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Harlem to Bijlmer: Implementing Community-Based Environmental Justice in the Netherlands

1. Introduction

In addition to mainstream environmentalism’s focus on conservation and wilderness, the Environmental Justice movement defines “environment” to include the physical surroundings of urban people, making environmentalism a social justice issue. As Bullard puts it, Environmental Justice (EJ) is, “the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations” (Bullard, 1996, 493).

WE ACT is a community-based EJ organization, that works to mobilize the predominately African-American and Latino residents of North Manhattan around a number of public health and local environmental issues. In its twenty years of work, WE ACT has had a number of major successes. It has won a monitoring role in the enforcement of emissions requirements from a sewage treatment plant, catalyzed the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s adoption of system-wide diesel-engine retrofit technology and the use of cleaner fuels, and generated the political will to pass a strong lead poisoning prevention bill. WE ACT’s role has also grown to include an array of community-organizing, advocacy, and leadership development programs.

While New York City is the site of considerable environmental injustice, both historical and contemporary, one might wonder if similar phenomena occur in other industrialized countries in the West. Are there EJ problems in the Netherlands, for example? Our research has determined that this is a significantly underexplored field of inquiry; accordingly, initial results are inconclusive. This proposal is therefore organized around a somewhat counterintuitive challenge: can a community-based EJ organization be developed in a country where there is currently inconclusive evidence of an EJ problem?

2. WE ACT

The key to WE ACT’s long-term success lies in its commitment to community organizing and its emphasis on accountability.

WE ACT was founded in 1988, in response to the noxious fumes discharged by the North River Sewage Treatment Plant and the plans to build a sixth diesel bus depot in North Manhattan. Its early stroke of genius was to channel the momentum of crisis relief into the establishment of a permanent and active advocacy, and an organization for community empowerment. In addition to the monitoring role previously mentioned, WE ACT’s efforts won them a $1.1 million settlement in 1994, allowing them to hire staff and expand their efforts. That same year, the organization created the “Earth Crew,” a youth internship project designed to empower community youth by instilling leadership skills and an awareness of both manmade and natural environments. During an anti-lead campaign, it worked to organize and train Latino and African-American parents to lobby city council members. In addition to establishing a stable political voice in North Manhattan for environmental equity, WE ACT has facilitated projects that include residents in the process of envisioning the transformation and enrichment of their environment. And, it has spearheaded efforts in organizing community voices to critique the rezoning of 125th Street and creating a “community vision plan” for the West Harlem Piers Park development.  

It’s important to note, however, that any organization that mobilizes the community against environmental injustice must rely on expert scientific opinion. Yet, tensions can arise when public health academics conduct their research in communities without reporting back to those communities, or recognizing the ethical obligations inherent in such research. In order to prevent this accountability deficit,, WE ACT developed the Community-Based Participatory Research model. Partnering with the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, ACT Community residents are connected with scientists, and research is carried out according to locally defined needs and priorities. This model ensures that ethical considerations will be more effectively incorporated into the research design. WE ACT is prepared to take aggressive action after researchers discover health problems, but before the scientists have published their findings. 

The youth leadership development programs and Community-Based Participatory Research efforts are mutually reinforcing. As the organization invests in educating its leaders about the environment, the political process and how to speak with the media, it is coming to be recognized within the community as an authentic tool for advancing the environmental interests of Northern Manhattan. The added partnership of Columbia University, has lent WE ACT even greater legitimacy by helping it to maintain the moral high ground.  Meanwhile, the “Earth Crew” who assist in the research gain valuable exposure to the field of environmental science. 

Much more could be said about WE ACT’s various campaigns—which now include pesticides and food equity as issues to be targeted—but the present analysis focuses on the organization’s grassroots approach as the most salient feature of its success. Specifically, it is this combination of community empowerment and community-based participatory research that appears most potentially well-suited to being implemented in the Netherlands. 

3. Implementation in the Netherlands

EJ Problems in the Netherlands: open questions on soil contamination and democratic involvement in environmental decision-making

In contrast to the considerable research on environmental injustice in the United States, there is a lack of exploration about these kinds of issues in other industrialized countries, including the Netherlands, where only one piece of existing research could be found on the topic.  The study investigates two sources of environmental quality measures: the location of industries with potentially harmful effects, and the relative distribution of noise pollution levels across the Netherlands. In the national-level analysis, no statistically significant relationships were found between measures of environmental quality and ethnicity or income. However, the investigators question whether this quantitative approach accurately represents the distribution of environmental risk across the Netherlands. Or, as Heiman concludes: “environmental justice demands more than mere exposure equity. It must incorporate democratic participation in the production decision itself” (Heiman, 1996, 114). 

A second analysis was performed in a mid-sized municipality (Enschede). It does “provide some evidence that income levels may be important in explaining whether or not government takes action to clean up a contaminated soil site” (Coenen, 1998). The researchers believe that the factor of income might be a better indicator of environmental injustice. Interestingly, however, the study also seems to indicate that “as the ethnic minority population increases, the number of soil contaminated sites decreases” (Coenen, 1998). Two possible explanations are given for this: 1) “public policy in The Netherlands may have a pervasive impact upon the protection of these minorities in regards to contaminated soil sites”; or 2) “minorities may be concentrated in the city center, which is less likely to have contaminated soil site areas since industry is unlikely to locate there.” 

All in all, the researchers conclude that “environmental injustice, as we conceptualized it in our analysis, is largely absent in the cities of the Netherlands examined.” However, they question whether merely examining the statistical relationships between ethnicity, income, and environmental risk accurately represents the distribution of that risk across the Netherlands. Therefore, they feel more research needs to be done on “the distribution of soil contamination and the clean-up of these sites across the Netherlands” through “a series of case studies to explore the underlying processes of environmental procedures to evaluate the Dutch ‘riskscape’” (Coenen, 1998).

Similarities in context make for a significant comparison

We find two striking similarities between Northern Manhattan and the Netherlands: both areas are densely populated, and both primarily contain marginalized populations of low-income minorities. 

While the Netherlands has a population density of 419 people per square kilometer compared to only 28 people per square kilometer in the United States, Northern Manhattan is one of the densest areas of the U.S. with over 30,000 people per square kilometer. Thus, while the whole of the Netherlands is actively managed, developed, and cultivated (Lucardie, 1997), land use in Manhattan can be said to be subject to similarly strong, if not more intense, pressures. 

Low-income minorities in the Netherlands seem marginalized in much the same way as in the U.S. Research has shown that in the Netherlands, there is significant social stratification across neighborhoods (SCP, 1998), with areas showing the most marked decline in social status being located in large and medium-sized urban areas of 50,000 inhabitants or more. Ethnic minorities primarily live in the largest urban areas, and are strongly overrepresented among the underprivileged members of Dutch society. This can be illustrated, for example, by the fact that people of foreign origin make up around 20 percent of the unemployed, while constituting only 5 percent of the total work force. One important contributing factor might be that migration has primarily brought people to the Netherlands who have a limited educational backround, and therefore are more likely to have difficulty finding work.

Dutch Environmental Policy: decision-making excludes low-income and minority neighborhoods

Dutch policy is aimed at a consensus among parties, whereas policy in America is more likely to be the result of a compromise between competing and often adversarial groups. However, in the Dutch case this consensus is somewhat disingenuous, since these policy discussions do not solicit the voice of low-income minority populations, which potentially bear the greatest degree of environmental risk. 

The Social Economic Council (Sociaal Economische Raad, SER) provides a useful example of this problem. The SER, representing employees, employers and entrepreneurs, is consulted by the government regarding all kinds of social and economic issues.  While it incorporates environment-related questions into its discussions, it ignores the contributions of citizens, who may know the most about the direct effects of environmental risk.  Another major aspect of Dutch environmental policy is the ‘target group approach’, which involves industrial organizations acting on behalf of polluters, i.e. target groups, once a framework of national environmental objectives has been formulated in the National Environmental Policy Plans. In a consensus between these ‘target groups’ and the government the tasks for individual industrial sectors within this framework are defined and formalized in covenants and other guidelines. This setup has government intervening to get industries to fix industry-created pollution, but it is not clear what role is played by the citizens who are most affected by that industry pollution. 

Proposed Application in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood of Amsterdam

The Bijlmer neighborhood of Amsterdam has suffered from overcrowding, high rates of substance abuse and crime, and unemployment. The neighborhood is also situated near Schiphol airport; thus, it is potentially affected by noise pollution as well. 

All of these factors make the Bijlmer neighborhood a perfect site for implementation of the two features extrapolated from WE ACT. This area is in great need of a long-standing inclusive community-based organization designed primarily to build local capacities for impacting the political process. Moreover, more research needs to be conducted to measure the environmental burden of the nearby airport and to identify other sources of environmental risk. 

Both the receiving community and the organizational model are ready for implementation. Youth internships, for example, could be developed in Bijlmer along the lines of WE ACT’s “Earth Crew”. Given the existing problem of xenophobic employers in the Netherlands who exclude immigrants from internship possibilities, this program would open new opportunities for young people and help to keep them off the streets. It could also serve to organize local opinion regarding the government’s current redevelopment of a housing project in that neighborhood. 

Residents of Bijlmer are suspicious of outsiders – even organizations that are trying to help.. A crucial component of WE ACT’s success is the recognition on the part of these people that it is an authentic and accessible tool for them, so any project implementation would need to build coalitions with neighborhood members, churches, mosques, etc. The willingness to accept a community development project will depend on how much residents of Bijlmer feel ownership of it. 

The need for development here has been a thorn in the side of Amsterdam’s municipal government, which is willing to spend a great deal to fix this dilapidated area. Renewal efforts so far have focused on renovating buildings, parks and infrastructure; an initiative that targets the community’s social fabric instead of the physical environment would represent an innovative and fundable proposal.

This implementation is not without some risk, however. As just mentioned, the project faces a good deal of initial suspicion. The primary risk, therefore, is failure, which would, this would further add to the community’s sense of disillusionment. Considering that our funding would potentially come from the city government, a failed program runs the risk of generating suspicion on the part of city authorities as well as the public at large. 

On the other hand, the immediate payoffs are additional information about whether environmental injustice is present in the Bijlmer neighborhood, and a more cohesive social environment. 

4. Conclusion

In this implementation proposal, we have tried to answer the question: can an EJ organization be developed in a nation in which environmental racism may be possibly, but not certainly, occurring? 

In brief, we respond that it can. The most salient features contributing to WE ACT’s success are, in fact, exportable. The organization is designed to generate more concrete information about environmental burdens which, in the absence of more conclusive data on EJ in the Netherlands, is precisely what is needed. Part of WE ACT’s organizational dynamic can be implemented through the explicit goals of youth outreach and community organization in low-income minority communities. If the organization successfully takes root, it could become a community advocate for participatory research investigating the fairness of the environmental burdens placed on the area. As a community-based organization, it will also be well-positioned to document interactions between residents and government authorities, thereby affording an answer to the theoretical question posed by researchers about the inclusivity of the processes underlying environmental policy. 

While there has been no crisis like the 1988 North River Sewage debacle that galvanized community outrage in Harlem, this need not limit the possibility for replicating a compelling set of features that appear in WE ACT, and developing a more comprehensive Environmental Justice perspective in marginalized communities in the Netherlands.

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