Environmental racism and the quest for justice

In France and the wider EU, Roma and other minorities are the victims of environmental racism. This discrimination must me robustly redressed under the European Green Deal to ensure a just transition that leaves nobody behind, writes MEP Marie Toussaint.*

The death of George Floyd in the United States led to massive mobilisation on both sides of the Atlantic, with climate activists playing a major role this time. The issue of environmental justice, still too often ignored, has emerged in public debate and must now be followed by a real political strategy here in Europe.

The issue of environmental injustice and even environmental racism have been with us for a long time. We see underprivileged communities mobilising against industrial or government decisions and practices that cause very serious environmental and health damage.

The history of the fight against environmental racism is often traced back to the year 1978 and located a stone’s throw from Niagara Falls in New York State. It took place in the Love Canal housing estate, where 1,100 people from the working classes resided, 60% of whom were African-American.

Local residents discover that they were being exposed to toxic chemicals. More than 20,000 tonnes of waste had been buried there in the 1940s by the Hooker Chemical Company. In this community, children were born with deformities, the rate of miscarriages rose, and diseases of the nervous system and cancers skyrocketed.

In her book Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism, researcher Elizabeth Blum shows that these struggles for the right to a healthy environment link up with broader social movements, such as civil rights and feminism.

Picking up the tab

The most vulnerable are the first victims of environmental violence, while their responsibility for environmental destruction is often minimal. For example, the richest 10% of the world’s inhabitants is responsible for more than half of CO2 emissions, while the poorest half of the globe is responsible for only 10% of pollutant emissions.

Yet it is these populations who are on the front line of global warming, those that we will count among the 250 million climate refugees expected by the UN by 2050. It is in Bangladesh that rising sea levels are causing rice fields to become submerged and the salinisation of the soil, rendering the land sterile, leads to food shortages and the exodus of the rural population to the cities.

Environmental injustice is also a major issue here in Europe, where the most economically disadvantaged are, as is the case elsewhere in the world, the most exposed to natural, industrial and health risks.

On the margins of society

The recent EEB report, ‘Pushed to the Wastelands‘, describes the systemic and systematic discrimination suffered by Roma communities. The statistics are conclusive and damning:

  • In Europe, the life expectancy of Roma is 10 years lower than the average European and the infant mortality rate is significantly higher than the EU average.
  • Less than one out of four Roma complete their education and around 20% of adult Roma in Europe cannot read or write.
  • Only one out of four adult Roma in Europe has a job.
  • One in four Roma said in 2016 that they had been the victim of discrimination in the past year (but only 10% reported this to the competent authorities).
  • More than half of Europeans said they would not want to have “Gypsies” as neighbors in a 2008 study.

The historical and systemic discrimination to which they are subject pushes Roma communities towards marginal, polluted areas and neighbourhoods, and deprives them of access to public services, including healthcare and even drinking water. This has serious repercussions on their health and wellbeing.

A pandemic of discrimination

The health crisis linked to the COVID-19 pandemic is a recent illustration of this. According to the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), Roma communities have suffered disproportionately during the lockdowns: loss of income, overcrowding, lack of access to healthcare (due to the distance from infrastructures) and to hygiene (due to the dilapidated nature of infrastructure). As for remote education, without access to digital equipment and the internet, it is difficult, not to say impossible.

These injustices are suffered by the so-called Traveller community in France. These abandoned populations are pushed to live out of sight and out of mind, in surroundings which would be considered uninhabitable for any other group.

The activist researcher William Acker studied 508 reception areas in 33 French departments. His research found that 82.6% these of areas are isolated from residential areas, while 62.2% suffer industrial or environmental pollution due to the immediate proximity of a motorway, a railroad, a waste dump or a wastewater treatment plant. Half of the departments have at least one area near a Seveso site, that is to say an installation that presents a significant potential risk of pollution or accident.

Dangerous neighbourhoods

The Lubrizol factory, which lies close to a reception area for Romani communities in Petit-Quevilly (Seine-Maritime), was classified Seveso following a fire which emitted thick plumes of black smoke into the sky of Rouen in September 2019.

This is also the case for the AZF factory in Toulouse (Haute-Garonne), where an explosion in September 2001 caused the death of 31 people and injured 2,500 residents. The site adjoins working-class neighbourhoods which are mostly inhabited by low-income, non-European immigrant families.

This illustrates that environmental racism is not specific only to Roma communities. The poorest and most vulnerable populations are kept away from living in healthy environments. In France, for example, each additional percentage of immigrants within the population of a city increases the risks of a waste incinerator being installed by 29%.

In Hellemmes-Ronchin (North), a women’s collective has been campaigning with public authorities for change since 2013. About 200 people live on land wedged between a concrete factory, a crushing company, fields regularly sprayed with pesticides and others toxic products, and a railroad track. Many children and the elderly suffer from respiratory, dermatological or ophthalmological diseases.

The reception area of ​​Chauvilly, in Gex (Ain), is set up in the middle of a quarry which also served as a dump for two companies which illegally incinerated construction waste and toxic products there. Here, too, the residents have respiratory problems and can no longer eat their meals outdoors.

Justice for all

Even when the struggles pay off on paper, the victories remain difficult to turn into reality In 2004, when the mayor of Herblay (Val d’Oise), used the excuse of protecting a natural area to demand the eviction of 25 families, some of whom had lived there for more than 30 years, some left but others took the case to the European Court of Human Rights. They won in October 2013. However, more than seven years after this decision, 17 families have still not been relocated.

The European Commission has launched a European Green Deal that not only aims to truly protect our planet but also seeks to leave no-one behind. This obviously means that we must guarantee the right to employment and the necessary social support to European citizens in the ecological transition.

However, we also need, at every stage, within each strategy deployed for ecology, for social justice, in the reorientation of our economy and our industrial system, to work for environmental justice. This justice also supposes that we do not forget to think about how to adapt taxation to serve environmental and climate issues.

When, in France, the poorest households have to bear on average a budgetary effort three times greater than the richest households to pay the various so-called “green” taxes, we are still far from embarking on a just transition.

The UN dedicated the last World Poverty Reduction Day, on 17 October 2020, to ecology and to social and environmental justice for all in the fight against great poverty. This initiative should now give rise to the birth of a European strategy for environmental justice, to be rolled out in all member states. It is possible, and we will work tirelessly for it. Respect for human rights is at stake.


Marie Toussaint is a French jurist and politician who was elected as a member of the European Parliament in 2019. She is a member of the Greens/EFA alliance. She sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy.