Overcoming racism in conservation science and practice

A new paper published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, with contributors from 18 institutions across the globe including the University of Oxford, has made extensive pragmatic recommendations for combatting racism entrenched in biodiversity conservation science and practice.

This paper critiques racism in modern, mainstream conservation, which globally dominates indigenous knowledge systems through which people have successfully conserved ecosystems for millenia. Historically, strategies to maximise resource extraction and recreational activities on colonised land caused enormous and unconscionable cost to BIPOC communities. This influenced the way conservation science was conceptualised and taught in academia, instilling bias within students who went on to work in conservation with the same outdated preconceptions that originated in colonial times. Conservationists need to engage with this difficult and shameful history to prevent similar errors happening in the future.

In conservation science and practice today, BIPOC individuals are disproportionately underrepresented in subjects that lead to conservation careers. Part of this is financial, both in barriers to funding and to engaging in activities such as birding, diving, and hiking. As a result, a lack of high-level representation means little consideration is given to the specific problems that BIPOC people encounter in trying to succeed within conservation. In addition, often the curriculum teaches concepts that influence how students perceive the history, philosophy, and objectives of conservation without taking the time to critically review the real-world implications.

Having outlined the causes and impacts of racism across conservation, the paper’s authors set out 24 actionable responses that work towards racial equality. These include diversifying curriculums to include the work and perspectives of BIPOC scholars; encouraging professional associations to integrate Equality, Diversity and Inclusion into their policies and standards; creating opportunities for community members to have real agency in conservation projects and including local scientists and stakeholders in research; and ensuring that any ‘essential’ work experience with degree programmes is fully funded.

Lead author Lauren Rudd said: “The conservation community must acknowledge that both historically and presently, BIPOC communities have been most impacted by conservation action and the least included in decision-making. These unjust power dynamics need to be broken, and we hope that the recommendations provided in this paper will add value to the ongoing discussion about how best to do this.”

Author Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo said: “For true and meaningful impact in the future, conservation science and practice must commit to investing in local conservationists and their capacity to lead and sustain the efforts for biodiversity conservation where they are."

This paper challenges the conservation community to educate themselves about historic and ongoing injustices in the sector and speak out against them, platform those less privileged, and leverage progress for systemic change.

To read more about racism in conservation science and practice, the authors recommend the following papers:

To read more about this research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, please visit https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2021.1871