Not All Environmentalists Are Built the Same

An exploration of how Latin culture forms the basis of many sustainable lifestyle practices.

by Tania Roa

I was born in the United States to two Colombian parents. Like so many people raised in immigrant families, I grew up navigating opposing cultures. While American culture stresses individualism, Colombian culture prioritizes community. In the United States, we often overvalue materialistic things and consumption. In Colombia, we find purpose in our traditions. The dualism between Colombian values and American society are one reason why I became the environmental and justice-oriented advocate I am today.

To Colombians, and other Latin Americans, family is everything. I grew up with the mentality that whatever I said or did affected my family members. My actions had consequences, and these consequences were felt by those around me. This collectivist mindset taught me early on that the decisions I make have broad impacts.

As my abuelita [grandma] taught my mom, and my mom taught me, wasting food is a waste of money. They never said this to save the planet- it was simply necessary due to our limited means. For as long as I can remember, I was taught to upcycle (before it was a trend) and reuse items whenever possible. My mom showed me that a person does not have to identify as an environmentalist to act like one. For our family, a tight budget inevitably led to a sustainable lifestyle.

Although my parents have never identified as environmentalists, a lot of what they taught me has inspired me to care for other people, other species, and our planet. We don’t buy things we don’t need, and whatever we do buy is used for as long as possible. My mom taught me to sew at the age of 13 so I can mend my own clothes rather than replace them at the first sight of a tear. Like other Latinx climate activists, my roots were the breeding ground for my chosen career: speaking up for nature.

We Owe It All to Indigenous Peoples and Black Communities

1. For Our Collective Future

For more than 400 years of colonization, Indigenous groups across the Americas have been forced to change their ways. Many, if not all, of these groups have an embedded appreciation for the natural world in their long-held traditions. When Indigenous groups are targeted, the lands and rivers they call home are negatively impacted.

Indigenous peoples have adapted to their particular region through reciprocal relationships with the Earth’s elements. They have mastered the art of sustainability. To call them the original environmentalists is an understatement, and misses the point. Their complex, various traditions were developed with the comprehension that the Earth is a living being made up of more living beings, and every being has a right to exist. This is the philosophy we all need to adopt in order to restore our relationship with Mother Nature.

2. Justice is Overdue

Due to systemic injustices stemming from a violent, racist history that plagues the Americas, Afro Latinos are often seen as separate from white Latinos. The term ‘Afro Latino’ exemplifies that. Because of this arbitrary divide, historically Black communities like the ones found in Buenaventura, Colombia live without clean water to this day. Buenaventura is home to Colombia’s largest, most profitable port. Despite the town’s staggering economic value, residents live in horrible, unsanitary conditions.

Gaping inequalities with fatal consequences have compelled Black communities to fight for their right to a healthy environment for far too long. The struggle for peace and basic human rights includes the struggle for clean air and water. For Black people everywhere, true justice cannot be achieved without environmental and climate justice.

3. This is Everyone’s Fight

Without ongoing resistance movements spearheaded by Indigenous, Black and Brown people, all of us would be living in a drastically different world today. Indigenous peoples hold centuries worth of knowledge on how to coexist with other species, yet lack the credit they deserve for their knowledge production.

When we acknowledge Indigenous autonomy and sovereignty, everyone can learn how to create a world where all living beings are respected. Black communities and other People of Color have risen up for decades, speaking out against institutions that continue to treat their bodies and homes as disposable. It’s time we all join these communities in the movement to form a society that works for the majority of people, rather than for the privileged few.

Combatting White Environmentalism

Even though historically marginalized communities bring valuable insight to the environmental field, the ‘green’ movement has largely been credited to white people. Graduate degrees and conservation training are more accessible to white people, leading to the popularization of white research and knowledge. White environmentalism emphasizes the protection of nature, but ignores the people affected by its destruction.

Due to the racial wealth gap and other systemic barriers, Black and Brown communities are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are notorious for lacking educational opportunities and urban green spaces. By denying People of Color access to nature, and the resources and opportunities needed to join the environmental field, the sustainability movement has excluded the very voices we need most.

If we continue to neglect the importance of diverse perspectives, we risk recreating the biased systems that led to the climate crisis in the first place. Once we recognize that the degradation of lands and waterways has occurred in line with the exploitation of people, we see that climate change cannot be addressed without acknowledging who it affects most.

A Way Forward

Us humans are deeply interconnected with nature. Regardless of our concrete-filled cities and growing urban populations, everything we do relies on Mother Earth. Every breath we take, every sip of water, every bite of food is dependent on nature’s cycles. To restore ourselves, to restore humanity, we must help nature restore herself.

To create a new normal where all people can breathe non-polluted air, eat fresh, nutritious food, and drink water without getting sick, we must listen to everyone’s needs. Anyone can start centering and amplifying the voices of different communities today.

We can listen to their stories and share them with the people around us. We can stay curious and open-minded as we learn how to live with one another and with the other living beings we share Earth with. We can unlearn the biases we have been taught and adopt new perspectives. It’s all within our reach, but we have to be intentional about moving forward - together.

As my abuelita used to say, “Al mal tiempo, buena cara”: even during tough times, there is hope, and we can hold our heads high knowing that better days will come.

Tania graduated from Tufts University with a Master of Science in Animals and Public Policy. Her academic research projects focused on wildlife conservation efforts and the impacts human activities have on wild habitats. After interning with World Animal Net, an international animal welfare nonprofit, she began emphasizing the interconnections between animal, planet, and human health. She currently works for Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, an environmental nonprofit that spreads awareness for the powerful potential of ecosystem restoration in climate change mitigation efforts. Tania is constantly searching for wildlife and adventure. She loves to snorkel, hike, and travel.