• Veronique Couttee

Decolonizing Environmental Conservation

For the last ten years, I have worked hard to protect the world's precious ecosystems. I worked past the point of physical and mental exhaustion to prove to the world & myself, especially to the western world, that I was good enough to be a conservation scientist. I was happy because I had a passion and purpose through Environmental Conservation. I worked with some of the world's rarest species in unique locations. Along the way, I met the most dedicated scientist who inspired me. Yet, to every story and every truth, there is a darker side. To decolonize Environmental Conservation, I need to share this side of my story to collectively create a fair, equitable, and just Environmental movement.


Working in Conservation, I was an inspiration to the younger generation of environmental conservationists. As part of my career's mission, I encouraged countless individuals worldwide to pursue their passion for a "tiring" but fulfilling career choice. I nonetheless failed to expose the challenges and barriers of a sector that saw local people as disposable resources to achieve its conservation goals.


Let's begin with some facts; I am a creole, queer woman of color from an island east of Africa, Mauritius. I am a descendant of indentured laborers and slaves; nothing in my bloodline screamed scholar or international scientist when I was born. I am a first-generation college graduate who won a prestigious scholarship to complete a master's conservation program in the United States. My identity and perspectives are my biggest strengths. Still, I am embarrassed to admit that I tried to fit into the white cultural mold seeing it as the only way of making me a successful scientist.


I rejected many parts of my identity to belong to the scientific tribe. I was trapped in the mindset that my community did not care about the environment. I did not understand that caring was a privilege only possible with the most comfortable socio-economic factors, at best. I did not see that the destruction of my Island's biodiversity was not the result of lack of care from community members but the consequence of colonization, that had left deep scars and destroyed habitats.


We can create thousands of natural parks and reserve. Still, as long as we do not invest in community education and empowerment with committed funding, conservation projects will stagnate and fail. Communities have incredible power and drive to protect their homes, when given the opportunity. According to the world bank, most consumption occurs in industrialized nations; the 2.3 billion residents of low-income countries accounted for less than 3% of public and private consumption in 2004, while the 1 billion residents of high-income countries consumed more than 80% of the global total.


Through travel and education, I broke the veil, I am less "ignorant" of the world. I saw the food waste, the overconsumption, and how easy it was to take, especially in a world where you are disconnected from what you are taking. I lived in the U.S for three years, where I got a good taste of the comfortable life, even with my minimum wage. Growing up without 24/7 electricity and living in one room with my parents, you can imagine the shock. I witnessed the disparity, but I have also seen the pain and suffering of this developed society that is no longer in touch with nature. I choose Conservation, and I still choose it because I genuinely want to save myself, my community, and the planet.


But how easy was/is that choice? I made sacrifices and still am. I was convinced that I had to accept that the job was underpaid (less than a dollar/hour), overworked (from dusk till dawn), and often without proper living conditions. I was regularly reminded of the privilege that it was to have scientific knowledge passed down to me. I was taught not to question the methods because we had international experts. Yet, the harder I worked, the less I made an impact. Without the feeling of making a significant change, the other struggles started to intensify. The friendship and the growth were insufficient. I felt anxiety when I had to spend 3/4 of my monthly salary on a pair of shoes for work. I felt anxiety when I had no money left, and I slept with friends because I could not afford my own place. I still battle with the anxiety of the "what next question"?.


Still, I hung on to my passion, but as we all know, passion doesn't pay bills. Being a fighter, I sought more. I could not stand the injustice of working in a company that did not recognize the value of the people working for them. They valued international expertise over local expertise. I left Mauritius for Seychelles, where I found community-integrated conservation efforts. With rekindle hope in my heart, I worked hard for protection of these precious habitats. The local people were passionate and so active, and it made me happy. However, I witnessed the judgment from the western gaze of their work culture and ethics, as if the western world had the right to judge. Worst, I was complicit in this judgment.


Like many Mauritians, I resorted to thinking that to be impactful in Conservation meant to leave my country. That knowledge pushed me to seek broader knowledge and experience with the vision of creating a network of Mauritians to train the next global generation of environmental leaders. As my time in the U.S comes to an end, I am terrified to go back to a work sphere that is unconsciously or consciously upholding patriarchal, misogynistic, colonial, and white supremacist mindsets. I am torn and feel unwelcome in my country.


As dire as it all sounds, this is a positive message, where I shared my story and spoke my truth. For me, it means healing from the generational trauma. I have so many emotions, including a lot of anger, but I will channel it positively through my blogs and in safe spaces to keep telling my truth. I am not the product of the western world. I received a western world education, and I speak their language, but my resilience comes from generations of hardship. Professional and academic training gave me tools to do Conservation, but I am choosing to use these tools and language to break the cycle of environmental injustice. While we are sitting around failing to evaluate whether conservation efforts are effective, my country's biodiversity is going extinct. People are losing their homes and their lives because of more intensive natural disasters. The 3% of the forested area is being invaded by invasive species and lost to deforestation. So if we do not reevaluate now, when will we?


Once again, mo en fam creole, bisxuelle, la po color marron ki sorti lor un zil l'Afrique de l'est, Moris (I am a creole, queer, a woman of color from an island east of Africa, Mauritius). This identity is my force. I am a small piece of a larger puzzle comprised of other silent, marginalized and oppressed voices. These voices are the ones that terrify you because you don't understand it; you tokenize it and underestimate it. Yes, I am speaking to you environmental leaders upholding the white supremacist, homophobic, and misogynistic actions in Environmental Conservation. You will be held accountable. I am also addressing this message to allies that condone these behaviors by choosing silence and inaction. If you want to be allies, it is not our responsibility to educate you on the "hows" and the "whys". Discover the diversity that exists within our ranks, but also listen to the challenges we face. Lastly, to you my unique puzzle piece, I want you to know that I care, we care, and we understand. There are days where you feel like you don't fit, that you are not enough, but you are. I wrote this blog because I felt this way. I am on my path to healing, and I invite you to find your own. Please, take care of yourself so that collectively we can take care of our planet. Based on heart-centered rather than head-centered leadership values, let us protect our ecosystems and their communities.


The same patriarchal power structure that oppresses and exploits girls, women, and nonbinary people (and constricts and contorts boys and men) also wreaks destruction on the natural world. Dominance, supremacy, violence, extraction, egotism, greed, ruthless competition—these hallmarks of patriarchy fuel the climate crisis just as surely as they do inequality, colluding with racism along the way. Patriarchy silences, breeds contempt, fuels destructive capitalism, and plays a zero-sum game. Its harms are chronic, cumulative, and fundamentally planetary. - All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (Editor) & Katharine Keeble Wilkinson (Editor)


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