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Blog: The intersectionality of culture, nature and wellbeing of minoritised groups in the UK

Maxwell Ayamba

My years of working in the environmental field and doing research among minoritised communities in the UK have brought some key issues to light.

What has emerged from my research is that the realm of the natural environment in the UK, the intersectionality of diverse cultures and how these impact on mental health and wellbeing outcomes – especially among minoritised people – is an issue rarely considered in research or Government policy discussions. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was people from minoritised communities that suffered the most from the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, with lots of recorded deaths due to living in poor quality environments.

More broadly, there is a failure to recognise how the discourse around quality environments and spaces for conservation, leisure and recreation in the UK has been culturally constructed.  A terrain of ‘whiteness’ exists, especially when it comes to the countryside space, with the deployment of rurality a symbol of ‘British national identity’. The prevailing culture of white privilege has, for years, contributed to a vicious circle of exclusion and marginalisation of minorities who have been ‘culturally severed’ from their roots in countries of origin, where the discourse around nature or environment is more to do with ‘preservation’, as a source of livelihood, than for recreation. This has led to a gap in understanding of the disconnection between nature and minoritised people separated from their immediate homelands for political or economic reasons, and the subsequent lack of knowledge about the cultural history of the environment to trigger reconnection to nature in the UK.

This connection, however, will demand a momentous transformation in behaviour and attitudes on both the part of minoritised people and environmental organisations, as well as the conservation movement. It is about learning to accept the differences between distinct cultures of nature, without imposing one’s culture on another, exploring ways of embracing different cultures, where people can remain proud of their own culture. This is because a person’s culture plays an important part in how they perceive nature as contributing to their mental health and wellbeing. Wellbeing is situation dependent, reflecting local geography, cultural and ecological circumstances.

Unfortunately, cultural diversity and biodiversity in the UK are not considered important issues in the ideas of the conservation or environmental movement. There is no medium to be used as a vehicle or provide a platform for minoritised and white people to communicate and share information, stories and personal experiences about nature or the environment in the UK as a way of building understanding and insight. There are no channels to facilitate dialogue between minoritised communities and environmental organisations to jointly explore new working possibilities, solve challenging problems and develop outdoor learning programmes as a vehicle for mentoring and coaching to stimulate interest in nature among minoritized groups.

The historical non-inclusion and participation of generations of minoritised people in environmental programmes in the UK is evidenced by a history of ‘instant family traditions’ – the exclusion of subsequent generations’ contact with nature and environmental programmes. This results in the inability to prompt environmental stewardship or heritage. This lack of inclusion has remained a vicious circle, despite successive Governments’ policy efforts; the latest being the Julian Glover Landscapes Review 2019.

Unfortunately, the knock-on effect has been the rise in mental ill health and other wellbeing issues among people from minoritised communities. That is because among minoritised communities, the issues are more to do with socio-environmental factors – not the failure to connect with nature, as has been the prevailing narrative among researchers and environmental service providers.

Outdoor recreation can be considered in the context of ‘wellness’ which is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being – not merely the absence of disease or infirmity as has been defined by the World Health Organisation.  This definition moves from a strictly medical model of health towards the concept of well-being or optimal health Alberta Centre for Well Being (1989)) which noted that this also involves a delicate balance among physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual and social health. Outdoor recreation thus touches on all those aspects of human health – including indicators like fitness, stress management, education, jobs, housing – and can enhance both physical health and emotional well-being. Sadly, people from minoritised communities suffer disproportionately from all of the above, due to structural and systemic racism in education, health, jobs, housing, and poor quality environments – all triggers of mental health issues.

As such, the question of leisure and recreation or accessing natural spaces is the last thing on the minds of the under-privileged; especially where the landscapes do not reflect people’s cultural origins or values. Secondly, the cost involved in leisure and recreational activities can be a barrier. The outdoor gear alone is so expensive, just as the cost of undertaking activities. This obviously excludes those who are unable to afford it. Mental and physical ill health are bound to be prevalent among those without economic privileges, who face unemployment, poor housing, education etc. which are all triggers for stress and depression. This has led to the use of ‘Eurocentric’ models of treatment for minoritised people suffering with mental ill health, or to reconnect them to nature. 

The plight of minoritised communities has been further exacerbated by the fact that there is lack of social and cultural capital, as well as funds or ‘repertoires of knowledge’ to enable them to navigate a system that lacks equity due to systemic structural barriers. It is therefore crucial to understand both the psychological and cultural barriers associated with reconnecting minoritised communities to the natural environment.           

Maxwell A. Ayamba is the Founder/Managing Director of the Sheffield Environmental Movement (SEM). He is also an Environmental Journalist & PhD Student in Black Studies, Department of American & Canadian Studies, University of Nottingham/M4C-AHRC.