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Conservationist Emphasizes Ties that Bind People and Land

04/23/10 by Staff Writer

Peter Forbes talks with Bethany Sinnott

Peter Forbes was the perfect speaker for Earth Day. In his years as a conservationist, he has learned that the work is all about relationship building. He has also learned that those who are interested in conservation and those who are interested in social justice must work together to solve the planet’s problems.

Forbes, co-founder of the Vermont-based Center for Whole Communities, spoke April 22 at the Center for the Environment. The next day, he led a day-long workshop, “Building Communities for a New Nation.”

In his evening remarks, Forbes emphasized that people and the land are tied together, and what affects one affects the other. He listed places as diverse as Bull Run Farm, Devil’s Den, Central Harlem, Cedar Mesa and many more, saying, “This is who I am. That’s me. That’s my story.”

He noted, “I thought my story was about me,” but it’s really about “waters, food, wood, dream, memories” tied to many different places.

Forbes explained how “querencia,” an African word, has multiple meanings — a place where an animal lives; the tendency of humans to return to the place they’re born; affection, responsibility; the place where one feels most safe; the tendency to love and be loved.  “It’s a responsibility to one another connected to nature, place and land,” he said.

He talked about Bill Coperthwaite, for whom he photographed the book, “A Handmade Life.”  Coperthwaite has lived on the same property in Maine for 50 years with no road, no electricity.  “It’s the most civilized place I know,” Forbes said. “The land and he have gently shaped for another.”

He talked about Classy Parker, a black woman who’s a third-generation resident of a street in Harlem. She and others took a vacant lot and turned it into a lush garden, full of birds, apple trees and tomato plants.

Forbes said he’s had unusual teachers such as these who have helped to shape his eclectic career as a photojournalist, land trust advocate, teacher/facilitator and conservationist.

He agrees with the statement that environmentalism is a lifestyle choice. The Center for Whole Communities, he said, teaches environmentalism and social change — “to create a place to reweave isolated and divided sectors of people to allow something more creative to arise.

“We’re bringing different worlds together and it can be a game changer.”
Forbes said that 1,000 alumni of the center are working throughout the country.
The center’s work provokes big questions: What kind of world do we want to live in? How do we get there?

Forbes listed two important future dates: 2050, the year by which all countries need to be carbon neutral and 2042, the year in which every Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States will be dominated by non-white residents.
“These demographic changes should be celebrated, assuming environmentalists and conservationists can adapt and change with them,” Forbes said. “People of color are stronger advocates of conservation than whites.”

Something new is emerging in the field of conservation, Forbes said, something he called “Conservation 2.0.” This new concept builds on the conservation that has taken place over the last 100 years — the acquiring of national parks, wildlife refuges and conserved land. “It is not just transactional but relational,” Forbes explained.

Forbes showed a four-part chart of the divide between nature and people.

People of means (the “haves”) who are interested in nature are interested in issues like acid rain, climate change, the decline of rainforests and endangered species. People of means interested in people focus on hybrid cars, solar panels, consumer choice and healthy landscapes.

On the other side of the chart, people without means (the “have
nots”) interested in nature are focusing on water pollution, air pollution, local ownership and urban green space.

People without means interested in people want to work on issues related to health, hunger, democratic participation and disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
“No quadrant can succeed without the other,” he said. “It’s exactly what Classy Parker was saying.”

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, wrote last summer that the poverty fighters may resent the climate change fighters and vice versa, but they must stop working on issues in isolation, Forbes said. He noted that the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, the same year the Wilderness Bill was passed. “When these two areas are connected, that’s when change is accelerated,” he said.

Change must take place not only in facts, but in dreams, Forbes said.  
“Dr. King did not say, ‘I have a plan.’ He said, ‘I have a dream.’ ”

He asked the audience to consider the question, “What is your story of sustainability?”

For more information about Peter Forbes and the Center for Whole Communities, visit

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