The British Bangladeshi ornithologist and campaigner for equal rights discusses her mission to increase Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) people’s access to nature and break down the barriers preventing this.
The beginnings of conservation in the US started with John Muir setting up the first national park, Yosemite, in California. This was the first time anyone considered wildlife conservation 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, 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 conservation today is entrenched in its colonial roots and racism. I have to fight this attitude daily, but almost everyone in the sector is 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 tried getting some ethnic minority kids from inner city Bristol to come with other kids already going. It is vital for community cohesion for young people to mix together, spend time with people they do not usually get time with, and break down barriers.
They didn't want to be there when they first arrived at the camp. 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 on the reserves, and they just softened up. 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.
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 all responded: “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.
I decided to bring them together in one place for efficiency reasons. I was going to get people who knew what they were talking about to come to, whose jobs were focused on racial equality and connecting with these communities. I wanted to bring them together and start that conversation.
In the summer of 2016, I organised a conference called Race Equality in Nature. We had different workshops that drew up a list of barriers 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].
Delegates spent an hour or two developing solutions 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 they hadn’t thought of before and an extensive list of things to do.
After the first conference, there were two, and nothing happened. Many people felt quite successful for just coming to the conference, but that wasn’t 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, and getting people to listen has been quite painful. But in the last year or so, I’ve finally started hearing my 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.
We don’t go to 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, ensure that girls and boys are very separate in terms of sleeping arrangements; make sure that all the food is going to be Halal.
We sell it the best we can; 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 enjoyed it!”
Something originally that was a massive learning curve for us was realising that there are many different ways to engage with nature. I was very lucky when I was a kid – my parents took me to these reserves, we went bird watching, and 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 they won’t engage in nature in some way. Whether it’s bird ringing, 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.