Undergraduate Winner: Does conservation have A diversity problem?

When I walked into my first day of studying Wildlife Conservation at university, one of the first things I noticed was how white the room was. Coming from spending two years studying in central London where I was one out of the only two white British people in the class, this stark contrast was new and upsetting to me. However, it was not surprising. The lack of diversity in the conservation community has been a problem since the beginning of time, with most of us being white and middle class. While gender diversity in environmental organisations has improved, the gains have been almost entirely for white women alone. The faces of conservation in the media are overwhelmingly white. When I asked my non-conservationist friends to name me some, I was given David Attenborough, the late Steve Irwin, and Carole Baskin (of Big Cat Rescue in Florida, and arguably a conservationist). The white middle class must do better in understanding why we dominate the conservation community, why a change is necessary, and what can be done in the future. 

The conservation movement – some uncomfortable roots  

Internationally, much of the conservation movement as we know it today originated with the establishment of National Parks. The protection and preservation of such Parks typically operates within the logic that humans are unnatural forces that land must be protected from. Whilst there is some truth to this sentiment (human-led habitat destruction is a huge issue), it is interlaced with colonialism and has caused much harm to local and indigenous communities throughout history. 

The formation of National Parks began with Yellowstone in 1872, which was once home to numerous indigenous tribes such as Shoshone, Bannock and Crow. Once Yellowstone became protected, the tribes were forced onto new land but were originally granted access for hunting. This was necessary for survival due to the limited food rations provided by the government. By 1894, all hunting in Yellowstone was illegal, and militarization techniques had been adopted to enforce these rules. This is one of many examples of local and indigenous communities being displaced and erased in the name of conservation.  

According to African Wildlife Foundation president Kaddu Sebunya, conservation is largely viewed as a ‘white thing’ throughout Africa. This is not surprising when most of Africa’s wildlife reserves were established during colonial times. Looking back through cultural and political history can give clues as to why people of colour may not feel welcome in the global conservation community and how such events may have shaped their attitudes.

Nature being perceived as ‘for white people’

When it comes to addressing the lack of racial diversity in conservation, a common rebuttal is that ‘people of colour simply aren’t interested in nature’. Shoddy research implying a disconnect between black urbanites and nature has given rise to this harmful stereotype. This myth has been debunked by environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor who points out that negative attitudes towards nature have long been imprinted on black communities, but fails to consider anything other than race. For example, if a white person is turned off by a bad camping experience, the attitude is pinned onto the experience rather than the ethnicity. Using this narrative places blame onto ethnic minorities in a way that is oversimplifying and unproductive. 

“I don’t think white people are gatekeeping natural spaces, but I still don’t think people of colour feel welcome there” says my friend Sahar, whose parents immigrated from Iran in the 80s. “People in my community might not see British nature as something that’s for them, especially if they do not consider Britain to be their predominant national identity.” A similar sentiment was recently given by naturalist Dwayne Fields on BBC’s Countryfile. He said “it is clear [the black and minority ethnic community] do not view the UK countryside as something that is for them. It’s not theirs, they don’t belong there.” But what is it about Britain’s natural spaces that makes communities of colour feel unwelcome?

Some of the supposed ‘disconnect’ between ethnic minorities and nature may be due to generational trauma. Nature-based psychotherapist Beth Collier points out that, due to being treated with such hostility, the parents and grandparents of people of colour have historically associated remote spaces with danger. This fear can be passed down from generation to generation, discouraging people of colour from experiencing and appreciating nature. This is therefore not the result of some biological or cultural disconnect, but of trauma that white people have inflicted onto minority communities. There is also a logistical aspect; only 1.7% of the black and 2% of the Asian population in England live in rural areas. This makes it harder for such groups to access natural spaces as it requires more money and time to travel, thus potentially deterring them from being attracted to conservation in the future.

Financial insecurity and class inequality 

To access job opportunities in conservation and ecology, one is typically expected to have extensive volunteering experience beforehand. As most of us know, conservation volunteering positions are not just time-consuming, but often expensive. This is inaccessible for budding conservationists who do not have parents who can help them out, thereby favouring middle class individuals.

In such a competitive field, you basically have to pay to even get your foot in the door, either by sacrificing time you could be doing paid work, or by literally paying to take part in a project. This creates the potential to produce a generation of conservationists whose CVs are not true reflections of their skills or intelligence, but rather of their parents’ income. Of course, some people fund their own volunteering placements, but this is near impossible for those who are struggling to make ends meet. This system is inherently elitist, favouring those of middle class (and often white) backgrounds.

Troubles of financial insecurity are often worsened for those who come from an immigrant background. The conservation sector is extremely competitive and not lucrative. For those who have made huge sacrifices to move countries and do not have financial safety nets to fall back on, entering such a field is risky. People from immigrant backgrounds may be more likely to go into ‘safer’ fields with more funding and job opportunities. 

Perception of conservationists in the media

Although I love the current faces of conservation media, it is undeniable that they are extremely white. Having more relatable faces at the forefront of conservation may inspire young people of colour, allowing them to envision themselves in the sector. I know from my own experience that having an environmentalist role model (my mum) is what kick-started my passion for nature, ultimately resulting in me choosing Wildlife Conservation at university. Bringing a wider variety of people to the forefront of conservation and making it more representative, without being tokenistic, could have huge benefits. No matter their background, the next generation of conservationists deserve to see themselves in mainstream media, not just those who are white.

Conservation issues disproportionately affecting minorities

Communities of colour and working class communities – especially those in the Global South – are and will be disproportionately affected by issues relating to climate change and habitat destruction. Yet these individuals are rarely seen in the climate change discourse, or in some cases are even erased out. As wildlife conservationist Corina Newsome points out, “individuals, corporations, and countries with power and money have benefited from the contamination and destruction of the land on which people of color and poor people live; places where they expect powerless resistance at most.” If a company tries to build an oil pipeline in the white middle-class village where I live, I know we have the shared resources (money and time) to try to prevent this. In fact, my village hated the idea of living near a solar panel farm so much that they successfully campaigned for it to be called off. If a company tries to do the same thing in a poorer area, which are often home to working class or communities of colour, the inhabitants are less likely to have the resources to fight back.  

This unjust reality is reflected in the UK’s capital. According to research by the Mayor of London, “people living in parts of London with high proportions of black, mixed or other ethnic groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution compared to those in areas with a high proportion of white people”. Dr. Beverly Wright and colleagues have found that not only are people of colour differently impacted by pollution, but can also expect different treatment from government. Yet in conversations revolving around solving these problems, those with the loudest voices are majority white, adding to the public perception that conservation is a ‘white’ thing.

How inclusivity will benefit everyone

Aside from the moral argument for more inclusivity, there are plenty of other benefits to a more diverse era of conservation. We all have the same shared goal – to conserve and protect wildlife and nature. The more people that join that mission and provide their expertise and experiences, the stronger we will be as a community. With such big and intimidating goals, we will benefit from power in numbers. Not to mention ours is a community that is often collaborative and global, and individuals from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds can create valuable opportunities and bring unique perspectives.

Learning and listening  

I do not believe the conservation community is purposefully elitist. I do not think there is some secret agenda to favour the white middle class and disbenefit everyone else. However, regardless of reason, that is the way things currently stand. There are some obvious suggestions I could make – making volunteering opportunities more accessible, encouraging an interest in nature in minority communities, and the like. But I do not know how realistic these propositions are, and in a way, they are surface level fixes. This is indeed a much deeper issue that is not exclusive to the conservation community, but is apparent in society at large.

I am not an expert on this topic. I have not even been part of the conservation community for very long. But I know that, as with all issues of inequality, it is up to the privileged to inform ourselves and act. I believe that if we educate ourselves on the wider issues of societal inequality, that those learnings will spill into our other areas of life. A good place to start is by recognising the current state of things and realising how we benefit from the systems in place. This does not need to bring up feelings of guilt or blame, and instead should be motivating and inspiring. By going in with an open mind and not becoming defensive, we can learn so much just from listening to other people’s experiences. 

We should also amplify the voices that need to be heard to produce a more diverse age of conservation media. I want to see a future where my non-conservationist friends know the likes of Mya-Rose Craig, Jamey Redway, Earyn McGee, Corina Newsome, Isra Hirsi. I feel so lucky to share my little corner on Twitter with these amazing women who inspire me every day. I feel strongly that the issues I have touched on in this article can and should be solved within the following years. I am excited to see how different the conservation community will be when I have child who is the age I am now, and I look forward to seeing who their conservation role models will be. 


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Cite:

Wilson, Sorrell “Undergraduate Winner: Does conservation have A diversity problem?” ECOS vol. 42(1), ECOS 2021, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/undergraduate-winner-does-conservation-have-a-diversity-problem/.

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