Environmental justice is often defined in terms of the distribution (or maldistribution) of environmental goods and bads. Activists and scholars have also focused on issues of cultural recognition and political participation. This article posits a capabilities-based conception of environmental justice. We argue that environmental challenges raised by indigenous communities demonstrate a broad, complex conception of environmental justice focused on a range of capabilities and basic functionings, at both the individual and community levels. We begin with a theoretical justification for a capabilities-based approach to understanding environmental justice. We then offer two in-depth case studies from the US and Chile, to illustrate our argument that indigenous environmental justice struggles clearly articulate themes of community capabilities and functioning, highlighting the importance of social and cultural reproduction.

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Author notes

* The authors would like to thank John Meyer, Gary Bryner, and the anonymous referees of GEP for particularly insightful and constructive comments on previous versions of this paper. We dedicate this work to the memory of Luke Cole—the extraordinary attorney, advocate, activist, and analyst of the environmental justice movement.