The Violence of Environmentalism: Two Instances from Central Park, New York and El Atazar, Madrid

In All, Ideas, Theories, & Stories, teju, The Story, Urban Inspiration by Teju Adisa-Farrar

In most cases environmentalism and natural preservation is a very good important practice. Usually environmental protection discourses place people and multinational corporations as destroyers of nature and the environment more generally through the extraction and exploitation of natural resources. Additionally, these MNCs are perpetrators of great injustice to their workers, including: breaking international labour laws, while also harming indigenous and/or poor and/or people of color communities who inhabit the areas where this happens. While this is all true, it is rare to hear of a case where the call for environmental protection is actually the catalyst for injustice towards humans. It is not unheard of, just very rare.

This discussion can fall into a similar one which suggests that environmentalism, unlike environmental justice, perpetuates the status quo and some of the “isms” that exist in society. Namely that the environmental movements in the United States and Western Europe are mainly led by White middle to upper class young people–with many men or people who identify as male being leaders and decisive voices. This piece, which I must admit is not in anyway a scientific study and is purely based on my opinions from reading a few articles and one visit (in the case of Madrid), is about environmentalism’s injustice as a plea for a more comprehensive movement for true environmental justice and equity.

Nameless Displaced Farmers

El Berrueco village near El Atazar Reservoir, many buildings are made completely out of granite extracted from the mountains.

My first week in Madrid, my Masters program took us on an excursion to the mountains surrounding Madrid to learn about where the city’s water comes from and to learn about environmental protection and natural preservation here. El Atazar Reservoir, near El Berrueco, was the first stop we made on our mountain excursion. This area was incorporated into the Madrid Province in 1833 and in 1972 the dam was completed. Once the El Berrueco-El Atazar area became so important for the city of Madrid, they became aware that they had to preserve and protect the land. However, this area had been settled for a long time.

The website “Embalse del Atazar Madrid: History and Culture” (where the previous dates mentioned came from) mentions El Atazar “might have its origin in an Islamic camp of the XII century,” though this is not substantiated by any solid sources. Regardless, El Berrueco-El Atazar area have been populated by communities for several centuries. Thus, when the city of Madrid decided to remove some of the population from El Atazar in order to protect the land, the reservoir, and essentially one of Madrid’s largest water resources–they were removing people from a place that had long been inhabited by small communities of people and farmers, even after the industrial revolution.

When we asked our professor where these people who were removed from the land, displaced, went she said she did not know but that they probably went to the South of Spain. As I did more research on El Atazar it seemed impossible to find any information about the people that had been displaced because of the need for land and water preservation. Although there was information regarding some 600 farmers who are still left in El Atazar area and the struggles they’ve experienced with droughts, most recently in 2012. The farmers who were displaced by the need for preservation seem to have disappeared largely from the discussions about El Atazar Reservoir, in part as a result of the urban centrism of Madrid.

One thing the displacement of the nameless Atazar farmers shows is that a lot of times the needs of the capital city usurp the history, relevance, and needs of rural societies. To argue that farmers had to be removed for preservation assumes their presence is somehow endangering the natural resources. Since this area seems to have been populated for centuries I find it difficult to believe preservation was the only reason. It seems more likely the city of Madrid’s use of El Atazar Reservoir as a primary source of water has created a situation where the farmers in that area became an issue. When searching for information on El Atazar farmers, one can mostly find tourist information such as generic tidbits about culture and festivities in the communities and a couple of articles about the drought aforementioned.

While the displacement of the farmers was rationalized as a means of sustainability and natural preservation there was no resettlement plan for them or suitable compensation, according to my professor. They were uprooted and moved for the sake of environmentalism without any real indication or concrete evidence that their presence was detrimental. Thus, their removal was an instance in which the needs of the city was put before the livelihood and belonging of rural farmers.

The Black Seneca Village
A couple weeks ago an article by Heather Giligan entitled “An entire Manhattan village owned by Black people was destroyed to build Central Park” was circulating on my Facebook newsfeed. As is clear from the title, the article is about a Black village in the 19th century being destroyed to create Central Park. I saved the article and finally got a chance to read it and do my own research on it this week. When I hear about Central Park, as an urbanist, I instantly think of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities as well as other contemporary urban planners and environmentalist who praise Central Park for being such an urban revelation and great example of having accessible green spaces in the city. In 2008 the American Planning Association designated Central Park as one of the 10 Great Public Spaces in the United States.

Even if one knows a little bit about the construction and expansion of Central Park in the mid 19th century, as well as the lobbying involved by Real Estate owners, environmentalists and the likes, one will rarely hear about Seneca Village. This is in part due to historical institutionalized racism, which aims to erase certain significant achievements by Blacks and other marginalized communities from American history. It is also a tendency in Urbanism to forget what impacts certain projects had or have on particular marginalized communities especially if the projects are seen as being for “the greater good.” Although I was not surprised to read about Seneca Village, I was surprised I had never heard about it despite being a self-proclaimed Black Urbanist. However, if you read Central Park’s wikipedia page in entirety you can find five sentences about the removal of Blacks and Irish immigrants, Seneca Village, from the land that is now Central Park.

Please read the full article on the Seneca Village as I will only briefly summarize. Seneca was a Black American Village between 82nd and 89th streets in Manhattan, which contained churches, a school, and residences built and used by free Blacks and runaway slaves. It is also said some Irish immigrants came to live in this area, but it was primarily first and foremost an African-American community. The church, school, and houses built were not shacks or shanties as people who wanted them removed claimed, they were proper buildings as most of the community was middle class. Many free coloreds and Blacks were not able, for a variety of reasons, to live in or near the center of Manhattan so at that time where they lived was the outskirts of the city. It is still common for marginalized, poor, people of color, immigrants, etc. to live on the peripheries of cities or urban centers (most notably the low-incoming housing projects: banlieues or suburbs surrounding Paris, of which some contain mostly sub-Saharan African and Maghrebian ethnic minorities).

When the park was being built it did not seem like a problem to destroy an African-American community because: 1) a large park, green accessible space, was being built that would benefit many White New York City residents; 2) It was good for the environment and for Real Estate; 3) Having green space in a city makes the quality of life better; and 4) It is not in anyway a problem to get rid of a village full of Black people and some Irish immigrants, two groups that the dominant society abhorred. The violence of destroying a community as well as displacing many Blacks was justified because of progressive urbanism that advocated for green spaces in cities and environmentalism, which in many ways only benefits those who fit within the status quo of the dominant society.

Environmental Justice

In these two instances we see how the justification of environmental protection and green space surpasses the needs or rights of human communities. In some cases the environmental aspect should be put before human interest, such as instances of: environmental degradation, natural environment exploitation, excessive resource extraction, deforestation, overfishing, and greed–more generally. However, in these two cases the issue wasn’t only the displacement and removal of marginalized communities. It was also that both cases are largely lost in time, without proper documentation and unknown to people who now use these sites, and there has been–as far as I know of–no acknowledgement or apology from city governments, planners, and other actors involved. Additionally, these communities–if compensated at all–were not given adequate compensation or a resettlement plan.  

If we are truly interested in the continuation of humanity, sustainability, and environmental protection than we must not reproduce the inequalities and inequities in society, which will surely lead to eco-apartheid. We must find equitable solutions and strategies that break down the status quo and give voice, agency, and rights to minority, indigenous, poor, immigrant, and people of color communities. We must not justify violence against these communities under the guise of environmentalism. We must do more research on the ways in which indigenous communities have been coexisting peacefully and without much negative impact on nature for centuries. We have to consume less and more responsibly. I can go on and on, but my final point is that we have to continue to expose the stories of lost communities and marginalized people whose lives and livelihoods are bound to natural preservation and ultimately environmental justice.