Intern Hallie Tucker Interviews Dr. Nick Copeland on Environmental Justice

By Hallie Tucker

As an intern for the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, I am conducting interviews and creating art about social and environmental justice leaders to discuss their roles in the fight for environmental justice. This field, along with the conversations surrounding environmental justice, is becoming increasingly important; and the need for community-led campaigns and policy change is more apparent than ever. My goal with this campaign is to fuel discussion about the historically disproportionate burden of environmental issues on marginalized groups by elevating the voices of the individuals and organizations that are already working to change it. I hope that by sharing the great work that is already being done, it will inspire people to take action and become a part of creating a more sustainable future for everyone.

In April, 2022, I sat down with Dr. Nick Copeland, an associate professor in the Department of History at Virginia Tech to discuss his research and work in Guatemala and how it pertains to environmental justice. As an anthropologist who studies political and social theory, Dr. Copeland is accustomed to looking critically at political structures and how they influence issues such as environmental justice. He explained that in order to address the injustices that poor communities of color are facing, we need to understand that they are a consequence of larger processes. Dr. Copeland explained that these disproportionalities “aren’t just random things; they are systemic; they’re related to dominant political structures that are responsible for the unequal distribution of environmental harm. So in order to create environmental justice, for me, it involves transforming the systems that systematically produce unequal environmental harm.”

Painting by Hallie Tucker depicting Dr. Nick Copeland labeling a water sample in front of a river.

Dr. Copeland explained that for him environmental injustice means having “a history around the unequal distribution of environmental harm and ultimately air pollution, water pollution, and deforestation.” He went on to explain that many poor communities, especially in the global south, are organizing to protect their water resources from exploitation by commercial farming operations, mining, and damming projects—activities that are among the dominant forms of economic development.

 He explained that even poor and marginalized women are more likely to be negatively impacted by water contamination because “women are more in contact with water during the day through washing and cleaning and food preparation…So lack of water infrastructure heavily affects women, and it affects children who are seen as primarily the woman’s responsibility.” 

Dr. Copeland didn’t always feel so strongly about addressing these systematic issues. Growing up in a working-class household in the southern US, he doesn’t recall ever experiencing environmental injustices. As a child he didn’t consider global warming or environmental injustices to be issues because “these weren’t things that were affecting [his] life.” Dr. Copeland began researching topics like global warming and colonialism in college, which influenced his decision to study anthropology. He has studied and written about Mayan peoples’ struggles for development and democracy after armed conflict. 

In 2015, Dr. Copeland began collaborating with FUNDABASE, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that promotes food security, sustainable agriculture, and food sovereignty in rural communities in Guatemala. The goal of this collaboration was to support their efforts to promote sustainable agriculture for local communities as an alternative to exploitative commercial farming. 

Similar to mining, commercial agriculture is a development model often based on resource extraction. These types of systems require extensive and intensive use of land and water to produce a product, oftentimes monocrops like sugarcane or African oil palm throughout regions of Guatemala. These products are typically exported and degrade both the land and livelihoods for surrounding communities. Dr. Copeland explained that, “one of the major repercussions of these industries is on water systems, water access, and water quality for poor communities.”

Photo by Dr. Nick Copeland depicts an expansive field of African oil Palm with mountains in the background in Q’eqchi territory in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala.

He went on to explain that these large-scale farming operations “use pesticides, chemicals, tons of water, and must divert rivers to irrigate those monocrops”. The rivers that once provided irrigation, drinking water, and a food resource for rural communities often dry up or become heavily polluted by chemical runoff from these farms and from mining operations.

While attending a 2018 meeting in the municipality of San Carlos Alzatate with the comunidad indígena (the local indigenous authority), they expressed concerns about the proximity to the Escobal Silver mine affecting local water quality. The Escobal Silver Mine, one of the largest silver mines in the world, has been an intense point of conflict since 2013 due to environmental and health concerns from the Indigenous Xinka community. They asked Dr. Copeland if he could find a scientist from the university to test their water for arsenic from the mine. For Dr. Copeland, this meeting shifted his research focus. 

Image by Dr. Nick Copeland depicts 50+ individuals sitting in an auditorium listening to a presentation during the 2018 meeting in San Carlos Alzatate.

“Agroecology is really important, but in that moment I realized that the most important thing I could do was go ask and see if I could do what the communities want. It’s a direct demand.” He explained that the goal of his research is to follow the needs and concerns of poor rural communities rather than answer the theoretical questions that interest him as an academic.

This research sparked a collaboration with Dr. Leigh-Anne Krometis, an associate professor in the Biological Systems Engineering Department at Virginia Tech and Cristina Marcillo, a Ph.D candidate under Dr. Krometis at the time. Together, they used both inexpensive and expensive monitoring techniques in addition to testing water samples in Virginia Tech labs. After conducting water monitoring tests both in the town and in some of the surrounding villages, Dr. Copeland and Dr. Marcillo conducted a water workshop. 

Dr. Copeland explained that the participants were “water rights activists that were resisting different kinds of development projects from all over the country….We trained them in basic water science and how to use field kits to test water on their own.”

Photo by Dr. Nick Copeland depicts two individuals discussing a rapid water-quality test.

Dr. Copeland explained that the workshops “set off a process of organizing a water network, with several NGOs and frontline communities. And it was part of a push for water monitoring projects in different places around the country.”

The need for these types of projects are not exclusive to developing countries. Millions of Americans continue to face systematic environmental injustices to this day. Copeland’s advice for anyone who is interested in getting involved in fighting environmental disparities at a societal level is to join organizations. 

He explained that “I think that a generation of people are concerned about the future and need to figure out and find those organizations that are doing direct action.” Because, ultimately, change won’t occur until we, as individuals, force it to.

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