The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA 2012) defines environmental justice as
the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
In tribal communities in the United States, environmental mitigation is significantly behind that of nontribal communities (U.S. EPA 2004). The situation is equally concerning for indigenous communities in Canada, where legislation that deals directly with the inequalities created by environmental injustice is for the most part nonexistent (Dhillon and Young 2010
). As Mascarenhas (2007)
whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, Native American communities face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.
Sites ranging from industry to mining to military bases, as well as the release of pesticides and other agricultural by-products, negatively affect not only the surrounding environment, but the health, culture, and reproductive capabilities of the communities they border. Because of subsistence lifestyles, spiritual practices, and other cultural behaviors, tribes have multiple exposures from resource use that could result in disproportionate environmental impacts (U.S. EPA 2004).
Reproductive justice is
the right to have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments—[and] is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions. (SisterSong 2012
As such, reproductive justice, a term that has not yet appeared in the environmental health literature, embeds reproductive rights in an intersectional framework that includes social justice and human rights (Luna 2010
). Reproductive justice stresses both individual and group rights because the ability of a woman to determine her reproductive destiny is in many cases directly tied to conditions in her community (Shen 2006
). The concept of environmental reproductive justice involves ensuring that a community’s reproductive capabilities are not inhibited by environmental contamination.
In the case studies we highlight below, struggles for environmental and reproductive justice have often converged as communities have become concerned about the impact of environmental contamination on their ability to reproduce and create culturally competent tribal citizens. These issues were explored in July 2011 in an Environmental Reproductive Health Symposium and Retreat organized by the First Environment Collaborative in Hot Springs, South Dakota, near the homeland of the Lakota Sioux.
The focus of this meeting was to explore the common issues of exposure to environmental contaminants and the health consequences of this exposure. The intent was to facilitate and nurture partnerships among the indigenous community organizations, researchers, scientists, and health care providers. The recommendations that came from the symposium include the need for additional community-based research that will support efforts to achieve environmental reproductive justice, and the need to support policy regulations that will better protect indigenous communities from both local and more widespread sources of environmental contamination. Below we present the environmental and reproductive health issues faced by each of the indigenous communities who were represented at this symposium, and discuss the need to develop the concept of environmental reproductive justice.