Being an Environmental Studies student I’ve taken whole classes based on the relationship between people and the natural world around them. One common correlation made in such classes is that between the poor and polluted environments. I’ve been taught that, more often than not, the poor live in and around polluted areas while the wealthy experience the luxury of healthy, environmental conditions. The poor carry the burdens of pollution and climate change and feel the effects of environmental exploitation more strongly than other social classes. Similarly, damage to the environment inflicted by society cannot be addressed until the issues of poverty and other social inequalities are met. Having been taught all this in recent years, I never truly understood the correlations until seeing them firsthand in Nicaragua.
After arriving in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, one of the first things I noticed besides the stunning beaches, quaint shops and houses, and constant motion of the people was the litter. It was everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. Bottles, bags, cans, wrappers and more blanketed the forest floors along every highway, dirt roads, and driveways. As my trip led me to other regions of the country this observation did not change. (With the exception of the northern, rural mountains and the southern river border with Costa Rica where populations were so small and poverty so extreme that they didn’t have anything to throw out as litter.) Litter blustered across highways and gathered in ditches. It congregated in back yards and was raked into piles to be burned. Smoke spiraled up from communities at all hours of the day and night accompanied by the distinct and unpleasant smell of burning trash. It was disgusting. I looked around and was disappointed in the Nicaraguan people. My first thoughts were ‘How could they let it get this bad? How can they throw their things out into the roads, the lakes, the forests, and not care about how it looks or the damage it does to the environment? How can they drive these roads every day and not feel the desire to do something about the trash? Not organize to clean it up?’
It took a few days for me to realize why they didn’t, why they couldn’t do anything about the pollution and why it got to be a problem in the first place. Poverty. When you’re worried about feeding your children and buying clean water and paying the electric bill (if you can afford electricity) it’s hard to justify paying for proper waste removal. When you work all day and have to take care of your children and other assorted relatives at night and prepare the plantains for the week and do the laundry or work a night shift at the family store or restaurant you don’t exactly have time to volunteer picking up trash along the road or lake shore. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at its finest. Until the people have their basic needs (food, shelter, and safety) met they won’t worry about anything else. Likewise, when your government is still focused on implementing new and better education programs, health care, and transportation systems and campaigning so the current president will get reelected for a third consecutive term, they can’t afford the resources to fund any sort of trash clean-up program.
My first week in Nicaragua was spent solely in San Juan del Sur attending a language school during the day and participating in various cultural activities in the evening. For the second week, my companion Emma and I traveled back to Managua (the capital of Nicaragua) to meet up with professors Dan Spencer and Patrick Burke and the other members of our two week study abroad. We met with several organizations and people in the city and countryside who provided me with further examples of the interconnectedness of poverty and the environment. One of our first meetings was with a women’s health center that was developed to serve a region of the capital where women were dying of unknown causes. The psychologist from the center who met with us explained the source of the problem which they uncovered with a little investigating. The shores of Lake Managua (the immense body of water along which the capital is nestled) had once been used as a dumping grounds for the city’s waste. When a new location for the dump site was chosen, the old site was filled in and upon it the poorest of the poor built their communities. Over time, the buried waste festered and seeped its way into the people’s soil and water sources. This, in combination with living in close quarters to the extremely polluted lake, meant it was only a matter of time before cancers and other diseases broke out within the community.
Similar stories were told by and about workers on tobacco and sugar cane plantations. Just like the poor in the cities who, being desperate for a home, were left to live in the least desirable locations, desperation for an income leads the poor in the country to take up the least desirable jobs. When it comes to agriculture, Nicaragua does not have the same regulations on chemicals as the United States and some very toxic pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are used on cash crops. As these chemicals are absorbed into the soil and as rains wash them into waterways, their concentrations have grown to dangerous levels in certain drinking water reserves. Resulting from this, in the sugar cane town of Chichigalpa, 3-4 people are dying a day of renal and other cancers. Meanwhile, the wealthy who can afford purified water and work and live away from chemicals and waste, are unaffected.
Also in regards to the issue of clean water is the proposed trans-oceanic canal. The canal will bring in salt water and added pollution to water sources of the communities it passes. For towns like San Juan del Sur where only those in deepest poverty drink the tap water which others use solely for laundry and personal hygiene, health problems are predicted to explode. Many of the poor who drink the tap water already suffer from kidney problems and any added contamination (or chlorine added to counter contamination) will only exemplify the occurrence of kidney stones and cancers.
However, it’s not only the actions and events in Nicaragua taking a toll on the nation’s poor. As is the case around the world, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more evident and are no exception to the poverty-environment relationship. While staying with rural families working on coffee farms in the northern mountains of Nicaragua, we saw why Nicaragua is the 11th country most affect by climate change in the world. Coffee must be grown within a very specific temperature gradient and in the tropical country of Nicaragua these temperatures are only found at higher elevations. However, with warming, global temperatures, the elevations at which coffee must be grown is becoming higher and higher, reducing the land available for coffee production. The families we stayed with were entirely dependent on the coffee industry when signs of climate change first appeared and they are now struggling to find additional sources of income to compliment their dwindling coffee crops. Likewise, climate change is altering the patterns of the dry and rainy seasons that Nicaraguan farmers rely on. The rainy season is becoming rainier and the dry season drier. Weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable, meaning many farmers are putting their crops in too early or too late. The result of this is little or no harvest and a diminished income for the year. Altogether, climate change is wrecking havoc across Nicaragua and not only is it being felt by just the poor, but it continues to sink the poor further into poverty.
For me, it took a trip halfway across the world to truly understand the relationship between poverty and the environment. While everyone contributes to waste, to climate change, and demands the food products being laden with pesticides, it’s a very narrow margin of society that feels the negative outcomes. Unfortunately, it is the poor of the world who suffer the most negative effects and until social and economic equality are achieved environmental issues cannot be addressed and environmental justice will not be served.