In the first half of this year, Machado Meyer Advogados held a debate on environmental racism and the struggle for social justice. The event was organized by the affinity groups Green Team and [1] ID.Afro[2] and  was attended by the master in Sustainability and PhD in Political and Economic Law from the Presbyterian University Mackenzie Waleska Batista and the Director of Operations of LabJaca, Mariana de Paula.

Environmental racism occurs when people from ethnic minorities or populations on the periphery suffer discrimination because of environmental degradation[3],  such as pollution, deforestation, and other environmental problems. It is important to constantly debate this highly topic to raise awareness in society and seek viable solutions to a problem that affects several social minorities.

Origin of the concept of environmental racism

The term arose in discussions of environmental justice and was first debated by the black movement in the United States in the 1980s. Later, the concept was adopted by Brazilian scholars[4] and evolved over time. The term environmental racism was disseminated in the "First international colloquium on environmental justice, work and citizenship", held in 2001 in Rio de Janeiro, which encouraged the realization, in 2005, of the "First Brazilian seminar against environmental racism".[5]

Recognizing the existence of an environmental problem presupposes discussing the relationship between environmental degradation and the reproduction of social injustices in the Brazilian context.[6] Environmental justice, specifically in the context of environmental racism, seeks to understand how the quality of life of socially disadvantaged population groups (for example, the occupants of peripheries of urban centers) is related to the negative environmental effects of the industrial operations  and the lack of public policies to neutralize any possible impacts.

These communities are often forced to live in areas more exposed to environmental impacts, which results in socio-environmental inequalities. In addition, it is not uncommon for political and economic decisions to disregard the impact on low-income and ethnic minority communities. This results in the creation of policies that maintain environmental inequality and may even increase discrimination against certain groups already at a social disadvantage.

From an environmental point of view, there is, in Brazil, an extensive legal framework to ensure the protection of traditional communities – historically most affected by environmental impacts – and mitigate any effects suffered by them as a result of the installation of potentially polluting projects or environmental crises.[7]

Combining current legislation, the development of public policies and the participation of society and traditional communities in decision-making has proven to be the most effective way to advance in the debate on combating environmental racism.

For example, the participation of any interested party in the environmental public hearings held within the scope of the environmental licensing processes of [8] activities considered effective or potentially causing great environmental degradation is guaranteed, subject to the preparation of the Environmental Impact Study and the respective Environmental Impact Report (EIA/Rima).

At these hearings, the entrepreneur presents to the interested parties the content of the environmental studies prepared for the project, clarifying doubts and collecting criticisms and suggestions for the improvement of the enterprise (article 1, Resolution 9/87 of the National Council of the Environment – Conama).

If the project involves any impact on traditional communities – including quilombola and indigenous communities – the licensing agency may involve in the environmental licensing process the intervening agencies,[9] responsible for ensuring the interests of these communities. These agencies must approve the environmental studies and the continuity of the environmental licensing, as well as collaborate for the due fulfillment of obligations imposed by the environmental agency.[10]

It is important that the combat against environmental racism is widely discussed, including in forums such as environmental licensing. This is because preventingenvironmental impacts in the most vulnerable communities necessarily involves eliminating information asymmetry.

The more communities are informed and participate in decisions, the greater the guarantee that potentially polluting projects, public policies and legislation will take into account the interests of these communities to prevent and mitigate the effects of environmental damage.

The importance of environmental crisis management

In addition to defining an action plan to prevent the occurrence of environmental damage, it is very important to establish projects and public policies for the management of environmental crises arising from natural events. Rainfall, prolonged droughts, ocean acidification, sea level rise, among other topics, are recurrent topics at international conferences on the environment[11] and can impact, especially, the most vulnerable communities.

When we talk about environmental racism, it is necessary to understand that eventual environmental crises go beyond the impacts on fauna and flora and also affect social organization. Heavy rains on the northern coast of the state of São Paulo in early 2023, for example, affected vulnerable areas with a majority black population. This demonstrates that the impact of these events is not restricted to the physical environment. It also extends to the social environment.[12]

As determined by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there is great inequality in the representation of the white population in relation to the others in the Legislative Branch.[13] This indicates that the people most impacted by environmental degradation remain without decision-making power[14] and outside the center of the debates,[15] as they are not equally represented in the forums in which public policies are discussed.

This fact further highlights the repeated delegitimization of the speech of these minorities, as well as the difficulty of these groups to constitute themselves as subjects of law and not subject to administration.

Not for another reason, the impacts of heavy rains, floods, landslides, among other emergency situations, have as victims, in their majority, the black population, the quilombola, indigenous and riverine communities.

It is essential, therefore, that the agenda of the fight against environmental racism be present in dialogues signed by the most diverse groups and sectors in conjunction with the public sector, to implement specific public policies on the subject. In Brazil, it is possible to affirm that there are already movements to include the rights of minorities in environmental policies.

Combating environmental racism in the Legal Amazon

The reactivation of the Amazon Fund by Federal Decree 11,368/23 is a possible and important governmental instrument in this regard. The fund aims to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in actions to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, in addition to promoting the conservation and sustainable use of the Legal Amazon. Its reactivation can help combat environmental racism in the Legal Amazon, as the fund indicates in its schedule the analysis of projects to support indigenous populations and communities, with proposals for actions from various sectors.[16]

In addition, another important – and recent – initiative is the creation of the Committee for Monitoring the Black Amazon and Combating Environmental Racism, announced during the Amazon Dialogues[17], between August 4 and 6, in Belém/PA.[18] The committee will be created by the Ministry of Racial Equality in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and intends to propose measures to combat Environmental Racism in the Legal Amazon.

It is concluded that the combating environmental racism involves a multidisciplinary and multicultural debate. It is an effort that demands the joint action of society and government entities to prevent and mitigate the occurrence of environmental damage and its effects on the most vulnerable communities.


[1] The Green Team is an engagement group composed of the employees of the office, created from the campaign "Sustainable Machado Meyer", aimed at promoting sustainability actions in our workplace.

[2] The Afro Identity (ID.Afro) program makes up our Diversity Committee and represents the firm's commitment to ethnic-racial equity through the promotion of an open and welcoming environment.

[3] Journal of USP. Environmental racism is a reality that affects vulnerable populations. Accessed 9.8.2023.

[4] HERCULANEUM, Selene; PACHECO, Tania. "Environmental racism, what is it." Rio de Janeiro: Sustainable and Democratic Brazil Project: FASE, 2006.

[5] Silva, Lays Helena Paes and. Environment and justice: on the usefulness of the concept of environmental racism in the Brazilian context. 2012. Accessed 11.8.2023.

[6] SILVA, Lays Helena Paes e. "Environment and justice: on the usefulness of the concept of environmental racism in the Brazilian context". e-cadernos CES, n. 17, 2012.

[7] It is possible to mention the National Policy for the Sustainable Development of Traditional Peoples and Communities (Federal Decree 6.040/07), the regulation for the demarcation of quilombola communities (Federal Decree 4.887/03) and the Indian Statute (Federal Law 6.001/73).

[8] "The location, construction, installation, expansion, modification and operation of establishments and activities that use environmental resources considered effective or potentially polluting, as well as projects capable, in any form, of causing environmental degradation, will depend on prior environmental licensing by the competent environmental agency" (Article 2, caput, Conama Resolution 237/97).

[9] Among them, the National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (Funai), to represent indigenous communities, and the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Incra), to represent quilombola communities.

[10] It is important to highlight that the licensing environmental agency is allowed to continue or not the environmental licensing process. However, considering the expertise of the intervening bodies and the primacy for the protection of traditional communities, the licensing body tends to adopt the recommendations of these intervening bodies.

[11] United Nations. What you need to know about the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26). UNEP: 2021.

[12] "Inequalities by color or race are also expressed in access to sanitation services, which, in addition to the implications related to health and living conditions, also brings patrimonial impacts. Considering that the value of the residence is not only determined by the physical characteristics of the property itself, but also by the location and insertion in the urban infrastructure, lower rates of access to sanitation services indicate lower values of these properties." (Ibid., p. 7).

[13] "Political participation is one of the social dimensions where there are inequalities of access according to color or race and object of concern expressed in the Declaration and program of action adopted at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban in 2001. In the first edition of this newsletter, an under-representation of the black or brown population was highlighted in the Chamber of Deputies, in the State Legislative Assemblies and in the Chambers of Councilors [...] despite constituting 55.8% of the population, this group represents 24.4% of the federal deputies and 28.9% of the state deputies elected in 2018 and by 42.1% of the councilors elected in 2016 in the country [...]" (IBGE, Coordination of Population and Social Indicators. Social inequalities by color or race in Brazil. Studies and Research: Demographic and Socioeconomic Information No. 48, Rio de Janeiro, 2nd ed., p. 13, 2022.

[14] Ditto.

[15] LOUBACK, Andrea Coutinho. COP26 is more representative in terms of climate justice. Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, Nov. 12. 2021.

[16] The document "Guidelines and Criteria for the Application of the Resources of the Amazon Fund", established by the Steering Committee of the Amazon Fund on February 15, 2023, indicate that the analysis of projects on the subject is on the committee's agenda.

[17] General Secretariat. Amazonian Dialogues. Accessed 8.8.2023.

[18]Secretariat of Social Communication. Anielle Franco announces monitoring of the Black Amazon and confronting environmental racism. Accessed 6.8.2023.