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The Fire This Time

A new report saying Latinos bear the brunt of environmental health threats in the U.S. prompts soul-searching among green groups and adds new fuel to the Latino environmental justice movement.
 
 
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Richard Moore's ceaseless schedule of meetings, conferences and borrowed couch space is a window into the activist fire that drives him.

From his office in New Mexico, the soft-spoken Puerto Rican American and award-winning environmental justice activist measures his words carefully when talking about the state of the Hispanic EJ movement, its health, its relationship with mainstream conservation groups and its potential to catalyze Latino political power in 21st century America.

He rewinds a decade to the seeds of the EJ movement, when minority groups first pressed predominantly white enviro groups to open their doors to diversity. Then he fields questions about a recent National Resources Defense Council report showing Latinos bear disproportionately heavy environmental costs in the United States.

Good work? Yes. Needed? Always.

But, in the end, says the founder and director of Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, the nation's largest network of Hispanic environmental justice groups, the report is more confirmation than revelation.

To the uninitiated, the report, issued in October and entitled Hidden Danger: Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community, offers up alarming statistics:

  • Of nearly 38 million Latinos in the U.S., some 26 million reside in areas that violate federal air quality standards.
  • Nearly 90 percent of U.S. farm workers are Latino, and many of these laborers and their families are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides.
  • Non-Hispanic white children are half as likely as Latinos to have unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

As the Bush administration stands poised to dismantle environmental protections in the coming four years, the study is fodder for a Hispanic EJ movement that many hope will jumpstart lagging Latino political involvement.

Because membership information is hard to track, it's difficult to draw a bead on exact numbers. Clark Atlanta University professor Robert Bullard, a pioneering scholar in the EJ movement, produces a directory that in 2004 counted 400 people of color groups from 45 states and Puerto Rico. A third of those are Hispanic organizations, most in the Southwest and West. Moore's group has nearly 60 affiliate member groups in the U.S. and northern Mexico, counting, he says, thousands of individual members.

From opposing toxic dump sites and zoning ordinances to protesting conditions in north Mexican maquiladores, Latinos are perfecting the art of activism. A Latina group, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas scuttled PGA plans to build a golf course atop a major water aquifer. A group called the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation sided with Arab-Americans to confront a polluting auto manufacturer in Michigan. And in Florida, claiming them ecologically wrongheaded and culturally insensitive, African American and Hispanic sugar cane workers blocked measures intended to restore the Everglades.

"The Hispanic environmental justice is alive and doing very well, at least in California," says Manuel Pastor, a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz, adding that because of its demographic profile, California is a bellwether of future national trends.

Activists like Moore and U.S. Congresswoman Hilda Solis (D-CA), widely praised for her environmental work, say the environment is an all-inclusive hot-button issue for Latinos. And, they say, the increasingly interconnected and seasoned movement is producing street level power brokers and networks that could have wider spillover effects for political power.

"The main challenge is to gain and garnish power through training and collective strategies," says Moore, who teaches community organizing, power structure analysis, fundraising and leadership development to help disenfranchised groups sit at tables of power, whatever the issue.

Few hopes are pinned on the federal government. Though the EPA has an environmental justice program, observers say the payoffs have been sparse and will dwindle further in Bush's second term.

"If we gauged the successes of the environmental justice movement only by what the EPA was doing, then it would not be good," says Rep. Solis in a telephone interview from Washington. "We are going to see things get worse under Bush, things like the dismantling of superfund sites which oftentimes are in high minority communities."

Hispanic groups often find themselves at odds with Caucasian-led mainstream green groups seen as exclusivist and, at times, patronizing. Caesar Chavez and John Muir may have sung in the same key, but they've come to symbolize vastly different choirs. Observers say class and race are constant undercurrents in well-intentioned conservation groups, and minority activists – often adopting an in-your-face and into-the-streets kind of activism – often fall at odds with the conservation brand of tax-break activism.

Public ruptures began a decade ago when poor groups called mainstream green to the carpet, says Moore.

"A coalition of indigenous leaders, mostly in South America, first challenged U.S. groups saying, 'Who gave you the authority to represent our interest in things like debt for nature swaps?'" he says.

Shortly after, a group of African Americans calling themselves the Gulf Coast Tenants Leadership Development Project asked the groups to diversify their boards and staff. It also called for grassroots leaders throughout the country to meet with leaders of the environmental movement. Hispanic activists, including groups Moore represented, followed suit, approaching mainstream groups with their own concerns.

Years later, in 2002, class and racial differences boiled over when anti-immigration activists tried to wrest control of the Sierra Club's board of directors. Though the group's members soundly rejected the slate of candidates, relations with Hispanic groups were damaged. And wounds remain.

"My problem is when these big groups come in and say we are going to do what we want but we need your face," says Rep. Solis. "That doesn't do it for it for us."

However, she praised the Sierra Club for working to expose the conservative elements.

"What we need are mainstream groups that come to us not just when there's an election or ballot initiative," says Solis. "That's insulting. We need investments in our community. We need funding, grants and long-term programs that have a bilingual and cultural component. I have yet to see one mainstream organization that is doing this."

Adrianna Quintero, an author of the NRDC report, says shifting demographics means mainstreams groups should work to include ethnic groups. She said she hopes the report will help bridge gaps.

"One hope is that reports like this can help heal wounds and bring Latinos in the mainstream environment movement," she says.

Moore, however, says that while NRDC is well-intentioned and produces quality work, there is still a class divide. "Like the other mainstream groups, the NRDC is still primarily a white organization. ... And in the end, people need to remember that we speak for ourselves and decide who our leadership is," said Moore.

Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club's environmental justice program ticks off a list of Hispanic outreach programs, including Spanish language reports and a nationally syndicated environmental column published in Spanish-language newspapers.

"Since the minority groups wrote letters to us we have tried to broaden our focus," she says. "We have done things slowly because we wanted to make sure our work was what the people wanted us to be doing."

A spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund, however, says her organization does not have an environmental justice section and does not typically monitor what Hispanic grassroots groups are doing.

In many ways, Latino EJ groups, thanks to language barriers, cultural disorientation and historical experience, are running uphill. New immigrants can't vote and a large chunk of the Latino-American population is under voting age. Many immigrants, having come from nations where political systems are corrupt, are distrustful of politics in the U.S.

They also face misconceptions, mainly that poor Latinos are not concerned with more "global" conservation issues.

Not true, say experts.

"There is tremendous polling information that says Latinos tend to vote for bonds for open space, tend to be more supportive of protecting mountains and coastal areas," says Pastor. "There is a lot of sympathy and recognition that this is important common ground."

There are examples of grassroots activism being parlayed into institutionalized political responses. Pastor points out that in California, a bevy of Latino leaders are pushing through major environmental legislation. And Solis, for her part, has sponsored federal environmental legislation and is pushing the idea of creating environmental enterprise zones.

And given demographic trends, Pastor says mainstream groups should wake up.

"Some ask what the mainstream environmental movement needs to do to incorporate these folks," he says. "But at least in California, the question is how does the mainstream movement make itself relevant to the changing political calculus?"

As for Moore, the fire that drives him seems to be sparked by a deep sense of urgency.

"For our community, environmentalism deals with things like cancer clusters and lupus clusters," he says. "So for us, environmental issues are life or death matters."

Kelly Hearn is a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a former science and technology writer for UPI.