Birdwatching, Climate Activism and Diversity in Environmentalism: A Conversation with Mya-Rose Craig

By Aman Vernekar
Posted on 18th May 2023
Image: Mya-Rose Craig

Aman Vernekar interviews Mya-Rose Craig, a 20 year old British-Bangladeshi ornithologist, environmentalist, diversity activist, author, speaker, and broadcaster. At age 11, she started the popular blog Birdgirl and, at age 17, she became the youngest person to see half the birds in the world. She is also a second year HSPS student at Cambridge.

Aman: You grew up in a family of birdwatching enthusiasts who spent a lot of time in nature. How did that shape your relationship with nature and lead you onto a path of activism at a young age?

Mya: I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by nature. My parents took me out birdwatching a lot. So from a very young age, I had a very strong relationship with nature, biodiversity and the outdoors. In our generation, you can’t really love nature without also being very concerned about the state of it though, so I started engaging with environmental issues. It was also through my love of birds that I started doing various environmental campaigns.

Aman: Can you walk me through your journey as an activist since then?

Mya: I set up my blog Birdgirl in 2013, where I wrote about birds and nature. In December 2014 there was a terrible oil spill in the Sundarbans, a mangrove forest in Bangladesh, which is where my family is from. This is a very important place in terms of biodiversity and there are many villagers who live along the river. Despite it being a major disaster, I saw no coverage of it in Western media. I realised that I had a platform of my own even though it was small at the time, and I wrote a blog post about it. I started a fundraiser and got it published in an American magazine. We raised around $30,000, and I realised that people really cared but just hadn’t heard about this issue. At a young age, this experience taught me to not wait for other people to take action and to take initiative myself. Since then, I've led various other environmental campaigns, such as trying to save the spoon-billed sandpiper. When I was thirteen, I started my charity Black2Nature, which works with minority ethnic communities to take young people out into nature and connect them with the outdoors while engaging with environmental issues. It's around that age that I started doing a lot of climate change campaigning, which for me centres around ideas of intersectionality and global climate justice.

Aman: What inspired you to start Black2Nature? Why do you think it's important that everyone has access to nature?

Mya: As a person of colour spending a lot of time in the countryside, I rarely saw anyone that wasn't white. By the time I was thirteen, I realised that at least in the UK, the countryside and environmentalism were reserved for the privileged. It was viewed as a white middle-class pastime that you engaged in when you didn’t have anything else to worry about. So I started Black2Nature to make environmentalism open and friendly for everyone so that more people can fall in love with nature. I started running camps with children from diverse backgrounds and took them out into the countryside to help them engage with nature. Since then, we’ve worked with hundreds of kids and have done a lot of campaigning against systemic institutional racism within wider environmental spaces. I love the outdoors and wanted more people to have that opportunity. I also knew from personal experience that having access to green spaces was very important for mental well-being. I also thought that if more people fell in love with nature, they would be motivated to try to save it. Activism coming from a place of love is very powerful. I know many young activists who are very angry and their activism is fueled by anger. This is understandable but isn’t sustainable or resilient and leads to burn out.

Aman: Do you think the lack of diversity in the environmental sector affects our ability to solve the climate and biodiversity crises equitably?

Mya: Yes, absolutely. Since environmentalism has historically been very white and middle class, those perspectives have dominated the discourse but it’s very important to engage a diverse set of people. For example, my grandfather's village in Bangladesh has experienced both severe flooding and drought over the past few years. While working with the kids there, I’ve often had to connect the dots and show them that this is because of climate change. Besides, climate change is strongly linked with our colonial histories. It disproportionately affects nations in the Global South and Indigenous people. Having those voices being heard within the movement is so important.

Aman: In your first book, We Have a Dream, you spoke to thirty Indigenous people and People of Colour engaged in climate activism. What was this experience like and what were your biggest learnings or takeaways from your conversations with them?

Mya: I wrote We Have a Dream to counter this lack of diversity and because I felt the same handful of white Western activists were being platformed over and over again. I absolutely love people like Greta Thunberg but there are so many other incredible activists who deserve a platform. I wrote the book to try and platform some of them and it was amazing to talk to these fantastic people who came from very different backgrounds. One thing that really stuck out to me was how young they all were when they started campaigning - many became climate activists when they were just eight or nine. For them, climate change wasn't a vague concept in their future. It was already affecting their families and communities, and they felt the need to do something immediately. I really enjoyed meeting them and felt very inspired because other people are my biggest source of optimism with issues like climate change. I always like meeting others who care about similar issues because working proactively and collaboratively is the best way to overcome climate doomism.

Aman: Can you describe what birdwatching means to you and why you love it so much?

Mya: I've always loved birdwatching, so I find it difficult to explain to people why I love it. I genuinely just love birds and find them incredibly beautiful. I love that they're a piece of nature that are literally everywhere, even in the middle of the city. It's also very much tied to my well-being. I'm really bad at things like meditation and yoga, but birdwatching is my version of that.

Aman: What's your favourite bird and why?

Mya: In the UK, I'm a really big advocate of garden birds, especially the little brown ones, like Wrens and Dunnocks. I think they're really cute. Wrens in particular have a really cool song. Globally, I'm really into big, scary birds. For years I loved the cassowary, which is a six foot tall bird with massive talons found in Australia. These days it's probably the harpy eagle, found in the South American Amazon. It's the biggest eagle in the world, and hunts by grabbing monkeys off the top of trees.

Aman: You've been around the world on birdwatching trips. What's been your most exciting experience from that?

Mya: There are lots of anecdotes of things not quite going right. My family and I went on a trip to South Africa when I was very little and I have many such anecdotes from that trip. I was stalked by a lioness who was trying to eat me. We nearly got squashed by a hippo. We nearly fell off a mountain. That was a cool trip.

Aman: What's your advice for someone who is concerned about the climate and biodiversity crises and wants to get involved in activism?

Mya: As young people, it's really easy to feel like we can't do anything, especially because these are such big systemic issues. However, it is so important that everyone gets involved. You can start by finding other people who care about the same issues as you. The main thing is actually getting involved and practising resilience, through things like making banners or going to rallies and protests. There are many important campaigns in Cambridge such as the divestment or Fossil Free Research campaigns, and many incredible organisations to get involved in, such as XR Youth, Cambridge Climate Justice and Students Against Oil. It’s easy to feel like you can’t achieve much as an individual but banding together to demand action is a really strong political tool. The issue is a lack of political will, not a lack of technology or solutions, and students have always played a major role in forcing political will.

Aman: Thank you so much for such an interesting conversation, Mya, and thanks for joining us.

Mya: Thank you so much for having me.