Three years ago, the murder of George Floyd was a watershed moment for the recognition of Black lives and Black voices that shook the foundations of the environmental movement, as it reverberated throughout each sector of life in the United States. Finally, environmental justice communities were having their moment and their needs heard.
But I worry momentum has slowed. In the conversation surrounding nature conservation and climate action, we’ve faced partners who continue to need reminding that communities are an integral part of the solution — in particular, Indigenous communities who have been forcibly severed from their lands and waters and communities of color whose connection with nature has been impeded by a lack of investment, a lack of meaningful access, active destruction of nearby green and blue spaces, as well as pollution of their neighborhoods.
In order to address this gap, Hispanic Access Foundation summoned the overwhelming body of evidence in our latest publication, “10 Ways Access to Nature Can Bolster Biodiversity, Communities, and Climate,” released at COP27, the global climate conference. The report showed that equitable nature access, honoring Indigenous sovereignty and investing in frontline communities is critical for preserving nature and sequestering carbon to reduce climate change.
Why do we care so much about nature access, rather than simply caring for nature itself? Because, when you consider nature access, you add widespread equity benefits like boosts to children’s education, climate resilience, economic development, physical and mental health, as well as remediating the harms of colonialism, racism and fortress conservation. And it strengthens the environmental movement, adding diverse constituencies who can be moved to take action and passionate, capable leaders who care for their communities but whose viewpoints may otherwise have been overlooked.
A variety of solutions can be implemented at any level and scale of policymaking. From interventions like urban food gardens, green infrastructure, river restoration, marine sanctuaries to cleanup of oil wells, new parks and monuments — and so much more. Indigenous land and water stewardship in particular is immensely valuable. The research shows when Indigenous communities have rights and decision-making powers over their lands and waters, they manage the land with enormous ecosystem benefits.
Our natural infrastructure — like the trees, streams and coastlines that surround us — is just as in need of investment and care as our built infrastructure. Protecting access to nature, waterways, as well as a clean and healthy ocean is a part of environmental justice. While it is not a substitute for the deep cuts in pollution that we need for the safety of our health and our climate, it must accompany the transition we make toward a regenerative, climate-safe society.
Later this month, during Latino Advocacy Week, hundreds of Latino leaders from around the country will convene virtually and in Washington, D.C., to speak to their lawmakers. Top of mind for this group of advocates is environmental health — the health of our natural surroundings along with the physical and mental impacts environmental health has on communities.
To ensure our physical and mental well-being, we must also protect our nature access. The evidence shows that there is no choice to be made between protecting the rights of Indigenous, Black and other people of color and protecting nature. By protecting the former, you protect the latter — and so much more besides.