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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Asian-American Environmentalists

Air Date: Week of

Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports on an emerging population in the environmental justice movement — Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. From workplace hazards in the garment industry, to toxic fish, Bayha reports that Asian environmentalists are making the problems of their community known — and working to change them.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the first time, an Asian American group has formed to focus exclusively on environmental change. the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, based in San Francisco, sees itself as part of the growing environmental justice movement, organizing around the links among race, poverty, and pollution. The group is just one of many examples of growing environmental awareness by Asian Americans. From San Francisco, Betsy Bayha, member station KQED, reports.

(Crowded Chinatown street)

BAYHA: The bustling vegetable stands, fish markets, and sidewalk stalls of San Francisco's Chinatown could hardly be considered a hotbed of environmental activity. The biggest concerns here seem to be commerce and tourism, but there are other issues, too.

G. CHIN: This Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood of any neighborhood in the entire country outside of Manhattan.

BAYHA: Gordon Chin is Executive Director of the Chinatown Resource Center, a nonprofit community planning organization.

G. CHIN: There are no single family homes in this neighborhood. This is a neighborhood of 15,000 people, primarily senior citizens, families, recent immigrants, and children.

BAYHA: Chinatown is cramped and crowded with traffic and people. Because there is so little open space, residents use the numerous alleyways zigzagging through Chinatown as promenades and playgrounds. The consequences of this kind of crowding are many: poor air quality, garbage in the streets, barely room to breathe. There are other problems, too. Chin says almost three quarters of the housing stock in Chinatown was built before 1950, using lead paint.

G. CHIN: We do have lead-based paint in many of the older buildings. In Chinatowns across the country, you have older buildings.

BAYHA: Traditionally, such issues have been viewed as public health or social welfare problems. Only recently have they come to be seen as legitimate environmental concerns, mostly through the growing environmental justice movement, which explores the links between poverty, ethnicity, and exposure to environmental hazards. Some existing groups like Chin's have begun linking their activities to the environment. Other new groups have started up.

SAIKA: The environmental justice movement embraces so many different kinds of people living in many different kinds of places.

BAYHA: Peggy Saika is a Japanese American, and the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, or APEN, which includes Americans of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, and Vietnamese descent. It's the first group in the country to explicitly organize around environmental issues from an Asian-American point of view. The group defines environmentalism broadly. For instance, they've targeted the garment industry, which tends to be dominated by Asian immigrant women. Francis Calpatura is a Filipino American and a local activist on the APEN Steering Committee.

CALPATURA: The lack of enforcement of any occupational and safety, that they are not even given any protective gear, any breathing gear, and just kind of a whole slew of workplace-related issues.

BAYHA: Calpatura and others point to the high-risk occupations in which Asians are concentrated, such as electronics assembly and dry cleaning establishments. APEN and other local activists are also looking at the links between poverty and exposure to toxics.

(Sounds of the pier: reels being cast)

BAYHA: On a cold, gray morning at the Dunbarton Pier on South San Francisco Bay, small clumps of fishermen cast into the shallow water hoping to hook striped bass, sturgeon, or croaker. The State Water Board has designated this area as a toxic hot spot. Most of the anglers here are minorities. Many are Asian immigrants from Korea, Samoa, Vietnam, and China. For them, fish from the bay is a primary source of food. But some fish species here have high levels of mercury, which causes developmental disorders and nervous system damage in children, and shouldn't be eaten by pregnant women. Other fish are riddled with parasites. Wendell Chin, of the group South Bay Anglers for Environmental Rights, or SAFER.

W. CHIN: The number of Samoan families, which eat them raw, have had problems. have had actual injuries: dizziness, upset stomachs.

BAYHA: Chin says most of the fishermen didn't know about the dangers until SAFER convinced officials to post warning signs in 6 languages, including Tagalog, Chinese, and Korean. But Chin concedes warnings are not enough. If poor immigrants can't afford to buy food in the market, he says they'll probably still eat fish from the bay. Asian-American environmentalists and groups like APEN say they are trying to build a society where people won't be forced to eat poisoned fish or breathe dirty air because of their income or race. They are hoping to use environmental activism as a tool for community empowerment, and as a way to increase the participation of all ethnic groups. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.



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