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Ambivalent Landscapes: Environmental Justice in the US–Mexico Borderlands

Abstract

How can a single landscape, a shantytown on the US–Mexico border, symbolize environmental devastation for some and progress and ‘the good life’ for others? Our analysis of this landscape and the people who are a part of it highlights the complexities of the environmental justice movement in the current era of neo-liberal economic policies. Although the colonia that we studied, Derechos Humanos, is located on top of an abandoned landfill near an open sewage canal, living here represents a step forward for many residents. However, to many US environmentalists, this landscape represents a toxic wasteland and the people living here are simply victims of border industrialization. Contributing to critical environmental justice studies, our analysis of Derechos Humanos highlights the injustices of the global political economy, creative responses to these forces by individuals most adversely affected by them, and the potential limitations of conventional framings of environmental justice and mainstream Northern environmentalism.

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Notes

  1. The term colonia simply means neighborhood, a colonia popular is a neighborhood of the people, or a poor people’s neighborhood—typically the unannexed shantytowns that ring all of Mexico’s cities. In the US, the term colonia by itself refers to shantytowns found on the US side of the border.

  2. This type of name is typical of colonias populares. Colonias are often named after dates marking uprisings of the people in Mexico, or other names representing the hopes for social justice of their residents.

  3. Maquiladoras are factories owned by foreign corporations which produce goods in Mexico for export to other countries, primarily the United States.

  4. Pellow and Brulle coined this term to mark a new development in the literature on environmental justice—a move beyond celebratory descriptions of the environmental justice movement to more critical evaluations of the strengths and limitations of both particular cases of environmental justice and the thinking that guides environmental justice activism more broadly (Pellow and Brulle 2005b: 4).

  5. This framing is related to the question of geographical scope, or what institution(s) should be the subject of analysis in environmental justice research (see Baden et al. 2007).

  6. We use pseudonyms throughout this paper.

  7. Detailed information regarding the sampling sites, analytes, instrumental techniques, and chemical results has been published elsewhere (Owens and Niemeyer 2006).

  8. The Mexican government initiated the Border Industrialization Program after the Bracero Guest Worker Program ended in 1964. The Bracero Program, which began in 1942, had allowed Mexican laborers to work legally in the US.

  9. There have been a series of international accords and treaties, most notably the La Paz Agreement and NAFTA, established to address border environmental issues. While some of these agreements have led to tangible improvements, they can also collectively be seen as an “institutional shroud” (Staudt and Coronado 2002) that in its hopeful symbolism masks the international lack of accountability and responsibility for environmental degradation along the border.

  10. There were, of course, exceptions. For example, one colonia resident had left his father’s ranchito, where he had his own 20 acres and some cattle, to “make it on his own” at the border.

  11. This may also be because migrants tend to paint their lives as more prosperous than they really are for the people living where they migrated from, as pointed out to us by Bridget Hayden.

  12. Numerous Northern environmental magazines have publicized the pollution and ecological devastation occurring within the colonias at the US–Mexico Border, including an article focusing specifically on Derechos Humanos (Snell 2001).

  13. Sarah Hill has a richly detailed discussion of the varied trajectories and meanings of trash in the border region (Hill 2008).

  14. Community leaders had advocated in the past, however, for enclosure of the wastewater canal.

  15. Two dispensas were operated by missionary organizations and served as sources of inexpensive and/or free food for the community.

  16. Women were very involved in community organization, arguably more so than men (see also Snell 2001). This fits a pattern that has been increasingly noticed in urban Latin America (see, for example: Stephen 1997; Alvarez et al. 1998) and, as well, in movements for environmental justice (see Rocheleau 1996).

  17. While some mission groups from the US put most of their efforts into building houses and try to enter into, as much as possible, a more equal relationship with colonia residents, others are more clearly focused on proselytizing and adopt a more superior attitude to colonia residents. Colonos typically recognized that outside visitors can at the minimum be a source of candy for the kids or more substantial gifts for the adults. While some residents did not appreciate the proselytizing, few rejected the gifts. Nonetheless, the racialized discourses of ‘helping,’ North vs. South, and modern vs. backward shape each of these encounters, reminding both colonia residents and visitors of their places (see Gronemeyer 1992).

  18. A further irony here is that some residents help NGOs in their work in these fishing communities, which were devastated by the 2005 hurricanes.

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Acknowledgements

This article is the result of the work and ideas of many people. First and foremost, we wish to thank the residents of Derechos Humanos and the various organizations involved with the community who all welcomed us with open arms and shared with us their perspectives on life in the colonia. We would also like to thank our colleague, Laura Hobgood-Oster, who coordinated this project with us. Critically, much of the research was conducted by some outstanding students: Janel Owens in 2001; Claire Campbell, Santiago Guerra, Ben Thompson, Angela Townley, Emily Williams, and Travis Witherspoon in 2002; and Leslie Nairn, Kelly Sharp, Ana Villalobos, and Thomas Shields in 2003. Funding for the project was generously provided by a Fleming Collaborative Research Grant from Southwestern University and a chemistry departmental grant from the Robert A. Welch Foundation (AF-0005). Finally, various colleagues have provided excellent commentary on this paper: Conner Bailey on a much earlier version and Maria Lowe and Bridget Hayden on recent versions. Hayden’s comments were particularly helpful in conceptualizing our arguments. Last but not least, three anonymous reviewers provided very helpful comments that we think have significantly improved the article.

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Correspondence to Melissa A. Johnson.

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Johnson, M.A., Niemeyer, E.D. Ambivalent Landscapes: Environmental Justice in the US–Mexico Borderlands. Hum Ecol 36, 371–382 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-008-9171-8

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Keywords

  • US–Mexico border
  • Environmental justice
  • Toxic waste
  • Social movement