Environmental Justice: Cries that go Ignored

Greener Economy

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‘Environmental Justice’ is not something commonly discussed in Australia. Nevertheless, it is paramount in the analysis of all environmental action, and is undeniably an issue still in need of much more public attention.

Environmental justice aims to achieve equal environmental benefits and burdens across all demographics – irrespective of race or socio-economic status. Having originated in the US during the 60s Civil Rights Movement, the campaign has been gaining momentum ever since. It is a crusade against the unfair treatment of land deemed as nothing but an economic opportunity to some, but as ‘home’ to others.

Racism and classism have always been prevalent features of environmental injustice. When there is a need to build harmful facilities like dumpsites and factories, land populated by more vulnerable demographics is usually targeted by companies and governments. This decision comes down to cheaper land prices and the relative ease at which those with money can silence those who fight for their livelihood on a day-to-day basis.

The extent to which these injustices impact countless groups globally is distressing. In New Mexico, many workers have been hospitalised as a result of nuclear waste dumping. Hispanic and African-American communities in the South Bronx also struggle, having to share their home with more than a third of New York City’s garbage. One in four of their children suffer from asthma, a rate nine times greater than the national average.

Australia is not immune to these issues either. In fact, the treatment of Indigenous communities demonstrates our political system’s inadequate environmental justice.

Taking a closer look

Held under Native Title, Marlwanpa (Muckaty Station) once fell victim to similar inequities. The Northern Territory station belongs to its traditional owners the Milwayi, Ngapa, Ngarrka, Wirntiku, Kurrakurraja, Walanypirri and Yapayapa peoples. Despite this being clearly outlined in several of their official records, the Howard government approved a proposal for the land to be used as a toxic nuclear dumpsite in 2007 without consulting more than a few members of the Ngapa clan. There wasn’t any consensus within the clan itself either, and the negotiation of plans had been so secretive that none of the other clans were aware of the proposal.

Following this, the Rudd and Gillard governments removed the National Radioactive Waste Management Bill. This meant that any community appeal rights, as well as Indigenous and environmental protections were gone, leaving the federal government with the power to specifically dismiss all environmental and social concerns raised by Northern Territory and local governments. Unsurprisingly, multiple requests for meetings and any correspondence from opposing communities were ignored.

According to the Federal Resources Minister at the time, Martin Ferguson, the earthquake-prone land had been ‘volunteered’. The 1.5 square kilometres of land would have held approximately 4000 cubic metres of radioactive waste produced by scientific, industrial and medical research industries. Radioactive waste is known to not only directly kill cells in living organisms, but also mutates DNA, causing both cancer and serious birth defects.

The final deal between members of the single Lauder family and the Northern Land Council (NLC) to use the land as a dumpsite was priced at $12 million in federal funding – another example of powerful groups committing heinous environmental injustice by ignoring the basic human rights of others at the chance of earning dirty money.

Lorna Fejo, a traditional owner of land that includes Muckaty Station, voiced her deep-seated sorrow concerning the issue on behalf of the nation’s Indigenous population: ‘Australia is supposed to be the land of the fair go. When are we going to have fair go? I’ve been stolen from my mother now they’re stealing my land off me.’

Eventually, a settlement between NLC and traditional owners was reached in June 2014, after a long battle lasting over seven years – though chief executive Joe Morrison denied any liability. The victory is something to be celebrated, but the initial cause of struggle raises several questions regarding government policies and general attitudes towards environmental justice in Australia.

How to respond

This is evidently not an issue that can be solved overnight. Currently, Australia stores its nuclear waste in over 100 different sites around the nation and in storage facilities in Scotland and France – all that were to be redirected to Muckaty. More recently, the government revealed plans to construct a $33 billion international nuclear waste dump in South Australia, estimated to bring $257 billion in revenue.

A lack of transparency was clearly one of the biggest issues in the Muckaty Station dispute. According to Dave Sweeney, a nuclear expert with the Australian Conservation Foundation, ‘no comparable country has a national radioactive waste policy based on secret documents and agreements.’ Australia needs an effective radioactive management scheme with higher levels of community confidence and consent. ‘You don’t solve long-term environmental and human health threats with short-term political bulldoze tactics,’ he says.

Successive waves of ‘decision-makers’ must appreciate concepts like earth jurisprudence and wild law that respect the equal rights of all – especially of those discriminated against based on their race and income. For this to occur, cultural change has a role in redefining our idea of justice.

When communities are exposed to toxic waste, people start listening. Through the lens of environmental justice, discussions in schools and homes can begin, and government policy can be created. We must equip ourselves with a framework that recognises the inequitable impacts of environmental degradation. Only then can we only begin to make the right, environmentally-just political and economic choices.

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