Environmental Colonialism

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Environmental Colonialism

by The Editorial Collective — adapted from Claridad

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 4,  July 1973, p. 14 – 16

The following is our adaptation of an article on environmental colonialism in Puerto Rico. The original form of this article was published in the February 4, 1973 issue of Claridad (the Puerto Rican Socialist Party newspaper). The PSP reviewed our adaptation and gave us permission to print it.

Puerto Rico’s land and people have been increasingly threatened by industrial pollution from U.S. corporations which dominate their economy and inhabit their environment. To comprehend what is happening to the Puerto Rican environment, we must understand recent developments in the United States, beginning in 1946 with the great post-war expansion of the U.S. economy. This expansion was based on a technological transformation of American industry. New developments in technology have had a tremendous impact on the people, an impact that the older forms of technology had to a lesser degree. The new technology, moreover, did not safeguard the natural environment, i.e., the ecosystem in which people live.

An ecological cycle involving industry can last indefinitely if allowed to purify itself; if the waste at any step is used as raw material for another. However, such a self-regulatory mechanism is not possible if economic growth is concentrated in industries particularly destructive to the environment. The destruction of the environment has taken place in the U.S. with growing intensity, and its effects are everywhere: in rivers, lakes, bays, mountains, in crops, the air, the cities, and the health of the people. As a consequence, large numbers of people, even some elements of the business elite, have taken up the issue and have fought against the big polluting industries in popular campaigns, courts, local elections, state legislatures and the Congress. The increasing tempo of this struggle, a product of contradictions within the system and among sectors of the ruling class, has resulted in U.S. business and government adopting the policy of exporting pollution.

What has happened in the U.S. is that increasing pollution is no longer acceptable. This is why U.S. industry now seeks a low cost dumping ground, in addition to raw materials and cheap labor, in other countries, where restrictions are still minimal. We can find hints of this policy in a publication of the Presidential Commission on Trade and Foreign Investment of July 1971. We read:

We [North Americans] cannot expect that developing nations will accept our priorities [concerning the environment] if they don’t have our level of well being. Therefore, … the developing nations must be stimulated to develop their own programs for the environment, adequate to their circumstances…

In other words, this Commission is recommending that the developing countries establish low pollution standards because of their poverty. However, it is obvious that this would merely allow rich foreign corporations higher profits in these countries. In a more direct way, a 1971 United Nations document asserts that there are no reasons: “why the developing nations shouldn’t specialize in different industrial areas… that will become very expensive for the developed world because of their growing concern with pollution.”

By the late 1950’s, it also became evident that the U.S. Government was negotiating tariff agreements with the European Common Market. Imported products would then flow into both the U.S. and Puerto Rico due to lowering of tariffs and thus, through competition, would eliminate the Puerto Rican industries that manufactured the same products. These industries were the ones that provided most of the jobs for the Puerto Rican people. In addition, there was the situation that Puerto Rican wages were rising above those of other less developed “cheap labor” countries, as in Southeast Asia, for example. This resulted in the “light” industry moving to areas which had lower wage demands (light industry requires a larger work force). These industries were replaced by “heavy” industry (which requires a smaller work force and more machinery). This kind of industry can operate more profitably under these conditions because the major costs are for materials and equipment; thus, heavy industry can remain competitive. However, the disastrous result for Puerto Rico’s people was worsening unemployment.

Thus, if the colonial government wanted to maintain unemployment at a tolerable level, it had to attract heavy industries at a very high rate, and this is what has been happening in the last few years. But this kind of industry—heavy and medium heavy—has a great drawback: it is highly polluting and destructive. The colony, faithfully following the policies of the colonizer, also made no provisions to defend the people’s living environment.

Environmental colonialism, then, developed in Puerto Rico as a result of these two factors:

1) A decline in the economic advantage that businesses operating in the U.S. had under the previously minimal environmental protection regulations, and

2) The decision of the colonial government to give priority to developing heavy and medium heavy industry.

The Effects

The most spectacular manifestation of environmental colonialism has been developing recently: the gigantic petrochemical complex on the island of Mona, which will also be a U.S. oil storage and distribution center. In view of the great importance of this project we will look at its background.

The importance of oil rests in the fact that it supplies most of the energy that the capitalist economy needs for its functioning and growth. With no energy, any economy dies away. Until recently energy was very cheap. This was due to the fact that the prices were controlled by the big consumers (U.S., West Europe and Japan). More and more, however, the countries of the Third World, who are the main producers, have become conscious of the exploitation of their resources and have started to raise the price of oil and other fuels. Meanwhile, the energy requirements of the U.S. economy are so great and growing so rapidly that that country is forced to import unprecedented quantities of oil and natural gas, that is, energy, from the Middle East. The cheapest way of transporting more and more expensive oil is in supertankers of 300,000 to 600,000 tons.

But the U.S. does not at present have any deep water port (of more than a hundred feet depth) that these tankers need. Neither do they have enough petrochemical complexes to refine all that oil. The construction of superports, the functioning of the refineries, and the possibility of accidents involving supertankers raise formidable environmental problems. These are the reasons why the U.S. ruling class and its functionaries are considering Mona. The formidable environmental problems would be suffered by Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Moreover, the island has very deep water near its coast and is close to other American oil interests in the Caribbean· and near the U.S. east coast, where more than 50% of the energy consumed by that country is used. The U.S. plans for Mona are part of the oil policy assigned to the colonial government f.or Puerto Rico and they reflect the colonial policy of importing pollution. In fact, besides the Mona project, plans for another petrochemical plant on the island have also been announced.

The role assigned to Puerto Rico by the colonial government and the big American companies goes much further than this. Investigative studies on the environmental effect of large copper and aluminum plants are being prepared. The establishment of copper producing plants would initiate the large scale exploitation of our important deposits in the Central mountains. In the same line of thought, against Puerto Rico and against ecology, 15 more pharmaceutical plants are planned in the -north of the island and 15 nuclear reactors to produce electricity. This type of exploitation of Puerto Ricans, their environment and natural resources must be checked.

In the present, 1973, the great capitalistic experiment continues to threaten the life and environment of Puerto Rico. This is an experiment that no civilized country has a right to perform, and less so if it is done to provide profits, wealth and power to the ruling class.

Today, while you are reading this article, refuse is being dumped in the air, water, land, and coast of our island, which include: noxious gases, heavy metals, particulate matter, hydrocarbons, acids, dyes, pesticides, antibiotics. Most of them are capable of inducing cancer in humans; others can produce genetic damage. Already traces of these dangerous elements have been found in the fat tissues of Puerto Ricans. Many of these elements pose terrifying threats to the health of Puerto Ricans and their children. Malformation of the next generation is a frightening possibility if Puerto Ricans are exposed to too many of these dangerous elements.

It would be possible to indicate some other facts of the same kind which jeopardize the wav of life and safety of each Puerto Rican. The location of industries in areas not able to deal with industrial waste has caused contamination, as in the case of Sun Oil in the Yabucoa Valley. Extremely high incidences of mental retardation, asthma, and cancer were found in areas surrounding pharmaceutical firms. One such tragic example was the village of Playa de Guayanilla, bordering the CORCO petrochemical complex. There, a team of doctors has found asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis in the lungs of one third of the population of the village. The same district is subjected to a daily release of pounds of mercury (an active poison) from the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. The economic policy assigned to Puerto Rico threatens the lives of our people while yielding profits for foreign investors.

But this is not the whole story. Nowadays, day by day, oil tankers of up to 100,000 tons go in and out of the harbors. They pose a permanent threat of an accident, spilling thousands of tons of oil over our bays and coasts. There are serious problems related to garbage disposal in each and every one of the municipalities of the island. Deforestation, thermal contamination, felling of mangroves, and an urban growth spreading all over the best rural areas, are increasingly apparent. Main highways are being constructed across the island to fundamentally benefit the capitalists. There is an uncontrolled removal of sands in rivers and beaches; rivers are losing their capacity to erode vertically, which affects the sand supplies they provide to the beaches. Scores of wells have been opened in order for the big enterprises to inject potent poisons into the deepest parts of the earth. Free and uncontrolled extractions of drinking water and the contamination of other reservoirs is allowed. In the 1960’s, there were numerous leaks of radioactivity from the Bonus experimental atomic reactor in Rincon.

Manifesto to the people on the aggression perpetrated by North American big business against public health and ecology in Puerto Rico.


A new form of colonialism has taken shape in the last 10 to 15 years. It consists in using the land, air, and water of the colonized country as dumping ground for poisons and pollutants that the industries from the colonizer country produce. In this way they are able to export pollution and what it costs to fight it outside their territory, avoiding the adverse effects of these wastes on their economy, their public health and their environment. We call this new form of aggression environmental colonialism.

Puerto Rico has been suffering this aggression since the early sixties. In fact, it is very possible that today it represents the best example known of environmental colonialism. And as with all forms of colonialism the colonized that operate within the system follow faithfully the policies of the colonizer: the local big industries are allied to the U.S. ones in their aggression against the l’uerto Rican health and environment.

Progress and Justice

Everything is allowed under the misnomer of “progress”; this is the concept of “capitalist progress”. No Puerto Rican woman or man can accept “economic development” that threatens their life and security, the quality of their land, water, and air, and destroys their precious natural resources.

But the colonialists go much further in their cynicism. They want to convince us that the North American model for economic development is the way towards social justice. This model has been applied for the last 20 years in Puerto Rico and hasn’t solved any of our big problems. Thirty per cent of our labor force is unemployed, while one third of our population migrates to the United States. Thousands and thousands of families are still living in slums, in bad housing. Those who live in housing projects have mortgaged everything. Health care is getting worse and worse. The misuse of drugs and alcohol is increasing in the country at an unbelievable rate.

The wealth remains with those at the top; even hope evades the people. Social justice is farther away than ever before. What is really happening is that social justice is becoming less and less possible with each capitalistic development. The least that can be said about those who honestly believe that the North American model of development will bring social justice is that they haven’t lifted their eyes from their books for years, or they are innocent victims of the confusion that colonialism produces.

The exploitation of the land and people of Puerto Rico has been fostered and perpetuated by the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, recognized belatedly by the United Nations in 1972. In actual fact, Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony for 75 years, in spite of the fiction of the ‘free associated state’. Throughout this period, different forms of exploitation have appeared, the latest embodying the environmental colonialism discussed above. Several groups have entered the struggle against this colonial relationship and its consequences, among them the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), founded in 1971 as a successor to the Pro-Independence Movement (MPI). The PSP asserts that independence and socialism is the only way to social justice in Puerto Rico, and calls for unity between the Puerto Ricans in the continental United States and those in Puerto Rico in their struggle. The ·publication of a manifesto and analysis of environmental colonialism by the PSP shows that it is in the interest of the people in less developed countries to work for strict environmental standards as a part of the struggle for independence. People in poor countries should not have to use their health and living environment as bargaining chips for industrial “development” by foreign corporations.


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