Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Concrete JunglesUrban Pollution and the Politics of Difference in the Caribbean$

Rivke Jaffe

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190273583

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190273583.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019



(p.1) 1 Introduction
Concrete Jungles

Rivke Jaffe

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introduction sets out the scope of the book: to explore how urban inequalities and the socio-spatial fragmentation of Caribbean cities both reflect and reinforce divergent discourses and practices pertaining to the environment—glossed here as Uptown and Downtown environmentalism. In so doing, the book connects environmental anthropology and urban studies, disrupting urban–nature dichotomies. The introduction argues that political economy approaches to environmental injustice must be supplemented by attention to the cultural politics that naturalize the unequal distribution of pollution. In addition, it suggests that “provincializing” urban political ecology by focusing on cities from the global South enables a better understanding of how multiple histories of European imperialism have informed the racialization of urban ecologies. The chapter introduces the concept of “urban naturalisms”: the equation of specific (classed and raced) urban populations with specific traits and types of spaces.

Keywords:   urban political ecology, global South, Caribbean, nature, environmentalism, cities, inequality, urban anthropology, environmental anthropology, space

On my first trip to the Caribbean island of Curaçao, I joined a nature hike to help clean up the mondi, as the island’s wild nature is called in the local vernacular of Papiamentu. We left Willemstad, the capital city where the vast majority of the population lives, early in the morning and drove out to a meeting point. A volunteer who was employed by the national Department of Environment and Nature led our group of assembled hikers as we started off into the mondi. As we walked through a landscape of small trees, dry brush, and dadu and kadushi cacti, the volunteer regaled us with stories about the different plants and their uses. One type of cactus, for instance, is used to make Curaçao’s traditional sòpi di kadushi, a soup that will congeal enough to make your spoon stand up straight if you don’t eat it immediately. We continued until we reached a big pile of garbage, mostly construction materials, in the middle of the wilderness. Here, each of us was given a special pair of thick gloves and a special white garbage bag with the name of one of the island’s environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) printed in green (Figure 1.1). After only a few minutes of hefting concrete blocks into these bags, we stopped our efforts because the next group of hikers had almost reached the garbage site, and we needed to move on. We continued our trek and ended up at the main meeting point, where we stretched our legs and had drinks and snacks.

Over the decade that followed, researching urban environmental problems in Curaçao and Jamaica, I came to see the significance of this first nature hike. First of all, despite the ubiquity of garbage and litter in Willemstad, we had traveled outside the city to do our clean-up. As I argue in this book, it is no coincidence that to practice environmentalism we had to leave the city, polluted as much of it was, to protect and purify nature and the non-urban (p.2)


Figure 1.1 Cleaning up the mondi in Curaçao.

Photograph by Irene Rolfes.

environment. The various environmental organizations that are active on both islands largely saw urban pollution as a regrettable but also normal situation, whereas pollution in or of nature was perceived as an offensive phenomenon that prompted collective environmentalist action. In addition, it struck me that most of those participating in the hike to the mondi were either White or light-skinned (koló kla), and included many Dutch expatriates as well as Curaçaoans. The language used was also Dutch, rather than Papiamentu. The composition of this group, so different from the majority of the island’s population, over time also proved indicative of the social distance separating environmentalists from “ordinary people.” Finally, our few minutes of stuffing construction waste into garbage bags seemed a rather symbolic act unlikely to affect any of the issues underlying problems in solid waste management. I came to wonder to what extent environmentalism not only was a problem-oriented ideology and social movement, but served as a practice that marked social, and specifically class, distinction.

As I continued my research, I began to realize that even on these small islands, there were distinct versions of environmentalism that articulated with class, ethnicity, and urban space. Comparing the perceptions, behaviors, and organization of environmental professionals and “lay” citizens in Willemstad, Curaçao, and Kingston, Jamaica, I began to distinguish (p.3) “Uptown environmentalism” from “Downtown environmentalism.”1 These two forms of environmentalism acted as analytical and normative frameworks, outlining different definitions, causes, and consequences of urban and environmental problems, as well as possible solutions to them. These two socio-ecological spheres were not completely opposite or entirely separate, nor do I mean to suggest that these are the only two spheres or positions possible. However, they were connected to urban divisions that resonated broadly with the lived experience of residents of Kingston and Willemstad.

In this book, I explore the ways in which urban inequalities and the socio-spatial fragmentation of Caribbean cities both reflect and reinforce diverging discourses and practices pertaining to the environment. I contend that political economy approaches to environmental injustice are insufficient, and that we must expand our focus to include the cultural politics that naturalize the unequal distribution of pollution. To do so, I examine the ways in which pollution—understood here as a phenomenon of entangled material and symbolic components—intersects with urban space in the construction of social hierarchies and the unequal distribution of environmental burdens and hazards. Connecting environmental anthropology and urban studies, I attempt to understand how the politics of difference are played out through environmentalism and urban space.

Throughout the book, I link analyses of discourses on the environment and on the city to their material effects and contexts, most specifically by focusing on urban space. What effects do specific environmental narratives have—that is, what forms of social power do they legitimate, where and for whom do they create jobs, and whose activities do they constrain and stigmatize? Who gets to define what constitutes an environmental problem and what is the best way to solve it, and who benefits from those definitions? How are the residential and professional spaces within which policymakers circulate reflected in the focus of environmental policies, and what effects do those policies have on urban spaces not considered to be environmental priorities? Nature, the environment, and the city are produced socially and discursively, and these discourses result in physical and economic changes to urban and natural environments and the people who live in them. At the same time, these discourses are not unchanging, nor do they emerge in limbo. They are developed in specific material spaces of power and powerlessness: the government ministry, the university, and the boardroom, as well as the ghettoized neighborhood, the street, and “the gully.” Even as these discourses—and the stories, visual images, policies, and songs that (p.4) constitute them—are produced in particular spaces, they help reproduce those same spaces as different and sustain the social distance between the groups of people who dwell in them.

This book is based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork among residents of low-income, polluted urban neighborhoods and professional environmental practitioners. This twin focus on “grassroots” and “professional” actors reflects what is known as a “vertical slice approach” (Nader 1980). Such an approach expands anthropology’s traditional “on-the-ground” focus by “studying up”: studying communities and issues in connection to other strata of society and as situated within broader spheres of power. I also draw on auto-ethnographic approaches, incorporating and reflecting on my own urban experiences and encounters as a White-identified middle-class woman to analyze the emplaced and embodied construction of raced, classed, and gendered difference and behavioral norms in Willemstad and Curaçao.

Much of my fieldwork was concentrated in four low-income neighborhoods, locations selected on the basis of their proximity to environmental problems and their socio-economic status. Additional factors in the selection of these research sites were physical accessibility and perceived safety, as well as social accessibility through gatekeepers, such as community leaders and key informants. Because their environmental characteristics make them easily identifiable, I have chosen to use the real names of these communities. However, the names of all residents have been anonymized throughout, unless otherwise indicated, as in the case of prominent neighborhood leaders. At this “grassroots” level, I combined qualitative and quantitative approaches, incorporating a range of methods, including in-depth semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, and numerous informal conversations. In Kingston, the two research neighborhoods were Riverton, a community at the edge of the city that bordered on Jamaica’s largest landfill, and Rae Town, a downtown fishing community on Kingston’s polluted harbor that suffered major sewerage issues. In Willemstad, my fieldwork took place in Wishi/Marchena, a central neighborhood located downwind from the Isla oil refinery, and in Seru Fortuna, an area on the urban periphery that was experiencing a degrading social and physical infrastructure, including issues related to sewage and garbage.

In both Willemstad and Kingston, I worked with members of governmental and nongovernmental environmental organizations, studying the development of these groups over time and their real or potential influence on policy and on urban and environmental discourse. This research included (p.5) interviews with strategic individuals and an extensive analysis of online and printed sources, including numerous policy documents, news reports, and social media. In addition to interviews and policy and media analysis, I attended NGO activities such as meetings, lectures, nature hikes, and so on. I worked with an urban environmental NGO in Kingston to organize a stakeholder meeting, coordinating activities and raising funds for the construction of a solid waste barrier in a gully in my research community Rae Town. Because these organizations and their leaders are often prominent, with well-known public campaigns and opinions, I sometimes refer to them by name.

Jamaica and Curaçao present useful case studies for a comparative urban environmental analysis, offering different vantage points from which to study the interconnections among the social, natural, and built environment, and to explore the ways in which the trope of “pollution” organizes relations between classed and raced bodies and urban space. The two islands were selected as research sites in part because of their distinct characteristics in terms of size, colonial history, current political situation, economy, and ecology. Jamaica, the largest island within the British West Indies, with a current population of around 2.7 million, gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. Some 700 miles to the south lies Curaçao, a much smaller territory. The majority of its 150,000 inhabitants are Dutch citizens, as the island remains a nonindependent part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. While Jamaica’s economy was historically dominated by plantation agriculture and now relies heavily on tourism, Curaçao’s semi-arid climate resulted in a nonagricultural economy reliant on trade, the petroleum industry, and only recently tourism.

Beyond these differences, the two islands also share various commonalities: they were positioned similarly within European empires and share histories characterized by slavery, institutionalized racism, and associated models of colonial urban development. In the twenty-first century, both are integrated in comparable ways into global environmentalism’s dominant organizational, financial, and ideological structures. The specific but recognizably Caribbean historical trajectories of both cases have shaped patterns of urban development in which discourses of pollution link imaginaries of tropical nature to racialized space in distinct but analogous ways. In the next chapter, I elaborate on the possibilities and pitfalls of analyzing the socio-ecological politics of Willemstad and Kingston within such a Caribbean and comparative urban framework.

(p.6) Caribbean cities

Willemstad and Kingston are both cities whose origins lie in the colonial past. The islands of which they are the capitals, Curaçao and Jamaica, were both Spanish possessions until they were conquered in the seventeenth century by the Dutch and the English, respectively, and populated with enslaved Africans. Like most of the urban Caribbean, these two cities were hubs of colonial trade and control. In processes of what can be seen as “proto-globalization,” these urban centers facilitated the movements of free and unfree people, goods, capital, and ideas between the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Caribbean cities linked their hinterlands to European metropoles. As important nodes in global networks, they foreshadowed what would come to be known, centuries later, as global cities. In the context of slavery, such cities were characterized by high levels of social stratification. In Willemstad and Kingston, as throughout the region, skin color, class, and urban space were intimately connected in constructing and maintaining inequalities, as enslaved Africans and their descendants were separated socially and spatially from European colonial populations. These historical divisions are still evident in contemporary Caribbean cities, where socio-economic and spatial differences continue to correlate with ethnicity and skin color. Despite major shifts in the political context, the built environment that was created by and for colonial powers continues to mediate present-day social, ethno-racial, and environmental inequities.

In many ways, the representation of the Caribbean in foreign imaginations has also remained remarkably constant. The region has been imagined primarily as a space of nature, although the meanings and values attached to its nature have often been multiple, contradictory, and unstable, ranging from source of spiritual salvation to moral and health hazard, from bounteous economic resource to imperiled ecological repository. Caribbean islands have long been seen as tropical Edens: lush, tropical, green spaces that stand in contrast to the urban, civilized, temperate spaces of Europe and later North America. From colonialism into the postcolonial era, the tropics have featured as “the site for European fantasies of self-realisation, projects of cultural imperialism and the politics of human or environmental salvage” (Driver 2004, 3). The exotic imaginary of the Caribbean attracted colonial adventurers from botanists and buccaneers to planters, and it continues to draw millions of tourists to the region annually (Sheller 2003; Thompson 2006). In the twenty-first century, the islands’ designation as relatively pristine “biodiversity hotspots,” characterized by exceptionally diverse ecosystems and (p.7) endemic species, underlines their significance for transnational environmental organizations.

Cities, however, sit awkwardly in this vision of an unspoiled, natural Caribbean. Historically, cities have been framed as simultaneously utopian and dystopian spaces. In one conception, they have been imagined as beacons of civilization, representing progress and modernity. This positive image does not mesh well with portrayals of a primeval, pristine Edenic nature that has remained unaffected by the march of time, or with depictions of easygoing and rather backwards “natives.” Modern, civilized cities do not fit the idea of a tropical Caribbean paradise, whether that tropicality emphasizes unruly jungles, fertile plantations, or sandy beaches. Such utopian images of urban order and modernity tend to be accompanied by dystopian notions of cities as spaces of blight, where dirt, disease, and moral decay prevail. These notions of socially and physically polluting cities do not match dominant representations of the Caribbean either, antithetical as such urban areas are to unspoiled landscapes of natural purity. Imaginaries of Caribbean natural purity are so strongly entrenched that the concept of a Caribbean city would almost seem to be an oxymoron. Indeed, while the Caribbean is one of the most highly urbanized regions in the world, anthropological and historical research on the Caribbean has tended to disregard urban areas. In a region that has long been represented through a focus on nature, cities are an ambiguous and disruptive element as loci of both progress and pollution.

Both historically and in the contemporary Caribbean, the production and imagination of nature and the environment connect to the production of social difference, as is evident at both the national and the urban scale. At the level of the island territory, and in the cases of Jamaica and Curaçao, the social production of tropical nature has historically been tied to racist colonial representations of Afro-Caribbean people as backwards, childlike creatures, incapable of managing their natural surroundings sensibly. These representations have then been contrasted with European colonizers who were adept at rendering the fertile soil economically productive (through enslaved labor) and who built cities both to control the rural hinterland and to provide the island with military protection against other European forces. These racialized divisions supposed that non-Europeans were somehow closer to nature: less capable of mastering nature and, in relation to this, less human, or at least less civilized. Both non-European bodies and natural landscapes were seen as ripe for cultivation and productive management by Europeans (see Moore et al. 2003).

(p.8) Within cities, analogous narratives of difference played out. Dystopian and utopian urban imaginaries became entangled with social divisions. Enslaved Africans and later the Afro-Caribbean lower class came to be associated with dirt, disease, and disorder. These connotations, while related in part to the actual living and working conditions under which the darker-skinned urban poor suffered, drew heavily on racist and classist narratives circulating more broadly within European empires. In contrast, the European rulers, and later the light-skinned elites, assumed a social position they sought to legitimize by claiming an association with metropolitan modernity, cleanliness, and order. Pollution, both as a physical threat to health and as a symbolic threat to civilization and the social order, became a discursive frame that served to justify repressive measures against the non-European urban poor. While urban space and the built environment act as traces of empire that can be reactivated in the present day, this trope of pollution also continues to be invoked in ways that normalize historically rooted inequalities.

Nature, environmentalism, and the city

For quite similar reasons to those that have almost elided the urban from popular imaginaries and academic studies of the Caribbean, cities have rarely been the focus of environmental anthropology, or of mainstream environmental activism. “Nature” and the “environment” tend to be conceptualized as outside of, and autonomous from, the urban. This ontological separation stems from the broader “culture–nature” divide that Bruno Latour (1993) has theorized as being integral to the project of modernity. By severing society from nature, the latter could be studied, understood, and finally controlled by the former, furthering human emancipation and progress. Within this culture–nature dichotomy, which structures so much of science and society, cities often represent the cultural antithesis of nature. In her discussion of the relationship between nature and urban life, Maria Kaika (2005) brings Latour’s argument to bear on the urban, arguing that the opposition of “the city” and “nature” is the spatial expression of this modern dualism. If one views cities not so much as things but as continuous processes of the urbanization of nature, these ontological categories of “city” and “nature” can be understood as intertwined hybrids that are neither purely natural nor purely human. Yet even as they constitute each other, discursive processes of purification have rendered them distinct and mutually exclusive.

(p.9) The construction of nature–culture dualisms has become an important focus within environmental anthropology. This makes it all the more ironic that within the subdiscipline itself the urban is almost completely absent as either a topic or a physical setting of research. Most research within the field has emphasized rural areas and wilderness, studying human–environment interactions mainly in the context of agriculture, natural resource management, and conservation, and privileging issues of depletion over those of pollution. Over the last two decades, much work has emphasized the complexity of power relations in environmental knowledge and practice and the global interconnections and collaborations that structure them (e.g., Tsing 2005; West 2006; Li 2007; Dove et al. 2011). Despite its attentiveness to scale making and the politics of place, this work has tended to privilege non-urban, “green” environmental concerns (e.g., rainforest conservation) as the focus of environmental anthropology. “Nature” and the “environment” in the bulk of these studies still tend to be researched as—implicitly or explicitly—conceptually outside of, and antithetical to, the urban. “Brown,” urban environmental problems such as solid waste, sanitation, and air pollution rarely feature in such work.2

Early anthropology had as its preferred subject “natural” (i.e., “primitive”) Man, who tended to dwell far outside the modern city.3 Cities, as modern and modernizing sites, have long featured as spaces that erode “traditional culture,” anthropology’s original focus. It is only since the 1960s that the urban has begun to feature as a valid field of inquiry within the discipline rather than as a non-object or a “problem space.” Anthropology itself has, of course, been complicit in the project of modernity, as it separated culture/the urban from nature/the non-urban, relegating the non-West to the latter sphere. Cities, representing both impurity and civilization, stood in opposition to both the broader project of early anthropology and, more recently, that of environmental anthropology. Urban anthropology, which emerged relatively recently within this context, absorbed the “modern” dualism and, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Aoyagi et al. 1998; Checker 2005; Rotenburg 2014), has not taken nature or environmental issues on board.

These conceptions of nature and the city as mutually exclusive, the legacy of modernity’s nature–culture divide, are not only evident in academic paradigms. They also structure mainstream environmental policies and environmental activism, as will become evident throughout this book. Mainstream environmentalism as a social movement has overwhelmingly prioritized green issues such as biodiversity, wildlife conservation, deforestation, and global warming. Traditional conservationist discourses within environmentalism (p.10) are also strongly invested in the “purification” of nature (see, e.g., Head and Muir 2006). Such discourses construct a “pure” or authentic nature that is marked by wilderness and endemic, indigenous, or endangered species. Conservationist strategies have traditionally framed “nature out of place,” such as pests, exotic and genetically modified species, and “non-nature,” including humans, and particularly urban humans, as pollutants that should preferably be removed from nature. These discourses tend to frame civilization and human activity as the problem, and the city as the main source of pollution and depletion of natural environments (which are conceived of as pure and ontologically distinct from the urban). Cities appear as the sources of problems, and occasionally as the source of solutions.

As my research in Curaçao and Jamaica progressed, I became increasingly intrigued by the extent to which environmental organizations both in and outside the Caribbean focused on turtles, whales, and pandas, rather than on garbage dumps, oil refineries, and leaky sewage pipes. These specific identifications of what constitutes an environmental problem are not coincidental; they reflect the priorities and concerns of those who have the power to define such agendas at national and international scales. Such definitions—that elide cities and urban environmental problems—also have concrete, material consequences, as they influence the social and geographical destinations of government and NGO funding.

These green prioritizations have been challenged to some extent by the emergence, from the 1980s on, of the environmental justice movement (Bullard 2000; Checker 2005; Sandler and Pezzullo 2007). This form of environmentalism, concentrated mostly in the United States, links poverty and inequality to urban environmental degradation and the spatial distribution of environmental hazards such as polluting industry and toxic waste sites. The type of environmentalism that I encountered in the low-income neighborhoods of Curaçao and Jamaica reflected some of these associations but rarely coalesced into long-lasting forms of collective action. Environmental justice activists in the United States have argued that the conservation focus of mainstream environmentalism reflects the interests of its predominantly White, middle-class membership, ignoring and excluding the environmental concerns of racial minorities. Rather than seeing the city as the problem, an environmental justice perspective posits the unequal distribution of pollution within the city as its main issue.

In a parallel move, but drawing more explicitly on Marxist analyses, the academic field of urban political ecology has advocated the conjoined study of cities and nature, emphasizing the relations of power that permeate urban (p.11) environments. Studies within this field focus first on the unequal socio-ecological relations that shape and are shaped by urban environments, and second on conceptualizing those environments as nature–culture hybrids. David Harvey (1996, 435) calls for the recognition “that the distinction between the [natural] environment as commonly understood and the built, social and political-economic environment is artificial and that the urban and everything that goes into it is as much a part of the solution as it is a contributing factor to ecological difficulties.” The intimate connection and mutual constitution of nature and the city are theorized as systems of urban metabolism, with natural, social, economic, and political inputs and outputs.

Several urban political ecology studies have focused on water (e.g. Gandy 2004; Swyngedouw 2004; Kaika 2005; Ioris 2012), while others have examined urban forests, lawns, and green space (Heynen 2003; Robbins and Sharp 2003; Kitchen 2013). Work in urban political ecology explicitly brings nature back into the discussion, arguing for an understanding of urbanization as an ongoing process of socio-ecological and political-economic transformation of nature (Swyngedouw 1997). While largely dominated by geographers, urban political ecology crosses disciplinary boundaries, drawing on urban studies, critical theory, and science and technology studies. However—in contrast to broader, non-urban political ecology—anthropological theory and methodology do not feature very prominently. Specifically, very few studies in urban political ecology have a strong ethnographic basis.4 In addition, like the environmental justice movement, most work is rooted geographically in North American and, to a lesser extent, European cities.

Grounding urban political ecology theory more solidly in ethnographic research can enhance our understanding of how environmental injustices are normalized through everyday practices and popular knowledges. Incorporating anthropological methods and connecting Marxist approaches to poststructural theory can help uncover the multiple meanings that nature, pollution, and depletion take on in the lived realities of diverse urban residents. In addition, ethnographies of environmental injustice can shed light on the more micro-level conditions that may facilitate urban social movements (Checker 2005) or, conversely, inhibit collective action (Auyero and Swistun 2009; Auyero 2012). In addition to the methodological benefits that such a dialogue with anthropology could entail, it might also broaden the geographical scope of our understanding. Recent work in urban political ecology has emphasized the need to broaden the focus of the field beyond North American cities. As Mary Lawhon, Henrik Ernstson, and Jonathan Silver argue in their call to “provincialize” urban political ecology, much of (p.12) this research “tends to overlook the situated understandings of the environment, knowledge and power that form the core of other political ecological understandings as well as recent work in Southern urbanism.” Extending the analysis to more explicitly include theories and case studies from cities of the global South, they suggest, would result in “a more situated UPE [urban political ecology] which creates the possibility for a broader range of urban experiences to inform theory on how urban environments are shaped, politicized and contested” (Lawhon, Ernstson, and Silver 2014, 498). Such a geographical refocusing would also enable a better understanding of how multiple histories of European imperialism have informed the racialization of urban ecologies in ways that may diverge from North American experiences.

Building on urban political ecology approaches, this book explores the broader significance of thinking through the “natural” aspects of urban space in connection to the cultural politics of difference in colonial and postcolonial settings. If we understand politics as embedded in both the natural and the built environment, this points our attention to how forms of urban difference and inequality are naturalized. Garbage, sewage, and air pollution are central elements in the nature–culture hybrids of cities no less than urban water, greenery, and wildlife. They play a critical role in the cultural construction and legitimation of urban inequalities. In this book, I draw on anthropological analyses of how alterity and inequality are produced and reproduced through (post)colonial socio-ecological governmentality and everyday practices and discourse. In so doing, I am interested not only in understanding how the discursive-material “production” of nature affects different urban groups—whether racial, ethnic, or socio-economic—unequally, but also in emphasizing the extent to which the production of nature is complicit in the construction and reproduction of categories of social difference in urban space.

Nature, space, and the politics of difference

“Nature” is produced through human physical and intellectual labor, not only materially, but socially and discursively as well. Nature is made and remade, produced and transformed, within a system of capitalism. The mechanisms of capitalism are complicit in the production of uneven geographical development through the production of socially unjust natures and, more broadly, the skewed distribution of resources (Smith 1990; Harvey 1996). In the non-urban Caribbean this has meant, historically and through the present, that (p.13) the profits of plantation agriculture and nature-based tourism have gone to local and foreign elites, leaving only marginal land for farming and residence by the Afro-Caribbean lower classes. Uneven development is equally evident in the urban areas, where the price of land and housing in cooler, greener neighborhoods places them out of reach of the urban poor, who are consigned to hotter, more crowded, and more polluted sections.

This uneven geographical development, the material-spatial expression of historical inequalities, needs to be understood within the discursive frames that have served to produce and justify it. Understanding these connections requires being attentive to “imaginative geographies” (Said 1978; Gregory 1995): the discursive production of social difference in and through space. David Harvey (1996, 6) states that “spatial and ecological differences are not only constituted by but constitutive of … socio-ecological and political-economic processes.” However, there is a cultural, more symbolic side to these processes as well that approaches strictly oriented toward political economy often overlook. The production of nature and the production of social difference occur through similar processes and are often intertwined, particularly when representations of nature serve to naturalize social relations and power structures. The logics of colonial domination in particular produced ideologies and imaginaries that acted to control both ecologies and people. Tropical natural landscapes and the colonized “natives” who inhabited them both served as untamed “Others” to the European colonizers, who sought to prove their civilization and superiority by dominating and exploiting both. The equation of non-White people with nature and natural landscapes worked as a dehumanizing strategy that attempted to naturalize their enslavement and exploitation. Moreover, nineteenth-century race theories mobilized nature to produce the “fact” of racial difference and “innate” social hierarchies. Theories of environmental determinism, contrasting the effects of tropical and temperate climes on their inhabitants, bolstered the race theories that justified imperialism and its “civilizing mission” (Robbins 2004, 64; Sheller 2003; Argyrou 2005).

These imaginative geographies that legitimated colonialism and slavery continue to legitimate oppression and exploitation in the present. The construction of difference through spatial categories and relations has received increasing attention in anthropological work. An important concern has been with large spatial categories such as “East” and “West,” or “tropical” and “temperate” zones. However, these spatial techniques of differentiation work more generally through what Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson (1992, 7) call the “assumed isomorphism of space, place and culture.” Associations (p.14) between space and culture have been naturalized through ethnological and national naturalisms (Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Malkki 1992): the equation of “cultures” and nations, respectively, with specific territories. Cultural differences and identities are territorialized through the naturalization of connections between people and places.

Ethnological naturalisms located—or incarcerated (Appadurai 1988)—the original anthropological “native” statically in the non-urban non-West, as discussed previously. In a related move, national naturalisms have attached the imagined communities of the nation to specific territories. These national territories form the “natural habitats” of the citizens of a nation. They are often constructed in relation to specific landscapes (mountains, deserts, lowlands) and through natural metaphors (roots, blood, kinship) and metonyms (national trees, flowers, birds, and other “totemic” species). Through such naturalisms, national belonging becomes a static concept that is inscribed in a specific territory and defined by a natural or ecological law (Olsen 1999; Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). Similar processes of spatially mapping and naturalizing difference can be identified at a variety of scalar levels, such as between the city and the countryside or between gendered spaces within the household. Across scales, though, the cultural construction of spatial meaning is a political process, with economic interests and material effects (Lefebvre 1991).

In this book, I combine this idea of politicized place-making with the production of nature in urban space. I develop the concept of “urban naturalisms”: the equation of specific urban populations with specific traits and specific types of spaces. How are the associations of certain types of bodies with certain urban places naturalized? How do these naturalizations in turn legitimate urban inequalities, and specifically urban environmental inequalities? And how does the socio-spatially unequal distribution of environmental pollutants and hazards reproduce the original urban naturalisms? I argue that, for the Caribbean cities studied here, this production of difference through nature, the environment, and urban space entails a number of distinct but intertwined and simultaneous processes that rely heavily on constructs of pollution.

Urban naturalisms

This book attempts to problematize and de-naturalize the way difference is produced and reproduced in the context of urban space. Pollution is an (p.15) important trope in these urban naturalisms. As Greg Garrard (2004, 9) notes, any environmental trope can be appropriated and deployed to serve a range of potentially opposed interests. Pollution as a trope can function to maintain an oppressive social order, but it equally has the potential, such as through the inversion of its application, to interrogate or undermine the dominant order. I focus on this trope here to understand the entanglement of material and symbolic forms of pollution: the ways in which physically measurable, quantifiable forms such as garbage, sewage, and air pollution interact with cultural concepts of contamination. The materiality and sociality of urban pollution are relational entities that produce each other, making pollution a nature–culture hybrid similar to the city itself. Pollution, in this sense, can be used as a lens through which to dissect the social and cultural intricacies of the urban environment, space, and power.

In this book, I explore the different ways in which these hybrid forms of pollution are implicated in the production and naturalization of urban difference in the Caribbean and beyond. I discuss the ways in which certain bodies—classed, raced, gendered—are culturally classified as pollutants that threaten the urban and social order. These bodies are associated with specific “dirty” marginal places in which material and symbolic pollution converge: marginalized people are seen to pollute the places where they live and work, and conversely, dirty places come to be understood as the proper site for such bodies. These associations of people and places can be used to legitimate the unequal distribution of environmental hazards or physical pollution in blame-the-victim policies. This institutionalizes the spatial concentration of material-symbolic pollution in specific places. To contain it there and to preclude contagion of cleaner, healthier parts of the city, segregation and other spatial techniques of domination are employed. If these are somewhat successful, the conflation of people, places, and pollution can become sufficiently strong to generate environmental determinism, reproducing the urban naturalism.

I argue that mainstream, professional environmentalism—what I call “Uptown environmentalism”—both developed within the force field of this urban naturalism and feeds back into it. This dominant form of environmentalism operates within colonially shaped geographies of purity and pollution that depoliticize environmental problems and frame the urban poor as socio-ecological threats rather than as victims. Its inattention to urban environmental problems reproduces the “natural” association of poor Afro-Caribbean populations with polluted ghettoized neighborhoods. The “Downtown environmentalism” that developed within the main spaces of (p.16) social and material pollution cannot be understood outside of this same urban naturalism. By recognizing the underlying relations of power that distribute both social groups and environmental problems in urban space, this “lay” form of environmentalism offers the possibility of de-naturalizing the conflation of material pollution with marginalized people and places. It prioritizes brown environmental problems over green ones and connects them to social, economic, and political issues, noting, for instance, that the economic benefits of polluting industries accrue to groups who remain at a social and spatial distance from those industries’ environmental effects. While displaying a historically shaped ambiguity toward wilderness and untamed nature, Downtown environmentalism depicts humans and nature as interconnected and expresses religiously informed ideas of balance.

Divergent environmentalisms, emplacement, and embodiment

In recent decades, most Caribbean governments and NGOs have tended to prioritize green environmental problems such as biodiversity, the marine environment, and nature conservation within a framework of sustainable tourism. This professional environmentalist focus, however, is not shared by residents of low-income neighborhoods, who are confronted on a day-to-day basis with brown environmental problems such as waste management, sewage, air pollution, and flooding. I argue that this green prioritization can be explained through specific classed interests and orientations that reflect the socio-spatial divisions of Caribbean cities such as Willemstad and Kingston. On the one hand, a commitment to an image of the Caribbean as tropical paradise, linked to the economic significance of tourism and the funding priorities of global actors, accounts for the concern with conservation. On the other, popular blame-the-poor rhetoric that naturalizes the association of poverty and pollution underlies the lack of attention to the problems that are concentrated in inner-city areas. A historical contextualization of these two tendencies can help us understand the general neglect of urban pollution.

Within cities such as Willemstad and Kingston, the urban poor and other marginalized social groups bear the brunt of pollution. Social movements that are themselves classed and racialized seek to address environmental problems but sometimes end up crafting their own exclusive regimes of environmental knowledge. Despite widespread global institutional support for participatory approaches, and the incorporation of “local knowledge” in (p.17) environmental and natural resource management, strong hierarchical divisions in practice still exist between different types of environmental knowing. Formal environmental knowledges and the politics, policies, campaigns, and flows of funding that accompany them have economic and material effects on urban space and the people who live there. Definitions of environmental problems and their causes, consequences, and solutions can enable or constrain livelihoods, reward or penalize urban activities, and maintain or transform the urban built environment. If smoke and air pollution are associated with economic growth and progress, they may be tolerated as inevitable side effects of a positive development, rather than classified and managed as an environmental problem. If the causes of urban pollution—such as garbage, for instance—are located in social pathologies of the poor, the outcome for polluted spaces and the urban poor will be markedly different than if socio-ecological inequality is taken to be the root cause. The elision of cities and urban environmental problems from environmental policy and practice, then, undermines the rights of the urban poor.

The way nature and the environment are imagined and defined must be understood within spatially embedded and embodied contexts (Goldman and Schurman 2000). Different environmentalisms are developed in different spaces of residence, work, and leisure by people whose classed, raced, and gendered bodies experience their social and physical urban environments in different ways. The constitution of environmental knowledge and practice cannot be understood as separate from urban, national, and global regimes of power and their politics of difference. In this book, I argue for an emplaced and embodied approach to urban ecologies in order to understand the complex ways in which environmentalism is implicated in the reproduction and spatialization of power, difference, and inequality.

Structure of the book

The chapters that follow analyze the mutually constitutive dynamics of Caribbean environmentalism, urban space, and the politics of difference. Chapters Two, Three, and Four provide a detailed historical and ethnographic analysis of Caribbean urban space, from the colonial past into the contemporary postcolonial period. These chapters dissect the colonial character of Willemstad and Kingston and demonstrate how the built environment in particular constitutes those traces of empire that continue to be reactivated in the twenty-first century. The politics of difference continue (p.18) to play out through shifting configurations of color, class, and urban space. These politics and their imprints on the social, natural, and built environments are situated within changing global political economies.

In Chapter Two, I provide a historical background to the two case studies, detailing the historical development of Willemstad and Kingston within a comparative Caribbean urban framework. Considering the potential of comparative urbanism more broadly, the chapter reflects on the salience of “Caribbean cities” as a framework of analysis, given the diversity of urban development trajectories within the region. This is followed by sections that outline the socio-spatial and political development of the two islands and their capital cities, highlighting both similarities and divergences in their historical trajectories. The chapter ends with an introduction to the four research neighborhoods, focusing on their social and ecological characteristics and their positioning within the larger urban landscape.

Chapter Three builds on this discussion of urban development in historical perspective through an exploration of colonial socio-ecological relations, proposing that these relations can serve to contextualize contemporary forms of environmental injustice in the urban Caribbean. The chapter connects colonial interventions into Caribbean natural and built environments to discourses and narratives of difference and inequality. It focuses first on early colonial discourses and practices that worked on and through natural landscapes, exploring how the imaginative geography of “tropical paradise” shaped proto-environmentalist action and occluded the centrality of cities to colonial commerce and control. Moving to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the chapter presents a discussion of colonial urbanism, investigating how the imaginative geography of the pathogenic urban slum functioned within post-emancipation strategies of control.

Chapter Four examines how historically shaped geographies of exclusion are experienced and narrated in twenty-first-century Caribbean cities, offering an ethnographic exploration of the discursive construction and social use of urban spaces. It discusses how residents of Kingston and Willemstad differentiate between sections of the urban landscape and between forms of urban mobility, and how these differentiations are central to the reproduction of urban inequalities. In order to understand how the fragmentation and segregation of these cities has come to seem natural, the chapter considers the complex ways in which raced, classed, and gendered bodies are emplaced within the broader urban landscape and within micro-places such as a car, an office, or a street. Urban privilege is emplaced and embodied; it involves both physical distance from, and insulation against, the dirty and violent spaces (p.19) of the urban poor. The chapter considers how, in their everyday spatial practices and narratives, residents of Caribbean low-income neighborhoods both reproduce and subvert these dominant spatial and bodily regimes.

In Chapter Five, I delve more deeply into the role of pollution in constructing and naturalizing urban inequalities, connecting concepts of cultural pollution to the distribution of material pollution and examining their co-production in urban space. In Kingston and Willemstad, physical contaminants such as uncollected garbage, raw sewage, and toxic smoke are conflated with certain places and populations, and are justified through references to social pathologies. While these justifications of environmental injustice are not always explicitly racist or classist, they draw directly on colonial patterns of urban development and historically developed portrayals of darker-skinned Afro-Caribbean persons and their surroundings as unhealthy, unsafe, and unmodern. The chapter dissects the workings of the urban naturalisms that make instances of environmental injustice appear normal. I consider the various spatial and discursive tactics that residents of polluted neighborhoods such as Riverton and Wishi/Marchena use to negotiate socio-ecological discrimination, showing how these tactics involve the simultaneous rejection, deflection, and reproduction of urban naturalisms.

The next two chapters examine two broad types of environmentalism that I encountered, understanding their development against this background of socio-spatial fragmentation and exclusion. I suggest that not only do different social spaces—in this case, Uptown and Downtown areas—produce different kinds of urban and environmental practice and knowledge, but in addition, these different practices and knowledges produce different kinds of urban and environmental subjects (cf. Lora-Wainwright et al. 2012; Singh 2013). Because Uptown environmentalism is the formal, institutionalized type of knowledge and ties into global epistemic and funding structures, this social distance between urban environmental subjects has political-economic repercussions. The urban landscapes of Kingston and Willemstad, then, contain the traces of empire, and the geographies of exclusion shaped by colonial power structures are reactivated through contemporary environmental discourse and practice.

Chapter Six focuses on the Uptown environmentalism of environmental professionals in governmental and nongovernmental organizations. This form of environmentalism is concerned with green environmental issues such as biodiversity, wildlife, coral reefs, and the marine environment. Urban environmental problems such as air pollution, sewage, and garbage tend to feature peripherally, if at all. This focus is analyzed in relation to the class and (p.20) ethno-racial composition of these organizations, many of which are headed by either foreigners or largely light-skinned members of the middle class. This green focus reflects the importance of tourism to Caribbean governments and business elites and the green environmental agenda pushed by global stakeholders and funding. In addition, environmental concern is increasingly a symbolic marker of class distinction. Discursively, NGO and governmental environmental campaigns draw on national naturalisms that frame the islands as pure, unspoiled tropical landscapes. These discourses indirectly frame the environment as something that needs to be protected from poor people and their problems.

Chapter Seven contrasts this type of discourse with Downtown environmentalism, a loosely organized framework of causality and blame that positions poor people as a group who need to be protected from environmental problems. This form of environmentalism stresses brown environmental problems such as garbage, air pollution, and sewage, and links them to an inequitable social context. Residents of environmentally degraded and hazardous urban areas connect environmental problems to their status as low-income, politically marginalized communities. Downtown environmentalism emphasizes the combined and interrelated effects of environmental and infrastructure degradation, poverty, violence and crime, and social disintegration. Environmental issues are seen in the light of socio-economic inequities at the urban and national levels, which are evident in a lack of political concern for the living conditions of the urban poor and an inability on their part to mobilize effectively against or influence policy that affects them.

The politics of difference that are at work in creating divided environmentalisms and divided cities are strengthened by these same environmental and spatial discourses. Situating different environmental discourses in urban space, within larger national and global political economies, can help us understand how citizens’ understandings of the environment both reflect and reinforce a socially and spatially divided urban landscape. Forms of environmentalism that implicitly or explicitly understand cities as opposed to nature, and poor people as a threat to environmental purity, contribute to urban naturalisms that further normalize social hierarchies and the unequal distribution of environmental problems.


(1.) While the English terms “Uptown” and “Downtown” are used explicitly in the Jamaican context to denote distinct classed and racialized spaces, they parallel Papiamentu terms used in Curaçao, where barios (neighborhoods) that are riku (rich) or lujo (luxurious) are contrasted with those that are marginal, popular, or di hende humilde (of humble people). These different socio-spatial designations are discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

(2.) The term “brown environmental problems” refers to the so-called “brown agenda,” which prioritizes local, more immediate problems. Brown environmental problems affect mainly the poor, and their impact is primarily on human health. This is in contrast with the global environmental movement’s green agenda, which generally prioritizes dispersed and delayed problems that will affect future generations. Problems ranking high on this green agenda tend to be those that mainly impact ecosystem health, and the scale at which they operate is global or regional (McGranahan and Satterthwaite 2002).

(3.) In fact, this ideal type of ethnographic subject did not originally dwell in the Caribbean either, given the region’s problematic anthropological status as “in but not of the West” (see Trouillot 1992; Mintz 1996).

(4.) Anne Rademacher’s (2011) anthropological work, which explores competing definitions of problems and solutions related to the decline of Kathmandu’s riverscape, and the connections between urban ecologies and state making, is an important exception.