Unequal Land: Unearthing the Roots of Systemic Racism in Biodiversity

2020. A year reminding us that Covid-19 is not the only pandemic impacting societies. In fact, there is a deadlier, darker, and deep-rooted issue that’s gripped the world for centuries. Systemic racism.

(image source: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

With millions of people protesting around the world, we stand with the victims of police brutality, saying their countless names, and we demand change. 2020 has served as another stark reminder of how systemic racism is rooted within all parts of society. That also includes nature. A recent study by Schell et al. (2020)1 suggested how structural classism and racism intersects with urban biodiversity. These concepts are fundamental considerations when looking at the wider picture of global biodiversity conservation, ensuring nature is equitable for all.

However, you may still be asking yourselves ‘How are racial inequalities connected to biodiversity?’

Patterns of Wealth Influence Biodiversity

Let’s start off with a game of would you rather. Imagine you’re a bird, and there are two types of habitats: Habitat one is in an urban woodland with a high canopy cover and an abundance of vegetation and species. Habitat two in a highly urbanised area which has little canopy cover and is very species poor. Which would you rather?

There is one catch however – this is not a game. In reality, this is something known as the luxury effect, in which there is a higher abundance of plant and animal communities distributed in more affluent areas2. For instance, a higher abundance of migratory bird species was significantly correlated with increasing household income. These effects have been observed globally across cities1. The effect is most prominent in areas with older vegetation communities. These more biodiverse areas can support a larger space with increased resources for species. Therefore, this hosts more mammal species like coyotes (Canis latrans) and raccoons (Procyon lotor)1. The luxury effect is a prime example of how classism and other socioeconomic factors have unequitable biodiversity outcomes for deprived communities.

How History Shaped Biodiversity

Although the luxury effect influences habitat structure, the process feeds into a larger feedback loop in which structural racism plays a key predictor for ecological conditions1 (Fig. 1). Between 1933 to 1968, the “redlining” policy was enacted which meant neighbourhoods were segregated largely based on race and this heavily suppressed capital gains for Black Americans. Financial inequalities in these areas was a source of inadequate resource distribution (Fig. 1). Even though this policy has been revoked, “low graded” neighbourhoods still have on average 21% less canopy cover than “high graded” areas1. This greatly changes habitat structure and results in lower species richness in “low graded” neighbourhoods (Fig. 2C).

Figure 1: Systemic racism and classism drive differences in habitat structure due to changes in resource distribution and pollution effects. This influences ecological and biodiversity patterns seen in ecosystems1. (image source: adapted from Schell et al.)

So, what does this leave us with? Racially segregated neighbourhoods were typically concentrated together. This restricts the age, abundance, and distribution of canopy cover – and therefore habitat connectivity. Space is a key factor in species population growth and if they can’t move, they become isolated3. This is seen in neighbourhoods “c” and “d” which is when a species can get into trouble and survival of a population decreases3 (Fig. 2A). These are called sink habitats.

These ethnically marginalised communities have a disproportionate tendency to be highly industrialised – therefore highly polluted. High urban activity causes temperatures to rise locally, known as the Urban Heat Island Effect1. These forms of environmental racism decrease the area and quality of habitats, forcing species to settle in degraded ecosystems3. This is known as an ecological trap. Both of these effects reduce the amount of genetic variation than can move between habitats (Fig. 2B). This causes a degradation of biodiversity in isolated habitats (Fig. 2B). As a result, historical policies which racially segregated Black, Latinx and Native American communities has severely fragmented and degraded biodiversity across the US to this day. 

Figure 2: Two hypothetical cities showing the distribution of green spaces (dark green) in redlined neighbourhoods (A). (B) amount of genetic variation between the two cities across neighbourhoods. (C) Species richness composition between two cities in different neighbourhoods. (image source: adapted from Schell et al)

The Bigger Picture of Racism within Biodiversity

Although we talk about systemic racism on an urban scale, biodiversity loss is disproportionately affecting indigenous and marginalised communities on a global scale. Currently, we are experiencing unprecedented declines in biodiversity. On average, approximately 47% of ecosystems have declined with around 25% of all species threatened with extinction worldwide 4 (Fig. 3). These factors are driven by indirect socioeconomic influences which exert pressures on indigenous land. This has contributed to a 72% reduction of biodiversity factors which are considered essential for indigenous communities 4 (Fig. 3).

These processes of degradation which are driven and exploited by society is leading to the cultural erosion and displacement of indigenous communities 5. This can be defined under systemic racism because of the unjust position societies, governments, and policies impose on indigenous communities, subsequently leading to cultural erosion (Fig. 3). Even conservation strategies, such as Protected Areas (PAs), can be a source of social conflict and displacement, resulting in indigenous communities being disadvantaged5. On an international scale, we must acknowledge the rights of these communities to yield equitable, yet effective strategies for biodiversity conservation.

Figure 3: Sources of global declines in biodiversity from direct (biological) and indirect drivers (socioeconomic)4. (image source: adapted from Díaz et al)

What can we do?

We will not be able to successfully assess how racism and classism shape urban ecosystems – nor address their consequences – without a truly diverse and inclusive scientific community

Schell et al. (2020)

Supporting initiatives which proactively stand for environmental justice polices is the first step towards combatting systemic racism in biodiversity. Schell et al. (2020) pushed towards the concept of racial inequality intersecting between people and biodiversity1. Future studies need to integrate how systematic racism and classism influences biodiversity on both a local and global scale (Fig. 4). For instance, local ecological modelling can help to identify appropriate restoration strategies for habitat sinks. Moreover, involving indigenous communities within conservation decision making for establishing PAs are key environmental justice achievements1,5. This is an essential step for revaluating conservation priorities within the scientific community and to purposefully implement anti-racist tactics that combat systems of oppression.

So, in answer to my question, racial inequality is related to biodiversity because the discriminatory laws, policies and attitudes disproportionately affect marginalised communities that influences resource distribution and habitat structure. Habitat conditions are further worsened by sources of pollution, contributing towards habitat fragmentation and ecosystem degradation locally. On a global scale, indirect socioeconomic factors drive habitat change. Therefore, the intersection of how racial inequalities drive habitat structure and degradation heighten the magnitude and extent of unjust social inequalities experienced today.


1.        Schell, C. J. et al. The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments. Science. 369, 1–13 (2020).

2.        Leong, M., Dunn, R. R. & Trautwein, M. D. Biodiversity and socioeconomics in the city: a review of the luxury effect. Biol. Lett. 14, 20180082 (2018).

3.        Hale, R., Coleman, R., Pettigrove, V. & Swearer, S. E. Review: Identifying, preventing and mitigating ecological traps to improve the management of urban aquatic ecosystems. J. Appl. Ecol. 52, 928–939 (2015).

4.        Díaz, S. et al. Pervasive human-driven decline of life on Earth points to the need for transformative change. Science. 366, 1–12 (2019).

5.        Garnett, S. T. et al. A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation. Nat. Sustain. 1, 369–374 (2018).

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