Decolonizing Environmentalism

We are witnessing a historical push toward the dismantling of imperialism, the decentralization of power, and the welcoming of non-White, non-European values into conservation.

indigenous environment
Participants hold an Indigenous sovereignty banner as hundreds of protesters disrupted traffic marching on Central Park West in New York City on Oct. 14, 2019. Activist group Decolonize This Place and a citywide coalition of grassroots groups organized the fourth Anti-Columbus Day tour.

Whenever you talk about race relations here in so-called ‘America,’ Indigenous communities [are] always the last ones on the rung,” says Wanbli Wiyan Ka’win (Eagle Feather Woman), also known as Joye Braun, a front-line community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network who fought against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In defending the land so deeply beloved and cherished by her people, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Braun recounts how actively her community is excluded from environmental work and how she and her colleagues are blatantly silenced, even when working alongside allies. “We’ve had to really fight … to even have a seat at the table,” she says.

The exclusion of Indigenous people and other non-white communities in environmental and conservation work is, unfortunately, nothing new. For centuries, conservation has been driven by Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian belief structures that emphasize a distinct separation of “Man” and “Nature”—an ideology that does not mesh well with many belief structures, including those belonging to Indigenous communities.

“Christianity has been largely built up around the idea of colonization,” Braun says. Not only do these belief structures hold disproportionate power in environmental legislation, but they hold historical pains for those outside of Western religions. “Christianity was forced down our throats,” Braun says. “Our reservations were divided up: ‘OK this community … you can be Catholic. This community … you’re Lutheran. This community … you’re whatever.’”

Before the onset of such religion through colonialist conquests, the overwhelming consensus throughout the world was that human beings were just a small part of this natural world. Neither detached, nor superior. Of course, this “consensus” was not necessarily expressed in such a way that all groups adhered to the same belief structures. Yet, the underlying environmental ideology remains: Human beings are, to some extent, connected to all other living things on Earth, even the Earth itself. As European imperialism—and along with it, cultural genocide—began to take hold worldwide, so began the spread of the “Man versus Nature” dogma.

Today Braun’s life is just one example of the ideological exclusion of non-European thought as it relates to wildlife and the natural world. Nonsubscribers are barred from participation in the protection of the world and nonhuman lives they hold so dear, which inhibits their environmental stewardship. But around the world, and especially in the United States, we are witnessing a historical push toward the dismantling of imperialism, the decentralization of power, and the welcoming of non-white, non-European values into conservation.

How Modern Conservation Upholds the Superiority of Humans

Christianity has deep, painful historical associations with the obsession of dominance. The same Bible that was used to enforce humans’ domination over nature was also used to force Indigenous peoples to abandon their cultural truths for those more palatable to Europeans. This laid the foundation that continues to separate human life from nature to this day.

As the Bible states in Genesis, “Let [Man] have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over all the wild animals of the earth.” We see echoes of this passage in the frameworks of many conservation objectives today, with concepts such as “creating” sustainable forests, “managing” wildlife populations, and “preserving” wilderness as a realm separate from that of humans. This reduces our perception of human connectivity to nonhuman life and to distance constituents from the objective recognition of Earth’s intrinsic value.

Take one of the U.S.’s leading environmental organizations, for example. The National Park Service—a federal organization with well-known racist origins—has a mission statement that almost exclusively highlights the instrumental value of North America’s natural lands: “The National Park Services preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations … to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resources conservation … throughout this country and the world.”

Their mission is painfully anthropocentric, never mind that the very lands it aims to extend were stolen from Indigenous tribes who are now denied access. Missions such as these create a near-impenetrable ideological barrier through which environmentalists of non-Christian cultures cannot pass.

Keeping POC Out of Conservation

These organizational goals exclude other faith (or non-faith) groups and have nurtured a hostile environment that disproportionately affects people of color. Historical experiences function to reinforce these impacts, further preventing people of color from exercising agency in conservation initiatives. For one, white constituents do not live with the same generational trauma that people of color do.

Experiences rooted in genocide and slavery, for example, still inform people’s experience of the outdoors. Black people were forbidden to enter certain spaces owned by the National Park Service and other natural lands because of Jim Crow laws and deeply rooted racism, as pointed out by researchers Rachelle KGould and others. Many were lynched in these landscapes as well. Thus, for Black people, experiencing the outdoors was to put one’s life on the line.

Simultaneously, “those in power [imposed] a particular concept of environment,” Gould says, which denied Black people’s experiences in natural habitats. Ideological disparities have likewise discouraged Indigenous agency in land management despite how profoundly they value land and wildlife. In the words of Paula Gunn Allen of the Laguna Pueblo, “The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies… It is not a matter of being ‘close to nature’… The Earth is, in a very real sense, the same as our self (or selves).”

Inequality lies even in the evasiveness of definitions. “Google the word, ‘environment’ and see how far you need to scroll to see pictures of people in urban areas,” Pomona College psychologist Adam Pearson says. “What counts as being an ‘environmentalist?’ And what counts as ‘environmentalism?’” The vast majority of Americans believe that people of color do not feel strongly about environmental causes. Black, Latino, Asian, and white respondents in a 2018 survey overwhelmingly associated environmentalism with whiteness and underestimated environmental valuation in their own communities. Some 65% of Latin and 68% of Asian respondents self-identified as “environmentalists,” compared to 50% of white respondents.

What Equal Opportunity Actually Looks Like

The public has long held onto the idea that the socioeconomic inequalities play a large role in a person of color’s individual capacity to care for the environment when in fact, conservation organizations often create unequal socioeconomic barriers. People of color who try to enter professional roles in American conservation often encounter pay rates below the poverty line (and have done so for decades). That requires applicants to have enough accumulated wealth to be able to afford forgoing reasonable pay to “gain experience”—a luxury out of reach for many non-whites because of massive racial wealth disparities that result from long-standing discrimination. Even those who fall in line with the Christian dogma are granted unequal access and compensation. Forty-nine percent of Black Christians, compared to 28% of white Christians, earn less than $30,000 annually, according to the Pew Research Center.

Ideological disparities have also had clear effects on Indigenous agency in land management. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services works to combat “wildlife damage,” the idea that wildlife poses a threat not only to human health, safety, and property, but to natural resources as well. This concept is a stark contrast to many cultures’ environmental values.

How would one expect an Indigenous person, a Buddhist, or a Muslim to feel welcome in such a space? The answer lies not only in dismantling millennia of imperialism, but also in the conscious invitation of non-white, non-European cultures into conservation.

According to Pearson, this requires combating stereotypes of environmentalists and creating enthusiasm for working in traditionally noninclusive spaces. Fulfilling these responsibilities requires taking an honest look at how ideological contrasts actively exclude people of color and perpetuate a negative feedback loop that overrepresents white people in environmental and conservation spaces.

“Inviting people to advise doesn’t mean that they’re gonna listen,” Braun notes when discussing possible methods of increasing diversity in conservation. “I’ve seen that a lot. That’s just them patting themselves on the back.” She says real progress relies on human connection. “When you are facing one another, then you’re forced to deal with things like the prejudices you carry on your back. You’re forced to face the potential of racism. You’re forced to face the economic divides.”

Abandoning Exclusivity for Diverse Community-Based Management

As climate change becomes a mainstream concern, Indigenous knowledge can reveal truths not visible with white, Eurocentric approaches to conservation. Traditional ecological knowledge is central to monitoring and combating climatic change, according to a 2019 study in British Columbia and Alaska. “The region is a bellwether for biodiversity changes in coastal, forest, and montane environments,” the authors write, and “an extremely dynamic and resilient social-ecological system where Indigenous Peoples have been adjusting to changing climate and biodiversity for millennia.”

Nearly 100 Indigenous elders from communities along the Pacific Coast shared with researchers the changes they had observed in coho and sockeye salmon migration patterns and the effects of warming aquatic temperatures with great detail. They had similar observations of the Sitka black-tailed deer, highlighting that their migration patterns had been influenced by fluctuating factors such as rising temperatures and reduced snowfall. Ultimately, the researchers asserted that present environmental governance is far too rigid in its exclusivity of Indigenous knowledge and that “token community visits” must evolve to invite Native environmental observers and managers to share their knowledge to create tangible progress.

While these ideas remain nascent in much of American conservation, other countries provide examples of success. For decades, forests in Benin were exclusively owned and managed by state officials. They were supported (and thus, politically influenced) by major stakeholders including the Fondation Aide á l’Autonomie Tobé, a Swiss non-governmental organization. Though the foundation surely had the best interests of the Benin constituents in mind, their collaboration didn’t represent the public’s values. Those living within the Tobé-Kpobidon forest, for example, did not feel welcome in forest management, which led to unsustainable resource use and degradation of the land.

To establish newfound hope for sustainable forest management and community involvement, a team of researchers, led by Rodrigue Castro Gbedomon implemented a “community forestry approach” in 2016. This methodology aims to “alleviate poverty among forest users, empower them, and improve the condition of the forests.” The idea was that the invitation for community involvement (and thus, agency in management decision-making processes) would nurture a sense of ownership in constituents, encouraging them toward more conservative use of forest resources, thereby creating a more sustainable existence for the forest.

The team consciously invited varying ideals and perspectives into management practices by interviewing elders and community leaders on their perspectives regarding the forest’s health. Stakeholders included nongovernmental organization leaders, and traditional and religious authorities that led and guided the surrounding communities. Divinity priests were invited as well, representing deities revered by the locals, including Ogu (the god of iron), Tchankponon (the god of smallpox), Otchoumare (the god of the rainbow), and Nonon (the god of bees). First Settlers and local hunters were also given authority in this work, serving to extend the network of participation deeply into every facet of the residents surrounding and within the Tobé-Kpobidon forest.

This decentralization of power and integration of diverse belief structures was supported by the foundation, which provided the financial resources and the means for reinforcement of the constituents’ chosen management policies. This included warning signs indicating forest boundaries and guards to manage entry into the area. The foundation also rewarded locals’ involvement with a yearly stipend of 500,000 FCA ($1,000 USD) to further encourage their continued dedication to conservation activities.

This new governance structure yielded phenomenal results. As community access to the forest expanded for medicinal gathering, hunting, beekeeping, and more, the forest’s contribution to the local economy increased to make up more than 25% of the First Settlers’ income. Also, the native flora experienced a “progressive evolution” alongside a healthy, low rate of human agricultural interference. (Cashew plantations, for example, expanded at only 0.4% annually). This community-focused approach continued to have positive effects on the forest in the years after the study.

The Tobé-Kpobidon Forest experimental management approach, along with the extensive foundation of evidence validating Indigenous knowledge, serve as a beacon of hope amid the darkness that looms over non-white, non-European demographics that yearn for a role in conservation initiatives. It demonstrates that the present ideological chasms that keep people of color out of conservation can be defeated and that such cultural victories powerfully serve both humans and the natural landscapes in which we reside.

Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy is a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, she has been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. Her love for life science has influenced her professional and academic aspirations since she was a kid. She holds a bachelor of science in zoology and 21 units of a master’s education in environmental policy & management (concentration: fish and wildlife management). You can learn more about her and her science writing and reporting work at her website.

Originally published at YES! Magazine

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