Trembling in the Balance: My life as a Black ecologist

For Black History Month, the British Ecological Society (BES) journals are celebrating the work of Black ecologists from around the world and sharing their stories. Christian Asante, a fifth year doctoral student at Boston College, shares his story below.

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I was born and raised in a sprawling urban neighbourhood in Ghana. My first awareness of nature as a child was birds flying headlong into my grandfather’s one storey building. Every time a sparrow tumbled and fell on the cement floor, I became more intrigued.

My fascination with nature and wildlife led me to study biological sciences at the University of Ghana, where I carried out an undergraduate project on pollinator diversity in different plant ecosystems. Here, I became aware of the effect of human activity on species diversity; the undisturbed plant ecosystems I surveyed had more species richness and diversity than the habitats disturbed by human activity.

After graduation, I worked on several projects involving a wide range of species, including migratory shore birds, bats and some pollinator work, specifically bees. Through all these projects, I became increasingly aware of the impacts of human activity in shaping habitats, species richness and diversity, and wellbeing of the ecosystems that supported them.

The “aha!” moment came from engaging with local communities, listening to their economic concerns about land ownership and the role of government in their lives. After my research experiences in Ghana, I left for Canada on a scholarship to study migratory bird ecology using stable isotope chemistry and mercury biomarkers.

My current research interests cut across various disciplines and falls broadly under the discipline of Socioecology.  My dissertation is specifically focused on the congruence between national climate change policies and climate science education. Along these lines, I am developing frameworks and conceptual tools to help researchers and educators have an appreciation of the various levers of sustainability in Ghana.

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On the Saskatchewan River Delta, Canada

Ghana is shaped by the past (colonial history), as well as the present (government efforts and interventions and policies). At the moment, the government of Ghana is in a tussle with local communities and environmental activists as to whether the ATEWA forest reserve, an important ecosystem and wildlife refuge, should be opened for bauxite mining. To truly understand anything in Africa, whether medicine, ecology or conservation, we need to unpack the post-colonial nation state and its complexities.

Education is an important canvass for change within these complex systems and that is why I am particularly passionate about curriculum development and enactment when it comes to ecology, environmental sciences and climate change. The latter has especially deleterious consequences for impoverished communities across the globe.

Many of these communities are inhabited by people who identify racially as Black, whether in urban communities in North America, favelas in Brazil, coastal communities in Africa and the Caribbean and African migrants in Europe. As an African and a Black man, I am aware of these disparities and they shape how I think about education. So in my research, teaching and curriculum development work, I consider the realities of what I call the “global blackness” – albeit, being fully aware of the differences in the Black experience, the particular details of each environment and sometimes the tensions, even the contradictions, of race, social class, ethnicity, gender and citizenship.

Ecology has the answers to some of the world’s biggest concerns and would benefit greatly from diverse voices, including Black ecologists and other underrepresented groups. It is important for any scientific endeavour to consider the various ways in which people thrive and live their lives.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank three of my mentors in Ghana who laid the foundation for my work. First, Dr Millicent Cobblah who supervised my undergraduate thesis and taught me the importance of trusting the process and the scientific method. Second, Dr Yaa Ntiamoa-Baidu who taught me the value of grit and hard work and Dr Eureka Emefa Adomako who took my interests seriously in her ecology class. Together, these are brilliant scientists and also Ghanaian and Black women.

I would also like to thank my Canadian Advisor, Dr Tim Jardine. Thank you Tim for demonstrating that diversity and inclusion is possible when people are committed to it.

In addition to my University lecturers, I would like thank my teachers from the beginning stages: Eric Asomani, Sir Maxwell wherever he may be, and Mr. Ampofo and Emmanuel Dogodzi of St. Thomas Aquinas High School.

Discover more blog posts like this on our Black History Month page on the British Ecological Society website. If you have any questions about the blog series, please get in touch.

2 thoughts on “Trembling in the Balance: My life as a Black ecologist

  1. The broader the cultural contributions to the study of our planets turmoils the more complete will be our solutions to these problems. Thank you for your work.

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  2. I was very inspired by your story. The hope I hold for the future of our ecosystems rests in the work folks like you are doing across the globe. And I think it’s not just the actual work, but it’s the science and education to support it. I work as a volunteer to remove invasive plants from a forested public park in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m very much aware of how little science there is to support the specific tasks of forest restoration. For example, on the edges of the forest where I work, there are strips of ground that have been disturbed over the years by various attempts by the City to “landscape” the edges and plant ornamentals. Inevitably, they lack the resources to maintain these edges, so they fill up with annual and biannual weeds. Simply pulling these weeds doesn’t seem to accomplish much since the seed banks are so pervasive. So, I wonder if in the long run it’s best just to let the weedy annuals take over, on the assumption that over time the native, evergreen perennials like Salal and Oregon Grape will very gradually reclaim these edges. Perhaps science could tell us, if it existed for this particular situation.
    Thanks for you post and thanks for your work.

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