February is Black History Month in Canada and the United States – when we celebrate black Canadians’ and Americans’ history and achievements. To mark the occasion, we’d like to introduce you to some of the world’s most famous black environmentalists, both past and present.
Van Jones is one of the most famous black environmentalists on the planet. He has a long history of combining the fight against injustice and climate change. For instance, in 2005, the non-governmental organization he co-founded – the Ella Baker Centre for Human Rights – created a campaign called Green Collar Jobs. This campaign aimed to help low-income residents of Oakville, California, find a job in local green industries.
In 2007, Jones created another non-governmental organization called Green For All. The organization’s goal was to create a green economy across the United States while simultaneously providing a pathway out of poverty. In 2008, he published his first book – the Green Collar Economy. Jones himself has described it as a “viable plan for solving the two biggest issues facing the country today—the economy and the environment.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Jones as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House. As a special advisor, he further helped the administration green the economy and create jobs.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was an environmentalist and writer from Nigeria. He spent his life opposing the Nigerian military regime of 1983-1999 and fighting the oil & gas company Royal Dutch/Shell for causing significant environmental damage to his native Ogoni land in the country’s Rivers state region.
Saro-Wiwa studied at Government College, Umuahia and the University of Ibadan. After his studies, he joined the federal forces and fought in the civil war in the 1960s. When the war finished, he became a full-time writer. In 1985 he published his first two novels, called Songs in a Time of War and Sozaboy. Sozaboy was an anti-war novel written in pidgin English which satirized corruption in Nigerian society. He also worked in television and created a comedy television series called Basi and Company in 1986, which ran for over 150 episodes.
Focusing on the Ogoni People
In the early 1990s, Saro-Wiwa focused his attention on the causes of his Ogoni people – a minority ethnic group who, at the time, numbered around 500,000 people. In 1990, he founded an organization called the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. The organization quickly began focusing on the destruction of the Niger Delta region by Royal Dutch/Shell and the lives of local people. For instance, it demanded greater protection of the environment and profits for the indigenous Ogoni people. In January 1993, he organized 300,000 Ogoni to demand a share in the revenue. The organization’s work was successful, and in late-1993, Royal Dutch/Shell suspended operations on Ogoni land.
Arrest and Execution
The Nigerian government arrested Saro-Wiwa and eight others in 1994 after four Ogoni chiefs died at a political rally. They were all accused of being involved in the deaths and were sentenced to death. In 1995, all nine, including Saro-Wiwa, were executed by hanging, which sparked international condemnation. The United Nations condemned the executions, while the European Union called them a “cruel and callous act” and imposed an arms embargo on Nigeria. Great Britain also suspended Nigeria from the commonwealth as punishment.
After his Death
In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize post-humously.
In 2009, Royal/Dutch Shell paid $15.5 million in an out-of-court settlement to resolve a 1996 lawsuit by Saro-Wiwa’s family members. The organization was accused of being complicit in the executions of Saro-Wiwa and the eight others but denied any wrongdoing.
Robert D. Bullard
Robert D. Bullard is an academic and environmentalist, often described as the father of environmental justice. He is currently a distinguished professor at Texas South University.
Bullard’s environmental career began in 1979. That year his wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, represented several residents of the Northwood Manor neighbourhood of Houston, Texas, against a plan to build a municipal landfill next to their homes.
Bullard became part of the case as an expert witness and conducted a study on the location of all municipal waste disposal facilities in the city. The study found that African-American neighbourhoods, including Northwood Manor, were usually chosen as sites for toxic waste sites. All five of the city’s garbage dumps, six of the eight garbage incinerators, and three of the four landfills were in predominantly black neighbourhoods, despite blacks making up only 25% of the city’s population.
Bullard described his findings as a “form of apartheid where whites were making decisions and black people and brown people and people of color, including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table.”
Environmental Racism in the American South
In the 1980s, Bullard began focusing on environmental racism in the whole American South. Predictably, he found the same issues he had encountered in Houston, with significantly more environmental hazards in black neighbourhoods than white ones. This discovery led to his publishing his first book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. This book highlighted the issues he had seen and described grassroots movements that combined civil rights and environmental issues.
In the 1990s, Bullard became one of the most prominent advocates for environmental justice in the United States. For example, in 1991, he organized the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which formulated the organizing principles of environmental justice.
In 2006, when asked what keeps him motivated in his quest for environmental justice, Bullard responded, “People who fight…People who do not let the garbage trucks and the landfills and the petrochemical plants roll over them. That has kept me in this movement for the last 25 years.”
Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental, social, and political activist. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Green Belt Movement
In 1977, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement to help rural Kenyan women. Increasing deforestation was causing food insecurity, streams to dry up, and forcing the women to walk further and further to get firewood. Therefore, the Green Belt movement organized the women to plant new trees and receive payment for their work.
After founding the Movement, Maathai realized that the poor women’s environmental hardships were linked to societal issues, including disempowerment. Therefore, the movement offered civic and environmental education seminars, now known as Gender Livelihood and Advocacy, which teach, among other things, the power of pulling together towards shared goals.
Over time, the Green Belt Movement expanded further into the areas of democracy and accountability. For example, it fought against agriculture’s encroachment into forests and even joined calls to release political prisoners. The organization eventually went global, partnering with the United Nations in its Billion Tree Campaign.
Nobel Peace Prize
In 2004, the Nobel Committee awarded Wangari Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.” The committee further noted she stood “at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and Africa.”
Wangari Maathai died on the 25th of September 2011, aged 71, in Nairobi, Kenya.
John Francis is an environmentalist nicknamed the planetwalker. In 1971, he witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by the 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill. As a result, he vowed never to use motorized vehicles again. This vow lasted for 22 years, during which he travelled across North America and to South America. He also gave up speaking for 17 years as he frequently found himself arguing with people while walking.
John Francis founded Planetwalk – a non-profit environmental awareness organization – in 1982. The organization sponsors environmental walks nationally and internationally to promote “environmental education and responsibility and a vision of world peace and cooperation.”
In 1991, the United Nations Environment Program appointed him a goodwill ambassador for promoting environmental issues. During the 2011-2012 academic year, he was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Environmental Studies. He also published two books – Planetwalker: 17 Years of Silence, 22 Years of Walking and The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World.
Margie Richard is an environmentalist and activist. She grew up in Norco, Louisiana, just 25 feet away from a chemical plant belonging to Shell. As a result of the plant causing high cancer rates, this area was known as “Cancer Alley.”
In 1989, she formed an organization called the Concerned Citizens of Norco. This organization worked to force Shell to pay for the resettlement costs for people in the area. The organization lobbied for 11 years, and finally, in 2000, Shell agreed to pay USD 5 million in relocation costs for residents.
As a result of her work, Margie Richard won the Goldman Environmental prize in 2004. She was the first African American to win the award.
Conclusion: Many Amazing Black Environmentalists
In conclusion, there are many noteworthy black environmentalists who have worked and continue to work tirelessly to protect our planet. Most work at the junction of environmentalism and poverty, which affects black and other minorities disproportionately. While many on our list won awards for their efforts, climate change continues to be a racial justice problem that we must address. At Greensaver, we acknowledge this fact and continue to attempt to address both racial discrimination and climate change together.