For Black people, a walk in the countryside can be a powerful act of protest

Britain’s countryside excludes nearly eight million people of colour. Reclaiming our right to roam can reconnect marginalised communities to nature and the land.

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This is a guest post from journalist, PhD researcher and founder of Sheffield Environmental Movement, Maxwell A. Ayamba.


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Read aloud by Maxwell A. Ayamba.


 
When I co-founded 100 Black Men Walk for Health Group in 2004, little did I know that we’d make a political statement. The group’s aim was modest: to “walk and talk” in the English countryside for our health and wellbeing. But we quickly found that a walk in the countryside also meant reclaiming our rights to roam the land.

To many of Britain’s nearly eight million ethnic minorities, the British countryside still appears something of a middle-class white space. A classic symbol of ‘white British national identity’. Its access limited to a privileged class, who have the means and resources to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of getting outdoors.

This pastoral image of Britain is rife with exclusion and nurtures a limiting narrative: that Black people aren’t interested in nature. But that story simply isn’t true.

How we view nature guides our relationship with the land

Growing up in rural northern Ghana, I was brought up to value nature as a giver of life. Many people had a simple, subsistence lifestyle, with the freedom to roam and cultivate the land and rear livestock. I grew up with the belief that our lives cross with nature. That we’re part of it and connected to it in a web of life for our existence and livelihood. We are its custodians. So, it was a cultural shock to experience a different view of nature in the UK.

In many Western societies, there are those that set themselves above and against nature. There’s nature and culture, wilderness and civilisation, the savage and us the human beings. But it’s this separation that shapes a system which treats the natural world as something that can be bought and sold. Nature becomes something to dominate and control, rather than something we are interdependent on.

“I grew up with the belief that our lives cross with nature. That we’re part of it and connected to it in a web of life for our existence and livelihood. We are its custodians.”
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In England, the Enclosure Act in 1773 closed off commonland. This removed the right to access huge tracts of land for ordinary people, which led to a loss of English land traditions and practices. Traditions like grazing livestock that connected people with nature through the land. However, once communal land changed hands to wealthy landowners and gentry, their ownership of land or rural businesses meant they benefited from nature in financial terms.

Of course, this domination approach to nature doesn’t stop in England. The same land grabbing practice was used during days of empire and colonialism across the world, resulting in landlessness among the natives to build a British empire of class and power.

For many of England’s largest landowners now, their land was acquired through inheritance built from conquest and enclosure. They possess great power over how their land is used and where you can walk. The English countryside has become a commodity for leisure and recreation that only a privileged, usually white, class have the means and resources to enjoy. Meanwhile in cities, people live in deprived poor-quality environments, mostly artificial and not natural, which has resulted in disconnection from nature.

100 Black men walking group standing by a large rock in the UK countryside
Black men walking group on a snowy walk in the UK countryside

Without land access, we’re forced to disconnect from nature

This trend has continued as migrants, such as me, become urbanised and therefore culturally disconnected from nature. The subsistence lifestyle that I grew up with (like farming) taught that nature is fundamental to our livelihoods for food, medicine, health and wellbeing. In an urban space, this is lost. It is therefore wrong to think Black people aren’t interested in nature – we’re simply not given access to it.

Black people have lived in England for centuries, dating back to times of the Roman Empire, Tudors and Blackamoors, Enslavement and Colonialism, and in the World Wars. But historical marginalisation of Black people means our stories get ignored. Our place in shaping Britain’s countryside missed. For example, many stately homes and other historical buildings are linked to enslaved people’s contributions to English rural infrastructure, yet these stories are unwritten.

“Black people have lived in England for centuries, but historical marginalisation of Black people means our stories get ignored. Our place in shaping Britain’s countryside missed.”
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When it comes to Black people accessing rural spaces normalised as white spaces, we can look to our roots. Having come from a rural background in Ghana, I believe our relationships with nature have been forgotten. For those of us with a long-held affinity to nature, we can still use this connection to make a difference in our adopted nation.

Getting back to nature – one walk at a time

Coming from a country where nature is central to life, I questioned why, in the UK, some people are denied access to the land for walking as an escape from pollution in cities.

The 100 Black Men Walk for Health Group, now ‘Walk4Health’, started in 2004. It was the first pioneering people of colour walking group in the UK and went on to inspire the national play, Black Men Walking. There have been many emerging walking groups since, such as Black Girls Hike, Muslim Hikers, Bristol Steppin Sistas or Peaks of Colour. And other organisations, like my own Sheffield Environmental Movement, that promote access to greenspaces and the countryside for ethnic minorities.

Sadly, millions of people from minoritised communities have no knowledge of the history and struggle for access and freedom to roam. It is not a lack of interest that keeps them from stepping into the countryside, but a lack of access and its symbolic whiteness. By encouraging more of us to reclaim our right to roam, we can begin to revive the relationships marginalised communities have with nature. As myself and 100 Black men found out, it only takes one walk to start changing the story.

Four groups diversifying the UK countryside

Black Girls Hike

Founded in 2019, Black Girls Hike is a walking group providing a safe space for Black women to go outdoors.

Flock Together

Started over a shared love of birding during lockdown, Flock Together is a bird watching group for people of colour.

Muslim Hikers

Set up in 2020, Muslim Hikers is a walking group encouraging Muslim communities to get outside, though anyone is welcome.

Sheffield Environmental Movement

Sheffield Environmental Movement helps to widen access to green spaces for Black, Asian, minoritised and refugee communities.

 


Find out more about Maxwell A. Ayamba and the Sheffield Environmental Movement on semcharity.org.uk.

Guest authors work with us to share their personal experiences and perspectives, but views in guest articles aren’t necessarily those of Greenpeace

 

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