The link between my ancestors, racism and climate change
In the garden, I plunge my little pudgy hand into the earth, scooping up a palm of writhing worms, “hi friends!”. This memory emerges as I stroll through the local woodland, dense with fragrant wild garlic and rich in biodiversity; marvelling at the peace and loving energy that nature has always given me. However, the sweetness is soured as I wonder, will any of this be here for children fifty years from now? Rapid climate change and its disastrous global impact is known to most. However, the climate crisis discussion – that is mainly led by white folks - often leaves out the fact that environmental issues are a result of colonial legacies, and how they’re tied to racial injustice to the present day. I will compare the relationship that my ancestors had with nature, to that of our community today, whilst exploring the link between environmental issues and racism.
Nature’s benefits & environmental racism in Britain
We know that immersing oneself in nature not only increases appreciation for and connection to it (which is related to caring about environmental issues and taking action), it also results in health benefits. As well as being a vital part of ecosystems, the source of our oxygen and remover of CO2 (from the atmosphere), trees are abundant with physical and mental health benefits. Studies show that forest-bathing boosts the immune system, as well as easing depression, anxiety and enabling the parasympathetic system to be dominant (decreasing stress levels and increasing feelings of relaxation).
However, the benefits of nature - which have been essential to my wellbeing, especially during the pandemic – have not been enjoyed by many in the U.K. due to structural racism. There is a race factor which impacts our ability to access green spaces. A disproportionate number of working class BME people living in urban areas are the least likely to access nature. These urban areas are rife with city stressors. In the US and the UK, people of colour suffer more air pollution than white residents. Noise pollution has been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and early death, and the lack of horizon can negatively impact the growth of children’s eyes. This shows how the health and lives of those living at the intersection of racism and classism are negatively impacted and cut short due to a lack of access to green space; this is a form of environmental racism in the UK.
Diaspora disenfranchised from nature
There is a disconnection to nature amongst the Tamil diaspora: I ask my dad if he likes to walk in woodland, and he responds with “not really”. This sentiment is not uncommon amongst elders in the Tamil diaspora, and can also be extended to the wider BME population in the UK. A 2017 report by Natural England revealed that black and Asian people are less likely to visit natural settings, which itself is related to disenfranchisement due to racism. This is not only due to the fact that the countryside can be less diverse and more racist relative to “urban” areas, causing BME people feel like outsiders, it is also tied to the traumas of Asian and African diaspora elders. Imperialist ideas frame colonial subjects who are closely connected to nature are “primitive”, whereas white people have been able to enjoy nature without these derogatory labels. There is also trauma from the psychologically violent narrative perpetuated by white environmental practitioners that people of colour cause harm to nature and do not value it. The impact of this racist notion not only disenfranchises the diaspora from immersing themselves in nature, it also manifests as human rights abuses committed by conservationists such as WWF against local people in Africa and Asia, as they actively deprive them from the benefits of nature whilst at the same time “appropriating the knowledge of our ancestors”.
My ancestors’ relationship to nature
My life-long affinity for nature and the environment drew me towards being curious about and having a great respect for the symbiotic and spiritual relationship that indigenous peoples around the world have with the earth. However, it is only recently that I started to wonder about the relationship that my ancestors would have had with nature before colonialism, and what aspects of that relationship have survived today. Akam (love) poems from the Sangam period (300 BCE – 300 CE) of Tamil history are rich with references to nature:
Daughter of the king
Of sapphire mountains,
engulfed in clouds
where rich, pretty,
the striped backs
of sleeping tigers.
[Excerpt from Kalaviyal enra Iraiyanar Akapporul]
There are five modalities in these poems that take place in five different natural settings: mountain (where lovers first meet), forest (where the temporarily abandoned heroine waits), wasteland (conflict and separation), seaside (impatient lovers) and river plain (hero and heroine are older and married, but caught in triangular relationships). There is further evidence of the reverence our ancestors had for nature, in the form of nature worship at sacred groves. All forms of life were considered sacred, including trees, which ancient Tamils believed to be the abode of spirits and gods. Many of the sacred groves (where entire vegetation was worshipped) in Tamil Nadu were associated with water, which also provided irrigation for agriculture, as well as conserving biodiversity of animal and plant species (valuable for medicines, food and other uses). Ecological farming techniques such as irrigation, crop rotation, threshing, and manuring were also practiced by our ancestors, as recorded in Sangam literature. This symbiosis between our Tamil ancestors and nature lives on in some ways today; particularly through sustainable agriculture. We also continue the tradition of gratitude for land through celebrating Thai Pongal; a multi-day harvest Hindu festival, which is celebrated by Tamil people and other Asian peoples globally.
Climate Change and the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka
Along with evolving conflict in Sri Lanka, where Tamil people were (and continue to be) persecuted and marginalised by the Sri Lankan government, the climate has been changing. Monsoon cycles and dry seasons are becoming more extreme; this has destroyed agricultural and industrial infrastructure for Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Worsening floods combined with the conflict has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Tamil people. Climate change and the roots of ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka can be traced back to colonialism.
We cannot address climate injustice without looking at racial injustice, both historically and in the present day. The gross exploitation of natural resources that has contributed to the climate crisis would not have been possible without European colonisers enslaving people from Africa, South America and Asia.
Climate colonialism is perpetuated by extractive industries, such as fossil fuels ,to continue these destructive practices of seizing land, exploiting it and causing harm to the people who live there. For example, British fossil fuel companies funded by the U.K. Export Finance (UKEF), are undertaking a polluting project in Mozambique, without regard to the impact on the climate and people of Mozambique. Germany banned domestic hard coal production in 2018, yet import blood coal from Colombia which has been linked to “severe human rights abuses and contract killings”. Britain, Germany and Europe’s outsourcing of deforestation are just three of numerous examples of climate colonialism, which is enabled to continue as long as colonialism and racism is excluded from the climate discussion. This renders agreements - such as the Paris agreement - made by the Global North on climate action ineffective, when sustainability is not assessed through a global lens. Climate change, caused predominantly by the global North, continues to devastate and cause worse health outcomes for those in the Global South, with women in Bangladesh suffering miscarriages due to increased salinity from flooding contaminating drinking water; children in Tamil Nadu suffering from diarrhoea; and the increased mental health issues and suicide rates of those whose lives are severely impacted by climate change.
Oppressive white systems erase people of colour from the climate conversation
Considering the disproportionate impact of climate change on people of colour, why is there a paucity of brown and black people in the environmental fields? In the UK, environmental professional is the second least diverse occupation. This is partly due to the fact that people of colour are erased from the debate by middle-class white folks who have historically been perceived to be the torchbearers for solving climate change. It’s a case of white saviourism and the need to be “a voice for the voiceless”, without acknowledging that BME voices are deliberately silenced or unheard. For example, Extinction Rebellion were criticised for encouraging protesters to get arrested, without regard to the reality that black and brown people are disproportionately targeted and sentenced by the police and courts; this inevitably deters people of colour from joining those particular protests. Other possible causes for the lack of black and brown people in environmental fields in the U.K., is that BME people are forced by structural racism to focus on ‘surviving’, and so a majority of BME students may feel the need to pursue careers that are guaranteed to be ‘secure’, prestigious and that pay well; these types of careers tend not to be perceived to lie in the environmental sector.
The ‘survival’ factor, combined with the lack of outreach, funding and scholarships for people of colour to pursue environmental professions is also part of the exclusion. That being said there are a growing number of BME climate activists, including Farhana Yamin, Vanessa Nakate, Tyrone Scott and Jessica Ahmed, who refuse to be ignored.
The way forward: decolonise climate activism
There is already work underway in order to reconnect to nature and strengthen global sustainability but there is much more to do. In Britain, black women-led schemes and organisations such as ‘Wild in the City’ have been pivotal in promoting ‘nature as an antidote to the stresses of urban living’ and providing woodland living skills that enable harmony with the natural world to be enjoyed by Black communities. These sorts of initiatives are essential in reconnecting to the techniques and world views of our ancestors in relation to the earth; engaging in these practices leads to a more meaningful connection with our planet, each other as well as a more sustainable world.
In order to address climate change effectively, it is also imperative that countries from the Global North (including Europe and North America) regulate the sustainability of their imports of foreign goods with the same scrutiny that applies domestically.
In addition, these countries must examine their carbon footprint from a global lens and set targets for the impact that their trade has beyond their own borders. For climate injustice to be truly addressed, the voices of BME folks and folks from the global South must be heard and amplified; for there can be no climate justice without racial justice.
I have done my best to use nuanced and accurate terminology in this article: I understand that there can be limitations in grouping different ethnicities together. I recognise that people of colour are not a monolith, and that, further, living at the site of multiple systems of oppression can create particularistic and compounded experiences of marginalisation. I have used these terms for lack of better alternatives. For example:
· The terms ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ are used to describe a grouping of countries along socio-economic and political characteristics.
· The term ‘BME’ (Black and Minority Ethnic) people is used for statistical purposes since this is the criteria along which much of the data is gathered in the U.K..
· ‘People of colour’ is used to describe all of those who are not considered to be white.
Sorubiha Kamalanathan (she/her) is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice. She is an educator, creative, advocate and activist, passionate about education, social justice, self-care and self-expression. Amongst other things, she writes about the experience of Tamils, linking history, politics and identity.