The Problem of Environmental Racism in Mexico Today is Rooted in HistoryRoundup
tags: racism, environmental history, Mexican history, Environmental racism, Afro-Mexican history
Jayson Maurice Porter is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University studying the history of environmental justice, agrochemicals and racial ecologies in Mexico. He writes for Noria Mexico and Central America, Black Perspectives and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).
One of the challenges the Biden-Harris administration will have to address is environmental racism. Today, communities of color in the United States disproportionately endure pollution and other hazardous conditions that inform quality of life and life expectancy. President Biden recently pledged to address these concerns — even creating a White House council on environmental justice. Although it is still too early to know whether these steps will improve lives in minority communities, they represent one effort to tackle a long-standing problem around the globe.
Similar to the United States, Mexico is also at a moment of reckoning when it comes to the issue of environmental racism. For decades, the Afro-Mexican population has been devastated by environmental injustice. Black and Afro-Indigenous communities on the Costa Chica, east of Acapulco, Guerrero, in particular, have faced displacement and land degradation caused by generations of tourism, deforestation and agrochemical runoff. Moreover, continued tourism to Acapulco has increased these communities’ exposure to the novel coronavirus, stretching underfunded coastal health services even thinner.
Bringing attention to the history of Afro-Mexicans, especially those who live in the Guerrero region, makes it possible to address legacies of environmental racism — an issue that has implications for all Mexicans. After all, since the days of colonial Mexico, Black muleteers have used environmental knowledge to shape regional and national movements for independence. They knew that the literal landscape of slavery perpetuated racial injustice, and conquering this was essential to achieving racial equality — a lesson essential to understand if we want to address environmental racism in Mexico and the United States today.
In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors began to enslave African people and justified their enslavement with arguments that Africans effectively resisted disease and possessed agricultural capabilities. When the disease-related deaths of millions of Indigenous people in the Americas led to labor shortages that jeopardized the colonial project, Spaniards imported nearly 200,000 people from West Africa to all parts of the colony.
Europeans hoped to harness and reorient West African agricultural traditions into plantation economies. The settlers assumed that only people of African descent could survive the harsh climate of the coastal lowlands and work with livestock without succumbing to disease. Within generations, Spanish landowners along the coasts of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz adopted slavery for cacao, rice and cotton plantations. In addition to leveling forests for crops, the Spanish plantation system also began to destroy biodiversity with imported cattle and replace mountains with mines.
But enslaved Afro-descendants didn’t meekly accept subjugation. They freed themselves and formed runaway communities, or cimarrones.
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