Opinion: Latino voices are non-negotiable in the fight for environmental preservation

Conservation efforts cannot afford to operate in silos, but must instead embrace the variety of human experiences and perspectives.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors to Mirror Lake walk the path around the lake, August 6, 2017.

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In the vast tapestry of America’s cultural landscape, the voice of Latino communities emerges as a critical one for conservation. The recent findings from the 14th annual Conservation in the West Poll conducted by Colorado College State of the Rockies Project echo a resounding sentiment: Latinos are not only deeply concerned about the future of our environment, they hold the key to effective conservation strategy implementation.

The bipartisan poll, conducted by Republican pollster New Bridge Strategy and Democratic pollster Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, among voters of color in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming in January 2024, reveals that Latinos stand out as the demographic group most deeply troubled by the current state of nature, with 69% expressing greater worry than hope, 78% thinking that over the last 10 years, the effects of climate change in their state have been significant and 66% percent saying that climate change is an extremely or very serious issue.

75% say that low levels of water in rivers are an extremely or very serious issue, 69% percent think that spending more time outdoors in nature would help a lot with anxiety, depression, and mental health problems in children and young people, and 86% support the creation of new national parks, national monuments, national wildlife refuges and tribal protected areas to protect historic sites or areas for outdoor recreation, is further evidence of Latinos’ deep appreciation for nature and the outdoors.

But why is conservation so deeply ingrained in Latino culture? The answer lies in their profound connection to the land, rooted in centuries of tradition, heritage and stewardship. In Utah, Latino communities have a rich history dating back generations, where their connection to the land is not just about ownership or exploitation but about reverence and respect. For them, nature is not merely a backdrop but an integral part of identity, intertwined with spirituality, livelihoods and community cohesion. From the sacred red rock formations of southern Utah to the pristine wilderness of the Uinta Mountains, the natural landscape of Utah holds deep significance for Latino families, serving as a sanctuary for spiritual reflection, cultural practices and community gatherings.

Moreover, with a population size of approximately 63.6 million and an 18% faster growth rate than the nation’s average, Latinos make up 15.1% of the population in Utah and 22% in Salt Lake City. Latinos wield significant influence in shaping the future of conservation efforts at a local, regional and national scale. As the poll indicates, 89% say that issues involving clean water, clean air, wildlife and public lands are important in deciding whether to support an elected public official and 78% prefer that their members of Congress ensure the protection of natural resources while providing access to our national public lands, as opposed to ensuring the production of oil and gas on these lands.

To succeed in conserving the environment, we must actively engage Latino communities. Whether it is elevating their voices in decision-making processes or advocating for policies that promote equitable access to outdoor spaces, the inclusion of Latino voices is non-negotiable in the fight for environmental preservation.

So, what can we do to ensure meaningful engagement with Latino communities in conservation efforts? The calls to actions are clear.

First, education and outreach are paramount. Initiatives aimed at raising awareness about environmental issues within Latino communities, like Latino Conservation Week, conducted in culturally and linguistically sensitive ways, can bridge existing gaps in understanding and foster a sense of shared responsibility for conservation.

Second, representation matters. By elevating Latino voices in environmental advocacy groups, government agencies and decision-making bodies, we can ensure that policies and initiatives reflect the diverse perspectives and priorities of the communities they serve.

Third, collaboration is key. Building partnerships with Latino-serving organizations, like Hispanic Access Foundation, and with community leaders and grassroots activists can harness the collective power of communities to drive positive change from the ground up.

Finally, access and equity must be central to conservation efforts. Ensuring equitable access to green spaces, recreational opportunities and environmental resources is essential for empowering Latino communities to actively participate in conservation activities and enjoy the benefits of nature.

In essence, effective conservation demands a paradigm shift towards embracing diversity, fostering inclusion, and acknowledging the invaluable contributions of Latino communities. It’s about recognizing that conservation efforts cannot afford to operate in silos, but must instead embrace the variety of human experiences and perspectives. By working together in solidarity, we can build a more sustainable future for all — one in which the vibrant tapestry of nature is preserved for generations to come.

(Photo courtesy of Vanessa Muñoz) Vanessa Muñoz

Vanessa Muñoz is a Latina, an environmental conservation expert and the Waterways Manager at Hispanic Access Foundation.

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