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24 July 2021

Mya-Rose Craig: the “Birdgirl” reimagining Britain’s countryside

The British-Bangladeshi teen on youth activists, COP26 and the battle for a more inclusive vision of nature.

By India Bourke

Small remote cottages are often where fairy tales begin, surrounded by the sound of bees and birdsong and covered in climbing roses. And Birdgirl, as Mya-Rose Craig is more commonly known, happens to live in just such a place, nestled among the West Country hills outside Bristol.

The 19-year-old’s story has something of a Briar Rose quality. Having travelled the globe with her bird-loving parents since before she could walk, she is thought to be the youngest person to have seen more than half the world’s 10,738 birds. She is also the youngest Briton ever to have received an honorary doctorate, for her work engaging children and teenagers from minority ethnic backgrounds with the natural world.

Video Produced by Phil Clarke Hill

Since 2015, Craig, who is half-Bangladeshi, has been organising camping trips on which young people from the inner city can get close to nature. Over the course of a weekend, participants learn to bird-ring, bat-walk, pond-dip, moth-trap, toast marshmallows and “bioblitz” (involving a race to find and identify as many different species as possible).

For many teenage boys, holding birds in their hands for the first time requires overcoming a wariness they didn’t know they had. For younger children who have hardly ever left the city, even just being on the bus and seeing cows over the tops of hedges can bring on “unabashed” excitement.

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But as much as Craig’s story celebrates the wonder of nature, so too is it a call for some of Britain’s more traditional visions of the countryside to be rethought: for the illusion of a bucolic idyll to be torn down, and for a more honest, enduring and inclusive relationship to wildlife to take its place.

***

“I can’t even remember the first time I saw a bird, I’ve always loved them,” Craig told me when we met recently near her family home in the Chew Valley. But, equally, she added: “It’s the same for the first time that I knew that our planet was dying. I literally can’t remember the first time I heard about deforestation or fires or climate change or anything like that; it’s always been something that I’ve been really aware of.”

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Flying over the Amazon during a birding trip to Brazil in 2019, Craig witnessed climate change’s devastating grip first-hand. Despite years spent raising awareness of the environmental crisis (via her Birdgirl blog and on stages alongside activists such as Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg), seeing fiery clouds of smoke rise from the trees still hit hard. “That really shaped the way that I think about things.”

Closer to home, evidence of man-made harm to the natural world is just as insidious: during the past 50 years, more than 40 per cent of British species have declined, according to the RSPB’s 2019 State of Nature report. “This feels like we’re in a woodland,” Craig says, gesturing towards the canopy of lime-green oak leaves above our winding path, “but in reality, we’re in a tiny strip of trees between two fields that have been ploughed to death. This isn’t even good habitat. This is just somewhere green.”

Craig has also long felt another kind of absence in the British countryside: people who look like her. “Growing up, I was very aware of my race and very aware that there wasn’t anyone else who looked like me out in the countryside except my mum and my sister. I never saw anyone who wasn’t white.”

People on her social media accounts would tell her “there’s no point trying” to engage non-white British kids with her nature camps; it wouldn’t work. Yet her experience instantly disproved those misreadings. “Within a couple of days, boys who had tried to be so adamant that they did not want to come had all engaged with nature in some shape or form and had a really good time.” Was it difficult? “At the time I thought it was, because I was younger than them and it was really intimidating. But looking back, no, it wasn’t difficult at all to break down those barriers.”

[See also: Naomi Klein on overcoming doomism with climate action]

When major conservation charities wanted to know more about the secrets of her success, however, she was dismayed to find a shortage of follow-up. Even after setting up a conference in 2016 to outline the obstacles in the way of access to nature for BAME people, she could see little change.

Craig is aware of a range of inequalities, from practical aspects such as a lack of suitable clothing, or a cultural fear of dogs, to wider issues of perception and racism, such as ethnic minority boys being threatened with calls to the police when visiting parts of the countryside. Better communication and role models are needed, she says, yet the environmental sector is the second-least diverse profession in the UK, according to a 2018 NUS report, and employment schemes like Race for Nature’s Recovery are only just getting under way.

Similarly, when press coverage of environmental activism exploded in 2019, Mya became increasingly aware that the spokespeople turned to by the media were predominantly “very white and very western”. Indigenous people and people of colour were, once again, being left out of the frame (quite literally in the case of Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda who was cropped out of an Associated Press photograph).

***

What Craig and much of the youth climate movement grasped as teenagers, the rest of the world is slowly catching up on: that you can’t hope to fix the broken planet without also improving justice for marginalised people, who often depend most closely on nature’s good health. Everything and everyone is linked. “Intersectionality is at the heart of everything,” as Craig puts it.

Internationally, momentum is now building behind the concept of “climate justice” for developing nations. Ahead of this year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow, scientists have launched a “1.5˚C Charter” to highlight the many economic, environmental and humanitarian costs of breaching the global warming limit. But can such a shift towards such joined-up thinking stick? Craig is sceptical.

“Unfortunately I think I’d be quite surprised if there was even very little progress this year,” she notes with regard to hopes for the upcoming conference. “I don’t really know anyone my age who is expecting anything from Cop26.”

With regard to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s additional slew of promises on protecting biodiversity (which have failed to so far to lead to a legally binding target on halting UK nature loss), she adds: “I end up being very cynical about lots of these promises… There’s just so many other things that are constantly being prioritised over the environment.”

On politicians’ failure to follow up words with sufficient legal and financial action, Craig has a point. At the G7 summit in Cornwall in June, leaders reaffirmed their desire to limit global warming to 1.5˚C but did not commit the necessary funds to help developing nations cut their emissions or cope with a climate-addled world. A similar story holds true for pledges to protect nature.

But, in quieter and smaller ways, hope is emerging. Craig’s own UK charity, Black2Nature, campaigns for equal access to nature for all, and Black Girls Hike, founded by Rhiane Fatinikun, is likewise aiming to train more people from BAME backgrounds to lead hikes and activities. Meanwhile, books like Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass and Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England are lifting the veil on the lack of public access to 92 per cent of British land — and demanding change.

Amplified by like-minded youth all over the world, this collective voice grows louder. Craig’s upcoming book, We Have a Dream, pulls together the stories of 30 young indigenous people and people of colour all striving to protect the planet: from Autumn Peltier, the chief clean water advocate, to the Anishinabek Nation in Canada and Lesein Mutunkei, a football-lover in Ethiopia who began an initiative at his school to plant trees for every goal they scored.

“The thing that really hit me is that so many of these kids felt like they didn’t have a choice; that they had to do something,” Craig says. And, despite the grim reality of such pressure, she has also found herself galvanised by the sense of solidarity. Before the arrival of Greta Thunberg’s School Strike movement, she recalls it feeling “very niche and obscure and slightly weird to be talking about climate change”; whereas now, “It has become the issue of a generation.”

As the global youth movement has shown, success lies in connection. For many who once felt shut out and unheard, the door is inching open — both for more diverse voices, and, consequently, for nature.

Whether this expansion in advocacy can reach a tipping point of momentum and drive politicians to stem biodiversity’s loss before it’s too late, is still in question. For Craig, the world of politics itself holds little appeal. Boris Johnson may be “very good at being a politician”, but she can’t see he does much “for the good of the people”.

What she knows does do good, however, is getting out into green, tree-filled places, such as the path we were lucky enough to stroll along. The quest to reimagine a more diverse British countryside may not yet have sight of a happy ending. But it is a fairy-tale vision we all urgently need to come true.

[See also: Philippe Sands on why “ecocide” should be a crime]