LONDON. – Being stared at, photographed in secret, and even having a bottle thrown at you – all because you went for a quiet walk through the British countryside.
These are just some of Maxwell Ayamba’s experiences while introducing Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people to rural beauty spots for the past 15 years, many of whom had never ventured beyond the cities they resided in.
“During one of our walks, a lady walker secretly took our picture … and when she was confronted she said, ‘I have not seen so many Black people at one time in the countryside’,” said the 55-year-old Ghanaian researcher and journalist.
Months of coronavirus restrictions and Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd in the United States, have put renewed focus on racial injustice, from access to nature to health inequalities.
Though the great outdoors has surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, green spaces, known to improve mental health, are not equally distributed or easily accessible by all, according to British walking charity Ramblers.
The richest 20% of areas in England have five times more green spaces compared to the poorest parts of the country, a recent Ramblers report found – with people of BAME background making up only 1% of visitors to national parks.
“For the first time this year, a lot of people realized the countryside and nature are really important for our health and mental wellbeing,” said Black history writer Louisa Adjoa Parker, 48, who lives in rural southwest England.
“I think that has also raised questions around who has access to the countryside, who belongs there, who’s accepted there,” said Parker, who is also a British-Ghanaian diversity consultant.
A COUNTRYSIDE FOR ALL?
Government reports showed that Black and Asian people in England are up to 50% more likely to die after being infected by COVID-19 as they tend to live in poor, overcrowded households in cities and have jobs that put them at greater risk.
With limited access to nature, BAME communities are left with fewer options to stay safe from the virus through social distancing.
About 17% of the population – some 9.5 million people – lived in rural England in 2018, the latest official figures showed. BAME communities made up just 2% of that number, while the rest of the population was white.
Ayamba said his monthly walking group in northern England aimed to promote the wellbeing of older BAME people but also served as a “civil protest”.
“Black people have been excluded from nature and access to the countryside. To see Black faces in the British countryside feels out of place because the ‘cities are where they belong’. We are walking to reclaim the land.”
The pandemic has also exposed a spatial divide in countries like South Africa, where satellite images showed that white neighborhoods had more green spaces than Black townships.
A 2019 review by the government’s environment department found that many Black and ethnic minority people viewed the countryside as an irrelevant white, middle-class “club”.
About 70% of white children spent time outside once a week compared to 56% of non-white children in 2018-19, the report said, citing figures from environmental group Natural England.
“For many black and ethnic minority people, they are experiencing a lack of belonging, perhaps they’re experiencing the ‘white middle-class club’ when they’re visiting or living there,” said Tom Fyans from countryside charity CPRE.
“We’ve seen how important the countryside and green spaces are to your health and wellbeing. Everyone has a right to that,” said Fyans, head of campaigns and policy. “It’s not just for the privileged few who can afford to live in certain areas.”
Research by Ramblers found that just 39% of BAME people lived within a five-minute walk to green spaces compared to 58% of white people.