned Russian media outlets from having access to the American people. Furthermore, even amidst these sanctions and economic uncertainties, Russian civilians have risked their lives to protest against their leader and the Ukrainian invasion in large numbers. When the invasion first began, 2,000 Russian protesters against the war got arrested by the Russian police. Almost two weeks into this invasion, as the protests continue to take place, as many as 4,300protesters have been arrested. Shockingly, many of the Russian soldiers sent to invade Ukraine have been reported abandoning their posts, fleeing or voluntarily surrendering to the Ukrainian forces, admitting that they were not even aware they were being sent into combat. These Russian soldiers, many of whom are inexperienced, young adults, are being forced to fight or be assassinated by their officers for abandoning their military posts during active wartime.

Nevertheless, as a result of Putin’s aggression, on the other side of this conflict, Ukrainians are being forced to deal with the devastations of war, and the people of Ukraine are fully invested in the defense of their nation. Ordinary citizens are being taught how to make Molotov cocktails, civilians are coming together to help each other meet their basic needs and anyone capable of fighting is being recruited to join the Ukrainian defense forces. Unfortunately, Ukraine has banned 18 to 60-year-old men from leaving the nation and forcing them to join the fight. This wartime crisis has also led to a massive refugee crisis as women and children and people of other nations are trying to escape the conflict zones. This refugee crisis has its own issues, with reported instances of discrimination against refugees from the Global South fleeing Ukraine. These reports focus on the mistreatment, harassment, and restriction of the refugees from leaving Ukraine to seek safety. Additionally, while the global solidarity to support Ukrainian refugees is admirable and should be commended, many critics have argued that Ukrainian refugees have been better received from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world in general, while refugees from the Middle East or other Global South nations have not been treated with the same courtesy. These are some valid points to consider, and the refugee crisis is only going to be amplified as a result of the many consequences of climate change.

Warfare and Climate Change

I wanted to include this image to insist on how important climate change really is.
Source: Yahoo Images; A map of the world in black, engulfed in a fiery background. The world is on fire and steps need to be taken to combat climate change.

Climate change continues to impact the world during this crisis. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) illustrates just how fragile our current climate crisis seems to be, exclaiming that anthropogenic (caused by humans) climate change is increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters, and warming up the globe around 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The planet is already experiencing irreversible changes, the IPCC warns, and if actions are not taken to limit emissions and combat the climate crisis, the future of humanity is at risk. Additionally, another finding was reported about the Amazon Rainforest, (popularly dubbed the “Lungs of our Planet”), being unable to recuperate as quickly as it should due to heavy logging and massive fires it has experienced just over a couple of decades. These shocking revelations should be taken seriously, as this development will lead to more conflicts over land and resources. As people around the world are beginning to experience the calamities of climate change, nuclear warfare would maximize its destructions. With Russia being a nuclear state, tensions are surmounting globally, as nations continue to condemn Putin’s aggressions, and call for a ceasefire. Putting aside the possibilities of nuclear warfare, regular warfare amplifies the climate crisis in many ways.

First and foremost, warfare and military operations have a direct correlation to climate change in that they use massive amounts of fossil fuels to operate their machines and weapons, and militaries are among the largest producers of carbon across the world. This means that not only do militaries and their operations consume massive amounts of fossil fuels, but they are also among the biggest polluters in the world. Militaries worldwide need to decrease their carbon footprints and engage in more diplomatic strategies instead of engaging in warfare. We need to focus on international efforts to combat climate change and transform our economies and infrastructures into sustainable ones that rely on renewable resources. With this in mind, Germany addressed the energy crisis in Europe by suggesting that there needs to be a shift to a more sustainable economy, away from the influences of Russia, with the intentions of also fighting against climate change while becoming economically independent from Russian resources.

Furthermore, Russia, on the first day of its invasion against Ukraine, captured the site of the nuclear disaster, Chernobyl. While many argue that this was a strategic move to provide Russian troops a shortcut into Kyiv through Belarus, (Russia’s allies), others argue that the capturing of Chernobyl was meant to send a message to the West to not interfere. Still, others believe that the capture of Chernobyl held historic relevance, as many believe that the incident at Chernobyl led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Whatever may be the case, it is unclear what Putin’s plans for Chernobyl are, and as an area that is filled with radioactive, nuclear waste, people’s concerns with Putin’s possession of Chernobyl seem valid. If not contained and treated with caution, the nuclear waste being stored at Chernobyl can cause irreversible damages to both the environment and nearby populations for decades. Recently, there have been reports of Russian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia Ukrainian nuclear power plant which caught on fire, increasing the risks of a disaster ten times as bad as Chernobyl was. While we are still unclear as to the details of this report, we do know that Russia has captured it, and at the very least, wants to hinder Ukraine’s source of energy. Ukraine depends on nuclear energy for its electricity, and this plant produced 20% of the nation’s energy. At best, this was a strategic move on Russia’s part, yet some have even suggested that if Putin is so irresponsible with his attacks on a nuclear power plant, how much restraint might he show with regards to using nuclear weapons if he feels pushed into a corner.

Finally, as was explored during the Cold War, nuclear weapons themselves have dramatic consequences on the planet as a whole and have the power of ending humanity. This was one of the major epiphanies that led to the de-escalation of the Cold War when both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that to use nuclear weapons against each other would be “mutually assured destruction.” While many argue that Putin’s instructions to ready Russia’s nuclear weapons is a form of intimidation targeted on the West, these threats can carry out unimaginable consequences if acted upon. With increasing pressures from all sides, including the global sanctions, and the massive resistance from Ukraine, Putin’s incentives are becoming unclear as this conflict continues to unfold.

I wanted to include this image to showcase how complex nuclear plants are and why this plant needs to be approached with extreme caution and an understanding of nuclear power.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of the nuclear facility at Chernobyl.

The Complexities of the Ukrainian Crisis

There has been a backlash by some that the world was not this enraged when similar invasions and occupations occurred in Palestine, Syria, or during several of the Middle Eastern conflicts that have devastated the people of that region. Still, others have dismissed this argument, stating that what makes this crisis especially relevant globally is its threats of nuclear warfare. Others, however, argue that the global support of Ukraine is in part due to their being a population of white Christians. To support this argument, they point to many instances in Western media coverage of the Ukrainian invasion that has suggested this exact idea. A CBS reporter cried on a news segment, “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is relatively civilized, relatively European….” Even a Ukrainian prosecutor was caught saying “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” This is important to note because Ukraine’s military has a Special Operations Unit known as the Azov Battalion, which is made up of far-right neo-Nazis, sporting Nazi regalia and symbols of White Supremacy. Putin’s many excuses for invading Ukraine included the need to “de-Nazify Ukraine”, referring to Ukraine’s empowering of the Azov Battalion’s rise to military and political prominence in the country. The Azov Battalion came under fire in 2016 for committing human rights violations and war crimes, detailing reports of abuse and terrorism against the civilians of the Donbas region in separatist Ukraine. With that being said, Putin’s excuse of wanting to terrorize an entire nation for the sake of his opposition to one particular group of Ukrainians is not justified, and people argue that his motivations are much more insidious than that. With the Ukrainian crisis being such a complex and nuanced issue, much of the world is focused on the conflict, a reality that many nations are taking advantage of to benefit their own national interests.

Other Aggressions still taking place around the world

I wanted to include this image to showcase that other brutalities continue to take place around the world, and deserve just as much global attention as the conflict in Ukraine
Source: Yahoo Images; A woman holding a Palestinian flag, as Israeli forces continue to occupy Palestinian land.

While the world’s attention is captured by the Ukraine-Russian crisis, some countries are taking advantage of a distracted world to commit their own atrocities. For one, Palestine continues to be colonized by Israel, a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years now. While Israelis are showing solidarity for Ukrainians from occupied Palestinian lands, they are oblivious to the hypocrisy of their actions and refuse to recognize their role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Just a few days ago, Israeli forces attacked and killed Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, and they continue to terrorize the Palestinians in an attempt to force them out of their homes.

In another part of the world, the United States, while calling for peace in Ukraine, proceeded to bomb Somalia in the past week. A conflict that the United States has been a part of for fifteen years now, American forces claim that their intended targets are the militant groups in Somalia. Yet, according to Amnesty International, the US African Command admitted to having killed civilian populations with one of its many airstrikes conducted over Galgaduud in 2018. In fact, they claim that the only reason the US even admitted to the civilian casualties in Somalia was due to extensive research on the part of Amnesty International.

The Ukrainian conflict also has Taiwan on the edge of its seats, as many are focusing on the US response to the Ukrainian invasion to measure the reactions that the US might have if China were to invade Taiwan. Many Taiwanese officials are contemplating Russia and China’s close relationship and are worried about what a successive Russian invasion of Ukraine might mean for their own development with China. The Chinese government is already engaging in misinformation/disinformation campaigns against Taiwan, and many Taiwanese claims that China has also been conducting cyberattacks in Taiwan and military drills around the island.

Resistance and Accountability

I wanted to use this image to showcase Ukrainian resistance agains the Russian invasion
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a man in the motion of throwing a Molotov cocktail

Ukrainians, much to Putin’s dismay, have been successfully defending their nation and holding off Russian forces for over a week now. In response to its successful resistance, Ukraine’s forces claim that the Russian bombings have been targeting civilian buildings and taking the lives of innocent civilians, among them at least fourteen children. As videos of the Ukrainian invasion surface on social media platforms such as Tik Tok and Twitter, many experts are suggesting that the Russians are engaging in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun an investigation into these possibilities. The ICC is focusing not only on recent attacks against Ukraine but seem to also include past Russian aggression against Ukraine in their investigation. These crimes include the violation of the Geneva Convention, the bombing of civilian infrastructures, and even Russia’s use of vacuum bombs, (otherwise known as thermobaric bombs), which are bombs intended to suck the oxygen out of the air in its surroundings and convert it into a pressurized explosion. Although the vacuum bombs have been used in various places since the 1970s, (by Russia against Chechnya in 1990, by the Syrian government in 2016, and even by the United States in 2017 against Afghanistan), experts warn that these weapons can be extremely lethal and destructive in densely populated areas. Along with the above-mentioned violations against human rights, Russia’s attack on the Ukrainian nuclear power plant is added to the list of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia, and it continues to grow as the invasion persists.

Even with these threats and unprovoked aggression from Russia, Ukrainians have been more resistant than Putin had planned. Ukrainian civilians have taken up arms to defend their nation, and their enormous bravery is inspiring to witness. This sense of solidarity among the Ukrainian people is, many believe, a direct result of President Zelensky’s own courage and his choice to fight alongside his people instead of fleeing to safety. This action alone has emboldened the Ukrainian morale, and everyone is attempting to do their part in this conflict. People are helping each other out with humanitarian needs like securing food and shelter, and civilians are constructing Molotov cocktails to throw at the incoming Russian forces to stall their advances. Zelensky even released Ukraine’s prisoners and armed them, urging them to fight and defend the nation.  These instances of Ukrainian resistance and unity among other nations of the world give us hope that they have a chance at winning global support against this crisis and bringing about peace and stability in the Ukrainian regions under attack. Considering the real threat of another world war unfolding before our very own eyes, it is important now more than ever, that we approach this conflict as objectively as possible. In order to do so, we have to employ different approaches that we have never before attempted and think outside of the box. With their efforts at resisting the invasion, Ukrainians have inspired me to believe that we as humans might be able to come together globally and perhaps tackle the climate crisis as well and protect our planet in the same manner the Ukrainians are defending their own homes before it’s too late.

A Wonderful World Withering Away: A Global Fashion Emergency

I wanted to include this image to portray what we have to loose if we don't fight to stop climate change.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a beautiful sunrise over the mountains and trees

A note about Environmental Justice

Pretty blue skies, fluffy white clouds, majestic mountains breaking through the clouds, birds chirping in the morning fog, the wind blowing your hair gently as you breathe in the fresh, clean air, looking out at the rising sun with its golden rays illuminating the landscape. This is the Earth you and I are used to, and at times, we, as human beings, take it for granted. Yet, we seldom think about the realities and consequences behind our lifestyles, and we seem to think that this planet with all its vast resources will be around forever. Recent studies have projected that this is not going to be the case; in 2019, the UN urged that we only had “11 years left to prevent irreversible damage,” at a general assembly meeting on climate and sustainable development.

I have now been researching and learning about the current climate crisis we live in for at least a couple of years, and I feel that environmental racism and the right to environmental justice are topics more people should be aware of. The uniqueness of this planet and all of its species should be preserved and protected for our future generations. For all the human rights issues we are trying to tackle both domestically and globally, without a clean planet and a sustainable future to live in, things are only going to get drastically worse. Issues that we deal with today like conflicts over borders and resources will be amplified due to the climate crisis. The environment impacts every part of our lives, no matter where we live, and if we don’t act now, the future of humanity is at risk.

About a month ago, UAB hosted a panel discussion with fashionista, author, and activist Aja Barber, where she talked about how fast fashion and our consumer culture have impacted our environment and how the fashion industry exploits the most vulnerable people around the world. She recently wrote a book deliberating the intersectionality between the concepts of fast fashion, climate change, and colonialism, and after having a profoundly insightful discussion with her, I decided that I should do more to bring attention to the many ways our planet is being exploited by industries of all kinds.

So, in an attempt to bring more attention to the ongoing environmental crisis, I will be writing a series on topics related to environmental justice for the next few blogs, where I will be focusing on practices of environmental racism and the fight for environmental justice throughout the world. While this blog, focusing on fast fashion and climate change, will be the first in the series, I will also be writing about other industries (such as the oil industry and Big Tech), that have exploited both the planet’s resources and its people.

Fashion Through the Ages

I wanted to include this image to showcase that these horrid conditions existed in the US, along with child labor, until regulations were passed, outlawing child labor and improving working conditions.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of a young girl working in a textile factory. Pictures like this taken by Lewis Hine helped make the case for child labor laws.

Before we dig deep into the realities of fast fashion today, we must understand the historical context behind fashion as a whole. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, clothes were produced by hand, and with painstaking details that showcased the skillsets of the talented local seamstresses. These clothes were produced inside the home by the women (or the female servants) and in some cases, at small local workshops. Many of the rich fabrics like silk and satin were very expensive, and as a result, these fabrics could only be afforded by wealthy families. The access to fashion that we see today is largely indebted to the Industrial Revolution, which brought about new inventions that mechanized the process of making garments, which led to the rise in industries of fashion, like the textile industry. Although clothing manufacturing became easier and cheaper for mass consumption, the modern consumer culture was not introduced until the 1920s, when the American economy shifted to produce goods based on the demands of the market and it wasn’t until the 1960s, when the American middle-class was growing and demands for affordable goods increased, that the trends of fast fashion developed into the behemoth we know today. At this time, Americans were fighting for better working conditions, better wages, and to end child labor, and the exploitive nature of the massive industries was exposed by muckrakers and other activists. Corporations and industries, including the textile industry, were competing with a growing demand for cheap goods and wanted to continue to make their profits while refusing to compromise on their labor practices. So instead, they began the process of moving their manufacturing industries overseas, to nations in the Global South, to continue to sell their products at a low price while exploiting their workers abroad. Many of these textile factories exist in places like India, Bangladesh, China, and nations in Africa. As recently as 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia is being sought as the new frontier for textile manufacturing. As the fashion industry encourages more fluctuations in the trends and styles of today, we as consumers continue to indirectly help perpetuate the industry’s exploitative behaviors with our purchasing habits. Before we examine the colossal impacts of fast fashion on the environment, we must take a closer look at some of the working conditions in these textile factories. Understanding the process of handling these fabrics and chemicals can help us comprehend the consequences to the workers’ health and the environmental consequences as a whole.

Textile Industries and Human Rights Violations Abroad

I wanted to include this image to showcase the low wages that textile workers receive for their work, while the products they produce sell for prices almost 100 times more than their wages. These profits end up in the pockets of the company leaders.
Source: Yahoo Images; Two young women wearing similar outfits holding signs, one with a sign that says, “I made this for $0.60”, and the other holding a sign that reads, “I bought this for $50.”

The industries of America that moved their businesses to other “developing” nations did so with clear intentions. While America had established labor laws that regulated worker safety in these factories and had passed a federal minimum wage, corporations decided to set up shop in countries that were struggling economically and had no real power to speak out against their practices. Textile companies, like other corporations, are forever looking for cheap labor, in order to sell their products for cheaper, competitive prices, and as a result, take advantage of the most vulnerable populations of the world. Knowing that they will work any job, no matter how taxing, no matter how dangerous it is, corporations that have factories in other nations will impose their expectations on the people, and if they get any opposition or are presented with unwanted regulations by the host nation, they just close up shop and move to another equally vulnerable country. This gives the corporations an immense amount of power over their workers, and as a result, puts the employees at the mercy of their employers.

I wanted to showcase some of the working conditions of garment workers.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting garment workers at sewing machines.

The garment workers working in these textile industries are forced to work long hours (14-16 hours a day), in a toxic environment (both physically and psychologically), and get paid wages that are so low, that it is impossible to survive with these incomes. They seldom get any days off, and if the workers miss a day, they are easily replaced with another desperate worker in places with high unemployment rates. Garment workers also have to breathe in toxic chemicals they use to treat and dye the clothing, with poorly built buildings with little to no ventilation. Additionally, they are under the constant anxiety of being injured, either on the equipment or from accidental fires. Furthermore, the employees are seldom given timed lunch breaks, and many are forced to work without water or bathroom breaks. Even heartbreaking is the fact that in many of these host countries, child labor has not been outlawed. Many children end up working in these textile manufacturing factories, especially young girls. Unions are either unheard of or inaccessible to these workers, who are either threatened with their jobs or even face violence at the hands of their employers. Such working conditions not only lead to immense physical and psychological stress but can also cause a variety of health concerns, including respiratory issues and musculoskeletal disorders. These working conditions violate some of the most basic rights of the workers, as industries continue to exploit their employees for their own profit. However, their actions impact more than just their employees; they also contribute to the ongoing climate crisis.

Environmental Consequences

I wanted to use this image to showcase the various types of pollution that results as a consequence of the textile industry.
Source: Yahoo Images; An image demonstrating some of the environmental impacts of industry.

As abysmal as the working conditions at many of these textile factories can be, they have equally atrocious environmental practices as well. The textile industry uses immense amounts of water in the process of producing clothing. This accounts for the growing process of cotton and other fabrics, as well as the water required in the actual production of the clothing. One person can basically have enough water to drink for over two years for the amount of water that goes into making one t-shirt. Many fabrics have microfibers in them, and over the years, washing these clothes can deliver microplastics into the oceans. Additionally, the toxic chemicals used to treat and dye the clothing is carelessly disposed of into rivers and streams, many of which are used by locals as drinking and cooking water, further adding to the health risks to the locals. This also has economic impacts, as locals are unable to use the polluted water for agricultural purposes, and the fishing industry is also severely impacted. People are also unable to use the polluted waters for recreational use, as swimming in polluted water can cause skin irritation and illness. Furthermore, the clothing industry is responsible for emitting 10% of the global carbon emissions each year.

Regretfully, these gross exploitations of humans and resources alike are even more wasteful than many are aware of. Devastatingly, around 85% of garments produced end up in landfills or destroyed. Many of these items are products that were never sold. Even more heartbreaking, the fabrics used to make over half of these clothes are nonrecyclable and end up adding to our growing plastic waste. Recently, when preparing for my interview with Aja Barber, I was made aware of the massive piles of clothes laid out in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where clothing both old and new, litter the landscape.

What Can Be Done About This?

I wanted to include this image to show that young people are taking climate change seriously, and are attempting to bring more attention to the crisis as a whole.
Source: Yahoo Images; A picture of some protesters against environmental pollution

On an international level, there needs to be an additional convention at the United Nations that is created to oversee the working conditions as well as the environmental impacts of multinational companies and industries that have businesses in more than one nation. This convention should be in charge of regulation and an avenue for workers to report any violations and seek help while working for these multi-national companies. It should also protect the environmental rights of the impacted locals. Unfortunately, this is out of reach for ordinary citizens, as this solution requires coordination and cooperation from multiple players on the global stage. On a more national level, we can pressure our politicians and government officials to denounce these exploitative practices and regulate overseas businesses through permits and contracts. We can also educate our peers and community members about the impact that their fashion choices are having on both the people who make their clothes as well as the environment as a whole.

There are also a few things that we as consumers have the power to do on a personal level. We can shop for functionality and use rather than shopping for each occasion. One simple rule you can use is the Thirty Wears Challenge. Ask yourself, “am I going to wear this piece of clothing at least thirty times?” If the answer is yes, buy it; if it’s no, put it back on the rack. Another thing you can do is go shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. These are clothes that you are recycling, from one person’s closet to yours, instead of buying new clothes every time you shop. If enough people do this, you can also participate in boycotting fast fashion trends, and instead incentivize the fashion industry to produce clothing that lasts, instead of making clothing that is cheap and easily damaged. Another thing you can do at home is if you have any clothes that are torn a little, but if sown back together, can be work, you should try to learn to make simple stitches. Learning to mend your own clothes can prevent you from having to purchase more clothes, saving you money, and you might even end up doing it as a hobby! Finally, you can purchase clothing from local designers instead of supporting massive fast-fashion corporations. Incorporating some of these sustainable practices into your shopping routines can influence the fashion industry to incorporate more ethical labor and environmental practices.

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice for the World Day of Social Justice

 

People in shape of a justice scale
Source: Yahoo Images


Yesterday, February 20th, 2022, marked the 14th annual global observance of the World Day of Social Justice, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly on June 8th, 2008. Since 2009, the day has marked a celebration that reflects on guaranteeing fair outcomes for all through employment, social protection, and social dialogue, in addition to fundamental principles and rights at work, according to this article from Baker College. Social justice is defined as the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights, and opportunities. Social justice is also referred to as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The UN General Assembly has also conveyed their recognition of social development and social justice as a crucial aspect of peace among nations worldwide. 

What are Human Rights? 

Human rights are commonly referred to as rights everyone has just because they are human. These rights are specified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an international document laying out 30 fundamental rights and freedoms of all human beings. Examples of these include the right to life without discrimination, slavery, or torture, in addition to explaining that all humans are equal before the law and that the law protects all human rights. The UDHR was drafted by representatives of various demographics and backgrounds and is considered a milestone in human rights history. The UDHR was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on December 10th, 1948, as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” 

Comparing Human Rights and Social Justice 

Women protesting injustice
Source: Yahoo Images

To better understand the concept of social justice, the definition has been broken into four core principles: access, equity, participation, and human rights. These four principles apply to issues such as: 

  • Reproductive Rights 
  • Access to good education 
  • Employment Discrimination 
  • Voting Discrimination 
  • Disability Discrimination 
  • And many others

Since human rights is one pillar of social justice, a “just” society is impossible within the absence of security for all human rights. 

Although their meanings are different, the concepts of human rights and social justice are often correlated closely, especially in academia and political debates. Here at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences’s Political Science Department, a concentration of study in human rights and social justice is offered within the political science major, like many other institutions worldwide. Outside of academia, the general public often groups human rights and social justice together in regard to their stance on politics. Unfortunately, many social injustices and human rights issues have become controversial topics in America, further polarizing the U.S. political climate, especially within group rights (minorities rights, rights of people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights, etc.). Understanding the relationship between human rights and social justice can bring about a more unified approach to how these issues are perceived and addressed. 

Ways to Celebrate the World Day of Social Justice 

Woman with sign: "We will not be silenced"
Source: Yahoo Images

Becoming an advocate for social justice in society can happen at any time, but with the current celebration of the World Day of Social Justice, it is a great time to start. Celebrating this day can be done by taking the time to examine your own beliefs and values to increase your self-awareness regarding the way you view injustices in society and your level of sympathy for those who are currently facing a human rights crisis. From there, examine what you are doing to help and what you can be doing. Furthermore, researching a few injustices in society that interest you or sharing your experiences of enduring discrimination in your own life can shed light on the importance of this day and the constant work to be done to create a “just” society across the globe. If you choose to celebrate this day by donating monetarily, here is a list of organizations accepting donations: 

The Restoration of the Everglades: A Big Win for Environmental Rights

Just like many who grew up in the Southern United States, I spent much of my childhood outside. I was born in a suburb of Birmingham, and as a child, I would play in the Cahaba River and bask in the beauty of the short leaf pines and oak trees that towered high in magnificent forests.

I may not have known it then, but my ability to enjoy the natural beauty of my home in an unaltered way was not being protected in a concrete way. As our environment continues to degrade from the ongoing climate change disaster, human rights activists have begun championing environmental rights. Eloquently defined by the Pachamama Alliance, environmental rights can be understood as “an extension of the basic human rights that mankind requires and deserves. In addition to having the right to food, clean water, suitable shelter, and education, having a safe and sustainable environment is paramount as all other rights are dependent upon it.

2021 brought lots of bad news for the environment. Despite much more attention from activists and the general public alike, promises from the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 (also known as COP26) seem to ring empty, as nations who pledged to cut emissions continue to approve new fossil-fuel based plants for power generation.

Despite this, it is important for activists to celebrate victories, however small their size or infrequently they occur. In the United States, this week marked a huge victory for the restoration of the Everglades

Depicts Everglades
A picturesque view of the Florida Everglades. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

The Everglades, a History

The Everglades, an ecosystem in southern Florida, has been called “one of the world’s most unique and fragile ecosystems”. Many people believe that the Florida Everglades is a swamp ecosystem, though this is just a popular misconception. In reality, the Everglades is actually a slow-moving river flowing over an area 40 miles wide by 100 miles long.

The Florida Everglades was formed over many thousands of years, creating a delicate balance of ponds, marshes, and forests. The Everglades have been inhabited for at least 14,000 years by human beings with the arrival of the first indigenous peoples to the area. When European settlers first arrived to the area in the early 1800s, the Everglades were considered little more than a “worthless swamp”, and work to drain the wetlands of the Everglades quickly began. By the early 20th century, much of the Everglades was in the process of being converted to farmland, and this stimulated the first “land boom” in Southern Florida.

As the Everglades began to shrink, Florida’s population began to boom as cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale grew, increasing the demand for housing and fueling further destruction of the Florida Everglades.

As the American environmental movement began in response to extreme environmental degradation across America and the extremely important work of early climate activists such as Rachel Carson (whose 1962 publication of Silent Spring is to this day considered to be a milestone of modern environmentalism), activists began to realize the extreme importance of the Florida Everglades. According to the Naples, Florida Travel Guide, “People like author and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas who organized the Friends of the Everglades in the 1960s to battle the federal government’s plan to build an airport in the Everglades”, which thankfully worked. Activists like Douglas helped preserve the Everglades the best they could, allowing us to begin restoration work on the Everglades.

It is also worth noting that the Everglades have been classified as a national since 1947, entitling the wetlands to federal protection and further bolstering the Everglades as one of America’s most sacred national treasures.

Shows map of everglades
A map of the natural range of the Everglades, courtesy of the Everglades Foundation. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

The Everglades Today

Once sitting at over 4,000 square miles in size, deforestation and environmental degradation have reduced the Florida Everglades to about half of their original size. The number of endangered species in the Everglades, both flora and fauna, continues to increase at an alarming rate. Among these endangered species is the Florida Panther, which now occupy less than five percent of their historic range, which once included the entirety of the Southeastern United States. It is thought that less than one hundred Florida panthers exist in the United States today.

One of the largest threats to wildlife species in the Everglades is the introduction of invasive species to the area. These non-native species are often accidentally introduced by human beings, and they can quickly destroy the balance of a delicate ecosystem, such as the Everglades. One of the most famous invasive species in the Florida Everglades is the Burmese Python, which was believed to be introduced into the area by Hurricane Andrew, a category five storm which struck Florida in 1992, destroying a python breeding facility and releasing dozens of snakes into the surrounding Everglades.

Shows when funding was added
A picture of President Biden signing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill into law. The historic allocation of funding towards the restoration of the Everglades came from this bill. SOURCE : Yahoo! Images

A Historic Investment into the Everglades

On January 19, 2022, the Biden Administration announced a historic $1.1 billion allocation of funds towards the restoration of the Everglades. The funding will come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which was signed into law by President Biden on November 15 of last year. An announcement by the White House declared that this allocation was “The largest single investment ever to restore and revitalize the Everglades in Florida”.

The announcement was seen as a huge political victory for the bipartisan Everglades Caucus, which is currently co-chaired by U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Ballard (R-FL). Representative Schultz released a statement following the historic announcement highlighting the importance of the restoration of the Everglades :

The Everglades is the lifeblood of South Florida, and this historic funding commitment by the Biden Administration will ensure we can much more aggressively move to restore and protect the natural sheet flow of water that is the largest environmental restoration project in American history. The Florida Everglades is a vital source of drinking water and essential to combat climate change and this massive infusion of funding will have the added benefit of creating more jobs,” showing the real human opportunities that will be created by this new investment.

Restoration of the Everglades will also help ensure continued access to clean drinking water for Florida’s population. The Everglades currently provides water to over eight million people across the state. Activists across the state remain cautiously optimistic as the plan will begin to come into effect later this year. The future for one of the world’s most fascinating ecosystems appears to be finally be headed in the right direction, ensure access and protection for our descendants.

People of Color Live Disproportionately Close to Superfund Sites

dirt field with a dumpster and a sign that reads "EPA Quanta Resources Superfund Site. Warning: Hazardous substances present in the soil. No trespassing.
Quanta Resources Superfund Site. Source: Anthony Albright, Creative Commons.

As a Public Health major, I am often looking at disparities and inequities in the distribution of poor health. Environmental justice, which can be defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” is one topic I’ve learned about in many classes because of the significant impact the environment has on health. Unfortunately, the color of one’s skin plays a large role in their likelihood to live and work in an area that has an unhealthy environment, and the history of people of color unknowingly living and working in areas that are hazardous is long.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike started the environmental justice movement in February of 1968 when sanitation workers in Memphis, TN organized a strike to protest unfair treatment and the effects on their health. The workers had been receiving less pay than their white coworkers, while also doing the more dangerous work. Before the beginning of the strike, two black men had been killed by the trash compactor during work. The movement eventually lead to a recognized union and higher pay. This was not the first instance of environmental racism. However, it was one of the first time that head way was made when it comes to equality and equity.

The most famous example of a fight for environmental justice, Love Canal, seems to have few people of color as part of the story as many of the vocal people involved were white women. After heavy rain fall in 1978, residents of Love Canal, NY, noticed that there was a bad smell in the air, children were returning home after playing outside with burns on their skin, and babies were being born with birth defects at a very high rate. They didn’t know that toxic chemicals had seeped from the chemical waste dump they had built their homes and school on.

However, there was a federal housing project in the area as well that housed mainly people of color, and their voices were overshadowed by people like Lois Gibbs. The movement to move people out of the hazardous area did not extend to moving the people living in the federally funded housing to a safer area even though they were affected by the hazardous waste just as significantly. Luckily, both groups were able to relocate and receive compensation for the health effects.

While the Memphis Sanitation Strike and Love Canal both happened over 40 years ago, the environmental injustice experienced during those times has not completely gone away. Today people of color and low-income individuals are still more likely to live and work in hazardous areas. Most Superfund sites, which are areas that have been deemed severely environmentally contaminated, are within one mile of federally funded housing. Even more disturbing, a disproportionate amount of these families are people of color.

The disproportionate placing of federally funded housing, and therefore low-income communities of color, into environmentally hazardous areas stems from systematic racism, or more specifically, a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) mentality held by higher-income white communities. No one wants to live near a hazardous waste site, a factory that releases toxic fumes, or a stinky landfill. However, the people with the power to say no get their way while the people who are already more likely to have health risks are placed in dangerous situations.

A larger problem is that low-income communities and communities of color have been not listened to. In northern Birmingham, AL a recent study showed that a coke mill on a Superfund site has been releasing carcinogenic chemicals in the air for years. Many residents have severe respiratory problems, such as asthma, and now can’t survive without many medications. However, the EPA didn’t catch the extremely high levels of rarer toxins in the air because they don’t typically test for those. It took a study from a nongovernmental organization to expose the harm that the coke mill was doing to this community.

No one wants to live somewhere that is going to make themselves or their family sick, and they shouldn’t have to. While the United States has made progress towards environmental justice over the past 40 years, there is still a long way to go. Superfund sites were created in 1980, but most of the current public housing was created before then. New federally funded housing should not be put near hazardous areas like Superfund sites, and we should work on solutions to clean up Superfund sites near federally funded housing or moving that housing . By reducing the number of housing projects near hazardous waste and taking note when a whole community gets sick, we will begin to move towards racial and income equity when it comes to the environment we live and work in.

Human Rights in the Appalachian Region of the United States of America: an introduction

People living in the Appalachian region of the United States have been victims of a number of failures to protect their basic human rights since at least the nineteenth century. As a result, in nearly every measurable socioeconomic category, the Appalachian region lags behind the rest of the United States in development, or even shows signs of decline. This, in combination with their remoteness and social isolation, has led to a remarkably divided society evidenced over the last hundred or so years. Outdated and incorrect perceptions of the Appalachian people have led to antagonism and a struggle to implement democratic institutions that protect some of America’s most vulnerable populations.

The Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States extend across thirteen states and are home to over twenty-five million people. Appalachia struggles with problems typical of rural poverty: social stratification, unemployment, lack of social services, poor education, and poorly developed infrastructure. The Appalachian region, and its perceived separateness from the rest of the Eastern and Southern United States, is especially relevant in contemporary times of remarkable social division. Healthcare disparities, income inequality, and extensive exploitation of Appalachian communities by outside corporations have all contributed to distrust and frustration among their inhabitants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a large number of Appalachians sold their rights to land and minerals, leading to a massive disparity in ownership and control of the land. Ninety-nine percent of the residents of Appalachia control less than half of the land — despite the area’s vast natural resources, inhabitants remain poor (Hurst).

The Appalachian region has had a higher poverty rate and a higher percentage of working poor than the rest of the nation since at least the 1960s, in addition to low wages, low employment rates, and low-quality education. To address this, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was established in 1965, as a joint effort of ten governors of Appalachian states seeking federal government assistance. Still, by 1999, nearly twenty-five percent of the four-hundred twenty counties in the region qualified as “distressed”, the ARC’s lowest status ranking. Fifty-seven percent of adults in central Appalachia did not graduate high school, compared to less than twenty-percent for the rest of the United States. According to ARC, thirty-three percent of Appalachians suffer from poverty and their income was twenty-three percent lower on average than the level of American per capita income. There has been some improvement, however, with levels of economic distress reaching lows not seen since before the recession in 2007 (ARC.gov).

graph of distressed counties in appalachia
Number of distressed counties in Appalachia by year

In addition to economic inequalities, political inequalities are present in Appalachia. Racial divisions have often been stoked to divide workers and pit races against each other. During Reconstruction, the period after the American Civil War in which Southern states were radically reformed, coal corporations discouraged education and civic action, forcing workers to become indebted to company stores, live in company housing, and generally become vulnerable to their employers. Community members regularly experienced punishment as a reprisal for speaking out against their employers. In his study of culture and poverty in Appalachia, Dwight Billings suggests that this has resulted in a fatalistic attitude in the Appalachian people, based on a history of political corruption and disenfranchisement, leading to a sense of powerlessness.

The plight of the Appalachian people is deeply ingrained in me and will remain always of academic and personal interest. My own paternal kin originally settled in the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina after arriving in America. As far as we can tell, my ancestors passed through the Cumberland Gap in the mid-eighteen-hundreds or earlier, finally homesteading in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on Sand Mountain, in northeast Alabama. On the other side of my family, my maternal ancestors shared many of the same challenges living as sharecroppers and later as miners in north-central Alabama. Eventually, both sides of my family came to work in blue-collar industrial jobs in mining and steel-work, industries that would become encumbered by the same failures, oppression, and corruption that were endemic in their Appalachian cousins.  My great-grandfathers and my paternal grandfather were heavily involved in the labor movement in the American South and leaders of rights-protecting unions, such as the United Mine Workers of America and United Steelworkers, even as those same unions fell into disorder and ineffectiveness.

My research has indicated that one of the best ways we could better protect workers and their human rights would be to focus on the renewal of unions in the Southern and Appalachian Regions of the United States. Unions have been shown to raise wages, reduce wage inequality, and protect rights for workers. Higher rates of unionization and collective action generally tends to be an indicator for greater respect of human rights in industry. After declining membership from its peak in 1954, a once-thriving union movement had shrunk to nearly a third of its size by the turn of the 21st century.

graph of union membership
Union membership in the US, 1930-2010.

Corresponding with this drop in membership, middle class incomes shrank accordingly. The Labor Department did report the first increase in union memberships in twenty-five years in 2007, which was also the largest increase since 1979, but it appears that this was a short-term gain in the larger scheme of things. Taking a broader look shows that from 1983, union membership has been on a steady decline.

chart of union membership
Union membership by category, 1983-2018

One silver lining is that there seems to be a slight turning of the tide among women and Black people, whose membership in unions is stabilizing at least, if not increasing slightly. If unions are meant to preserve and protect the rights of workers, it should inspire some optimism that some of the most vulnerable workers, BIPOC and women, are seemingly joining unions at higher rates than other demographics.

In a series of blog posts for the Institute for Human Rights, I will explore some of these challenges with which the Appalachian region are faced — workers’ rights challenges and the possibility of renewal for unions, socioeconomic disparity and the ensuing human rights failures in the region, and the political inequalities that are especially present in the region. In my next post, I will tell the story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and describe the ways corporations have exploited workers and prevented unionization in the past. We will analyze how these barriers affect workers’ rights in some of the most vulnerable populations in America.

References:

  1. Hurst, Charles. (1992). Inequality in Appalachia. Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences, 6th Edition. Pearson Education. pp 62-63.
  2. Speer, Jean Haskell (January 1, 2010). “Appalachian Regional Commission”. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville: Tennessee Historical Society and University of Tennessee Press.
  3. Denham, Sharon. Mande, Man. Meyer, Michael. Toborg, Mary. (2004). Providing Health Education to Appalachia Populations. Holistic Nursing Practices 2{X)4:I8(6):293-3O1.
  4. “ARC History”. Arc.gov. Appalachian Regional Commission. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  5. Duncan, Cynthia Mildred. (1999). Civic Life in Gray Mountain. Connection: New England’s Journal of Higher Education & Economic Development, Vol. 14, Issue 2, Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  6. Billings, Dwight. (1974). Culture and Poverty in Appalachia: a Theoretical Discussion and Empirical Analysis. Social Forces vol. 53:2. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  7. Madland, Walter, and Bunker, “As Union Membership Rates Decrease, Middle Class Incomes Shrink.”, AFL-CIO, May 24, 2013.
  8. Freeman, Sholnn (January 26, 2008). “Union membership up slightly in 2007; Growth was biggest in Western states; Midwest rolls shrank with job losses”. The Washington Post. p. D2

Mounting Peril: COVID-19 in Mexico

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) expands throughout the United States (U.S.), its impact has rapidly reached vulnerable communities south of the border. As the 10th most populous country in the world, Mexico is beginning to experience an influx in COVID-19 cases and, especially, deaths which has exacerbated many inequalities throughout the country. This blog addresses Mexico’s relevance in the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has influenced human rights issues concerning gender-based violence, indigenous peoples, organized crime, and immigration.

As of late-August, approximately 580,000 Mexicans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 62,000 have died from the virus. Mexico’s capital of Mexico City is currently the country’s epicenter with over 95,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. North of the capital, Guanajuato is nearing 30,000 confirmed cases as the second-largest hotspot, while the northern border state of Nuevo León has nearly 28,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, on the Gulf side, Tabasco and Veracruz are each nearing 28,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, the southern border state of Chiapas, which has a large indigenous population, presumably has the lowest death rate (<1 death per 100,000 cases) which ignites concern about access to COVID-19 resources throughout this treacherous nation.

Gender-Based Violence

Mexico is on track to set an annual record for number of homicides since national statistics were first recorded in 1997. Femicide, which is the murder of women and girls due to their gender, has increased by over 30%. In the first half of 2020, there were 489 recorded femicides throughout Mexico. Much of this violence is attributed to the increased confinement of families since the arrival of COVID-19. For Mexican women, these atrocities are often the result of domestic abuse and drug gang activity which have both been on the rise. Regardless of how and why these acts are committed, it is plain to see that the vulnerability of women in Mexico has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often referred to as AMLO), has been notorious for downplaying the country’s proliferation of gender-based violence. Despite an 80% increase in shelter calls and 50% increase in shelter admittance by women and children since the start of the pandemic, AMLO has insisted 90% of domestic violence calls have been “false”. As part of the COVID-19 austerity response, AMLO has slashed funds for women’s shelters and audaciously reduced the budget of the National Institute of Women by 75%. This all comes after the country’s largest ever women’s strike back in March, which AMLO suggested was a right-wing plot designed to compromise his presidency. AMLO has consistently scapegoated a loss in family “values” as the reason for the country’s endless failures while he promotes fiscal austerity during a global crisis.

Indigenous Peoples of Mexico

In Mexico’s poorest state, Chiapas, many indigenous peoples are skeptical about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is largely attributed to their constant mistrust of the Mexican government which views state power as an enemy of the people. As such, conspiracies have emerged such as medical personnel killing people at hospitals and anti-dengue spray spreading COVID-19, the latter inspiring some indigenous peoples to burn several vehicles and attack the home of local authorities. Nevertheless, Mexico has confirmed over 4,000 cases and 600 deaths of indigenous peoples throughout the country. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) suggests fostering better relationships with traditional practitioners can help limit the spread of COVID-19 in indigenous populations. Additionally, community surveillance efforts and communication through local language, symbols, and images will better protect Mexico’s indigenous populations.

Recently, 15 people at a COVID-19 checkpoint in the indigenous municipality of Huazantlán del Río, Oaxaca were ambushed and murdered. The victims were attacked after holding a protest over a local proposed wind farm, while the perpetrators are presumed to be members of the Gualterio Escandón crime organization, which aims to control the region to traffic undocumented immigrants and store stolen fuel. In 2012, members of the Ikoots indigenous group blocked construction of this area because they claimed it would undermine their rights to subsistence. This unprecedented event has garnered national attention from AMLO and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) as they seek to initiate a thorough investigation. As demonstrated, existing land disputes have been further complicated by the presence of COVID-19 and have thus drawn Mexico’s indigenous peoples into a corner of urgency.

Organized Crime

Over the past 50 years, more than 73,000 people have been reported missing throughout Mexico, although 71,000 of these cases have occurred since 2006. Frequently targeted groups are men ages 18-25 who likely have a connection with organized crime and women ages 12-18 who are likely forced in sex trafficking. This proliferation in missing persons is largely attributed to the uptick in organized crime and drug traffic-related violence that has plagued the country. Searches for missing persons have been stalled since the arrival of COVID-19 which counters the federal government’s accountability, namely AMLO’s campaign promise to find missing persons. AMLO insists that the government countering the drug cartels with violence, like Mexico’s past administrations, is not the answer. However, many analysts argue his intelligence-based approach has emboldened criminal groups, namely with homicides, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the other hand, with many Mexicans unable to work and put food on the table, drug cartels are stepping up to fill the void. The Sinaloa cartel, which is one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups and suppliers of Fentanyl and heroin, has been using their safe houses to assemble aid packages marked with the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s liking. Although this tactic has long been used by the drug cartels to grow local support, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity to further use impoverished Mexicans as a social shield. These acts of ‘narco-philanthropy’, which is one of the many weapons employed by the drug cartels, has enraged AMLO who has relentlessly defended his administration’s response to COVID-19. This irony reveals how growing incompetence from Mexico’s government has left its people vulnerable to not only the pandemic of a generation but more drug cartel activity.

Immigration

With the U.S. government extending its border closures into late-August, tensions mount for the migrants who seek a better life in the U.S. In addition, with a growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, California, and Texas, governors from Mexico’s northern border states have demonstrated reluctance to let Americans enter the country. These reciprocal efforts have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants, namely from Haiti, to seek asylum. As a result, the Mexico-U.S. border town of Tijuana has become a stalemate for 4,000 Haitian migrants in addition to another 4,000-5,000 in the Guatemala-Mexico border town of Tapachula. This has contributed to an economic crisis where there is no work available and people face the risk of being promptly deported, effectively nullifying their treacherous journey to Mexico.

Many undocumented migrants are afraid to visit Mexico’s hospitals due to fears of being detained which would introduce harsh living conditions that put them at greater risk of COVID-19. Across from Brownsville, Texas, in the Matamoros tent encampment, aggressive isolation efforts were enacted after it was discovered that a deported Mexican citizen had COVID-19. To curtail to risk of COVID-19, the mostly asylum seekers are now expected to sleep only three-feet apart, head-to-toe. On the other hand, some Mexican nationals are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border into El Paso, in addition to Southern California, under the travel restrictions loophole pertaining to medical needs. This influx is largely attributed to the lack of resources, such as oxygen and physical space, seen in many Mexican hospitals. As such, COVID-19 resource limitations are endured by both asylum seekers and medical migrants.

Woman sitting in front of a poster that includes pictures of femicide victims.
DRG Photo Contest Winner. Source: USAID U.S. Agency for International Development, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in Mexico

As shown, issues notoriously attached to Mexico, namely femicide, indigenous autonomy, organized crime, and immigration, have been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Femicide has grown due to a culture of misogyny that has proliferated during the lockdown. Indigenous communities have developed more distrust for the federal government, particularly as it relates to public health and land rights. Organized crime groups have extended their reign of terror on the Mexican people by weaponizing the effects of COVID-19. Immigrants, mainly from Central America and the Caribbean, are not only running from their dreadful past but also face the challenging prospects of a world with COVID-19.

As a global influence, Mexico fosters the responsibility to uphold international standards related to women’s rights, indigenous rights, and immigrant rights. Despite each of these issues having their own unique human rights prescription, they could all be improved by a more responsive government. This has rarely been the case for AMLO who has consistently minimized the urgency, and sometimes existence, of human rights issues in Mexico. Furthermore, austerity measures provoked by COVID-19 should not come at the expense of Mexico’s most vulnerable populations because they exacerbate existing inequalities and serve as a basis for future conflict, insecurity, and violence. One of the most important ways the Mexican government can limit these inequalities is by properly addressing the war on drugs which includes closing institutional grey areas that foster crime, strengthening law enforcement, and ensuring policies carry over into future administrations. All the while, the U.S. must address its role in Mexico’s drug and arms trade. Confronting these growing concerns from both sides of border is the only way Mexico while encounter a peaceful, prosperous future.

Cataclysm: COVID-19 in Brazil

As the number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases continue to grow in the United States (U.S.), another epicenter has been growing in South America. As the sixth most populous country in the world, Brazil has experienced an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths alongside an array of national controversies that make the response efforts considerably more difficult. This blog addresses Brazil’s growing importance in the COVID-19 discussion and how it impacts human rights issues concerning indigenous peoples, environmental degradation, favela communities, and good governance.

As of late-June, more than 1.3 million Brazilians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 55,000 have died from the virus. Brazil’s most populated state, São Paulo, is currently the country’s epicenter with nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The northeastern state of Ceará has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (100,000+), while Pará in the northwest is nearing 100,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro has over 105,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Amazonas has to the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state with 67 deaths per 100,000 cases, compared to Bahia’s 11 deaths per 100,000 cases, which highlights the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities that have been systematically killed, displaced, and denied access to health care and other preventative services that could help fight the spread of the virus.

Indigenous Peoples of Brazil

As the largest Brazilian state in the Amazon region, Amazonas is known for its indigenous communities who often live in isolated villages and have poor access to health care. In the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2 million+ and is only accessible by aircraft or boat, many recent respiratory-related deaths have resulted in quick burial in mass graves, which has likely led to a severe underestimate the pandemic’s toll on the local population. In the remote community of Betania, the Tikuna tribe has five government medical workers that accommodate an approximate 4,000 inhabitants, but they are not treating the sick due to lack of protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. One considerable threat are the indigenous community members who are not quarantining and are, instead, traveling in and out of town for work.

These unprecedented events compound the colonial legacy that has threatened Brazil’s indigenous peoples for centuries. Centuries ago, indigenous tribes throughout the Amazon were decimated by diseases brought by Europeans. In a way, history is repeating itself because the Brazilian government’s ineffectual response to the crisis have allowed COVID-19 to ravage the surviving indigenous communities and put them on the brink of genocide. Aside from the tribes who have contact with the modern world, the Brazilian Amazon inhabits 103 uncontacted tribes who have virtually no knowledge or resources to protect them from the threat of COVID-19. Signing this petition will help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Since COVID-19 has reached these Amazonian communities, deforestation in the region has also proliferated. The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is important to the global ecosystem because it absorbs approximately 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Thus, protecting the Amazon is pivotal for stalling the effects of climate change. However, for years, the Amazon has been ravaged to accommodate the agricultural industry as well as illegal loggers and drug traffickers. As a result, indigenous leaders fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will be used to exacerbate the destruction these industries have already caused.

During the month of April, deforestation in Brazil increased by nearly 64% which resulted in more than 150 square miles of rainforest destruction. In response, 3,000+ Brazilian soldiers were deployed to the region to prevent illegal logging and other criminal activities that contribute to deforestation. Some worry that such activity in the rainforest will lead to outsiders giving indigenous communities infectious diseases, namely COVID-19. Brazil’s Secretariat of Indigenous Health (SESAI) has made efforts to distribute N95 masks, gloves, and goggles to the region, but activists warn that the only way to protect uncontacted tribes is by keeping illegal loggers and miners out of these areas. Despite the Brazilian government establishing three military bases to prevent illegal actors from permeating the region, they are only expected to be present for 30 days. This is because Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, Ibama, is expected to take over these efforts but are currently understaffed and underbudgeted.

Favelas in the Age of Social Distancing

More than 11 million Brazilians live in favelas which are shantytowns outside of urban centers. Already hit hard by gun violence, unsanitary conditions, and militaristic police presence, people living in Brazil’s favelas struggle to adhere to social distancing measures. Research has found that people living favela-like conditions spend roughly 50% more time per day with others than people in less-impoverished areas. Often, favelas are composed of two or three rooms with five or six people sharing these spaces. As such, favela conditions enable the spread of COVID-19, and with precious little assistance from the government, Brazil’s most impoverished communities are left to fend for themselves.

With little government help, residents of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo (population: 100,000) have offered a community-based solution. Due to donations and volunteer work, residents have responded to COVID-19 by organizing distribution of free meals, ambulatory services, and neighborhood watch persons. They even designated one building the quarantine house and repurposed closed schools in self-isolation centers. In Rio, members of the gang City of God drive through the local favelas, blaring a recorded message ordering people to stay home. Other gangs have become knowledgeable about COVID-19 in order to deliver essential goods to favela residents and have even gone as far to enforce social distancing measures by preventing restaurants from putting tables out. These forms of gang vigilantism in Brazil’s favelas demonstrate the lack of government support and tension with local police.

Small grave onlooking a favela.
At the bottom of this block destined to the burials of COVID-19, is the favela of the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha housing complex. Source: Léu Britto, Creative Commons.

Trump of the Tropics

These criticisms are largely attributed to the leadership of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who notoriously dismissed COVID-19 as a “little flu”. Aside from personally ignoring social distancing measures, Bolsonaro has organized large rallies in an effort to confront local governors who have locked down their regions. Recently, after ignoring federal regulation that require wearing a face mask in all public places, a judge ruled that Bolsonaro (and any public official) is not exempt from this policy and should expect a 2,000-reais ($387) fine like anyone else. Bolsonaro even fired his Health Minister, Luiz Mandetta, in April after he supported social distancing measures. His successor has since promoted a reopening of the economy and unproven medical treatments for COVID-19.

Known by many as the “Trump of the Tropics,” Bolsonaro has successfully maintained a strong coalition of supporters such as the agriculture community, evangelical Christians, and the military. Unlike the U.S., Brazil is an emerging economy with a weak social safety net that makes it difficult for government officials to convince people to stay at home. Health care access and the conditions to work from home are also quite limited. Recent cell phone tracking data has revealed that 45-60% of Brazilians are not complying with social distancing measures, likely due to the fact that they have to choose between feeding their families and being exposed to the virus. As such, it is assumed Bolsonaro’s defiance of a public health approach to COVID-19 is an effort to appeal to his core supporters. Bolsonaro has also slashed regulations and enforcement of land grabbing, which exacerbates the deforestation crisis currently impacting the Amazon.

Human Rights in Brazil

As demonstrated, Brazil has an array of chronic human rights problems that have been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was passed that limited public expenditures in Brazil for the next 20 years. As a result, we are now witnessing how these austerity measures have affected access to housing, food, water, and sanitation when Brazilians need it the most, particularly within the most vulnerable groups – women, children, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous peoples, rural communities, and informally-settled persons.

Much like the U.S., Brazil’s COVID-19 response has mostly been subnational social distancing measures and an emergency basic income to placate the masses. However, these efforts are clearly inadequate considering Brazil’s COVID-19 cases are surging alongside another potential Zika outbreak. As a result, Brazil has effectively become the most prominent COVID-19 case study in the Global South, a nation plagued by a deadly virus and an array of human rights issues. Human rights experts suggest fiscal stimulus and social protection packages would only be the beginning of a COVID-19 response because many of these concerns are the consequence of marketization and privatization of public goods and services. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as an opportunity to reverse the market-based ideology that has failed so many countries, especially the Land of the Palms.

Please sign the petition to help urge Brazilian officials to protect the surviving indigenous communities throughout the Amazon.