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Are conservationists too white, too old and too elitist?

Mya-Rose Craig is a British Bangladeshi ornithologist and campaigner for equal rights. In February 2020, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol for her work campaigning for diversity in the environmental sector. Accepting the accolade, she said everybody from every community should “tackle the environmental crisis we find ourselves in… Now more than ever, it is important to recognise that inequality of engagement creates inequality of opportunity and an unequal world is not a sustainable one”.

In 2015, at the age of 13, Craig was struck by the lack of Visible Minority and Ethnic (VME) people exploring the British countryside. Craig believes the roots of this absence go deep, boiling down to a “pervasive racism that’s been a part of the environmental sector since it began”.

Craig spoke to The Skylark about her mission, with her organisation Black2Nature, to increase VME people’s access to nature and break down the multitude of barriers that are preventing this.

The beginnings of conservation in the US start with John Muir setting up the first national park, Yosemite, in California. This was the first time anyone had considered that the conservation of wildlife meant a wilderness space with no humans. Indigenous peoples had always managed wildlife alongside their own existence and needs, but Muir’s image was of a pristine wilderness unshaped by humans. And that, for him, meant native people had no place there.

Although Muir’s racism has been highlighted since the police killing of George Floyd this year, he is still treated like a saint in white western conservation. But in fact, he was responsible for the forced removal of Native Americans from their own lands and should be remembered as the racist that he was.

It is no wonder that conservation today continues to be entrenched in its colonial roots and racism. I am having to fight this attitude daily but almost all those in the sector are still in denial. The sector needs to question its promotion of white elitist speakers on panels. They must objectively and transparently assess these speakers’ real expertise or whether their views are racist or colonial before they are booked. VME conservationists should not be selected as “tokens” on these panels because they are prepared to stay silent on race and diversity. We have come to a point where a conservation group has been accused of being complicit in human rights abuses. So something must be done.

I’d never really seen anyone that looked like me going out into nature

Not only does the sector need to reform but children from all backgrounds must be given greater opportunities to engage with nature. When I was 13, I read an American article about the lack of diversity in people exploring nature and going out into the countryside. It was a lightbulb moment. At the time, I was organising a camp because I wanted to spend a weekend with other kids that were really into nature and there wasn’t one.

But I suddenly realised I’d never really seen anyone that looked like me going out into nature. I did a bit of a 180° and started trying to get some ethnic minority kids from inner city Bristol to come with other kids that were already going. It is really important for community cohesion for the young people to mix together, to spend time with people they do not normally get time with and to break down barriers.

When they first arrived at the camp, they didn’t want to be there. They were like: “Oh, my Mum made me come, I wanted to hang out with my mates this weekend.” And we were like: “What have we done, this is going to be awful!” But slowly over the weekend, we did all these different activities out on the reserves and they just softened up to it. By the end of the weekend all of them had engaged with nature in some shape or form. They all had a great time even though they had thought that they were going to hate it.

Start a conversation

I wanted to know what nature organisations in the UK were doing to help young VME people engage in nature. So, I wrote to them to ask and the response from all of them was essentially: “We’re not doing anything, but you can come and talk to us if you want.” It was great that they wanted to talk to me, but retrospectively they were asking a 13-year-old child to come and teach them about diversity.

Anyway, I decided I would bring them together in one place for efficiency reasons and I was going to get people who knew what they were talking about to come too; whose jobs were focused on racial equality and connecting with these communities. I wanted to bring them together and start that conversation.

How to overcome these barriers 

In the summer of 2016, I organised a conference called Race Equality in Nature. We had different workshops which drew up a list of barriers as to why VME people weren’t engaging in nature. [Examples included: a potentially elitist countryside, fear of hate crime, lack of public transport, cultural fear of dogs and lack of suitable clothing].

“I have never met a single child that we’ve not managed to help engage with nature”

Delegates spent an hour or two coming up with solutions on how to overcome these barriers. All these organisations, like The Wildlife Trusts and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, for example, went away having learnt a lot of things that they hadn’t thought of before and a big list of things to do.

People are starting to listen

After the first conference, there have been two now, nothing really happened. I think a lot of people felt quite successful for having just come to the conference but that wasn’t really the point. That was one of the reasons why we set up Black2Nature. To prod them along.

I’ve been doing this for five years now and it has been quite painful getting people to listen. But I think in the last year or so I’ve finally started hearing my own ideas and things we’ve come up with thrown back at us – which is the most satisfying, validating thing. It means that people are starting to listen.

They want to come back because they have such a great time

We don’t go into schools yet but it’s something I’d like to be able to do. The main physical thing we do is run the camps. We’ve run nine in the last five years and they’re really fun.

One of the reasons they work so well is that we know people in these communities already and we can show them that we’re trustworthy and that they can rely on us to look after their kids for the weekend. For example, if you have a Muslim daughter, there are different requirements: if she wears a hijab, making sure that girls and boys are very separate in terms of sleeping arrangements; making sure that all the food is going to be Halal.

We sell it the best we can and sometimes that’s through convincing the parents and waiting to convince the kids once they’re on the camp. We’ve started getting repeats, especially with the primary school kids. They want to come back because they have such a great time. It takes the kids pretty much that whole weekend to settle in and by the end they’re like “I wish this went on for a whole week, I’ve really enjoyed it!”

There are lots of different ways to engage in nature

Something originally that was a massive learning curve for us was realising that there are lots of different ways to engage with nature. I mean, I was very lucky when I was a kid – my parents took me to these reserves, we went out bird watching, we went on walks in the countryside. I’ve learnt that that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but just because they think they don’t want to do that doesn’t mean that they won’t engage in nature in some way. Whether it’s bird ringing or building a bird box or something else, I have never met a single child that we’ve not managed to help engage with nature. I think that’s what is really important.

If you have been inspired by any of the issues in this story, then click here to explore how you can Take Action and be part of the solution today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 5th June 2020

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