Environmental rights are on the same level as human rights

When the planet suffers, so do we

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Environmental rights are on the same level as human rights

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Drew Sullivan, Collegian Columnist

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As the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia continues to burn unabated, the time comes to make an accurate and relevant equivalency. Environmental rights are human rights. The degradation of our planet has a direct impact on us, but like many other issues, disproportionately affects developing countries at a much faster rate than the United States or Canada.

When we think of environmental rights, climate change and global warming are some of the first words that come to mind. Too often these devastating effects remain intangible in the minds of many. Only when disaster strikes do we take the time to sit and reflect on the visible damage being done to our planet. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has rolled back protections on the Amazon rainforest, looking to expand the nation’s agricultural industry.

The cons, however, greatly outweigh any possible pros. The aggressive slash-and-burn tactics occurring in the Amazon today have reached levels not seen since 2008. This breaks the precious cycle of transpiration to precipitation which has kept the world’s largest old-growth rainforest flourishing for thousands of years.

Largely absent from the mainstream discussion of these recent fires have been the voices of people inhabiting the affected lands. The Amazon is home to over 400 tribes, comprising of tens of thousands of people. Many of these already marginalized native Brazilians are either being forced to relocate or watch the forest that provides their food, water and housing be scorched.

Thousands of miles away, endless piles of trash fill up facilities throughout Southeast Asia, mainly from China and the USA. Lack of stringent regulations and health codes have led to a number of these facilities incinerating the garbage. This is having direct negative impacts on the respiratory health of local Malaysian residents.

“The main thing about [these plastic fumes] is that they are carcinogenic. Carcinogens [are involved] in causing cancer,” said Tong Yen Wah, a professor at the National University of Singapore Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. It also depends a lot on the types of plastics being burnt and the exposure to it. If you have short term exposure at a high level you might have difficulty breathing… [or it might] trigger some effects in your lungs. But if it’s long term exposure … that’s where the carcinogenic effects come in.”

Closer to home, the lack of environmental protection and oversight is having detrimental effects in two major American cities: Flint, MI and Newark, NJ. Both communities have been struggling with a water crisis, directly related to increased levels of lead found in the public drinking supply. The lead contamination in Flint was caused by the state switching its water source in an attempt to cut costs. Eighteen months passed before the issue was brought to public light. Investigations and a 2017 report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission have shown that local officials were aware of the problem long before and opted to do nothing.

Many residents, journalists and others following the case believe that institutional racism played a key factor in both these tragedies. Flint and Newark are both cities that have populations conisisting primarily of minority citizens. Some even drew parallels between the bungled response in Flint to former President George W. Bush and FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, where a majority African-American city was not treated with the urgency that many believe would have been afforded to a white and affluent city or town.

Protecting environmental rights has a direct effect on the lives of everyone. Far from the leafy streets and relative affluence of Amherst, agricultural societies throughout the developing world are suffering. The once-dependable crops grown on many farms are yielding fewer and fewer results. At a time when the Earth is overpopulated, any shortage of food supply can have devastating ripple effects. Humans depend on the environment not only for food, but also for clothing, medicine and shelter. A lack of any one of those due to a lack of environmental protections and rights represents an egregious human rights violation on behalf of the government in question.

If we turn inward once again and peer into the Midwestern and Central United States, the effects of climate change are grim at best. Climate change increases the frequency of natural disasters. What was once atypical dryness has now turned into droughts. Rainstorms become floods. When we factor in Trump’s trade war with China, we start to see a clearer picture of why farmers in the United States and worldwide are in the midst of a mental health crisis.

The numbers are jarring. According to the CDC, farmers in almost half of the states committed suicide at rates double that of the average population in 2012. Additionally, more farmers take their own lives every year than military veterans. The increase in natural disasters due to climate change can cause stress and economic hardship, which leads to depression, anxiety and suicide. The Constitution promises every citizen “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This pursuit has been dashed for countless people because of the lack of environmental rights.

The impacts of climate change, dwindling environmental regulations and protections in the Trump era, and the further encroachment of big industry has created a toxic mix for both the planet and its inhabitants. In 2019, millions of people around the world are confronted with these harsh realities, especially in impoverished cities and countries. Environmental rights are human rights. When things go underwater, literally or figuratively, the poor inevitably drown first.

Drew Sullivan is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]