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Mexico’s Environmental Racism

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We don’t often think of Afro-Mexicans, but they very much exist, especially along both the Gulf and Pacific coasts. And they face significant discrimination within a quite racist Mexico. That racism includes environmental racism, as Jayson Porter explores:

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.

The 1930s provided a chance to reckon with this environmental racism. In February 1934, the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey wrote to Mexican President Abelardo Rodríguez, inviting a delegation of Afro-Mexicans to the centenary celebration of the “Emancipation of the Negroes of the Western Hemisphere.” Garvey invited dozens of countries to join him in Jamaica, where he resided at the time, to “mark the progress the race has made” on the hemisphere.

Yet Mexico did not take the opportunity to celebrate the Black arrieros or their geographies as symbols of independence and progress in Mexico — a move that would have brought focus to the region and reduced the exploitation of its environment at the expense of local residents. The government instead continued to characterize the state and its Afro-descendant population as backward and in need of modern agribusiness, highways and hotels. And without consulting these communities, government efforts to uplift Guerrero only further marginalized Afro-Guerrerenses.

This lack of historical recognition is not a minor issue — it shapes Mexican life, culture and politics to this very day. And it has proved to be a barrier for Afro-Mexican activists who are now demanding environmental justice. Today, the Costa Chica of Guerrero, a predominantly Black region, is one of Mexico’s poorest areas because of deforestation, soil erosion and water contamination caused by monoculture, tourism and state neglect. One can only hope that Mexican leaders will begin to address the ongoing challenges of environmental racism. The land, lives and futures of Afro-Mexican people depend on it.

Racism is a worldwide problem, to quote Patterson Hood, and it is indeed easier to play it with a southern accent thanks to George Wallace. But for us to fight racism in its totality, we need a global response. And that includes the complexities of a nation such as Mexico, whose residents are demonized today when they enter the United States and forced to live in all sorts of toxicity and yet whose residents also often support the same kind of treatment when it comes to Afro-Mexicans or Guatemalans.

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