The Long Fight for Environmental Justice in the Caribbean

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Green European Journal interviews Martinican civil and environmental engineer and political philosopher Malcom Ferdinand. He is the author of Une écologie décoloniale (2019), of which an English translation is forthcoming under the title A Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World (Polity Books, 2021).

Environmental disasters are not always dramatic one-off events, sometimes devastating effects arise over decades of neglect and damage. The fight for environmental justice in Martinique and Guadeloupe, which remain French “overseas territories”, is inscribed in a long struggle against colonial power and domination. For the people of these islands, decolonisation is far from an abstract notion – it is bound up with the most basic of human needs and can be a matter of life or death.

Green European Journal: The Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are facing a long-term public health crisis connected to the chemical chlordecone. Can you explain where this substance comes from and what its effects are?

Malcom Ferdinand: Chlordecone is a chemical compound that was produced in the United States by the Allied Chemical Corporation since the 1960s. It was then exported, mainly from the States, to Europe and other parts of the world, including Martinique and Guadeloupe. In the form of a white powder, it was used as a pesticide against insects that would damage the crops in banana plantations. Officially, it was used from 1972 to 1990, but the use went on illegally for a few years longer.

Why is it still causing problems today? For a number of reasons. The first is that this chemical persists in the environment. Like all organochlorides – the insecticide DDT is another example – chlordecone stays in the ecosystem for a long time. It can stay in the soil for centuries, particularly in soils that are very rich in carbon like the volcanic soil of Martinique. The result is generalised contamination. Even if chlordecone was last used in the soil in the 1990s, it is still found today in different types of foods, in the waterways, in the coastal waters, and, of course, in the human body.

To this day, it is estimated that more than 90 per cent of all the people in Martinique and Guadeloupe are contaminated by this chemical. This harmful compound has a number of damaging effects on the body. It’s what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” (violence over a long period of time). This type of violence is felt through reduced pregnancy terms, increasing the chance of premature birth, and slowing the cognitive, visual and motor development of infants. It also increases the chance of prostate cancer, of which Martinique has one of the highest rates in the world.

While there have been court cases since the 2000s around these impacts, to this day, there has been no indictment. [. . .]

Have resistance movements taken shape in Martinique and Guadeloupe as a result of this? What has been the response from the French government?

The state response came late. Chlordecone was used from 1972 to 1994-5, but the state only started to take measures to protect the people in 2000. So, the state only decided to start protecting people 28 years after the chemical was first used and, for all that time, people were fully exposed to it.

Even though the first court cases took place between 2006 and 2007, we couldn’t really call what existed at the time social movements. But there was enough publicity to push the state to take stronger measures in terms of funding some clean-up methods, trying to limit exposure, and inter-ministerial plans. But, because the compound cannot be removed from the soil, the government’s response was to limit chlordecone concentration to a level that was deemed safe.

Throughout this time, a few books were written and criticisms were made, but there weren’t any massive demonstrations until three years ago. Many in Martinique and Guadeloupe knew it was not safe, but that’s another thing. In 2018, the state raised the limits, increasing people’s exposure to chlordecone, and that led to demonstrations, criticisms, artistic expressions, and the founding of a few collectives.

The social movement really started to grow from 2019 onwards. There were massive demonstrations in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, and in Paris on 27 February 2021. It reached a peak earlier this year after the Penal Court indicated that inconclusive verdicts might be reached on court cases filed 14 years ago because of the time that has elapsed. [. . .]

[. . .] Is there something about the experience of the colony that throws the social-political side of ecology into sharp relief?

On the contrary. It is precisely in former colonies where it may not seem as evident. This is the starting point for my book, which will soon be published in English under the title of Decolonial Ecology. I spent 18 years of my life in Martinique where we were raised to see ecological issues on one side, and the social-political-historical on the other. It is in just such a place, heavily marked by the legacy of colonialism and enslavement, that these issues are siloed. So you will have companies destroying the environment, but also environmental NGOs that reduce ecological activism to cleaning up the beach and the streets, without addressing the polluting and extractive activities of companies.

Colonial habitation is not just a material economic practice but also an intellectual one. [Note: Colonial habitation and related concepts are further discussed in this interview with Ferdinand.] In this context, ideas like “environmental justice” are seen as disruptive and are not really welcomed by those who want to maintain the system. When I interview people in the Caribbean, they don’t use these terms even though their struggles are classical cases of environmental injustice. [. . .]

For full interview, read https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/the-long-fight-for-environmental-justice-in-the-caribbean

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