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Climate Leadership Series: The 18-year-old Birdgirl making nature cool

Rebecca Fay | 21 January 2021 |
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Obsessed with birds and nature from a young age, British-Bangladeshi conservationist, Dr. Mya-Rose “Birdgirl” Craig, set up an organisation – Black2Nature – to increase access and opportunities for ethnic minorities in environmentalism. With a growing social media following and a six-figure book deal, Mya-Rose is using her platform to get businesses and the media to listen to young people, Indigenous communities and, of course, birds, as they take action on climate and biodiversity.

In this Climate Leadership Series, we ask experts and influencers in business climate action to share their insight into best practices, discuss current and future trends, and debate the most impactful solutions. You can read more about Mya-Rose at the bottom of this article.

Follow Mya-Rose on birdgirluk.com, Twitter @BirdgirlUK and Instagram @birdgirluk.

Rosie Helson (RH): A lot of the thinking about climate change is in relation to how it effects people, but how does it also impact birds and why is that important?

Mya-Rose Craig (MC): One of my favourite things about birds is you can find them in almost any landscape, but habitat loss is having an impact on their delicate populations. Marshes are drying up, forests are burning down, and we’re seeing birds go more North or South depending on where they are in relation to the Equator.

Birds are a key indicator of climate change and environmental issues, the wellbeing of our wildlife and biodiversity. If we’re losing our birds, we’re also losing our insects, mammals and fish. So, it’s important that we act immediately to reverse this loss.

RH: How can we protect habitats and the conditions important for birds to thrive?

MC: Fighting climate change is key, but the habitat loss and degradation we’re seeing, especially in Europe and North America, has many other causes.

This may surprise some people, but farmlands are wonderful habitats for birds. As farming becomes more industrialised, we lose that. A group of people I love called the Nature Friendly Faming Network are pushing for farms to return to their roots, which isn’t just good for our birds, but is good for our soil, our food – basically, it’s good for everything and everyone.

In addition, there aren’t enough green spaces in our cities. Parklands need to be restored and paved areas should be converted to grasses, bushes or trees. Even people putting food out in their gardens in winter, which we’re massively into in the UK, is fantastic for our bird populations.

RH: What can individuals and businesses learn from birds in their approach to climate action and biodiversity conservation?

MC: Humans have so much to learn from nature; some of our best inventions have been stolen from the natural world. Some of my favourite bird species are the very sociable ones. I love how they support each other indiscriminately. You see it when migratory birds travel together.

Also, animals - particularly birds - understand when enough is enough in terms of consumption. You don’t see birds building nests bigger than they need or sitting in a bush all day eating it dry. They go from tree to tree and from branch to branch having a little bit of everything and leaving enough for everyone else.

RH: As well as your passion for birds, you’ve been fortunate enough to travel and meet some Indigenous peoples. What can we learn from their relationship with nature?

MC: I’ve been extremely privileged to see conservation projects all over the world with my family, many of them led by Indigenous people. All of it had an impact on me, but there was one community in Bolivia that really changed my perspective on environmentalism.

An Indigenous woman called Ruth ran away aged 11 to get herself an education, but came back to her community to establish an eco-tourism project. A company offered the community a lot of money to hand over their land for logging, but eco-tourism offered them an alternative, regular income. What struck me about this as a kid was that it was a clear cross-road - they could’ve gone in the direction of environmental destruction, or preservation. And how quick and easy, but how key that decision was. This preserved a massive area of beautiful, pristine Amazon forest, but also meant that the community could keep its culture and traditions.

RH: What are some of the risks you feel Indigenous people face and what can businesses do to support them?

MC: There’s an increased focus on industrialisation, especially in the global South, where we see communities without an income being forced to sell their land, like with the huge palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia. Businesses should think critically about what they’re funding. They certainly shouldn’t be perpetrating Indigenous land theft.

Historically, there hasn’t been much acknowledgement of how incredibly important Indigenous people are to conservation and looking after our climate and our environment. They know these landscapes, they’ve shaped these landscapes, and they’ve preserved them for thousands of years. So, businesses should give some recognition to Indigenous populations and listen to what they think their landscapes - these amazing places - and creatures need. This should guide our conservation work.

RH: How can businesses support the movement to help bring visible ethnic minorities closer to nature?

MC: It comes down to who is getting opportunities to go out and spend time in nature. My organisation, Black2Nature, campaigns to encourage more diversity and engagement with ethnic minority communities in the nature sector and runs nature camps for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) kids from inner city areas. I truly believe that people who haven’t experienced nature have no reason to care about it.

It’s a thread that starts with young people and runs right the way through. Minority ethnic kids may see themselves as urban. They aren’t aware of transport links to the countryside, or can’t afford them, they don’t hear about environmental issues at school or at home, they don’t see role models like them in environmental leaders, and they aren’t aware of job opportunities in sustainability. Businesses and NGOs can help by increasing access to opportunities and supporting outreach activities.

I can think of a few similar organisations off the top of my head – the Black and Green Project in Bristol, and Black Girls Hike. So, instead of starting their own projects, the best thing businesses can do is support existing organisations to help them expand and gain a voice.

RH: What can we do to increase diversity in the environmental sector?

MC: We’re seeing more people speak up, especially from countries in the Global South that are impacted by climate change. But we also need to ensure that the leaders and managers of the environmental movement in the West reflect their populations. The nature sector is 0.6% minority ethnic, which is shocking. That means that wildlife NGOs are not representative of the population as a whole.

A big issue that people don’t talk about much is the image people have of what an environmentalist is, which is only just starting to be shaken off, partly because of the youth strikes for climate. People think of a middle class, white, liberal tree hugger, which puts people off if they don’t see themselves in that demographic and feel like they wouldn’t be welcome.

Role models are super important by being someone inspiring to look up to, and they can also advocate for children from all ethnic and social groups to get involved and open the gates for inclusivity.

At Black2Nature, we’re giving everyone the opportunity and understanding to get involved in environmentalism. It’s important to broaden the horizons of these kids and help them explore places where they might never venture themselves. It’s about building their relationship with nature. That might lead them to sign an online petition, or to protest and ask for real change from our politicians, or even pursue a career in sustainability.

RH: Why has it fallen to young people to stand up for climate and biodiversity?

MC: Why is it always young people fighting for positive social change? I think it’s partly because young people can more easily picture a better world.

Also, climate change is no longer a distant, far-off issue happening on the other side of the world or in 100 years time. This is an issue that people are experiencing now, very personally, and it’s only going to get worse. Young people are hyper aware that this is their future they’re fighting for, which I think is a powerful motivator. This is an urgent issue and we have no other choice – we’re fighting for ourselves and for the next generation.

RH: What value do you think TV shows could bring to climate action? And how would you like to turn your own media attention into action for climate, for birds and for biodiversity in 2021?

MC: The media needs to do some self-reflection to understand the role it plays in saving nature. The impact of giving visibility to these issues cannot be underestimated - the media absolutely shapes people’s world views and what people care about.

I think there’s an increasing interest in seeing the reality of the intersection between humans and wildlife, so productions need to talk more about our impact on wildlife.

Personally, I want to leverage the platform I’ve gained to see people developing a better understanding of key environmental issues and influencing positive environmental change. I’d love to see Black2Nature flourish and spread. Yeah, that would be fantastic!

About Dr. Mya-Rose Craig

18-year-old Dr. Mya-Rose Craig D.Sc. h. c. is a prominent British-Bangladeshi birder, conservationist and environmentalist. She is committed to stopping biodiversity loss and saving our planet through halting climate change while respecting Indigenous peoples, and highlighting global climate justice as it intersects with climate change action. She focuses her attention on change from governments and corporations.

She writes a blog - Birdgirl, gives talks - having spoken on a shared stage with Greta Thunberg, and writes articles, also appearing on TV and radio. As Founder and President of Black2Nature, which she set up aged 13, she is the youngest British person to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science aged 17 for her work fighting for equal access to nature and ethnic diversity in the environmental sector. In September 2020, she visited the Arctic with Greenpeace, highlighting the second lowest sea ice minimum and doing the most northerly youth strike ever.

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