Why a wildlife biologist became a social justice advocate

Sergio Avila, known prominently for his jaguar research, shifted his focus to equity in the outdoors.

 

Sergio Avila leads a group of local residents as they set out on a nature walk in the Midvale Park neighborhood in Tucson, Arizona, as part of an effort by local organizations to encourage healthy lifestyles, enjoyment of the outdoors, and a greater sense of community.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

Wildlife biologist Sergio Avila spent decades working on conservation projects in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Originally from the ecologically diverse desert landscape of Zacatecas, Mexico, he’s led binational projects that brought together conservation scientists and biologists to preserve habitat and allow animals like the jaguar to move freely through the Sonoran Desert and across an international border.

Two years ago, Avila left conservation science for advocacy and joined the Sierra Club as its regional Southwest outdoor coordinator. As a person of color, he often felt uncomfortable within a conservation world that continues to tout the greatness of Sierra Club founder John Muir and Edward Abbey, both of whom propagated racism within the environmental movement. Now, he’s challenging the narrative of the outdoors being a place for only a certain type of person — championing the idea that a diversity of connections to nature should be honored and cultivated.

Avila sat down with HCN in Tucson, where he lives, to talk about equity and representation in the mainstream conservation movement. Without it, he says, our stewardship of the planet is in jeopardy.

High Country News: Would you talk about your past work in conservation?

Sergio Avila: For 20 years, I researched endangered species, like jaguars, ocelots, pygmy owls and monarch butterflies. The idea of working with those species has been to understand their movements in this binational region. I have always focused on wildlife moving across the boundaries to show that there needs to be connectivity. To show that migration is a natural phenomenon, and to show that in this region, two countries are working on conservation. 

I say this because, at least from the United States’ side, it's very clear that as much as people know about conservation, national parks and endangered species, they think that all that ends at the border. There are many groups that don't know there are national parks south of the border or that there are agencies working on conservation. They don't know that in Mexico there is a biodiversity commission, that in Mexico they collect information not only about the biodiversity, but also about the cultural values for those plants and animals.

I realized that that was made up — that pristine wilderness is a lie. And the traditional Western conservation model only cares about places and nature without people. And the only people that do count in those places are white people.

HCN: Why did you leave that work?  

SA: I left conservation science and conservation biology because I felt isolated. For many years, I had skills and field experience, especially with jaguars. That was very useful, but I started to feel very alone. I thought: I can’t be the only person of color working with jaguar conservation. I can’t be the only Latinx person who comes to the states to work on this. I started seeing the inequities in the conservation world. 

My first job was about wilderness campaigns, and I learned about these concepts of a wilderness untrammeled by man, you know, these pristine places, these “Yosemites” and “Yellowstones.” And by learning history and meeting other people, I realized that that was made up — that pristine wilderness is a lie. And the traditional Western conservation model only cares about places and nature without people. And the only people that do count in those places are white people.

And that’s where recreation comes in, right? Because white people like to talk about their connection to the land, but yet they don’t have ancestors to that land, they don’t know what to eat, they don't have names for those mountains. So, connection to land is different. I felt really isolated. And I felt like I needed to leave to represent my people in a different way and to be visible for people of color who want to work in conservation, but don't know that they belong in conservation. 

HCN: Why did you move into this new position at the Sierra Club?

SA: From the time I saw the job description, it was very clear that the Sierra Club was trying to break that paradigm, that Sierra was trying to address the inequities by, one, hiring people of color with that expertise and two, training and empowering people of color to speak about this history. Sierra Club is revising its own history. It is an organization that was founded by John Muir, who was pretty much the beginning of the problem.

HCN: What’s lost when these spaces don’t include people of color and those from under-represented communities?

SA: One thing that’s lost is stories and the loss of different values. I feel like in the white conservation movement, either it’s about the recreation — just having fun — or the science. Those are two very important values. They’re important. They matter. I use them, but they’re not the only two values. I also want values about people relating to food, people relating to their own places of origin, people relating to their family several generations back.

If there’s a dominating culture that doesn't value those stories, that doesn’t value that richness, then it’s not only lost, but its existence is also erased. I feel like — for a lot of Indigenous communities — that is where they are. They have to explain where they come from. They have to explain their origin stories, they have to explain their values, because white people have erased all that so much that they think Indigenous people don't exist. 

HCN: Why do you advocate for merging the social justice with the conservation movement?

SA: It’s very difficult to address things like climate change and think that technology or only Western science are going to give us the answers, if we don’t include traditional ecological knowledge of people who have lived in a place for centuries, and know how to locally address some of those challenges. When we don’t include other people and other knowledge, we limit ourselves, especially in the conservation world. 

When Avila hosts outings, he ensures that there are few barriers to entry.“There’s no embarrassment, there’s no shaming. We’re here to enjoy the leaves in the trees and the birds,” he says.
Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

HCN: You’ve been outspoken about the lack of diversity in the environmental movement. What missteps do you see as it aims to become more inclusive?

SA: I’ve seen so many missteps. One thing is generalizing, and thinking that when you meet one person of a certain identity, that one person represents everybody. Thinking that because I’m from Mexico, I know everybody, and I have the answer on how to get Latinx people to our events or parties or outings, as if the same formula works everywhere.

The other one is thinking that just translating things, at least in my case, in Spanish, means that everybody will understand what the hell we're talking about. When I worked on a wilderness campaign, I first had to learn what the word “wilderness” means. The word “wilderness” does not exist in Spanish. We say nature we can say “natural area” — but in Spanish there is not the concept of wilderness. So even if I found a way to translate it, the concept is not translated. And so people think that just because we’re going to have brochures that are in English translated in Spanish, that will help reach other populations. It’s not. 

Another mistake I see very often is that organizations and directors think that the goal is diversity. Diversity is not the goal. It’s not just having a board meeting with people from all over the place that can speak different languages. Diversity is a product of equity. Diversity is a product of a system that allows people to feel comfortable at that table. The idea that everybody’s narrative matters, that everybody’s stories take a precedent and have the same weight. 

HCN: How do you advocate for making the outdoors more welcoming to different groups of people?  

SA: Being welcoming and meeting people where they are. There’s no embarrassment, there’s no shaming. We’re here to enjoy the leaves in the trees and the birds. 

I don’t use gear. I don’t have a special backpack. I don't bring special pants. I dress very normal, so that other people can relate. I don’t bring granola bars anymore; I bring oranges and bananas and some peanut butter sandwiches. People relate with what they see, so, like, I can bring some pupusas, or I can bring quesadillas. 

Because white people make it seem that in order to go hiking, you have to have the Clif Bar and the Luna Bar and a specific drink. So basically, what I’m doing is breaking all sorts of stereotypes that people have about hiking. 

Also, offering outings in a way that people don’t feel constrained — something with the least amount of barriers. If they don’t have transportation, I try to provide the transportation. If they don't have the pass for the national park, I have a pass for the national park. Just trying to accommodate all my audiences on their level, for them to have a good time, for them to want to do it again.

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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