In the past few years, the climate movement made increasing appearances in mainstream media. Cultural hegemony imposes an archetype of a climate activist that is white, middle or upper class, vegan, likes to recycle, and lives in the global north. But this narrative disregards the fact that our Black and Indigenous ancestors have been creating ways of environmental resistance for hundreds of years, whose work many young Black activists continue today. So, BlackBoard talked with two student Afro-Latinx climate activists, Keala Uchôa and Keyra Espinoza, about reclaiming ancestors’ work and the climate movement in Afro-Latino communities.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Keala Uchôa is a junior Weinberg student. She refounded Fossil Free NU in 2019, and has been an active climate organizer in and outside of Northwestern.
Nia Robles: Could you tell us about your work on climate justice (CJ) and environmental justice (EJ)?
Keala Uchôa: My organizing work at and outside Northwestern and in my research focuses on the intersection of EJ, CJ, and prison abolition. The EJ movement still doesn’t vocalize the compounded environmental injustices that incarcerated folks experience, and it doesn’t theorize prisons, jails, detention centers and the police themselves as forms of toxins to our community. For example, Cook County Jail is in Little Village, a frontline EJ community in Chicago. All these heightened exposures to toxins that Little Village residents face, incarcerated folks in Cook County Jail also face, and sometimes compounded by the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of physical and mental health resources, etc. Black and brown communities are disproportionately in proximity to all sorts of hazardous toxins as well as prisons and jails, and people who are incarcerated are disproportionately Black and brown. The more we can focus on those intersections and build coalitions around them, the more we can actualize visions of justice.
NR: You mentioned the lack of emphasis on EJ in the climate movement. How does mainstream environmentalism contribute to exclusion of Black and brown realities in conversations around EJ?
KU: I think white people are particularly interested in mainstream environmentalism and the climate crisis because it is being framed as affecting everyone, being the “most catastrophic thing” facing humanity. The problem is that it ignores the fact that slavery and colonization have been extremely catastrophic to Black, Indigeneous and brown people for hundreds of years.
All the “solutions” that come out of mainstream environmentalism uphold racial capitalism. Capitalism is an inherently unsustainable system, but in the near future, there will be ways to deal with the shifts in the climate, so the wealthy elite can be shielded from extreme harms while deepening the environmental racism and climate injustice that poor Black and brown people face around the world. Frontline voices should be the ones who are leading the organizing and strategizing visions of the future.
NR: Some of us, even though we share first-hand experiences of environmental injustice, received a formal introduction to the climate movement surrounded by white figures and ideals that completely ignored our ancestor’s work. Was that your case? And if so, how did you start and continue to resist that historical whitewashing?
KU: Environmentalism is presented as conservation and preservation. It idolizes how “benevolent” white figures like John Muir were in creating national parks, and is framed as thinking about nature and animals — not how people are being affected.
If you look into EJ scholarship, a lot of it is US-centric and points to the roots of EJ as coming out of the civil rights movement. What does it mean if we go back in history past the civil rights movement? We see that, actually, one of our foremothers of EJ is Harriet Tubman, who had a completely sophisticated understanding of natural climates and used the moss on trees to know which direction was North when she was leading Black slaves for freedom on the Underground Railroad.
NR: As an Afro-Latinx climate activist, how have you been creating resistance against the US-centrism of mainstream environmentalism in your own activism?
KU: The education at NU around these sorts of movements is super US-centric and not attentive to Afro-Latinx history. I got frustrated because Brazil, which is where my dad is from, has the second-largest Black population in the world, after Nigeria. I think it is extremely important to consider Brazil when talking about every issue concerning abolition and the police, but especially climate justice. For example, the cattle ranching industry in Brazil is fueling deforestation, and you have illegal loggers going to federally designated indigenous territory murdering Indigenous people. But, what a lot of people don’t know is that the cattle ranching industry is also a huge form of neo-slavery of mostly Black and Afro-descendent people from different rural parts of Brazil. They look for work, so they migrate, go up North, and get trapped in death-bondage — which means that in exchange for a place to stay and food, they have to work that off. But because of all the interest rates, it’s impossible to.
There is a lot going on in Latin America in relation to EJ and CJ that people are not aware of and are strategically ignoring, especially in how it affects Afro-Latinx and Afro-Indigenous people.
Keyra Espinoza is an Afro-Indigenous climate justice activist from Ecuador. She is currently a student in the University of Miami majoring in ecosystem science and policy.
Nia Robles: I know the past few years you have been working on climate activism focusing on BIPOC/ Latinx liberation, could you tell us about your work?
Keyra Espinoza: Our way of living, our existence, our identity is an act of resistance. I’ve been doing active work with other groups and projects since the climate march in New York (2019). I just incorporated myself in different organizations and projects, one being Polluters Out, an international climate coalition. Then, after what happened to George Floyd in the United States, Afro-Ecuadorians started to speak up against racism in Latin America, so I joined El Cambio EC, a young community of Afro-Ecuadorians. I also started to participate in Tremendas EC. I’ve been amplifying continuously the existence of these minority groups in Ecuador and Latin America.
NR: How has the historical whitewashing of the climate movement affected your community both in the U.S. and in Ecuador?
KE: The climate movement gained popularity because of white activists spreading “veganism,” “zero waste,” “save the turtles” and stuff like that. But our ancestors have been in this fight protecting different ecosystems around the world for hundreds of years, but no one looks at that, mainly because they are often silenced and persecuted for standing up for their own rights. We are also seen as minorities, as inferior. This is where this concept of the climate movement being whitewashed comes in. It’s really mind-blowing to see how white people try to correct the ways of living of our ancestors. We incorporated nature in our tradition and cultures, we learned how to depend on nature for food, medicine, water, rituals, which people from the global north won’t understand unless they listen to us.
NR: What does climate justice mean to you and how does it play out in Black communities in Latin America?
KE: To me, [climate justice] is reparations to those communities that are being affected and also giving Afro and Indigenous communities authority over their own land.
In Esmeraldas, which is in the north of Ecuador, there is the Choco rainforest, where Indigenous people and Afro-Latinx communities have been living for years. [Since] the late 1900s, corporations and governments have been invading their territories to produce palm oil, and this caused the deforestation of ancestral lands and the contamination of their waters. A popular case is “El caso Wimbí”, a community by la Chiquita River, where waters are completely contaminated, and the people developed health problems. But due to colonialism and environmental racism, the government hasn’t allowed them to claim their lands, because they don’t have their names in a record, as their ancestors were enslaved people. They have no written claim of their territory even though they have been there for the majority of their ancestral lineage.
NR: Are there any activists that inspire you?
KE: The historical women Afro-Ecuadorians were mainly vocalizing for freedom from slavery. For example, Martina Carillo made an effort to speak for the rights of her community. She faced a big penalty — a brutal death — but the way she spoke up for the Afro-community was very motivational. I think their activism was also a form of environmental activism because our existence is our resistance.
NR: What do you think about the erasure of the Afro-Latinx, Afro-Indigenous identity in Ecuador and in the U.S.?
KE: Growing up I actually used to deny both of my roots. [In my] school experience in the U.S. being with other students that were Ecuadorian but were born in the US as well, they were mostly mestizos — white mestizos. I remember this time in ninth grade an Ecuadorian senior told me: “You are not Ecuadorian, you are too dark.” After that event, I started to acknowledge my features, where my grandparents came from, and who I truly am, my childhood in Ecuador. All of that was in me, but I repressed it in the United States. Now, I identify myself as Afro-Indigenous. I also met other Afro-Indigenous people from the U.S., and they mentioned an interesting point that I also struggle with: since you come from two different lineages, people always try to invalidate one. So, if you are Afro-Indigenous you are not Afro, or you are not Indigenous. It’s like you have to pick a side, and it shouldn’t be like that.