Speech delivered by Maxwell Ayamba to Race Equality Foundation, in London 21st September 2022
Good afternoon, everyone!
My name is Maxwell Ayamba, Founder and Managing Director of a charity called Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM) which I set up in 2016, I am also an environmental journalist/academic. I am here today with the Vice Chair of SEM, Mark Hutchinson to speak on the environmental crises faced by minoritised groups in the UK.
I would like to begin with a quote from Antonio Guterres, UN General Secretary in The Guardian, Monday 18th July 2022, “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands”. This stark warning epitomises the trajectory of the environmental crises we face as a human community, but unfortunately, it is those categorised as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic who tend to suffer the brunt of the environmental crises for no fault of theirs. There’s failure to reflect environmental justice and race in service provision in campaigns and internally by largely white environmental organisations. And there is a history here – the trajectory of race, ecology, and environmental justice in the UK leaves much to be desired. For many minoritised people living in desperate ecologies there’s no escape, the disparities in living standards and inequality of opportunities are apparent from the very moment they open their doors and step outside.
In contrast, the most affluent white neighbourhoods are often the greenest, where families can enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of access to parks, woodlands, and waterways, with no exposure to toxic air pollution. Minoritised communities are cut off from our natural world, living in degraded environments and these stark inequalities were laid bare during out- break of the Covid-19 pandemic where people from those communities suffered disproportionately. It is therefore vital to shed light on the links between racism and environmental harm and make it a central pillar of our work. A YouGov polling alongside a Greenpeace report in The Guardian dated July 21st, 2022, showed widespread ignorance of the racial divide in environmental impacts. Of those polled, 35% didn’t believe people of colour were more likely than white people to live close to a waste incinerator; 55% believed there were no difference in exposure to air pollution between white people and people of colour for example in London; with 47% believing there were no significant differences between ethnic groups in access to green outdoor spaces. And yet, Newham, in East London which has the largest minority ethnic population of any local authority area in the UK and one of the most deprived according to the same report is the most polluted.
On average, Newham residents, 71% minorities are exposed to levels of particulate matter of air pollution a third higher than the World Health Organisation limits with one in seven exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide above the UK’s limit for human health according to The Guardian report. In fact, poor air quality in the borough kills 96 residents a year according to the local authority. Approximately 18% of the population of England and Wales belong to ethnic minority groups, providing an indication of the number of people who die due to living in these Multiple Deprived Index ecologies with high levels of air pollution. I suppose one of the most remarkable findings about ecology and race is the terrible burden of environmental breakdown being underappreciated, which is a factor in the lives of minoritised people and this is part of the general invisibility that envelops the racist phenomenon e.g., poor health outcomes and low life expectancy.
The UK occupies around 60 million acres of la
nd. If split equally, each person living here would occupy an acre. In England alone, half of the country is owned by less than 1% of the population rendering much of the countryside inaccessible we have a right to roam only 8%. With regards to those areas that are open to the public, there is huge disparity in the demographics of those who visit, with only 1% of visitors to national parks coming from minorities. According to Natural England, just 26% of the minority population spent time in the countryside compared with 44% of white people. In May 2022, Natural England hosted a series of roundtable discussions with various partners focused on the lack of visitors from ethnic minority backgrounds to the natural environment, this was based on evidence from its own Monitor of Engagement with Natural Environment (MENE) and People & Nature surveys which suggest marked disparities in terms of visits, with low frequency groups tending to overlap with low socio-economic status. The recent Julian Glover Review of designated landscapes 2019 had this quote, “We are all paying for national landscapes through our taxes, and yet sometimes on visits it has felt as if National Parks are an exclusive, mainly, white, mainly middle-class club, with rules only members understand and much too little done to encourage first time visitor”.
And may I stress that, these issues we are here to discuss today are not new but historical. The perceived limited role or questions raised in connection with whether minoritised community organisations or individuals are part of the wider outdoor and environmental sector are not new. A 2017 report by Think Tank, the Policy Exchange, using ONS data, ranked the environmental sector as the second least diverse in the UK with just 3.1% of staff working in the sector being from minority race groups, and regarded as only the second least diverse sector to the Agricultural/Farming industries. The same research found only 9% of UK university students studying feeder subjects into environmental professions identified as being from non-white minorities compared to 22% of UK students in higher education overall.
And therefore, the question I would like us to reflect upon during the discussion is – does the perceived white racial frame associated with the outdoors and the natural environmental sector have a role to play in the invisibility of minoritised groups in the environmental discourse? And if yes, how can we work with environmental organisations as service providers and funders to decolonise and democratise the outdoors and the environmental space. And I am saying this because, from my experience of over 20 years working in the environmental sector and in academia, the barriers show a multifaceted nature of sense of exclusion, marginalisation, lack of representation, employment opportunities shaped by the intersections of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and culture thus reproducing these very barriers that are systemic and enduring. Resources to address these barriers are rather spent on what is perceived as costly ‘Board Room’ style training and in some cases, behaviours excused by acknowledging ‘Unconscious Bias.
Some environmental sector organisations and funders hold the key to careers, training, and access opportunities but many remain closed to people who do not look/think like they do, governed by their membership body who have discriminatory bias. And while they own it a duty to challenge themselves and engage with minorities, they tend to lack cultural sensitivity, knowledge, and ability to bring about sustained positive change thus ending up doing another box ticking exercise.
I suppose this has led to scepticism among people from minoritised communities about the extent to which the environmental sector wants a genuine change. And this scepticism is even made worse as those minoritised people working in the environmental sector wanting leadership positions to help bring about that change are not given such opportunities or even those that are, are often used as token. Hence, qualitative data collected from the environmental sector organisations suggest the sector itself is a barrier to change, no sustained commitment to change in their own organisational culture to bring about diversity, inclusion, and equality, despite the fact there’s openness and willingness to learn. This is because research about the lack of diversity and inclusion in the environmental and outdoor sectors have been available since the 1980s leading to the Julian Glover Review of Designated Landscapes in 2019. These include for example, From Inspiration to Reality: Opening-up Adventure to all – conference report by Willis, E., and Russel, D., 1995 (eds.); Humberstone Social Exclusion-Diversity and Equal Opportunities, Organisational Responses and (Re) – Actions in Outdoor Education and Experiential Learning in the UK (Higgins & Humberstone, 1999); The 2000 Rural White Paper. Our Countryside – the Future. A Fair Deal for Rural England; the 2005 DEFRA Diversity Countryside Review – “Capturing Richness”; Scottish Nature Omnibus Survey 2009- 2014 commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage and lately the Julian Glover Review 2019.
The question I would like to conclude with, is how we decolonise conservation to provide that leverage for people not categorised as ‘white’ to become environmental stewards and champions. It is the more reason why we need to deepen our understanding of racism and ecology. This is because of the ecological definition of race which incorporates the false bilogization of race and therefore leading to the racist ecologies that arise on that basis. And these eugenic practices need to be destroyed if a truly human society is to flourish because, as humans, we are part of nature so our society should be viewed from an ecosystemic perspective, mediated by the peculiarity of human forms of connections. And since racism is a kind of relationship within society and between, we humans-beings and our environment, it should be seen from an ecological perspective than ‘race’, if we are to leave this world a better place for future generations to come. The political, economic, environmental, and societal implications are clear, the future of our environment is dependent upon its anti-racist content and practices. And one good place to start is forming alliances with struggles for environmental justice in which minoritised communities can be made visible to reclaim their human rights and place as natural custodians. This is because we can not heal nature without a radical social change, for a movement that advocates to conserve the environment while neglecting the categorisations that disintegrates humans into minorities doesn’t serve the needs of nature nor of humanity.