Surveys show rise in awareness of environmental issues among Colorado Latinos
Eagle County nonprofits work to increase environmental education opportunities, turning this awareness into action
Recently released surveys show a rise in concern about environmental issues among Latinos across the American West. Eagle County nonprofits are working to empower residents to turn this concern into action within their community.
The results of a 2021 survey conducted by the Hispanic Access Foundation showed that 68% of Latinos felt worried about the future of our planet. More specifically, 85% were worried about worsening air quality and smoke, 87% were worried about reduced snow and droughts and 84% were worried about more frequent and more severe wildfires across the region.
Upon further questioning, 69% of Latinos said they believe that forest fires in the western region of the United States have become a bigger problem in the last 10 years.
Two environmental issues made it into the top five policy priorities of Latino adults in a survey of 1,000 Latinos conducted with the help of Voces Unidas de las Montañas in August of last year. The survey was conducted by Voces Unidas and three other Colorado-based organizations — the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), the Colorado Democratic Latino Caucus, and Protégete of Conservation Colorado.
The first environmental issue that the survey identified as a top priority for Colorado Latinos was “taking aggressive steps to address drought and clean water access,” which 90% of Latino adults said they support completely. The second was to impose “new regulations to reduce air, water, and land pollution,” which 89% of respondents supported.
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This level of concern should translate into more and more Eagle County Latinos getting involved in environmental sustainability efforts and programs organized by local nonprofits, but one community leader said there is still much to be done to make that work accessible to all.
“What I have seen is that there is a distance between these organizations and the daily lives of the people,” said Josue Rubio, pastor of Centro Christiano Vida Nueva church in Edwards. “The organizations have good intentions and many of them are providing resources, but the reality is that they are not able to change awareness within our community because that distance still exists.”
For these initiatives to truly take root, organizations will need to understand the day-to-day realities of the residents they are trying to reach, Rubio said in an interview with the Vail Daily translated from Spanish to English.
Eagle County Latinos “have to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week, so how can we ask them to have more environmental awareness or ask that they visit a museum or spend time by the river?” Rubio said.
“We need more leaders who don’t just give resources, but who walk alongside the people,” he said. “Money alone will not fix this, we need to walk together…”
Rubio is the president and founder of Vida Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to “to impact lives, mentor my community and help them enjoy the future,” Rubio said in a 2020 interview with the Vail Daily.
He has been working with the Hispanic Access Foundation over the last two years to try to create more awareness within the local Latino community around the importance of caring for local waterways like the Eagle River, he said. His church plans community clean-up days along the riverbanks, along Interstate 70 and in various neighborhoods within the county, Rubio said.
Every year, in April or May, the church and Vida Foundation lead a “spring clean” in the Eagle River Village Mobile Home Park in Edwards, Rubio said. They cover the cost of dumpsters with the help of Trinity Recycling so that families can get rid of garbage and larger recyclable items as some low-income neighborhoods, especially those in Edwards, lack access to recycling services.
The Hispanic Access Foundation is a nonprofit agency that seeks to improve the lives of Spanish speakers by breaking down barriers and elevating the voices of Latino leaders. This includes providing education and training as well as scholarship opportunities and advocacy on issues ranging from the environment to health care.
The foundation recently released the results of the 12th Annual Conservation Survey conducted through phone interviews of voters in communities across the western United States, including Eagle County.
The survey, conducted over the month of January 2021, showed an increased level of concern about environmental issues compared to previous editions of the survey. The group included 857 voters of color.
The Hispanic Access Foundation separated data from Latino voters from the rest of the survey results to show why the local Latino community should make their voices heard on environmental legislation being considered at the state and federal levels, according to a recent press release.
The report can also serve as a document for legislators to reference in accurately representing and advocating for the priorities of their Latino constituents, representatives of the organization said in a virtual press conference held on Feb. 22.
About 66% of Latinos surveyed either said that climate change is a grave issue that we should respond to immediately or acknowledged that it is occurring and that something should be done, according to the results.
“…There are people who want to understand, people who are already taking the initiative to be aware, but they are very isolated because they don’t have opportunities to learn,” Rubio said of Eagle County Latinos.
“We need to have empathy for the people we are trying to serve,” he said. “If we don’t have empathy, with all due respect, a program dictated by some CEO from a desk is not going to work.”
The Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement or EVOM, a project of Walking Mountains Science Center, represents one opportunity to learn. And EVOM Coordinator Renata Araujo tries to spend more time outdoors than she does at her desk.
“We want to make sure that everybody in Eagle County has equitable access to the outdoors,” Araujo said. “So, we offer those opportunities for people to feel welcome in the outdoors, for them to learn how to be prepared to go on a hike or to do other outdoor sports so they will become stewards of the environment.”
As Rubio pointed out, Eagle County Latinos are more likely to face barriers in engaging in outdoor activities than other residents such as long work days and financial limitations, Araujo said. Most signs and trail maps provided by the National Forest Service are only written in English so those who only speak Spanish cannot understand and may miss out on important safety information.
The Eagle County Open Space Program is starting to change this by adding bilingual signs to lands managed by the county, Araujo said.
Beyond this, many local Latinos did not grow up with as many opportunities to ski, snowboard, climb, mountain bike or hike so they may not know what kind of gear to bring or where to begin, she said. With EVOM, Araujo and her partners supply the gear and the knowledge so that participants can just focus on having a good time.
Of the Latinos surveyed by the Hispanic Access Foundation, 70% said that publicly owned outdoor recreation areas like state and national parks help support the economy. But one in four of them said they had only visited said areas one or two times in the preceding year.
When Latino respondents were asked about the kinds of activities they engage in when they get active outside, the largest percentage (75%) answered hiking/running/walking.
About 87% of Latinos said they would support an effort to have 30% of the country’s land and water protected through conservation by 2030. About 95% of Colorado Latinos supported the protection of public lands in areas like the Dolores Canyon in the southwest portion of the state, which contains habitats essential to preserving Colorado’s biodiversity.
EVOM is a relatively new project but has experienced significant growth in the number of participants that come — and, as a result, the number of programs it is able to offer — over the last few years, Araujo said.
In the first year of the program, there were 806 participants across 52 programs offered, she said. The next year saw a dip with 502 participants (40 programs) followed by a large spike of 1,140 participants (107 programs) the following year. In this most recent season of programming, the project has already worked with 972 participants (64 programs) and the season extends until the end of June, Araujo said.
Araujo earned a degree in biology back home in Brazil before studying plant and wildlife ecology here in the United States, so she is especially passionate about providing better access to environmental education, she said.
“When I go out on hikes by myself, I like to understand a little bit more about where I’m walking, what I’m seeing, you know, the connections between the animals and plants that I’m seeing. …It’s just like something that enriches my experiences outdoors and I want to do the same for the families that work with,” Araujo said.
As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic allows, Araujo said she tries to go into neighborhoods as much as possible to “walk alongside the people,” as Rubio put it, knocking on doors and spreading the word about EVOM. She also partners with local nonprofits like The Community Market, the valley’s food bank, and the MIRA Bus, a traveling RV that offers public health resources to low-income residents.
“Our community, our participants, actually are the best outreach because they talk to their friends and then invite their friends to come to our events,” Araujo said.
The level of discussion of environmental issues while EVOM participants are hiking, rafting, or snowshoeing really depends on the agency the program is partnering with for the event, Araujo said. When environmentalists with Walking Mountains Science Center are leading a hike, for example, there is a lot of discussion of things like environmental degradation or climate change.
Latino residents express frustration over the lack of recycling in some areas as well as concerns about bears in neighborhoods, which sometimes comes as a result of the lack of waste diversion and disposal infrastructure, Araujo said. She has also heard comments about litter around various neighborhoods.
“We talk a little bit about wildlife closures, trail closures for the wildlife, and try to bring more awareness to the community about it,” Araujo said.
EVOM also hosts community clean-up days, she said. “People are very grateful when they get to participate in those activities to clean the area or different neighborhoods in the valley.”
While Araujo said she could not speak to the survey results specifically, she has been blown away by the response to EVOM’s programming as a rapidly increasing number of parents feel empowered to take their children hiking or snowshoeing with the program when in the past they may have just stayed at home.
“I see a big change in the community and in the people that have come to many activities with us,” she said.
Speaking of access, 82% of Latinos surveyed by the Hispanic Access Foundation voiced their support for allocating funds to guarantee that more communities, especially those that have historically lacked access, have close and safe access to more parks and natural areas.
Latinos across the West were especially supportive of environmental measures that also support the economy and local workers. For example, a whopping 92% of Latinos supported an idea to address the backlog of infrastructure repairs, reduce forest fires and protect natural resources in National Parks by providing jobs and training to unemployed people.
Latino voters who participated in the survey were not as supportive of actions related to sustainability or conservation that could potentially disrupt the economy.
For example, voters were informed that oil and gas companies are currently renting about 25 million acres of public lands from the United States government for the purpose of extracting raw materials, and then asked what they believe the future of this kind of development should be. Only 15% of Latino voters said they thought this should be stopped entirely, 60% advocated for strict limits and 24% said these kinds of operations should be expanded. Even these answers, though, measured Latinos as being more environmentally conscious than white voters, 14% of whom said it should stop while 54% advocated for strict limits and 30% for expansion.
Support was higher among Latino voters when it came to increasing tariffs placed on oil and gas companies or requiring them to fund environmental restoration projects after the extraction of raw materials, according to the survey results.
A strong 83% of Latinos supported gradually transitioning the United States economy to be powered by 100% renewable energy like wind or solar, with solar gaining the most support among respondents.
Araujo said she hears families who have been living in the valley for a while talk about how the area has been receiving less and less snow, or about the increasing severity of wildfires that result in poor air quality.
“Our community, yes, they are worried about those things for sure and they do talk a little bit about climate change,” Araujo said.
When the Grizzly Creek Fire approached Dotsero, which is made up of about 900 predominately Latino residents, and nearly caused an evacuation of the area, Rubio and his congregation were there to help, he said. They got to work right away, preparing to relocate the six or seven Dotsero families that belonged to the church into the homes of other congregation members.
This experience was a very clear example of how environmental disasters like wildfires have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color, who may be less prepared to withstand financial impacts. Many local Latinos immigrated to Eagle County from other countries and, thus, are also less likely to have a strong support system in the valley, Rubio said.
“All of the problems that come with climate change, in this case, wildfires, affect us all very personally to the extent of thinking, ‘Where do I go?’” he said. “Imagine if someone here did not have a church to go to, what would happen? … For Latinos, our churches often have to be kind of like the front line.”
EVOM works primarily with families, so increasing awareness about issues like climate change has direct implications for the future of our valley, Araujo said.
“We don’t know if, in that kid, we created an interest about it and then in the future (they) may graduate or go to school to do something about it and work to mitigate those problems,” she said.
“Everyone in our community has a responsibility,” Rubio said. “We want to live in community with one another and we want to live well. Taking care of the river and the forests — these spaces that are irreplaceable — is part of that.”
Anyone who wants to learn more about EVOM can visit walkingmountains.org/eagle-valley-outdoor-movement-evom/ or email Araujo at email@example.com.
Rubio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com