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Environmentalism of the poor

Theories of ‘environmentalism of the poor’ (Guha and Martinez-Alier, 1997; Guha, 2000; Martínez-Alier, 2002) and ‘liberation ecology’ (Peet and Watts, 2004) have much in common with the branch of the Green movement that contests the unequal distribution of ecological goods and evils resulting from economic growth. These perspectives are distinct from the mainstream current of environmentalism seeking ecological modernisation and eco-efficiency, and also from the older environmentalist current aimed at conserving a pristine nature without human interference.

The environmentalism of the poor manifests itself through conflicts that have an ecological element, including social justice claims, and involving impoverished populations struggling against the state or against private companies that threaten their livelihood, health, culture, autonomy. These movements are born from the resistance (expressed in many different languages) against the disproportionate use of environmental resources and services by the rich and powerful. Ordinary women and men strive to correct the wrongs that have been committed against the land, water and air around them. In so doing, they contradict the Brundtland report and its view that environmental damage is caused by poverty. Ecological anthropology, agro-ecology and political ecology are the main academic allies of the environmentalism of the poor. The Chipko movement in the Himalayas, India, in the 1970s, and the movement of the seringueiros, linked to Chico Mendes in Acre, Brazil, in the 1980s, represent two emblematic cases of environmentalism of the poor.

There are many well-known contemporary examples of this type of environmentalism: the Ogoni, the Ijaw and other groups protesting the damage from oil extraction by Shell in the Niger Delta; resistance against eucalyptus in Thailand and elsewhere on the grounds that ‘plantations are not forests’; the movements of oustees due to dam construction as in the Narmada river in India and the atingidos por barragens in Brazil; and the new peasant movements such as Via Campesina , against agro-industries and biopiracy (‘biopiracy’ refers to the appropriation of knowledge of agricultural or medicinal plants without payment, essentially theft). There are also many historical instances of what could be termed the ‘environmentalism of the poor’, although the words ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’ were not used politically at the time and the actors of such conflicts rarely saw themselves as ‘environmentalists’, concerned mainly with livelihood. Two examples related to copper mining come from Rio Tinto, Andalusia, in the 1880s against sulphur dioxide; and in the early 1900s against the pollution of the Watarase River by the Ashio copper mine in Japan with the peasant leader Tanaka Shozo.

As long as problems related to the unequal distribution of ecological costs and benefits remain unaddressed, efforts to pacify protagonists of this type of movement are unlikely to succeed. On the contrary, the publicity given to these struggles through traditional channels of communication and today’s ‘network society’ is a source of inspiration to others opposing forces bent on destroying local and global environments. Ultimately, the sum of these conflicts in a global environmental justice movement may represent a powerful social force for greater sustainability.


Guha, R. (2000) Environmentalism: a global history. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guha, R. and Martínez-Alier, J. (1997) Varieties of environmentalism: essays North and South. London: Earthscan.

Martínez-Alier, J. (2002) The environmentalism of the poor: a study of ecological conflicts and valuation. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Peet, R. and Watts, M. (eds.) (2004) Liberation ecologies, New York: Routledge.

For further reading:

Davey, I. (2009) Environmentalism of the Poor and Sustainable Development: An Appraisal. JOAAG, 4 (1), 1-10.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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