Environmental Racism and Climate Injustice: Impact on Vulnerable Ethnic Communities

Fernanda Lopes

Program Director at Baobá Fund for Racial Equity


It is well known that the climate crisis poses substantial risks to health, food production, water supply, ecosystems, energy, security and infrastructure. Even though climate change affects the entire planet, some people are disproportionately affected by social, economic, political, environmental and sociocultural issues. The climate crisis and the changes caused by it exacerbate these existing inequalities and exclusions resulting from intertwined histories of colonialism, racism, oppression and discrimination.

In Brazil, 82.5% of the population, estimated at 212.7 million people by IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), resides in urban areas. The urban space is segregated, and in areas characterised by inadequate housing conditions and a shortage of essential infrastructure services, most of the resident population is Black. Additionally, in areas where environmental degradation is more present such as areas with toxic waste disposals and polluting industries, the majority of the population is also Black.

A study by the Instituto Pólis provides data demonstrating how environmental racism occurs. The study, “Socio-environmental injustice and environmental racism”, observed three Brazilian capitals – Belém, Recife, and São Paulo – and found patterns throughout the country. In Belém, 75% of people living in areas at high risk of experiencing natural disasters are Black, representing 64% of the city’s total population. In Recife, 55% of the population is Black, but 59% of people in flood-prone areas and 68% of people in areas at risk of landslides are Black. In São Paulo, where 37% of the population is Black, 55% of people residing in high-risk areas are Black.

Environmental racism becomes evident when the consequences of environmental degradation are concentrated in peripheral neighbourhoods and territories where poorer families live and where there is a higher percentage of Black, indigenous, and quilombola people. Environmental racism poses a serious and unequal threat to the enjoyment of multiple human rights, including the right to life, health, an adequate standard of living, future generations, ancestral territory, and material and immaterial heritage.

The effects of climate change are disproportionate and mainly affect the victims of environmental racism, a topic that is often overlooked. Until recently, the climate discussions were focused on physical assets such as natural resources and animal life, with people and communities being left out. Nowadays, it is clear that the crisis generates forced migration, absolute and relative poverty, increased food insecurity and hunger. Climate change goes beyond an environmental crisis; it is also leading to social, economic, cultural and political crises whose impacts are not felt in the same way by everyone.

In different countries worldwide, studies and official data indicate that Black populations are among the most vulnerable groups to the impacts of climate change, along with women, children, the elderly, and poor people. According to a recent report from the North American Environmental Protection Agency, African Americans and people of African descent are 40% more likely to live in areas affected by extreme temperatures and with the highest rates of morbidity and mortality, a concept in medicine that refers to the rate of people who become ill or die due to a specific disease within a specific population group.

Baobá Fund is committed to tackling environmental racism and climate injustice. At the invitation of GIFE (Group of Institutes, Foundations, and Companies), we participated in COP27 and committed to addressing the climate crisis, recognising the leadership role of women, rural quilombola communities, and other traditional communities. Baobá also joined the global #PhilanthropyForClimate movement, reiterating that in Brazil, Black populations and other racialised groups are the ones who suffer most from social and climate injustices.

We aim to promote actions that can amplify voices, build autonomy, and contribute to strategies for mitigating and addressing adverse effects among vulnerable groups. Grantmaking characterised by small financial contributions increases the capacity of these groups to face, deal with, and recover from specific or extreme weather events, implementing solutions that can be adapted and replicated. Sarah Marques, one of the leaders supported by the Baobá Fund, is the co-founder of the Caranguejo Tabaiares Collective. The collective has directly impacted over two thousand families in the community, who primarily rely on fishing. Some families faced threats of expropriation to make way for the construction of a highway, but Sarah mobilised residents and the government, and the initiative was successful, with the families being allowed to remain in the area. The group also established a community garden that provides sustenance for the surrounding families.

In rural contexts, philanthropy for climate and social justice promoted by the Baobá Fund also contributes to the recognition of traditional practices, fundamental to promoting sustainable, fair development, and natural resource management that preserves and enables its regeneration. These practices implemented by quilombolas, riparian communities, shellfish gatherers, and fishermen contribute to maintaining biodiversity and generating income, providing pathways for a fair transition to a greener and more inclusive economy. These communities frequently employ selective fishing techniques, avoiding the use of predatory methods that could harm the region’s biodiversity. They also apply specific knowledge about fish reproduction and migration periods, adjusting their fishing practices to align with these natural cycles. It’s worth noting that these are tested and replicable solutions that can be adapted to different contexts and scaled up through public policies.

That’s why it’s so important that the philanthropic ecosystem, the public and private sectors, and the third sector recognise humanity’s responsibility for the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change on Black people, women, the poorest, and vulnerable groups. This requires a critical approach to addressing inequalities, promoting transformative approaches, and regenerative solutions based on human rights principles and guidelines.



About Fernanda Lopes: Fernanda Lopes is a PhD in Public Health from the University of Sao Paulo (USP). She is a member of the Racism and Health Working Group of the Brazilian Association of Collective Health and a Program Director at the Baobá Fund for Racial Equity. Fernanda coordinated the Program to Combat Institutional Racism in Brazil (PCRI), a partnership established between the Technical Cooperation Agency of the British Ministry for International Development and Poverty Reduction (DFID), the Ministry of Health (MS), the Special Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality (Seppir), the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office (MPF), the Pan American Health Organization (Opas), and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She was also a staff member of the United Nations Population Fund in Brazil.


Article originally published on the WINGs blog, a community of thought leaders and changemakers who are committed to ensuring philanthropy reaches its fullest potential as a catalyst for social progress


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