Voices of Resilience: Insights from the First Roma Environmental Justice Conference 

Last autumn, the EEB and the ERGO Network collaborated to host the inaugural Environmental Justice Conference for Roma communities in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In this article Ruby Silk and Diego Marin showcase several conference highlights and demonstrate its importance for progressing environmental justice for Roma.

This event arose as a natural response to the EU’s recognition of environmental justice in October 2020, signified by the adoption of the EU Strategic Framework for Roma Equality, Inclusion, and Participation – a pioneering policy document which notably highlights the imperative for environmental justice within the EU. 

The three-day conference, held at the Faculty of Environmental Science and Engineering, Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, had three primary objectives: firstly, to deepen the understanding of environmental justice among various civil society actors, including NGOs and academia, during a dedicated workshop day; secondly, to advocate for the prominence of environmental justice within the political sphere during the main event; and thirdly, to underscore Pata Rat‘s pivotal role as a focal point for initiatives combating environmental racism. Read the summary of the conference here.

Understanding environmental racism 

The concept of environmental racism can provide a framework for understanding the situation faced by Roma communities in Pata Rat and elsewhere. Environmental racism refers to the unfair burden of environmental pollution and hazards placed on certain groups of ethnic minority. While others get to enjoy clean air, leafy neighbourhoods, and safe bike paths, those in these groups are forced to bear the burden of living under noisy flight paths or next to toxic waste sites. The term helps to highlight the intersection of environmental issues and social injustice, and in the case of Roma, it is a manifestation of antigypsyism.  

Addressing environmental racism, is a means to achieve environmental justice.  To learn more about environmental injustice check out this handy explainer video!  

Pata Rat’s significance for environmental justice 

Just outside of Cluj, around 1,500 people, the majority of which are Roma, reside within a landfill site and former chemical waste dump. They face brutal living conditions and perpetual exposure to pollution. The situation intensified in December 2010, when over 70 Roma families who lived in downtown Cluj-Napoca were forcibly displaced and relocated to the vicinity of the Pata Rat landfill, where many Roma families were already living. This location is now home to a growing community of over a thousand people enduring inadequate housing on the fringes of Romanian society. 

In the face of the adverse conditions, Roma communities are displaying resilience and actively engaging in efforts to combat its impacts. Despite the challenges, grassroots movements have emerged, driven by the determination of community members to improve their living conditions and secure a healthier environment. 

Building a Movement  

This conference brought together a diverse group of individuals, including academics, practitioners, activists, community leaders, civil society members, and politicians, to discuss the environmental challenges that Roma communities face in Europe. It served as a platform for sharing ideas, expertise, and lived experiences, collectively highlighting the unique environmental hurdles encountered by Roma people. 

The inaugural workshop set the stage for understanding how environmental justice transcends policy rhetoric in the context of Roma communities in Europe. It featured introductory sessions, including an overview of EEB’s commitment to environmental justice, and a discussion on Antigypsyism highlighting systemic issues and historical roots. Another session focused on environmental justice and environmental racism, addressing analysis at multiple levels and introducing the concept of slow violence. Lastly, EPHA colleagues explored the intersections of health, racism, and the environment, discussing the wide-ranging impacts on Roma communities and presenting findings from a 2022 EPHA report on health and housing

In addition to hearing from EU and national policymakers, the Conference also gave the space for discussions about the responsibilities of local and national governments in enhancing environmental justice, particularly in housing and access to services and the connection between environmental racism and EU policies. Moreover, the Conference was used to develop a set of ‘Common Basic Principles for Environmental Justice for Roma’, crucial for addressing environmental challenges faced by the Roma population. This document stands as a pivotal resource for future endeavours in environmental justice. 

On the final day of the conference program, a field trip to Pata Rat, Cluj Napoca was organised for a select group of participants to engage in discussions with community members. This collaborative effort, moderated by community facilitators, allowed participants to better understand the daily lived experience of those in Pata Rat, shedding light on living conditions, health challenges, and educational obstacles. 

Towards Environmental Justice 

Serving as a hub for collaborative problem-solving, the Conference laid the foundation for a future imbued with inclusivity and sustainability. The pursuit of environmental justice extends beyond a simple ethical duty; it embodies a transformative journey towards nurturing a harmonious relationship between humanity and the environment.