Illustration by Andreea Chirică
The Political Ecology of the European Periphery
Political ecology examines the relations between communities and the environment, with a focus on the postcolonial world. Reports about human-nature interactions in geographically exotic contexts have fascinated western audiences from the very beginning. Political ecology brings an important critical dimension connected to how postcolonial politics generates social and ecological crises. Extrapolating and adapting political ecology outside the Global South is particularly challenging. The ways in which political power, economic interests, social hierarchies, as well as culture or ideologies contribute to the construction of the environment remain less discussed in Eastern Europe. The political ecology of the European periphery points to multiple violations of environmental rights, as well as the environmental victimization of individuals and communities, especially marginalized ones. The political ecology of the European periphery is an alternative discourse that mobilizes the imagination of researchers and activists to find ways of organizing nature-society relations that are both more socially just and ecologically sustainable.
Lucian Vesalon is a lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences of the West University in Timișoara, where he teaches subjects such as Theories of International Development or Political Ideologies. Areas of academic interest are political ecology, development studies and discourse analysis. He has published studies in journals such as Environmental politics, International Journal for Urban and Regional Research or Area.
Andreea Chirică is an artist and graphic novelist. She published “The year of the pioneer” in 2011 and “Home Alone” in 2016. She published comic strips and illustrations in The Guardian, LA Times, Die Tageszeitung, Re:public Sweden, Wetransfer, Elle Romania, Scena9, DOR and her instagram account: persoana_fizica. She is currently working on a new graphic novel.
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
Ioana Miruna Voiculescu
Ioana Miruna Voiculescu is a Romanian freelance translator working with English and French. In almost seventeen years of experience as a freelancer, she has ventured into quite a few domains—from legal, financial, or medical to literary and academic translation, editing, and some interpreting. She holds a master’s degree in Sociology and Social Anthropology from Central European University, so she feels at home working on anthropology texts as she gets to use her linguistic skills and feed her interest. She is also responsible for the Romanian translation of Lucia Berlin’s short stories (Manual pentru femei de serviciu, Art, 2018). Like any respectable translator, she has an assistant. His name is Ninel, and he is a cat.
Political ecology examines the relations between communities and the environment, with a focus on the postcolonial world, as a critical response to economic, social, political and ecological crises. Political ecology reveals how nature is intrinsically political and how various forms of power participate in the construction of the environment. The idea that “every political project is necessarily also an environmental project” is fundamental to this approach. The focus on the social and ecological condition of the poor and marginalized is directly linked with opposing injustices generated by postcolonial politics. Hence the continuous search for new forms of organizing nature-society relations that should be more socially just and more environmentally responsible. Thus, political ecology can become an instrument of emancipation, starting from the observation that “environmental degradation is a symptom of social oppression.” One of the founding texts of political ecology is in fact titled Liberation Ecologies. The fusion of justice, social emancipation and concern for the environment is the specific product of this field of study.
Given the initial focus of political ecology on what is today known as the Global South, it is worth asking how these discussions could be extrapolated to other geographical spaces, such as Eastern Europe. Therefore, the political ecology of Europe’s periphery is an attempt to translate, adapt, and expand discussions on nature-society relations beyond the postcolonial space to include Europe. The idea that there is a European periphery is itself controversial. A series of difficulties also inevitably arise from substituting a European East-West dichotomy to the global North-South dichotomy. Moreover, a political ecology of Europe’s periphery should include both the continent’s southern and eastern peripheries, and its “inner” peripheries, be they urban or rural. In such contexts, it is important to understand how social and economic inequalities are translated into the interaction between communities and the environment. The first correlations that political ecology established between poverty and degradation of the environment revealed a downward spiral, with poverty causing the degradation of the environment, which in turn deepened poverty.
The notion of an “environmentalism of the poor” was put forward as a means to understand the relation of marginalized populations in the Global South with the environment. It is worth extrapolating it to the European periphery. The environmentalism of the poor is not so easily recognizable on-site, because it uses the language, forms of expression, and repertoires of action of Western environmentalism. This type of environmentalism requires the presence of environmental conflicts that have local communities, usually rural ones, pitched against industrial development or natural resource exploitation projects, e.g., the construction of large plants or hydroelectric power stations or the opening of mines. These environmental conflicts often fail to reach a wider audience, never going beyond local experiences, but are nonetheless essential to a political ecology of Europe’s periphery. Starting from the concept of “the environmentalism of the poor,” we can assess to what extent the inventory proposed by Martinez-Alier for the Global South is relevant for Eastern Europe. Here are just a couple of examples.
A first example is the fight against “environmental racism.” First connected to the experiences of African-American, Hispanic, and Native American populations in the US and later expanded to apply worldwide, environmental racism is an important topic for academic research and environmental activism. A discussion about the costs of environmental degradation borne by certain marginalized groups, such as the Roma, is in its early days in Romania. The identification of Roma as a racial group is the result of processes of “racialization” via a range of discourses and socio-political practices. A relevant case is that of Pata Rât, located near Cluj-Napoca’s landfill, where segregation and ghettoization combine with environmental victimization. While not singular but just very well-known in Romania, this phenomenon also has an environmental racism component. Exposing a marginalized group to high environmental risks and ghettoizing them in spaces located in or near polluted areas are forms of environmental racism that must be acknowledged as such in the postcommunist world too.
Another exemplification of environmentalism of the poor is the “defence of the rivers,” taking the form of movements against large dams, for example. Among the most mediatized human and natural costs associated with building large dams were those in India, at Narmada, and in China, the Three Gorges Dam hydropower project. From Uganda and Tanzania to Brazil and Canada, there are many cases that receive attention. Only in India, before the end of the twentieth century, over twenty million people were displaced, that is, forced to leave their homes and become migrants, because of dam projects. Overall, the construction of large dams generates huge social and environmental problems. Socialist Romania built several large dams which, in addition to the huge environmental costs, also meant displacing a large number of people and flooding their home localities. The largest of them were Porțile de Fier and Bicaz. After 1989, the construction of large dams was stopped, because it required political, economic and human resources that the state could no longer mobilize. On the other hand, a new phenomenon associated with privatizing natural resources and the energy system emerged, namely the construction of micro-hydropower plants. Many of them were built in ecologically important areas, such as the Făgăraș Mountains area. So they meet all the criteria for mobilizing a “defence of the rivers” movement.
Another interesting case for Eastern Europe is that of “biopiracy.” In short, it refers to the “exploitation of biological resources and traditional knowledge without the consent of local people or authorities, and without adequate compensation.” Biopiracy is deemed one of the phenomena associated with neoliberal globalization and unequal relations between the Global North and the Global South. Some activities in the fields of intensive agriculture and bioprospecting are starting to generate discussions about biopiracy in Romania. While Eastern Europe has its own protest movements and controversies related to industrial agriculture and agricultural engineering practices, connecting them to the debates on biopiracy could grant them a more significant place in global political ecology.
Other manifestations of the environmentalism of the poor in Eastern Europe are conflicts related to mining. The movement to oppose mining industry practices is one of the largest eco-social movements globally, with mining conflicts being extremely numerous especially in countries of the Global South. Romania is part of this movement via several conflicts and protests, the most notorious being undoubtedly the movement to oppose open-pit gold mining at Roșia Montană, in the Apuseni Mountains. This movement was the most visible internationally and best documented form of environmental action in an East-European country. The case of Roșia Montană brings together many aspects important for political ecology, such as the social costs of displacing people, the environmental risk posed by the cyanidation process, the environmental costs linked to the destruction of the environment by open-pit mining, the irreparable damage to the mountain landscape and several localities, or the environmental costs related to the long-term management of industrial waste. On a more general level, Roșia Montană protests have also drawn attention to the policies to privatize natural resources in Eastern Europe.
These environmental conflicts and their specificities for the European periphery show that there is not only one type of environmental discourse deemed “normal” but indeed a range of environmental interests and actions, with different articulations at the level of local communities and expressed in a range of discourses, from claiming access to forests, water, land, etc. as commons and the protection of these natural resources to opposing big industrial projects that externalize environmental costs to communities and ecosystems. However, the environmentalism of the poor can sometimes come dangerously close to nationalism and ethnocentrism, while other times it can lead to a romanticized view of rural communities and their relationship with nature. A critical look at these evolutions reveals how the degradation of the environment is not only the result of violations of the environmental law or corruption, nor is it a local, accidental anomaly but a structural dimension of the economic development model experimented in Europe’s eastern periphery.
The environmental history of East-European societies points to multiple violations of environmental rights and the environmental victimization of the losers of development—individuals, groups, communities, and entire social categories. The right to contest decisions that affect the environment of local communities and the use of natural resources, the right to refuse consequences and decisions that amount to the exploitation of natural resources, the destruction of ecosystems, the construction of industrial sites in the communities’ ecological space are objectives that environmental activism in Eastern European societies is aware of and has already integrated. These proposals for an ecological reform also show that the horizon of activism for environmental rights is indeed within reach, available. Europe’s eastern periphery has produced a distinct socio-ecological regime, and political ecology gives ample opportunity to critically study the relations specific to this regime. A critical examination of postcolonial experiences enables a better understanding of socio-ecological processes, dominant models of development, as well as alternatives available in Eastern Europe. The political ecology of Europe’s periphery thus supports the notion that development, democracy and ecological imperatives cannot be uncoupled without causing irreparable socio-ecological damage.
TRANSLATED FROM ROMANIAN BY IOANA MIRUNA VOICULESCU
 E. Swyngedouw, Liquid Power. Water and Contested Modernities in Spain, 1898-2010, (Cambridge, MA and London, England: The MIT Press, 2015) 7.
 T. Forsyth, Critical Political Ecology. The Politics of Environmental Science (London and New York: Routledge, 2003) 120.
 R. Peet and M. Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies. Environment, Development, Social Movements, 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).
 P. M. Blaikie and H. Brookfield, eds., Land Degradation and Society (London: Methuen, 1987).
 J. Martinez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor. A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, USA: Edward Elgar, 2002).
 Martinez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor, 168 ff.
 Ibid., 259.
 M. Cernea and S.E. Guggenheim, eds., Anthropological Approaches to Resettlement (New York: Routledge, 1993); T. Scudder, The Future of Large Dams. Dealing with Social, Environmental, Institutional and Political Costs (London: Earthscan 2005).
 D.F. Robinson, Confronting Biopiracy. Challenges, Cases, and International Debates (London and Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2010) 3.
 Lucian Vesalon and R. Creţan (2013). “‘Cyanide kills!’ Environmental Movements and the Construction of Environmental Risk at Roşia Montană, Romania” Area 45(4) (2013): 443–451; Lucian Vesalon and R. Creţan, “Mono‐industrialism and the Struggle for Alternative Development: The Case of the Roşia Montană Gold‐mining Project,” Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie 104(5) (2013): 539–555.