What is the conservation industry doing to address its lack of diversity?
The conservation industry is the second-least diverse sector in the UK, but, says Jasmine Isa Qureshi, many organisations are working to make nature more inclusive. The times are changing...
I didn’t recognise that I was as worthy of a relationship with the natural world as anyone else
It's been a tough week; yards of university work piling up, final stress and personal issues – my mind is scraping to a halt. I need to escape this suffocating bubble. But where to go? The answer presents itself as refreshingly as it has done before. Go to the sea.
The Portsmouth coast is stunning. The salty tang of the ocean air sits deliciously on your tongue, and the crunch of cockles, mussels and sand beneath your feet is a rhythm to calm the soul. But I've not always been this comfortable in nature. There was a time when my heart would beat faster and my instincts would sharpen as I stooped into a bird hide or passed others on a woodland trail. I would never have dreamt of going on these adventures alone so audaciously.
Nature is so often said to have a calming effect, but it is often forgotten that this narrative only exists because those who have narrated it feel this way. The views of the minority that feel uncomfortable in this paradise have generally been ignored.
I speak from experience. I would walk into a reserve and not once see a person that looked as I did. I would wander past couples whose smiles would turn down as they glanced upon my face and noticed the shades apart we were. The feeling of being different crept in every time.
More like this
And yet. Things are changing. I find solace far more in nature nowadays, I take pride in my difference and seek strength from the similar souls I have found, and the sense that diversity and inclusion are top of the agenda. There is a drive now to make the world of nature a place for everyone, no matter who you are or where you hail from.
Writing this article, I talked to icons of the conservation industry, people at the forefront of research who are championing diversity, who have fought to get where they are and have been fighting for others. What did they all have in common? They are like me: minorities, ethnically diverse people. Talking to them, I understood how we got to a place where the conservation and wildlife industry is, astoundingly, the second-least diverse sector in the UK, and – more importantly – how the tide is turning.
For many, connection to nature starts at a young age: our experiences as children shape the people we become. Anjana Khatwa is a British-Asian earth scientist and television presenter whose relationship with nature was strained growing up. “There were eight of us in my house and the nearest green space was our back garden, which my dad concreted over, as he was a signwriter and needed the space to work,” she says. “The only other green spaces were a playing field and the local park.” Anjana would go on day trips with her family, but her childhood wasn’t one immersed in greenery. Her parents were hard at work, with little time for nature.
This is the reality for many people growing up without wealth, and with different cultural codes and stricter values to the rest of society. Immigrant families tend to live in urban areas in pursuit of jobs and others of a similar mindset. Like Anjana, I did not grow up with open wild spaces. I was weaned on the concrete of the city, with a constant shanty of lorries thundering past my bedroom window. It meant I didn’t recognise that I was as worthy of a relationship with the natural world as anyone else.
It was a visit to Kenya, at the age of 11, that sparked Anjana’s love of geology. “When you are transported from a very urban space, and a closeted and strict household, to a different continent with an entirely different climate and landscape – it's transformative.” Anjana was lucky to have found her calling.
But the truth is we don’t all have the chance to get out into nature as kids, a problem often intensified for children of immigrant backgrounds. Many grow up without gardens, with little access to green spaces. My mum took me to reserves when she could, but my love of the wild came largely from books, documentaries and the internet. For kids that can’t explore the outdoors, it’s down to this ‘education’ to spark an interest.
The void widens as young people experience a seeming negative attitude to any line of work in nature. I often hear of immigrant parents’ supposed intolerance towards jobs and careers within the wildlife industry. It is said that they don’t care, or don’t want to be out in nature.
Yet the issue is far more nuanced than those batting these views around might believe. For many immigrant families, money is the means to a life of quality and contentment. Money leads to options and freedom, and a respect they were probably not shown on arrival in this country. Poorly paid, entry-level conservation jobs will rarely appeal over careers in law or medicine.
Then we have the issue of commodifying our landscape, which drives the wedge deeper still. Maxwell A Ayamba is a journalist, academic and founder of the Sheffield Environmental Movement, which promotes access to nature for minority and refugee communities.
Growing up in rural Ghana, where his community’s relationship with nature was one of mutual respect and reverence, he has the perspective to identify the flaws in how we in the UK view our wild surroundings. “We see experiences in the wild not as essential, but as a luxury, so we treat nature as something we can afford to be rid of. It is reduced in value and sold back to us for an extortionate price.”
For a young Maxwell, the idea that you have to ‘visit’ a wild space would have been absurd. But in the UK, that’s exactly how it is. We must organise a time, and probably need to travel by car, in the face of increasingly inadequate public transport. We need to park, find a path and probably pay for entry. For the roughly 80 per cent of our population that live in cities, connecting with wild open spaces thus demands time, money and transport.
This specifically affects people of colour. Turning the wild into a luxury cuts off those who are apparently not rich enough, and who lack the social status to be seen in these areas. It comes down to fitting in, something that has always been an issue for me. I’ve come to know this as more friend than foe, yet the age-old tribalistic feeling of needing to belong never goes away.
As humans, we see others doing what we love – or what we want to love – and that inspires us. But lack of representation, of seeing others like ourselves, is one of the very basic reasons for lack of diversity, as well as an effect of it. As a child I would watch countless programmes fronted by David Attenborough, Steve Irwin, Chris Packham, Jane Goodall, Steve Backshall. I wanted what they had – the chance to explore the natural world and tell its stories. But I’d never been shown it was possible for someone who looked like me, or who had my life experience, to fill their shoes.
The problem starts with systemic racism – the idea that the systems we live by have been poisoned by the discrimination and bias of those who have held the majority of the power in the past, and often still do. What we have now does little to represent minorities because it is still the same system – it’s just been tweaked a little.
Mya-Rose Craig is a birder and founder of Black2Nature, a programme providing, among other things, nature camps for inner-city children. “Not only does systemic racism cause discrimination, but it remains unseen. We’re trying to show kids that the countryside is not a white, elitist place, but the fact that kids coming on our camps have experienced racism and microaggressions reinforces the opposite,” she says.
We asked ourselves, would potential interviewees have the money to get a bus to our office?
People of ethnic minorities experience discrimination every day, but they are brushed aside because they are perceived as ridiculous, or ‘not really happening anywhere I can see’. As a result, victims feel invisible and melt into the shadows, not pursuing their dreams.
Yet through my discussions with organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) and the Woodland Trust, I can see that things are starting to change.
The BBCT, for instance, recently took advantage of the government’s new Kickstart Scheme – which funds work placements for 16-24-year olds on Universal Credit and from deprived backgrounds – to recruit a conservation assistant. Not only was this an opportunity to bring diversity into their organisation, it also turns the conventional recruitment process on its head.
“We asked ourselves, would potential interviewees have access to the internet? If we invite them to an interview, would they have the money to get a bus to our office, or for an appropriate outfit, if that’s what they believe is expected?” says CEO Gill Perkins. “In the past, we’ve taken certain things about recruitment for granted – that’s not the case with the Kickstarter.”
The Wildlife Trusts is another organisation working hard for change. In 2019, they created an equality, diversity and inclusion team, and in 2020 launched their corresponding strategy and programmes, such as London Wildlife Trust’s Keeping it Wild project, which enables young people from ethnically and culturally diverse backgrounds to gain practical skills in, for instance, urban nature conservation.
Then there’s the emerging role of diversity officer, spoken about by everyone I interviewed. Some, including Maxwell A Ayamba, believe it risks giving too much responsibility to one person, and could be interpreted as tokenism. But there was also talk of the position being useful in raising awareness and creating opportunities for candidates from the BAME community.
So how do we ensure that change actually happens? Mohammed Mohal is the is equality, diversity and inclusion manager and chair of Mosaic Outdoors.
He is sceptical of the work being done to break down ethnicity barriers. “There is an issue, when it comes to diversity in large organisations, of ticking boxes – overseen by someone without minority status experience,” he says. “A lot of the stuff they’re doing is superficial. They might have a policy or strategy, but that is meaningless until you action it. But if, for example, people were to question why all their board members are white, then they can start to drive change.”
He has a point, but hearing the discussions taking place all over the UK, I am optimistic. Yes, it’s taken too long to gain ground, but I am certain it will. I have seen how passionate so many in our society are about the natural world. The future looks brighter. And a lot more colourful.
Backbone Symposium, in Scotland, and Mosaic Outdoors both work to connect BAME communities with nature, while A Focus in Nature supports young people from a broad range of backgrounds with an interest in nature and conservation. Or click here for more organisations.
Jasmine Isa Qureshi (they/she) is a writer, former researcher at the BBC’s Natural History Unit, film-maker, ambassador for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, engagement officer for A Focus On Nature, activist, and speaks at science festivals and events around the UK. They also have a BSc in marine biology.
Subscribe to BBC Wildlife Magazine
Save 44% when you subscribe to BBC Wildlife Magazine
Get 13 issues of BBC Wildlife Magazine for only £3 per issue! Plus, free UK delivery