Linking Human and Environmental Justice with Carmen Gonzalez

Earthjustice trustee Carmen Gonzalez has been recognized as one of Green 2.0’s leaders of color, and in this Q&A she connects the dots between environmental justice, human rights and the global food industry.

A man in India working with cattle to till a field.
A man in India working with cattle to till a field. (Anantha Vardhan/iStock Photo)

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Carmen G. Gonzalez is an Earthjustice board member and professor of law at the Seattle University School of Law who has published widely in the areas of international environmental law, environmental justice, food security and trade. Here she discusses how marginalized communities bear the brunt of economic activities that wreak havoc on the environment, focusing specifically on the global food supply chain. Gonzalez has been recognized as one of Green 2.0’s leaders of color.

Miranda Fox: What does it mean to you to be chosen as one of Green 2.0’s environmental leaders of color?

Carmen Gonzalez: I am honored that Green 2.0 has recognized my work—along with the work of an illustrious group of scholars and activists of color who are pioneers in the environmental movement. Green 2.0 is doing an outstanding job of promoting diversity among mainstream environmental organizations, government agencies and foundations by analyzing the demographics of these organizations, demanding greater representation of people of color and showcasing the work of environmental leaders of color. 

MF: How are you working to advance the goal of worldwide environmental justice?

CG: From farmworkers poisoned by pesticides to communities living near coal-fired power plants and refineries, socially and economically marginalized communities bear the brunt of economic activities that are wreaking havoc on the environment. Unfortunately, mainstream environmental organizations, government agencies and foundations have been slow to recognize the link between the abuse of nature and the abuse of people—leading many to characterize environmentalism as an elite ‘special interest’ far removed from the concerns of ordinary people. One of my goals as a law teacher and a legal scholar is to reframe the way we think about environmental protection by placing justice front and center. 

In addition to addressing the plight of vulnerable communities, I write about the conflicts between affluent and poor nations that have compromised the effectiveness of efforts to protect the global environment. My most recent book, International Environmental Law and the Global South, addresses energy justice, food justice, water justice, climate justice, extractive industries and the hazardous waste trade. It also discusses the north-south dimension of environmental justice—the ecological debt owed by affluent nations to poor nations for their disproportionate contribution to the degradation of the environment. 

MF: What are two or three of the greatest barriers to environmental justice and advocacy in the Global South?

CG: While the specific barriers vary from country to country and movement to movement, there is one overriding obstacle: an international economic order premised on unlimited economic growth with little regard for ecological limits or for the rights of present and future generations. The growing recognition of the right to a healthy environment in both domestic and international tribunals represents the long overdue recognition that human well-being and environmental protection are inextricably intertwined. However, international economic law continues to favor the interests of corporations and investors and to marginalize both human rights and environmental protection.

MF: How has industrialized agriculture contributed to food insecurity and environmental degradation?

CG: Seventy-five percent of the planet’s food crop diversity was lost in the 20th century as a consequence of the world-wide transition to industrial agriculture. The narrow genetic range of our staple crops like rice, wheat, corn and potato means that our food supply is vulnerable to catastrophic failure in the event of environmental disruptions, such as droughts, floods or pest or disease outbreaks.

Although the world’s population currently stands at more than seven billion, we produce enough food to feed a population of 12 to 14 billion. However, more than 800 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment. Northern agricultural policies have contributed significantly to poverty and food insecurity in the Global South. U.S. agribusiness is heavily subsidized, which means that the price of U.S. food exports is artificially low. Millions of farmers in the Global South are losing their lands and livelihoods due to unfair competition from cheap, imported U.S. food. These small farmers constitute the vast majority of the world’s food insecure people. Trade agreements and the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank restrict the ability of governments in the Global South to protect these farmers by imposing tariffs or providing subsidies.

The biofuels boom, high food prices and the specter of food supply disruptions caused by climate change have created a new threat to food security: an explosion of large-scale land acquisitions in the Global South spearheaded by corporations and investors in the Global North seeking to profit from the offshore production of food and biofuels. These land grabs have resulted in the expulsion of small farmers from the lands they have traditionally cultivated, reduced local food supplies and contaminated waterways. 

The primary beneficiaries of these inequitable and unsustainable policies are the northern transnational corporations that dominate the global food system. The market power of these corporations enables them to pay farmers low prices while demanding high prices for seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, and to charge consumers high prices for processed foods.

MF: Who are La Via Campesina and why are groups like this one so crucial to bringing food security to more people around the world?

CG: La Via Campesina is a global network of small farmers that has implemented ‘food sovereignty’ from the ground up through community-led initiatives to encourage local, sustainable food production. They have succeeded in bringing the voice of grassroots food movements to international arenas like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

Food sovereignty is the right of states and communities to democratically determine their own food and agricultural policies, free from constraints imposed by the IMF, the World Bank and trade and investment agreements. It also promotes sustainable agricultural practices that improve resilience and enhance adaptation to climate change. Advocates of food sovereignty argue that food should not be treated like any other commodity because the right to food is a fundamental human right.

MF: What can people in the West do to help change our unsustainable food system?

CG: People in the Global North can support initiatives in their own communities that seek to bridge the distance between consumers and producers, promote sustainable agriculture, address the absence of healthy and affordable food in low-income communities and support the struggles of farmer workers and food workers for fair pay and safe and healthy working conditions.

People in the Global North can also use their power as voters to demand that elected officials adopt pro-poor, environmentally friendly food and agriculture policies like these:

  • Eliminate the subsidies that support industrial agriculture.
  • Give countries in the Global South greater policy space in trade and investment agreements to protect the livelihoods of small farmers, restore and revitalize domestic food production and promote sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Invest in agricultural projects in the Global South that enhance the livelihoods of small farmers and protect the environment, including storage, cooling and processing facilities designed to avoid food waste.
  • Restrict the production of biofuels that compete with food for land and water, such as corn-based ethanol.
  • Ensure that trade and investment agreements and policies to mitigate climate change, such as biofuels mandates, are undertaken only after rigorous environmental and human rights impact assessments.

As a communications strategist, Miranda covers Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific and California regional offices. She has campaigned to defend public water resources in North America and is a graduate of the Master’s in Global Studies program at the University of California, Santa Barbara where her research focused on climate change.