Posted February 25, 2008
Book Review: Laura Pulido’s Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest.
“Subaltern” groups, according to Pulido, are those which are subordinated socially, politically, culturally, and institutionally as well as economically. For example, Mexican agricultural workers occupy the lowest position within the division of the labor, lack political rights and legal protections, and face language barriers.
Mainstream environmentalism’s primarily concerns are efficient use of natural resources through conservation and ecological issues, such as protection of endangered species and wilderness preservation. Their philosophy is based on a dichotomy between human society and nature and the issue of social justice is not among their main goals.
However, environmental issues for subaltern groups cannot be separated from economic inequality and political justice. Because they do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo, subaltern struggles have to seek to change the distribution of power and resources to benefit the less powerful. Environmental issues are directly connected with their livelihood and health. It is, in Pulido’s words, “their land and their bodies that are at risk.”
Pulido examines two cases of subaltern groups’ environmental struggles. The first case is about the California San Joaquin Valley Mexican farm workers’ legal actions and a boycott movement in the late 1960s against “uncontrolled pesticide uses.”
Mainstream environmentalists in California in the 1960s fought against unregulated pesticide use, but they focused more on regulating the use of pesticide in national parks than the protection of farm workers. The state government had some regulations for pesticide use, but it maintained that workers were solely responsible for their injuries from DDT exposure.
However, the farm workers union (the UFW) linked together ecological concerns to working conditions and to both workers and consumers’ health issues in the campaign and successfully organized the workers into the newly emerging union, mobilized consumer solidarity on the food-safety issue, and got union recognition from more than two dozen of the growers, although the union faced attacks from the growers in the 1970s and became weakened.
The second case is the struggle of residents of a Hispanic community in northern New Mexico (Ganados Del Valle) in the 1990s for accessing resources for their survival. Formed in the 1980s by low-income Hispanic households in Chama Valley in Rio Arriba County, the Ganados members began to graze sheep and produced wool and woolen products by pulling their meager resources together. By the mid-1990s their business grew and their wool products (Tierra Wools) became well known.
They used “ecologically sound grazing programs,” using natural dyes and a solar space heater to dry their products. They grazed churro which was a species of sheep in danger of extinction. Besides, weavers worked at their own paces and designed their own styles of woolen products. Pulido argues that members developed a sense of ownership and power as well as diverse skills.
The problem, however, was that they did not have enough lands to raise more sheep. Land prices became prohibitively high after the tourism business arrived in the region. Because 50 percent of the state land was owned by the federal government for wildlife preservation, the Ganados researched ways to use the Wildlife Management Areas and presented grazing programs which could increase wildlife preservation.
However, they faced enormous opposition from mainstream environmentalists who opposed grazing itself because they believed grazing would destroy preservation. Responding to various pressures by special interest groups, such as ranchers and hunters, the government resource management agencies argued that letting the Ganados graze the land would be “discrimination” against others in favor of Hispanic herders.
Pulido claims that grazing should not have been summarily dismissed because the main problem was not inherent in grazing but in resource management. Because the poor must support themselves and thus should have access to resources, environmentalism must devise new methods to achieve “both ecologically and socially sustainable economic activities,” rather than dichotomize them and then focus only on creating a wilderness which in fact is a result of human management.
Pulido shows how environmentalism is a survival issue for workers and marginalized people, but she also points out the limitation of their struggles: Subaltern people’s positions in the power relationship prevent their ideas from reaching a larger audience and they do not have many choices to change their working conditions in fundamental ways in this system.
If a system is based not on profit-oriented production but on human needs, then it will try to create industries that will benefit human beings and their environment all together. It will also have to guarantee every social member’s job security – a condition in which everyone does not necessarily keep his current job but is guaranteed to have a job. Social members will collectively decide what kinds of industries should be created and transformed and how individual members should be provided with jobs (and continuous education programs for new jobs). Neither human beings nor nature will be exploited in this system and building this kind of system is the only way both can survive.