In the summer 2020, America’s national reckoning was awash with white supremacy, systemic racism, and nature and conservation lovers began to wonder how our national parks and public lands fit in this reckoning.
They took a closer look to beautiful, nationally treasured landscapes like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park that are the result of early conservationists who saw vast protected swathes of pristine, unspoiled wilderness for future generations.
Then they realized the truth. These lands were already richly inhabited when conservationists claimed them. Indigenous Peoples had been connecting with them since the beginning of time.
However, conservationists’ visions for these landscapes didn’t include Indigenous Peoples. White people and government leaders were armed with this belief and other racist ideals and began to forcibly remove Indigenous communities from their ancestral homelands.
We social justice and environmental advocates like us cannot pretend that our feelings about America’s conservation history aren’t complicated. How can we be proud of a movement that created refuges for wildlife and humans, when the same movement tried to eliminate Indigenous Peoples from those places?
Unfortunately, modern conservation efforts haven’t completely removed this stain from its history. Environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which are dominated by white people, continue to perpetuate, though less subtly, the stigmatization of the past.
A revolutionary 2014 reportBy Green 2.0An independent non-profit organization, aimed at increasing racial diversity in the environment, found that only one eighth of eight NGO staff was made up of people of color. Even more alarming, only one of 20 board members was of color.
Green 2.0 and U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources agree that there is a need for change. The committee will hold a meeting on February 8. Hearing in Congressto speak with some of the country’s most respected experts about the environmental movement diversity problem and its impact on federal environmental policymaking.
The most recent Green 2.0s data will be available for the committee. 2021 Transparency CardThis shows that while NGOs have made some improvements in diversifying their staff over the last several years, almost 75 percent of NGO leaders are still white. This is not a new pattern. Organizations that seek to increase diversity for the sake of diversity often fail to make real, positive changes that will bring more inclusion, justice, equity, and equity to their workplaces.
The report also examined where environmental grantmaking organizations are sending their money for the first year. Although the results were disappointing, they weren’t surprising. The foundations that responded reported funding white-led environmental non-governmental organizations at almost twice the rate of those led by people of colour.
Witnesses will discuss how environmental NGOs/foundations can do better not only because it’s right, but because of the climate crisis. When attempting to find solutions, it is important that those most affected by a problem are represented at the table.
Indigenous Peoples and communities of color are the most affected by climate change. They are the ones who have to bear the brunt of rising temperatures, sea level rise and more severe weather events such as hurricanes and heatwaves. They are the ones whose communities have been infiltrated with polluting petrochemical plant and fossil fuel production facilities. They are also the ones being left out of decisions by environmental organizations about how they will address climate change.
It is particularly wrong to exclude Indigenous voices from the conservation conversation. Indigenous Peoples have a wealth of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK). This knowledge has been accumulated through their relationships with the natural world, and passed down through oral as well as written histories. ITEK should be at forefront of solutions to more sustainable and responsible stewardship. Recently, the White House issued this statement: Executive orderITEK should be officially recognized as a body knowledge that should inform federal decision making; environmental NGOs should follow a similar path.
We cannot change the dark history of white supremacy in American environmental movements. If we are to find a sustainable and equitable way through the climate crisis, the environmental movements must stop focusing on the ivory tower and allow more voices to speak for a more just and inclusive future.
Ral M.Grijalva is the Chair of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. Since 2003, he represents Southern Arizona in Congress. Andrs Jimenez, the executive director of Green 2.0.