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Women in Conservation – Dr. Aby Sène-Harper

This March, to celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, SCB North America is highlighting women in conservation who inspire us.

Today we’re speaking with Dr. Aby Sène-Harper. We asked her to share a little about what she does and about her experience as a woman in conservation.

I am an assistant professor in conservation area management at Clemson University. As an environmental social scientist, my research has evolved in relation to the social, ecological and political contexts of our time. My focus has predominantly been on community-based conservation, protected area management and rural livelihoods. The past 2 years, however, have made it abundantly clear that we are living in an era of heightened awareness of racial injustices and a deepening ecological crisis that disproportionately impacts Black and Indigenous people around the world. The urgency of the moment has forced me to redirect my scholarship towards a more radical transformation of the social and global order. To quote Native American environmental activist, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, “Colonization is inherently an environmental justice issue,” and I believe this to be true for colonized people around the world who are still living in the grips of settler and neo-colonialism. In fact, many Black revolutionaries understood that the only way to address the ecological crisis is through full decolonization, as in the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Conservationists often treat colonization as a thing of the past, when conservation programs continue to reproduce colonial power relations that exacerbate environmental destruction. Therefore, my work today engages more anti-colonial and Black radical thought to examine the imbrication of colonization, environmental destruction and injustices, and Black peoples’ political struggle.

I am a Black woman in the conservation field and the intersectionality of my race and gender poses some challenges and opportunities at the same time. Although I am dedicated to conservation issues, I also feel a strong responsibility to respond to the political and social needs of Black people. So, I am always in a constant internal struggle to balance these priorities. On top of that, as a Black woman working in a white male dominated field and even department, it can feel very isolating at times. Even if women are more represented today than they were before, it’s predominantly white women who are represented. But there are far more Black women across the globe engaged in conservation than we are aware of, and unfortunately several factors inhibit their visibility. That includes the lack of resources to access public platforms. There is also a tendency of the conservation movement to sideline Black and Indigenous women to instead amplify white women’s voices. This is exemplified in the amount of publicity Greta Thunberg and Jane Goodall have received in comparison to Vanessa Nakate and Wangari Maathai, and the countless Indigenous women activists who are in the front line of these issues. We must move beyond the colonial images of white women and men doing conservation work in Africa and highlight the extensive and everyday work that Black and Indigenous women are doing in conservation. We must be open to the ways Black and Indigenous women understand and choose to address conservation issues, because the aspirations and values systems of Black and Indigenous women are rooted in their social and political realities and often differ from those of white women. 

Thank you so much to Dr. Sène-Harper for sharing her experiences with us. To keep up with her work, follow her on Twitter at @AbySene9.

Check out stories from other women we’ve highlighted this month: