“Sacrifice Zones” Webinar Convenes Global Advocates Ahead of INC-4 Plastics Negotiations

“I have a relationship with the water, and I absolutely refuse to let them have it,” said Diane Wilson, fifth- generation shrimper, 2023 Goldman Prize winner and recent panelist on the Center for Earth Ethics online panel, “‘Sacrifice Zones’ Fight Back: Restoration and Community Protections from Plastic Pollution.”

The panel highlighted Point Comfort, Texas, shedding light on the Matagorda Bay Cooperative Development Project, an ecological restoration initiative. This project, funded by the settlement from Diane Wilson’s lawsuit against Formosa Plastics, aims to revitalize and preserve the Matagorda Bay and San Antonio Bay Systems—ecosystems that have suffered a severe decline in fishing, shrimping and oystering due to pollution produced by Formosa. 

The panel took place on April 11, 2024 in the lead up to negotiations for an internatinal treaty on plastics, formally known as the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC4), happening in Ottawa, Canada April 22 – April 29. The negotiation process offers a rare opportunity for humanity to significantly alter its interaction with plastic on a generational scale.

Since the 1950s, a staggering 9.2 billion tons of plastics have been manufactured, with 7 billion tons ending up as waste, clogging landfills and contaminating soil and bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and oceans. Humanity now creates 430 million tons of plastics annually, with two-thirds of it utilized in short-lived products that swiftly turn into waste. A significant portion of this plastic infiltrates the food chain, posing potential risks to human and non-human health. 

Point Comfort is considered a “sacrifice zone,” a community or region that bears the disproportionate burden of environmental degradation, pollution or industrial activity. These areas are typically inhabited by marginalized or disadvantaged communities—environmental racism par excellence. Polluters take the perceived lack of political or economic power to prevent or mitigate the harmful effects of such activities as a carte blanche to continue poisoning the land, water and air of sacrifice zones.

I have a relationship with the water, and I absolutely refuse to let them have it.

Diane Wilson provided the landscape for the conversation, saying that it’s hard to believe you can see a living viable community of fishermen die like that. That’s what upsets me so much: that these corporations can kill. Not only are they polluting—they are killing communities and they are killing the fisheries and they’re killing the fishermen. And it really makes me angry.”

The problems facing Diane and the communities along the Gulf Coast of Texas are not unique. In 2016, Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation in Vietnam released toxic waste, including cyanide, chlorine and heavy iron, into the ocean. This devastated marine ecosystems and displaced 179,000 people—primarily fishermen—leading to profound economic repercussions in the local community. Additionally, profound health concerns emerged among the affected population. 

This disaster was an awakening for Nancy Bui, an Austin-based activist fighting for those impacted in Vietnam. A Vietnamese refugee herself, Nancy said, “the chemical disaster was followed by the irresponsibility and greed from Formosa and the Vietnamese government, who initially denied and covered up the situation. [Formosa] paid the government, not the victims.” Nancy has been joined by Representative Zoe Lofgren and several other congresspeople in appealing to the United Nations and the U.S. Government as they work to raise awareness about the lack of restitution for the victims of the spill. 

Anh Tran, president of the Federation of the American Vietnamese Community of the U.S.A., offered a glimpse into the devastating impacts of plastic pollution that fishermen face. Before leaving Texas for a distinguished military career, he worked on his brother’s boat in the Gulf fishing for shrimp. “We made a good living,” he said. “I enjoyed it—every net we pulled up, we got hundreds and hundreds of shrimp—I mean, jumbo shrimp. We made a killing there, because the shrimp price was good for then.” When he returned in 2002, things were different. “My brother was still fishing but his catch was less and less. The diesel prices went up while the shrimp prices went down because of the imports from China, so they cannot make money. Most Vietnamese [fishermen] in the Gulf Coast area went bankrupt.”

If we're not leading with solutions, with first and foremost the security, protection and safeguard of human health and environment, it’s just another extractive industry going from one to another.

Shrimpers still face declining shrimp populations and declining prices. For Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations, the surge of plastics and petrochemical pollution in the Gulf is symptomatic of a system that simply doesn’t understand that “we are part of the environment.” “For people living in what industry and government have deemed ‘sacrifice zones’,” he said, “restoration has dual meanings: environmental health, restoration, and the means and aims to heal the land and ecosystems that have been ravaged by extraction over and over again.” Orona joined the chorus of countless other Indigenous advocates in stating that restoration efforts have a profound spiritual significance. “So many cultures have sacred spaces that have been desecrated by extractive practices,” he said, “and restoration efforts should involve acknowledging the cultural and spiritual significance of the land.”

According to Jane Patton, U.S. fossil economy campaign manager at the Center for International Environmental Law, we must dismantle the prevailing assumption that sacrifice zones need to exist or can somehow be justified. We must disabuse ourselves of the implicit belief that makes sacrifice zones possible: that certain communities fundamentally deserve less than others, and that the land itself is sacrificable. To slow and eventually halt the plastics industry’s largely unfettered grip, she said we need to enforce existing laws, international human rights laws in particular. She also explicated the intimate link between the plastics crisis and the climate crisis: “These are two intertwined crises, not least of which because they’re both affecting and harming biodiversity, but also because they’re both releasing greenhouse gas emissions, and they’re both perpetuating toxic air emissions. And they’re both making life less secure and less safe for people all over the planet.”

The conversation ended with an eye towards INC-4, a powerful opportunity to reign in the entire life-to-death cycle of plastics. There is substantial pressure from petrostates and industry to keep the treaty from being strong or binding, which is why Orona stressed the importance of showing up and speaking up for real solutions and a just transition.  

“We want that ambitious treaty. We want some goals, we want a real stance, we want real inclusion in talking about the solutions,” he said, “especially when we’re talking about just transition. Just transition doesn’t exist right now. If we’re not leading with solutions, with first and foremost the security, protection and safeguard of human health and environment, it’s just another extractive industry going from one to another.”