June 6, 2008

Crying Wolf

By Javier Sierra

Remember the fable of the boy shepherd and the wolf? The one about the mischievous little boy crying wolf to trick the community, until the wolf really came and nobody rushed to help save his flock.

Now imagine another boy shepherd, who, hoarse from crying so loud, does know that the wolf is roaming among us and that the flock is in great peril.

That’s the case of the U.S. Latino community, which for decades has lived with a wolf in their ranks, a wolf named environmental degradation, which is eating away the health and future of millions of its members. And regardless of the warnings of organizations like the Sierra Club and other organizations, the federal government, except for a very few cases, has ignored these warnings.

Today, I bring you the loudest cry yet that this reality can no longer be ignored. I am talking about the first-ever national poll about Latinos and the environment, which was sponsored by the Sierra Club and conducted by Bendixen & Associates among 1,000 registered Latino voters.

The survey confirmed our fears that the Latino community disproportionately suffers the consequences of environmental degradation. Sixty-six percent said they either live or work close to a toxic site, whether it is “a refinery, a chemical plant, an incinerator, an agriculture field, a freeway or a factory.”

In the early 1980’s, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, three out of every five Latinos were affected by toxics in the environment. Today, the ratio is up to two out of three.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hispanic children present a higher incidence of cancers, such as leukemia, osteosarcoma and germ cell tumors, than non-Hispanic white counterparts. Or that in the majority of Latino communities, especially those of Mexican and Puerto Rican origin, asthma is considered an epidemic.

Are Latinos aware of their being victims of this environmental injustice? The poll tells us so. To the question, “How much would you say energy and environmental issues impact the quality of life of your family?,” a whopping 83 percent answered either “a lot” or “some.”

So much so that 90 percent said they felt “a moral responsibility to take care of the creations of God on this Earth.” This includes the wilderness and forests, the oceans, the lakes and the rivers. This spiritual connection with nature is a reflection of a singular characteristic in our community — our devotion for gatherings of family and friends at the country’s parks and beaches.

The poll also destroyed the conventional belief that Latinos turn their backs on environmental issues, such as global warming. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said climate change will melt the polar caps and that the resulting flooding will be catastrophic.

During the presentation of the poll, its author, Sergio Bendixen, emphasized that the reason for this overwhelming belief lies on Latino’s fears that they will be one of the most punished communities by global warming. Let’s keep in mind that in its most recent and gravest warning, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us that the ones most at risk of suffering the consequences of this phenomenon will be the least privileged communities, such as Latinos in the U.S., and the developing nations, such as those in Latin America.

Energy issues, such as the cost of gasoline and other fuels, also have a big impact on our community. That’s the way 80 percent of respondents think. A similar percentage thinks that shifting toward a clean energy economy could create millions of jobs, improve the environment and protect their children.

But Latinos will not sit on their hands in the face of all these challenges. According to the poll, 73 percent are willing to take action to help improve the environment. This action includes supporting leaders that would protect them from polluters, lobbying their representatives, attending rallies or joining an environmental group.

This year, those who choose to ignore the Latino community — a community under siege by environmental injustices — will be playing a dangerous game by crying wolf.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit www.sierraclub.org/ecocentro

Return to the Frontpage