Justice for the environment

What is environmental justice and how can it be incorporated into demands for a better environment in Egypt? Sharif Elmusa and Hoda Baraka explain.

In assessing environmental problems, it is important to highlight the fact that these exist in varying degrees across countries. More importantly, there is inequality — both on the global and local levels — in the way environmental problems are addressed. This is frequently overlooked with regards to environmental issues, though realising it brings us closer to highlighting their root causes and to helping to remedy them. Such a realisation has also yielded calls for environmental justice.

Environmental justice refers to the inequitable environmental burdens born by groups such as racial minorities, women, residents of economically disadvantaged areas and residents of developing nations. Some would argue that the root causes of environmental injustices are primarily driven by the commoditisation of natural resources such as land and water, together with unresponsive government policies and regulations and a lack of resources and power in affected communities.

Proponents of environmental justice seek to rectify such an inequitable distribution of environmental burdens by equitably granting access to environmental goods such as nutritious food, clean air and water, healthcare, education, transportation and safe jobs, amongst others. In order to achieve this, the role of governments and civil society is important, and environmental justice encompasses a new vision stemming from a community-driven process based on a transformative public discourse on what constitutes truly healthy and sustainable communities. In the light of this, self-determination and participation in decision-making are key components in order to achieve environmental justice.

Whereas there have been campaigns calling for environmental justice internationally — such as the campaign in the Cuddalore district in India against industrial pollution, or in Alton, Rhode Island, in the US, where residents have struggled against a polluting dye company — in Egypt environmental justice is a concept that is yet to take centre stage and trigger environmental activism. However, there have been some promising initiatives. One such example is in the Shubra Al-Kheima district of Cairo, where a campaign has been launched to halt further industrial activities.

Shubra Al-Kheima today has turned into an industrial area, but historically this was not always the case. In fact, land in the area was in the past used for agricultural purposes, and its natural wealth and beauty led it to be chosen as the location of one of Mohamed Ali’s palaces. Today, however, Shubra Al-Kheima is plagued with environmental problems due to high levels of pollution from the industries in the area.

In June 2008 a campaign entitled Itkhana’na (We are Suffocating) was launched in the district, one of many organised by a group calling itself the Popular Committee to Save Shubra Al-Kheima from Pollution and composed of community members from various professional backgrounds. The committee was formed in response to rising concerns about the level of pollution in the area that were not being addressed by the government. Instead, government policies were viewed as serving to encourage further industrial activity.

The campaign, continuing today, aims to raise awareness of one such new project involving a petrochemicals plant located in close proximity to the residential area of Mostorod. It aims to disseminate information on the nature of the project and the harm it could represent, in order to mobilise people against it and have it relocated to a different area, in similar fashion to the successful recent campaign against the Agrium plant in the Egyptian port city of Damietta.

According to lawyer Ahmed El-Naggar, one of the coordinators of the campaign, the pollution that could arise from the plant is in violation of Egypt’s environmental laws. The project would cause air, water and land pollution in the area, El-Naggar says, adding that “an estimated 76,000 tonnes of sulphur — well beyond the legal limit — will be produced on a daily basis by the plant, causing serious air pollution and a high risk of cancer among residents.”

The plant would also need some 6,000 cubic metres of water daily from the nearby Ismailia Canal for cooling purposes, El-Naggar says, this water meant to be reserved as drinking water for residents of the area. Any water pumped back into the canal after being used by the plant would be polluted, thus compromising the availability of clean drinking water, he says.

In its campaign against the project by raising awareness among the community, the committee has encountered two main problems. The first is due to the complicated nature of the project and the way in which transfer of ownership took place. According to El-Naggar, the plant was originally under public ownership, but then it was partnered with a private entity that bought 85 per cent of it.

It is because of this private ownership that the plant will be able to run at full capacity, but it is also owing to this private-majority ownership structure that the government has been able to argue that it “is not encouraging new investment in the area because the plant already existed. However, we are arguing that this structure is comparable to building a new plant because its level of production, and consequently its pollution levels, will change drastically,” El-Naggar says.

The second problem encountered during the campaign has arisen from the fact that due to the low standards of living among the residents in the area it has been difficult to interest them in protesting against the plant. Many people in the area are occupied by the day-to-day struggle of providing for their families, and under these circumstances involving people in environmental activism must be a long-term process.

In comparing the environmental campaign in Shubra Al-Kheima to the environmental protests held in Damietta as a result of the threatened construction of the Agrium plant, it is important to highlight the fact that the success of the latter was due to the resources available in Damietta, which were far greater than those available in Shubra Al-Kheima.

According to Mohamed Abdallah, also a coordinator of the campaign, “in Damietta businessmen and landowners would have been harmed by the Agrium project, and they were able to mobilise people against it.” In Shubra Al-Kheima, on the other hand, an opposite scenario obtains, and “it is the businessmen that stand to benefit from this project. Any harmful effects arising from the plant are thus overlooked in order to ensure that the project moves forward.”

However, community involvement in environmental campaigns is crucial despite such difficulties. If an environmental movement is to emerge in Egypt, and if it is to win wide adherence, it must avoid the mistake of growing into a kind of “elitist club” concerned only with wealthy districts and tourist areas. It must incorporate the villages and the shantytowns of Egypt in its programme, since these are where the lower classes and the poor reside. Justice is environmental. The rich deplete more natural resources and inflict more waste and poison on the earth and its atmosphere than the poor. But their immediate “habitats” are cleaner and quieter, and they drink cleaner water and breathe less-polluted air.

In the past, environmental activists and the government have paid attention to areas like the Red Sea and to areas that have been declared natural protectorates. In spite of their sometimes limited success, these efforts are to be applauded because the country has few natural resources, and those that it does have are vulnerable because of the desert climate, the rapid rise in tourism and the increasing demand for a natural environment by the well-to-do. Such efforts are, however, far from sufficient. While environmental NGOs need to shift their attention to rural areas and to areas where the poor live, studies have shown that they have not.

A good example is the protected area of Wadi Degla that neighbours Al-Maadi southeast of Cairo. The Wadi harbours rare plants and animals and birds. It is also used for recreation, mostly by expatriates and Egyptians from the upper classes. The wadi has been the subject of many articles in the press warning of a potential “tragedy of the commons”, as well as calling for clean-up campaigns. However, workers in the marble factories in the neighbouring area of Shaq Al-Thu’ban have been largely overlooked, and when pollution from these factories is discussed, only its harm to the wadi is mentioned.

However, the marble factories produce prodigious quantities of dust and slur that cannot but be detrimental to the health of the thousands of workers. Cleaning up and recycling these and other pollutants could benefit both the workers and the flora and fauna of the wadi. By not interesting themselves in the workers’ interests, the wadi activists have remained isolated and ineffective.

Such detachment from the poor among environmental activists has been borne out by a study that lasted a number of years in five Cairo localities, including the middle-class area of Al-Sayeda Zeinab, the populous area of Dar Al-Salam and the poor area of Kafr El-Low (Nicholas Hopkins et al., People and Pollution: Cultural Construction and Social Action in Egypt, 2001). Hardly anyone among those interviewed in the research was aware of the presence of an NGO in the area working to improve the environment.

However, the problem is not only detachment. There is also a general belief among technocrats and government officials that the poor do not care about, or are not aware of, the sometimes horrendous environmental conditions that engulf them. The same study set out to investigate this perception and found it entirely unwarranted. The poor think of the environment in terms of cleanliness, noise, lack of sewage systems and clean drinking water, though they tend not to make connections to larger issues such as global warming or the loss of species.

It is these matters of the environment, health and social justice that cannot be left off the agenda of any environmental movement worthy of the name.

Originally published by Al-Ahram Weekly here.

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