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Ensuring Environmental Justice in Sustainable Development

Env justics
byGabrielle Rosario
onNovember 2, 2021

Ten years ago, the Movement on Road 96, an environmental and social group of locals from Imider, Morocco, began a protest against the Société Métallurgique d’Imiter (SMI) by shutting off a water valve that previously diverted water from the mountain reservoir towards flushing a silver mine. For decades, the silver mine depleted Imider’s supply of water, increasing water scarcity for the locals who relied on the water to grow crops. The silver mine also produces toxic waste runoff, threatening the health of residents and contaminating the water supply, which jeopardizes agricultural production. SMI’s harmful health and economic impacts on Imider present a problem of environmental injustice in which an already low-income area unfairly bears the costs of silver mining.

Movement on Road 96 continued protests until recently, when they left the mountain after failing to reach tangible results. Without full governmental support, the group could not continue its efforts, especially after camping out on the mountain for eight years. However, the group persists in their protest against the environmental injustices perpetuated by SMI, continually threatening the health and livelihood of Imider’s residents.

This is not the only instance of environmental injustice, though, in Morocco. On a broader scale, the effects of climate change disproportionately harm the health and economies of low-income communities. Specifically, low-income communities bear the heaviest burdens of rising surface temperatures, which increase the risk of heat-related illnesses. Additionally, climate change exacerbates the prevalence of droughts in Morocco, which already faces a water-scarcity problem. Rural farmers, who rely on water to grow crops and make an income, experience higher costs due to increased droughts and water scarcity.

Lost incomes or increased health costs from pollution hinder development at a personal and local level. Health complications from environmental crises stress local health systems, especially when low-income residents lack the health care necessary to prevent and treat illness. If many residents fall ill, hospitals and health systems experience higher levels of congestion, placing stress on care availability. Additionally, when farmers cannot generate incomes, local economies suffer, as markets depend on residents to participate in monetary exchanges, which cannot occur when they lack sufficient disposable incomes. Therefore, environmental injustices threaten local development at the economic, social, and political level.

Environmental injustice occurs when arbitrary exposures to poor environmental quality infringes upon human dignity, which refers to the right of a person to be valued, respected, and treated ethically. Such injustices entail the political disempowerment of communities, restricting their voice and protests against arbitrary exposures, thereby perpetuating the environmental risks. Globally, environmental injustices disproportionately threaten low-income and minority communities, who typically face higher levels of political disempowerment. Moroccan rural farmers and low-income communities face some of the worst impacts of climate change and environmental pollutants, such as the water pollution from silver mining in Imider.

Sustainable development refers to development designed to last many generations and withstand changes in political, economic, social, and environmental spheres. This type of development inherently requires community participation, empowerment of local residents, and considerations of the social and environmental factors impacting development. In Morocco, non-governmental organizations, such as the High Atlas Foundation, aim to promote sustainable development in rural communities, emphasizing empowerment and inclusion to truly make development sustainable. With this, to ensure empowerment and inclusion, sustainable development must include environmental justice as a goal and requirement.

Although national and international efforts exist to mitigate climate change and environmental pollutants, these broad, centralized policies fail to address local environmental crises. Therefore, we must enact policies at local levels, configuring policies to address environmental crises specific to different communities. However, we must ensure inclusive community participation and support when creating such policies, as political empowerment is of utmost importance in environmental justice.

The problem of environmental injustice exists globally, and, in the United States, multiple and continued instances of environmental injustices hinder local development. Systemic racism perpetuates the political disempowerment of predominantly Black communities across the United States, most famously in Flint, Michigan. For years, lead polluted the water in Flint, a city with large communities of color and low-income populations. The lead caused many health problems for its residents, and for children, the lead-poisoned water increased the chance for neurological development problems, impacting their education. Only through local activism could Flint receive the necessary action to address the water pollution and work towards improving local development.

With this, as our climate worsens and environmental crises increase, we must recognize the importance of ensuring environmental justice at local levels in sustainable development. Only then can we empower communities and promote a sustainable future for all.