How being a professional climber (and amateur mother) taught me that we’re doing conservation wrong

Majka Burhardt during the first ascent of the 2,000-foot face of Mount Namuli.
Courtesy of Majka Burhardt

I’m the founder and executive director of Legado, an international organization that works to advance climate justice. I am also a professional rock, ice, and mountain climber. Seven years ago, I thought my job was to help protect global biodiversity. Then I had twins, and everything changed.

I started Legado in 2011 with $11,000 cobbled together from outdoor companies such as Patagonia and Clif Bar that sponsored me as a climber. My vision was simple(ish): establish a first ascent on the 2,000-foot face of Mount Namuli (the second highest mountain in Mozambique), bring scientists on that ascent to find new species, and launch a conservation program by working with Namuli’s communities and Mozambican nonprofits.

We largely reached our goals, and within a few years, Legado was receiving funding from global names like the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the World Wildlife Fund. But then two things happened: The Lomwe people of Mount Namuli, the mountain’s ancestral owners, asked me when I would start understanding that protecting their forest wasn’t enough and that they needed better support for their communities, focused on education, health, agriculture, infrastructure, and more. And I got pregnant…with twins.

Sleeping sucks at the end of pregnancy. My giant belly was riddled with contractions in those final weeks, especially when I had to heave myself out of bed during my six to eight nightly trips to the bathroom. One night at 2 a.m., I looked up how many other women might be in the same situation. It turns out the UN estimates that just under 400,000 women worldwide give birth each day. By fast, non-empirical, middle-of-the-night logic, I calculated that in any two-week period, 5.6 million women were about to give birth and likely also losing all circulation in their arms while sleeping.

I was thinking about this extended global birth group through my 40+ hours of labor, buoyed by a conceptual camaraderie during one of the hardest moments of my life. But within hours of having my twins in my arms, I switched to thinking about the women and families of Namuli.

While I’d been in labor, a message had come in telling me that Legado had a year of our annual budget in grasp, if I just wrote a proposal. As a social entrepreneur without the option of maternity leave, I saw that email less than six hours after it was sent. Thus, over the course of my family’s first day as a foursome, I kept thinking about all that I wanted to make happen in my life and for my family. I also thought about what the families on Namuli had repeatedly told me they wanted for themselves–that their priorities were both their health and the health of their forest, not to mention legal rights to their land, additional teachers and educational opportunities, and more. How was I going to reconcile this all with the new potential funder who wanted only to support the protection of Namuli’s rainforest? It was then I realized I had been building Legado wrong.

Conservation, as it has been traditionally practiced, focuses on protecting a natural resource, often to the exclusion of the actual owners and stewards of that resource. I picked the conservation lane as a climber who’s seen climate change play out in the mountains firsthand and who cares about the health of our planet. But now I was seeing how that lane was too narrow for the people of Namuli. It did not account for their priorities: their livelihoods, education, health, culture, and more.

We needed to shift from providing solutions we thought the Lomwe people needed, to supporting them to reach their own goals instead. This is the difference between mere conservation and climate justice. Legado was not going to be a conservation organization, but instead one that focused on advancing climate justice.

Climate justice is ensuring that those most impacted are at the decision-making table when ideas for addressing the consequences of climate change are being turned into funded plans. It is ensuring that those most impacted determine the best outcome for their needs.

Before I became a mom, I had a plan for parenthood. It did not include twins. Like any parent, having a tiny human to raise in the world means I learn and fail and try every day–only at double the frequency. My family’s needs are constantly evolving. And as I’ve learned to parent in response to this reality, I’ve also pivoted Legado so that it can adapt to the complexities described by communities like Namuli’s, moving from providing top-down solutions to supporting the solutions the communities themselves identify. This approach has also quadrupled the organization’s size and expanded our work to Kenya and Peru.

Communities are reaching out to us because they see an organization that listens first, then supports them in reaching their self-identified priorities. We do not, however, have the slam-dunk answer to conservation. What we do have is a human-centered method for supporting indigenous peoples and local communities at the forefront of climate change, to pursue their diverse priorities for their people and their land.

Today our community partners across Mozambique, Kenya, and Peru have advanced local access to education and healthcare, secured land rights, increased climate-adaptive livelihoods, and integrated community-led priorities in local government plans and budgets. And there’s still more to come.

To truly advance climate justice, we need to consider that the problems people face are complex, messy, and extend beyond sectoral boundaries and strategic cycles that any grant can cover. Being a mom has taught me how to support this work by being human, first.

Majka Burhardt is a professional climber, the founder and executive director of Legado, a mother of twins, and the author of the new book More, a series of real-time letters to her twins as she raised them from birth to age five while running and growing Legado.

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