Rebels with a Cause – Environmental Justice Activism and Its Place Within The Conservation Movement

Picture it, collusion between a continental operations director of a multinational oil company and a third-world government. A plot to frame, arrest, torture, and execute a single man whose only weapons were the pen, the mind, and the truth. No, it’s not the next TV drama on this fall’s primetime lineup. The man was real. His execution by hanging in 1995 ordered by a Nigerian military tribunal was real. And, the $15.5 million settlement years later to the man’s family from Royal Dutch Shell oil company after it was sued in a U.S. court under the Torture Victim Protection Act for orchestrating the man’s extrajudicial killing, was also real. The man was Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was an African writer. He grew up in the Niger Delta. He nonviolently protested environmental degradation caused by Shell oil’s drilling upon his homeland. For that, he was murdered. Murdered, as the lawsuit following his death alleged, to protect oil profits and corporate image. Murdered to silence his protest. Saro-Wiwa was one of the early martyrs of a movement known as environmental justice.


(Pictured: Nigerian Environmental Justice Activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, before his execution in 1995)


On October 1, 2015, the Suwannee-St. Johns Sierra Club presents “Race, Class, and Environmental Justice,” a lecture by law professor, Joan Flocks, Director of Social Policy for the Center for Governmental Responsibility, at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.


(Pictured: Professor Joan Flocks, UF College of Law)

October 2015 Speaker, Law Professor Joan Flocks

Joan Flocks teaches courses in social justice lawyering, poverty law, and environmental justice. She was previously an assistant professor at the UF College of Medicine and before that worked for many years as a legal services attorney. Her areas of funded research include occupational and environmental health, vulnerable populations, and community resiliency. Flocks received her MA and JD from the University of Florida.

Flocks has worked as a project manager, consultant, and investigator on several environmental justice and community-based participatory research projects. She has been involved both internationally and domestically on diverse topics such as conflict resolution, substandard housing, and community environmental health. Flocks’ most recent published research brought focus upon a population most in need of protection from hazardous exposure to pesticides, farmworker children, highlighting how their protection is lacking under the current state and federal regulatory structure.

Race, Class, and Environmental Justice

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) summarizes environmental justice as follows: Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. Environmental justice and its activists have not always been as welcomed by government agencies like the EPA and organizations such as the Sierra Club the current EPA statement above suggests. At its beginning as a movement in the 1980s, environmental justice activists mostly emerged from poor, minority communities. Historically, the membership and leadership of traditional environmental organizations like Sierra Club and others were and to some extent still remain dominated by Caucasian, middle-class people. Tensions between “traditional” environmentalists and environmental justice leaders with their poor, minority following have resulted in tensions over struggles for media attention, fundraising, and legislation (think “Save the Spotted Owl” versus the working-class citizens of Hinkley, California whose drinking water was being poisoned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) before a buxom legal assistant took an interest in their seemingly hopeless cause, which later became the subject of the feature film, Erin Brockovich).

Some organizations, like Sierra Club, evolved progressively with time and learned to embrace environmental justice as part of the conservation and environmental protection movement. For example, in 2013, Sierra Club presented its highest honor, the John Muir award, to Dr. Robert Bullard, PhD, who is often referred to as the “father” of Environmental Justice. Bullard, who has dedicated his career to protecting low-income and minority communities from becoming the waste dumps of the nation, was the first African American to win the award since Sierra Club started giving it out in 1961. In 2014, Sierra Club went a step further and created the Robert Bullard award, which it plans to present annually to an individual or group that has done outstanding work in the area of environmental justice.


(Pictured: Dr. Robert Bullard, PhD, often referred to as the “father” of environmental justice)

Environmental justice is not simply about awards for activism. Rather, “environmental justice” is a board concept that includes activism, protest, media relations, litigation, and even an internal struggle for power within the environmental movement. Professor Joan Flocks will discuss the rise of environmental justice as a movement, and specifically, how communities of color and low-income are impacted by environmental injustices. Her lecture will include a brief discussion of the historical relationship between traditional environmental organizations and environmental justice organizations. Lastly, it will cover some current issues of concern to the environmental justice community.

While some environmental justice stories end tragically like that of Ken Saro-Wiwa, many others end positively. Environmental justice activists have had to be creative in their use of resources to bring light to their struggles. These activists have found ingenious ways to spread their message and problem-solve. Some of the most effective negotiators and coalition-builders within the environmental justice movement have been environmental justice activists as they have successfully gone toe-to-toe with corporate giants who literally have moved pollution into people’s backyards. As the world’s population continues to grow exponentially and resources become more scarce, conservationists might need to look to the environmental justice movement for leadership in reaching amicable solutions for all stakeholders.


By Daniel Vazquez, Esq.