Your background is scientific: mathematics, molecular and cell biology, public health. How did you end up focused on equitable conservation?
I don’t have a classic TNC story, like “My dad took me to the woods all the time; we got the magazine when I was a kid and I knew about TNC all my life.”
I moved to New York City after college to continue my studies in molecular biology. And I fell in love with urban areas. I became a community gardener; I did a lot of work around vacant land. That was how I came to love land—not wild, wide-open spaces, but small spaces, often with toxic soil. I connected with African American and immigrant communities who had tended that land when no one else did, when it was considered worthless by the city. Communities would come together and grow things and use it as gathering space. So you can see a link to TNC’s beautiful, expansive idea of a preserve: a place where nature can thrive in its own way, and people can become healthy and heal through interacting with nature and with each other there.
My concept of nature has never had any notion of the pristine in it. Our species’ relationship to all the other species around us is very clear to me. I live in Minnesota now and I see wide open vistas with the same lens that I see these small community gardens: This is about the relationship between people and land and every other species that’s not human as well.
What does your role look like on a day-to-day basis?
I work mostly internally with different teams across the organization to help center equity in our conservation practices, outcomes and culture—building it into our goals and ensuring that it’s embedded in what we think of as conservation.
What does it mean to “embed” equity in conservation?
Equitable conservation means acknowledging and attempting to repair the negative social impacts that conservation can have and has had on people—often Indigenous people, local communities and people of color. We seek to repair those impacts through changes in our practices, outcomes and culture, and so orient our future work so we can seek to prevent these aspects entirely. It’s both about repair and transformation.
But isn’t conservation inherently equitable?
The construct of conservation was not equitable in its formation. The ideal—the vision of it—is full of little morsels of equitable thought. But the actual political construction of the concept is centered on power and land. And nothing about power and land is equitable.
Quote: Meera Bhat
Can you give an example?
In the U.S., for instance, TNC came into being in the early 1950s, in the postwar era of rebuilding, opportunity and possibility in this country. The GI Bill created access to education. There was increased access to cars, and investments in infrastructure led to [the growth of] suburbs, where people’s kids could safely play. But there were racial restrictions to a lot of those changes. These decisions shaped the structure of this country in ways that we now understand were not always equitable.
At the same time, we were deciding what land was worthy of being preserved and what we considered “wild,” based on who was in it and who wasn’t in it. And we were determining who should have access to that wilderness and who should be left out. So conservation itself got defined by these very political ideas of place and wildness.
That makes me think of national parks that were created by displacing Indigenous people.
That’s a very classic story. Because in protecting the land, people were removed from their homes: people indigenous to place, who had land rights through history, ritual and family. That land is their family. And there are also people who don’t have those ancestral rights because they were forcibly brought here. Those people don’t have claim to the land in that ancestral way, but they have a claim through their stewardship and care of it over generations.
You mean like the communities you worked with in New York City?
Yes, communities who only had access to distressed and disturbed nature often stewarded it and tended it, because that’s what they had, and then when the values of [that land] went up and up, they were often displaced.
So equitable conservation is also concerned with land use in cities?
There isn’t less nature in urban areas. There’s just less that we as conservationists have traditionally cared about.
Why is that?
When TNC was founded, conservationists in the U.S. were excited about land deals and putting large areas under protection. In urban areas, there was a lot of environmental activism around the health impacts of poor air quality, but that was considered outside the area of conservation. “Sorry, we don’t work on air pollution; that’s not land or water.”
We didn’t know that what we were doing was defining what counted and what didn’t along lines of privilege—racial privilege, gender privilege, class privilege, education privilege, access to power—but that’s what happened. That’s how conservation became something that excluded people in this country in the same way that places with largely immigrant and Black and Indigenous communities don’t have as much access to transit or municipal services.
Will thinking more about equity change the definition of conservation?
Our understanding of conservation is not fully complete. And that’s fine; that’s how science works. It builds on itself. It’s not so much advancement in a linear direction, but adding more dimensionality, broadening our understanding of what is needed for durable conservation impacts. We learn more; the world changes more; our thinking becomes more sophisticated. And to be honest, the challenges become more sophisticated, too.
Perhaps another way to define equitable conservation would be to call it conservation that includes consideration of all human beings.
People—especially people whose lives and livelihoods are deeply connected to land and water—are a part of nature. There’s no way you can protect nature without considering how people are interacting with it and how their livelihoods are affected by it.
There’s this idea that people are a threat to nature—that nature needs to be protected from things like economy and industry. And that’s not a nuanced enough analysis. Different people with different levels of access to power have different effects on the land. Historically, the people that land has been protected from have been the people least likely to do it harm.