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Pet Sins July 2009 Issue
People of Color in Environmental Activism and Conservation Work

A cursory glance at documentaries on environmentalism and nature conservation typically show white Westerners coming to the rescue of animals and nature in countries or communities populated by people of color. Fiction reflects this "unintentional exclusion" in movies like 'The Great Panda Adventure' featuring a white researcher as the hero coming to the rescue of a panda conservation program in China, with the Chinese researchers in subordinate roles. Predictably, a romantic subplot involving his son and a Chinese girl follows the same formula of a white hero rescuing a representation of (the Western notion of) a feminized East less than capable of saving herself.

Portrayals of people of color as primary movers in conservation work are relatively rare; they typically appear in support roles as guides or assistants to whites. Quite often, media images depict people of color as enemies of the environment, such as poachers and loggers ruining the natural balance out of greed, ignorance and/or poverty. (Though it has also been pointed out that MNCs run by Westerners are often the cause of local pollution and the West has a history of exploiting the natural resources of colonized lands).

But the under-representation of people of color in popular media images of environmentalists does not mean that people of color do not care about the environment. In the April 2008 cover story of ColorsNW Magazine, All Our Shades of Green, Marcelo Bonta, founder of the Center for Diversity and the Environment, mentioned that people of color are the ones disproportionately affected by global warming.

The fact is, non-white individuals around the world have worked to save their local environment and wildlife. Some even made their names as international activists whose impact extend beyond their countries of origin.

In this issue, we take a look at some notable people of color who have taken leadership roles in environmental activism and conservation.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive.