★ “The activists’ stories are extraordinary...It’s a powerful answer to Rao’s framing questions: ‘Who is an environmental defender? What does she or he look like? Maybe like you. Maybe like me.’”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
★ “Thought-provoking reading for young people figuring out their own contributions. This valuable compilation shows that Earth’s salvation lies in the diversity of its people.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
One Earth profiles Black, Indigenous and People of Color who live and work as environmental defenders. Through their individual stories, the book shows that the intersection of environment and ethnicity is an asset to achieving environmental goals. The twenty short biographies introduce readers to diverse activists from all around the world, who are of many ages and ethnicities. From saving ancient trees on the West Coast of Canada, to protecting the Irrawaddy dolphins of India, to uncovering racial inequalities in the food system in the United States, these environmental heroes are celebrated by author and biologist Anuradha Rao, who outlines how they went from being kids who cared about the environment to community leaders in their field. One Earth is full of environmental role models waiting to be found.
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Text copyright © Anuradha Rao 2020
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Title: One Earth: people of color protecting our planet / Anuradha Rao.
Names: Rao, Anuradha S., 1975– author.
Description: Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20190177551 | Canadiana (ebook) 20190177616 | ISBN 9781459818866 (softcover) | ISBN 9781459818873 (PDF) | ISBN 9781459818880 (EPUB)
Subjects: LCSH: Environmentalists—Biography—Juvenile literature. | LCSH: Conservationists—Biography—Juvenile literature. | LCSH: Environmentalism—Juvenile literature. | LCSH: Environmental protection—Juvenile literature. | LCSH: Minorities—Political activity—Juvenile literature.
Classification: LCC GE195.5 .R36 2020 | DDC j333.72092—dc23
Library of Congress Control Number: 2019947360
Simultaneously published in Canada and the United States in 2020
Summary: This nonfiction book for middle readers profiles 20 environmental defenders of color from around the world. Their individual stories show that the intersection of environment and ethnicity is an asset to protecting our planet. Illustrated with photos of each of the people profiled.
Orca Book Publishers is committed to reducing the consumption of nonrenewable resources in the making of our books. We make every effort to use materials that support a sustainable future.
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
The author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at the time of publication. The author and publisher do not assume any liability for any loss, damage or disruption caused by errors or omissions. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyrighted material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.
Edited by Sarah N. Harvey
Design by Rachel Page
Cover illustration by kotoffei/creativemarket.com. Cover photos courtesy of Efe Peker, Michael Ruffolo, Joanna Marquis, John Nation, Ghanimat Azhdari, Brandon Nguyen, The Arctic Eider Society, Danielle Stark, Dipani Sutaria, Dr. Clotilda Yakimchuk
orca book publishers
Printed and bound in South Korea.
ebook by Bright Wing Media
23 22 21 20 • 4 3 2 1
To Leela: past, present and future
Chapter One: Getting People Involved
Gathering Young Voices:Brandon Nguyen, Canada and United States
Speaking the Language of Sustainability: Nana Firman, Indonesia and United States
Getting Your Outdoor Afro On: Rue Mapp, United States
Treasure Hunting: Ismail Ebrahim, South Africa
Chapter TWO:Defending Lands and Waters
Protecting Ancient Relationships: Flávio Santi Ayuy Yú, Ecuador
Saving Giants: Ken Wu, Canada
Uniting for Clean Water: Willi Nolan-Campbell, Jamaica and Canada
Chapter Three:Cleaning up the Mess
Spreading Spores: Daniel Reyes, United States
Preventing Cancer: Dr. Clotilda Yakimchuk, CM, Canada
Restoring Ancestral Waters: Richelle Kahui-McConnell, New Zealand
Chapter Four:Respecting Wisdom
Mapping Knowledge: Ghanimat Azhdari, Iran
Preserving Forest–People Relationships: Kendi Borona, Kenya
Understanding Fisheries: Saul Brown, 'Hazil'hba, Canada
Chapter Five: Saving the Animals
Discovering Dolphins: Dipani Sutaria, India
Living Vegan: Sameer Muldeen, Canada
Coexisting with Carnivores: Nitya Chari Harris, Canada
Chapter Six: Showing a Better Way
Feeding the Food Desert: Dominique Edwards, United States
Working in Balance: Lucassie Arragutainaq, Canada
Bridging the Gap: Nancy Huizar, United States
Finding the Source: William Padilla-Brown, United States
Who is an environmental defender? What does she or he look like? Maybe like you. Maybe like me.
I’ve worked and volunteered in the environmental field since the 1990s. But I’ve often felt like the odd one out. Only one other person in my family has gone into this line of work. And at work, I’ve usually been the only one with a brown face. It makes me feel a bit weird. I don’t have the same traditions or listen to the same kind of music as my colleagues. I celebrate different holidays. I was born in Canada, but my mother tongue isn’t English and no one can pronounce my name.
My ancestors fled environmental crisis in the north of India more than 2,000 years ago and religious persecution in Goa 500 years ago. My grandfather was a freedom fighter against a colonial system imposed on India. That history shapes me and makes me different from most of the people I have worked with. I can move fluidly between both worlds—family and work—but I end up hiding a bit of my true self from almost everyone. I know I have one identity, not two—my culture and my passion for the earth are linked.
Being different isn’t bad though. Because I navigate between cultures every day, it’s easy for me to be a bridge between groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise talk to each other.
Very few people of color are seen to be at the forefront of the environmental movement. David Suzuki, Vandana Shiva and Wangari Maathai are notable exceptions. Others exist in places where we tend not to look. They save animals, stop destruction, research solutions, fight for health and justice, and do many other brave things. Some risk their lives defending nature.
When I was looking for people to interview for this book, I found more than I could possibly include. I could have written an entire book about environmental defenders of color in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I live, or a whole book about Indigenous protectors of culture, land and water. But one goal of this book is to showcase diversity—in background, location, age and interest. The people in this book don’t represent all the people from their nations, ethnicities or cultures. They spoke to me about themselves, their own experiences, and events as they recalled them.
I chose to focus on 20 environmental defenders. You’ll learn about what they’re defending and how. You’ll see how their cultures and backgrounds influence their work. And you’ll hear the words and wisdom they’ve shared to inspire you. They’re the role models I wish I’d had when I was younger.
Dr. Mao Amis (Uganda/South Africa) founded the African Centre for a Green Economy to provide thought leadership and showcase local solutions to environmental challenges.
Image credit: Nonceba Amis
Kim Sander Wright (Canada) felt the environmental movement didn’t appreciate the approaches of people from different cultures, so she decided to work with people who see things holistically, as her culture had taught her to.
Image credit: Kim Sander Wright
Arun and Poornima Venkataramanan (India) have been running a sea turtle conservation program with students for more than two decades. They started Marudam Farm School to combine education, ecosystem restoration, organic farming and poverty reduction.
Image credit: Arun Venkataramanan
The David Suzuki Foundation’s Sustainable Diversity Network (Canada) celebrates environmental voices and stories that are often unheard or unacknowledged.
Image credit: David Suzuki Foundation
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation is a leader in research, restoration and protection of their traditional and unceded lands and waters, which include what is now Canada’s third-largest city, Vancouver.
Image credit: Aaron Blake Evans
courtesy of brandon nguyen
Co-founder, Toronto Coalition of EcoSchools
Born in Toronto, Ontario; lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I see myself as a young Vietnamese-Canadian.
Who knew that watching Animal Planet could help you start your own nonprofit organization? Brandon Nguyen laughs when he thinks about his earliest environmental inspirations, which included that television channel as well as keeping frogs and lizards as pets.
This alligator was one of Brandon’s early influences.
Courtesy of Brandon Nguyen
“I was really lucky,” he recalls, “because I had a teacher who was really passionate about social and environmental issues, so she did a lot of activities with our class, teaching us about the effects that humans have on the environment around us.” One of the things she showed them was all the little things they could change in their lives to help fight climate change, like turning off lights and recycling paper.
But Brandon saw that most of the thousands of kids who were going through the Toronto school system hadn’t received the same kind of exposure to these ideas. Looking around at his classmates, Brandon saw untapped potential and wanted to do something about it. So in tenth grade he started the Toronto Coalition of EcoSchools (TCE) with a couple of friends to promote environmental literacy and awareness across high schools in Toronto.
“Don’t be afraid to take risks. And if you do take risks, don’t be afraid to seek support. Although you might not think so, friends and family are there to help you and they really do want to help.”
Starting TCE was challenging for Brandon. Other students questioned and criticized him. “Lots of people said, ‘You’re too young. Just focus on school. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ ” None of his friends wanted to be environmental activists. He felt alone, but he didn’t let that stop him. “Whereas a lot of other people might be discouraged,” he says, “it was something I was okay with.”
Brandon had been one of the only people in his primary school from an ethnic minority. “I used to bring Asian food for lunch,” he remembers, “and I would hate it.” The other kids would tease him about it and he felt embarrassed, so he was afraid to take it out of his bag. But he knew they just didn’t know any better. As he grew older, he started to ask his parents about what it was like for them growing up in Vietnam and then coming to Canada. Learning more about his cultural heritage made him realize that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of, and this made him feel more comfortable with being different from the other students.
Did you know?
The Toronto Coalition of EcoSchools was founded by eight high-school students on a $200 microloan and has since supported more than 30 other environmental clubs.
Brandon organizes a sustainable cooking workshop through the Toronto Coalition of EcoSchools. His goal is to promote the accessibility and affordability of cooking sustainably using things like local produce when possible and finding alternatives to meat.
Courtesy of Brandon Nguyen
“Something my culture has taught me is that differences are okay, and it’s okay if you’re alone in your beliefs. In the end, if it’s something you strongly believe in, that’s what matters the most.”
So he kept on talking to his friends and family about his passion for the environment. They still didn’t see themselves as environmentalists, but they saw how important this work was to Brandon and decided to help. Some of them joined him in leading the organization, and others started to spread the word to people they knew in other parts of the city.
With this support, the TCE expanded to other schools, and Brandon found lots of other young people who were just as passionate about the environment as he was. They hosted workshops and conferences, raised funds for local and national projects, and sent out community ambassadors. By 2017 the TCE had grown to include more than 50 student leaders from more than 30 schools. And in helping him get started, his friends and family had become more interested in environmental issues themselves.
Brandon (front table, second from left) participates in a municipal advisory meeting run by the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
Courtesy of Brandon Nguyen
Brandon believes that environmental sustainability is important to everyone’s life, no matter what their interests are. “You can be a sustainable engineer, a sustainable academic or a sustainable doctor,” he explains. “I see sustainability as a lens for observing the world around us.”
Working with differences ended up being one of Brandon’s major achievements. He organized an annual event called Sustainable Speaks, which shows students how everything is connected and that there are things they need to know about the environment no matter which subject they’re interested in.
“It goes back to my ultimate goal,” Brandon explains. “I want to be able to emphasize that environmental literacy shouldn’t be some isolated field of study. Everyone receives a foundational education in math or English. I think everyone should also receive some sort of education in sustainability and environmental literacy.”
“If we give students and future leaders the knowledge and skills to make their own decisions, if they realize how their actions affect the environment around them, that’s a great way of fighting climate change.”
He started to look for more ways to involve people in his community with environmental issues that affected their daily lives. When he was in 11th grade, he learned that the City of Toronto was looking for members for its youth advisory board, the Toronto Youth Cabinet (TYC). Brandon thought he wasn’t qualified, so he almost didn’t apply. But he did—and became the TYC’s Director of Public Relations. The experience taught him how to use social media to reach out to young people and raise awareness about climate change. It also showed him how important it is for young people to speak up about things they care about.
“Even though we don’t have voting powers,” he stresses, “we should be voicing our concerns because we’re going to have to deal with the consequences of the political decisions that are made today.”
In 2016 Brandon was a Canadian delegate to the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York City. “There, I was able to represent my organization alongside youth from 80 countries around the world. That gave me a global understanding of climate change.” The experience also confirmed for him that youth are an important part of the fight against climate change, especially when they unite.
In 2017 he attended unleash, a global innovation lab held in Denmark that year, which brought together 1,000 people from more than 100 countries and many different organizations to develop solutions to the world’s biggest problems. It was a perfect place for him to build a network of other people to work with. Again, though, Brandon was unsure of his abilities. “I thought it was out of my league and I wasn’t qualified for it.” But he applied and was accepted. At unleash, he learned that the best solutions in one country may not work at all in another. And seeing people from many places sharing their diverse experiences proved to him that a single individual or organization can’t accomplish all that is needed to solve global problems; people have to work together.
After finishing high school, Brandon wanted to pull together everything he had learned: how being environmentally responsible is part of everyone’s job, how companies and governments work environmental sustainability into their decisions and actions, and how to be an entrepreneur for the environment. He found a business school where he could study economics, environmental policy and management.
What can you do?
“If something is bothering you or if you think something needs to be changed, speak up! Chances are someone else is bothered by it too, but they don’t have the courage to speak up. For example, if you learn how bad it is to use plastic water bottles but your family uses them, tell them why using reusable water bottles is better. Little things like that can help.”
Brandon in Singapore with his University of Pennsylvania teammates, Avni Limdi, Coco Wang and Angela Yang, at the 2018 Hult Prize Regional Finals, the world’s largest social entrepreneurship competition.
Courtesy of Brandon Nguyen
Nana Firman in Rome before the 2015 multifaith climate march, called Una terra, una famiglia umana (One Earth, One Human Family), to St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
Urban designer and Muslim outreach director
Born in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia; lives in Riverside, California
I’m an Indonesian Muslim woman.
Nana Firman says Indonesian cultures are built on nature, which is in abundance there, even in the big city of Jakarta, where she was raised. Local plants like bamboo are used for everything—tools, utensils, houses, musical instruments. Food is local and fresh, and clothing is colored with natural dyes. Nana’s mom is an avid gardener and has always kept a medicinal plant garden. Her dad designed their house to make sure all the rainwater gets collected and goes back to the earth for future generations.
Nana’s parents often took her and her siblings to visit their grandparents in Sumatra. Here, Nana and her sister pose at Lembah Anai waterfall, where her family stopped every time.
As a kid, Nana remembers going down a dirt road through the rainforest to visit her grandparents’ village on the island of Sumatra. “We saw monkeys jumping in the trees. My mom loves orchids, so I said, ‘Mom, look at all the orchids on the trees! You can just pick them for free!’ I always remember this moment. That was the first time I was exposed to the rainforest.”
In the village, they were surrounded by rice fields, mountains and waterfalls. Nana felt as if she were in heaven. She remained fascinated by nature. From Jakarta, she went camping with her Girl Scout troop and joined her high school’s nature club. She begged her parents to let her go hiking in the mountains. With the science club, she tried to make perfumes from flowers.
While in high school, Nana spent some time living with a host family in a rural village, helping with their farm and exploring the local mountains. She played and bathed in a river, something she’d never do in the city.
Nana went to university in the United States to study industrial design. In her public speaking class, she gave a speech on Amazonian rainforests. She learned that rainforests are the lungs of the earth, but that in the Amazon they were being destroyed to make cattle ranches to supply meat for McDonald’s restaurants. She realized that the same thing could happen in the rainforest country she was from.
“I stopped buying from McDonald’s and told other people to stop too. After two years I stopped eating meat. I was not an environmentalist. I didn’t know that later in my life I was going to work in environmental groups.”
After a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, Nana went back there to help with humanitarian efforts. While she was on a break, she phoned a girlfriend to go for lunch, but somehow she dialed a different friend instead—a man who was the executive director of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia.
“Maybe it was by chance. Maybe it was meant to be. He said, ‘Come to a meeting tomorrow.’ So I went into the office and they said, ‘This is your team.’ I said, ‘What team?’ They tricked me! It was a wonderful trick that I’m thankful for every day.”
Nana’s friend knew she was working in urban design and planning, skills that their environmental team didn’t have. He asked her to take her team to the province of Aceh, where the tsunami had hit hard, carrying the ocean far inland. Communities in Aceh—including local WWF staff—were totally overwhelmed by injury and loss of life, as well as damage to buildings. Since WWF is an environmental organization, the staff didn’t know much about rebuilding after a disaster.
Nana thought she would be working on the project for four months, but she stayed for four years to lead a program with multiple humanitarian agencies for sustainable reconstruction.
Nana and her team plant mangroves to protect the coastline in Nias Island, Sumatra, as part of the Green Coast Project and Green Reconstruction Program after the earthquakes and tsunamis in 2004 and 2005.
Nana and her husband plant seedlings in the Aceh rainforest. Local people have initiated a conservation program, using an Islamic legal tool called a waqf, to protect that forest from degradation.
“The tendency after a disaster,” Nana explains, “is to go fast, just rebuild, put everybody back in a house, not paying attention to where the resources come from.”
About 500,000 people lost their homes in the tsunami, and reconstruction agencies needed 800,000 cubic meters of timber. That’s 320 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of wood! Relief agencies wanted to get the wood from Aceh’s pristine rainforests. Nana and her team said no. If the forests on the hillsides were cut down, the soil would erode and smother the towns below. If coastal forests were cut down, there would be even less natural protection if another tsunami happened. They wanted to make sure the wood was from sustainable sources.
“That was my first test,” Nana says. “The agencies thought we were stopping reconstruction, but we weren’t. We were trying to show people other options. People said it’s impossible, these are ridiculous ideas. We said we’ll show them it’s doable.”
They asked sustainable timber associations around the world to donate timber instead of money. They asked shipping companies to ship for free, and other companies to pay for shipping. They managed to bring several shipping containers full of sustainably sourced timber that they gave to organizations for rebuilding.
“They built such beautiful houses,” Nana recalls. “Even I wanted to have one.”
Seeing this success, other organizations started to use sustainable timber too, even for some of the biggest projects. The houses are still standing, and some have become community centers.
“If I feel down in any of my work, if the challenge is too great, I always go back to that moment,” Nana says. “So many were against us, but we worked and in the end everyone understood and everything happened smoothly. They still have the intact forest in Aceh. It’s my inspiration, and it has kept me doing what I’m doing until now.”
One of the major challenges Nana faced while doing that work was trying to engage with the community. She first started talking to them using jargon from the environmental world, words like sustainability and conservation. People didn’t get what she was talking about, and she got frustrated.
Did you know?
There’s a tradition in Aceh that when a baby is born, the father plants a hardwood tree. By the time the person is old enough to move into their own house, they can use that tree to build it.
A friend pointed out to her that the Acehnese are a strong Muslim community and suggested that she talk about the issues from an Islamic perspective. Nana found that the Qur’an says those who serve God walk upon the earth gently, meaning they don’t pollute, take more than they need or leave a big ecological
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