words and photography by tami aftab
Nature is a Human Right is the non-profit organization campaigning to make contact with nature a basic right as recognized by the UN. Atmos speaks with founder Ellen Miles and ambassadors Poppy Okotcha and Kalpana Arias about the urgency of their mission.
Imagine if contact with nature was considered a basic human right; if every person was expected to have easy access to parks, vegetable gardens and local wildlife regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances. This is the mission of Nature is a Human Right, a non-profit organisation campaigning to democratize our connection to nature.
Founded by Ellen Miles in 2020, Nature is a Human Right came at a perfect time. Those of us who had spent the first half of the year locked inside our homes started feeling a growing calling to nature, fresh air and walks in the outdoors. Moreover, the pandemic highlighted a number of existing social and environmental inequalities, including nature deprivation, especially among marginalized and vulnerable groups. In fact, across the U.K., people in underfunded areas are six times less likely to describe their area as ‘green.’ The main goal driving Nature is a Human Right is getting the United Nations to recognise access to nature as a human right in order to achieve a healthy, happier, greener, more equal world.
The founder and ambassadors behind Nature is a Human Right are as inspiring as the organization itself. Miles, for example, is currently writing a book named after the organization that is coming out in 2022. The book has taken root from the vision of the campaign, bringing together inspiring original writing from global voices, including world-leading scientists, artists, nature writers and activists.
One such ambassador is Poppy Okotcha, an ecological grower, currently working on an edible and medicinal forest garden at her home in Devon. She also recently became an ambassador for WWF and is a part of Channel 4’s The Great Garden Revolution. Alongside is Kalpana Arias, a tech-philosopher, climate-activist, creative strategist, ecosomatics educator and the founder of Nowadays On Earth, a resource and media hub advocating for our earth body and connectedness to nature as a response to our climate crisis.
Earlier this month I met with Ellen, Poppy and Kalpana at Ruskin Park Community Garden, in South East London where we discussed nature deprivation, ecological growing and Earth-body connectedness whilst being surrounded by vegetables, wildflowers, and the Earth.
When did you start actively trying to make a change to end nature deprivation and learn more about inclusive gardening?
The moment that jolted me into action was when, in the first lockdown, councils started closing parks in a classist and racist fashion. It wasn’t Regent’s Park or St James’s they were closing, it was in London boroughs home to low-income households and communities of colour. Those affected are already unlikely to have their own gardens, so shutting them out of public green space was an act of violence, as I see it.
It’s been a natural evolution as I’ve understood and had experiences in the world of growing. While learning about Indigenous wisdom in the world of ecological growing I very clearly was shown that inclusivity benefits all of us because diverse knowledge is shared. At a certain point I saw that re-assimilating with nature is hugely significant in reckoning the climate crisis, if we don’t know what we are missing we don’t try for change, and nature offers the perfect model of regeneration and sustainability.
I experienced nature deprivation first hand when I moved to Houston, Texas, from Colombia. But it wasn’t until six years later that I began to feel the psychosomatic effects which manifested itself as chronic illnesses. This is what led me to actively create changes in my environment and rediscover my relationship with the world around me. I began ‘officially’ working in gardens and farms in 2015, while researching permaculture design and somatic therapy. Since then I have been learning about inclusive and regenerative farming [by] working in gardens in India, Colombia, America and the U.K.
People of color are more likely than white people to live in an area that is nature deprived. What is the best way, as individuals, to help break this hierarchy in your opinion?
We can call out the negative forces: putting pressure on the systems that are enforcing this kind of divide and disconnect. This means calling for funding in underserved areas, and calling out ridiculous spending in already privileged areas. Also, by supporting the positive forces: initiatives that actively engage people of color, reaching out and offering a hand and a leg-up into nature-connection. There are many brilliant groups doing this, including Flock Together, Black to Nature and Black Outside, to name just a few!
Providing visual representation with positive and inspiring stories so we feel we can connect with and be safe in these spaces, that they are for us. Supporting the provision of funding, education, and access to wild green spaces. As far as I’m concerned this is a symptom of a broader problem, so working for societal and systems change matters too. Read, chat, and organize. The two most powerful books I’ve read this year: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes.
Whilst we need to actively pursue systemic change for climate and social justice, understanding our body’s ecology is also a part of the movement towards a free and equitable future. In an age where access to green spaces is increasingly limited we can develop a connectedness to nature by learning to re-inhabit our own bodies using ecosomatics. The process of developing a relationship with our bodies connects us to our immediate surroundings and the community around us, impacting your awareness on the issues we’re collectively facing.
Personally, what are some of the mental and physical health benefits you’ve noticed from having access to and spending time in green spaces?
I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety my entire life. At times, it’s been overwhelming. Self harm, suicidal ruminations, panic attacks—all the fun stuff. Spending time in nature isn’t a magic fix, but by god it helps! There’s something about being immersed in a totally non-expectant, non-judgmental environment, a space to which our bodies have become finely attuned over hundreds of millennia. It brings me back around to a sense of presence, not ruminating on self-written faults or imagined future failings.
I was diagnosed with IBS, and part of managing my stress to deal with that was engaging meaningfully with nature. I very rarely have flare-ups these days since my relationship with nature leads my life and decision-making. Alongside this, I feel a sense of interconnection with Earth and all that’s here, which is deeply comforting, exciting and has increased my empathy [levels]. I no longer feel separate from nature, which includes all life on Earth, rocks, soil, water, birds, humans, moss, strawberries.
Having access to green spaces has helped me to experience healing and grounding on multidimensional levels. We are all bioelectrical beings carrying a positive charge in our bodies that can build up and create disease. By being in nature, I am able to connect my body to the Earth and release myself from any excess energy as the Earth’s negatively-charged current begins to move through the body producing a grounding and healing effect at a cellular level. The process of grounding and earthing has helped to regulate my chronic pain and change my relationship to suffering.
Photography & Words: Tami Aftab; Styling: Iman Alem; Make Up: Alice Dodds; Director of Photography: Iso Attrill; Photo Assistants: Shannon Osborne & Julia Marlene; Video Assistant: Elena Samms; Location thanks to Friends of Ruskin Park