Vanessa Chavarriaga, environmental sociologist

Meet Vanessa Chavarriaga, an environmental sociologist and Colombiana whose work focuses on the intersection of people and nature. Words and photos by Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer.

The first time I met Vanessa Chavarriaga, we were both sitting in a circle of beautiful melanin-kissed folx. She was opening up vulnerably about her journey in cultural identity, her passion for advocacy and the outdoors, and then shared a deep affinity for bears—an affection that I also hold. That was it, it was the hook, line, and sinker I needed to immediately know we were meant to be friends.

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We met in Montana and Wyoming, and I couldn’t have imagined a better landscape to experience nature through her eyes. Decorated with grizzly paw prints, with each step I can feel that she’s at peace here, aware of the bear’s presence and full of respect for their home.

As an environmental sociologist, she studies the interactions between societies and their natural environment. It’s a relatively new “area of inquiry that emerged largely in response to increased societal recognition of the seriousness of environmental problems.”

Over the days we spent together, Vanessa and I hiked our way through a field of wildflowers, ran (carefully and respectfully) with moose, and chatted away our hours through Yellowstone National Park, the ancestral lands of the Crow, Eastern and Northern Shoshone, Bannock, Tukudeka, Blackfeet, and many others. Our conversation was interrupted every so often with bison sightings and awe at how beautiful the landscape before us was.

Vanessa in her element.

Vanessa shared one of her most personal possessions with me, her story. Her passion for the grizzlies and environmental advocacy ignited a curiosity within me to learn, engage, share and be a moving part within my own environment and community. There is power in us owning our stories, then passing it along—and that was contagious.

Tell me about yourself. How does your culture affect how you see the world?

VANESSA CHAVARRIAGA: Being a Colombian immigrant means seeing everything twice: once through the American lens and once through the eyes of my ancestors and my culture. This puts me in a unique position where I can question our social and cultural constructs because I do not identify with one culture completely.

I have always been passionate about the outdoors and our relationships with the outdoors. My Colombian culture experiences the outdoors quite differently than the American culture I’m surrounded with daily. This enables me to see that there are better ways for us to interact with the outdoors—ways that honor and respect nature and bring more joy to us.

Treading lightly in the Hurricane Verge in Aragon.

Vanessa wears the Hurricane Verge in Aragon.

What does a typical day in the life of an environmental sociologist look like?

VANESSA: An environmental sociologist studies the intersection between people and nature. I critically analyze and question our relationships to nature and try to improve them for everyone. Some of my work includes grizzly bear conflict mitigation, Indigenous food sovereignty and storytelling, and open-access outdoor education.

How is your work central to your identity?

VANESSA: My career is central to my identity because it represents my passions for advocacy and the disruption of unhealthy norms. It represents my curiosity and my need to question everything. I am a big believer in creating social change through our words and actions. We are capable of doing this every day and with every interaction we have.

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Tell us more about your work involving close observation of grizzly bears. What attracted you to these creatures and what have you learned from them?

VANESSA: Grizzly bears are beautiful, charismatic animals. They are powerful and gentle and full of grace; I learn from them through every interaction I have with them. Sometimes they teach how to be a good mother, other times they teach how to hold power without malice, and yet other times they teach me how to play. I’ve watched them clear a hillside huckleberry patch without disturbing it, balance on a rock before leaping to grab a salmon, and float in the Yellowstone River on a hot summer day.

Human social systems have threatened their existence for three hundred years and threaten their persistence; the conditions they evolved and thrived in are changing too quickly.

Grizzly bears are a model for people: we could live sustainably, joyfully, even gratuitously without consuming, extracting, or destroying. Bears are our teachers.

Vanessa in her element.

Can you share with us any information about the Indigenous people that inhabited and stewarded (and still do) these lands?

VANESSA: During a 1870 “discovery expedition” of the ancestral lands of the Crow and Eastern and Northern Shoshone, as well as many others (lands now known as Yellowstone National Park), the Washburn party ran into a large group of Crow hunters. The party found many seasonal camps of the Bannock and Shoshone, and even used their well established trails to get around. However, in their reports, the Washburn party stated they found only “ancient remnants of vanished Indians.” In reality, Yellowstone held and continues to hold immeasurable value to Indigenous people. These lands are a place for food, medicine, community, celebration, and much more.

This blatant erasure fits the dominant narrative of wilderness: a place that is not suitable for humans, a place that is untouched, a place that is ready to be conquered. While I am extremely grateful for the conservation of Yellowstone and other public lands, I’m also aware of the harmful legacy the ideologies of wilderness have left us with. It’s troubling to me how often we see public lands as playgrounds for our exploration and exploitation. It’s troubling how often we try to dominate these spaces and control access to them. What troubles me the most is how disconnected we are from the land; how we’ve forgotten to listen.

Foraging for mushrooms in Yellowstone National Park.

How has nature contributed and/or shaped your own personal cultural healing?

VANESSA: Nature is a place where I can go and be unapologetically myself. No one demands to know who I am, where I’m from, or what I’m doing. It is one of the few places I go where I do not feel policed. It feels like a breath of fresh air every time I step on a trail.

Exploring national parks in the Hurricane Verge.

How do you use this career to give back to your cultural self and the lands you’ve spent time on and learned from?

VANESSA: There is a narrative of scarcity written in colonial times and echoed in today’s overdevelopment, gatekeeping, and private property obsessions. If we could look beyond our current relationships with nature, we would see restoration and revival: we would see abundance. The Indigenous people here survived countless iterations of betrayal and genocide; the bears and wolves survived similar oppression; the water too, and the land.

They are all still here, and these survivors hold the knowledge we can use to remake the world and move beyond capitalism, consumption, domination, and extraction. Those ills are visible here too, and they tell a tale of scarcity. But their story cannot endure, and perhaps nowhere else is there such a readily available counterstory of abundance. The relatively intact ecosystems of Wyoming and Montana provide the blueprint, the way forward. When I start to despair for our world and our future, their story reminds me to hope. In some important ways, the revolution has to start here, and has started here.

Vanessa tending to gardens.
Vanessa compares her foot to a bear paw print.

Do you see a path towards environmental healing? What do you think that could look like moving forward, and what is needed to make that happen?

VANESSA: A path toward environmental healing includes healing ourselves. Many people fail to understand that by taking care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbors, we are taking care of the environment. This is because we are not separate from our environment. Our human and non-human communities must heal simultaneously. I believe in going against lessons of scarcity and alienation that society has taught us and embracing abundance instead—like uplifting Indigenous leadership and investing in reciprocal relationships with the earth.

Any advice for those that want to pursue a career in environmental sociology and get involved in environmental advocacy (big or small)?

VANESSA: If you want to get involved in environmental sociology, the odds are you are already practicing it! We need to expand our ideas of what environmentalism is, who belongs, and how we practice it. Environmentalism is no longer just about university lectures or hundred page reports. Environmentalism includes making coffee for your abuela, or cooking chilaquiles for your friends. Environmentalism includes abolishing deportation and prisons. Environmentalism includes self-preservation and joy. If you feel that you don’t yet belong in this space, I challenge you to disrupt that narrative and participate anyway. This is how we create real change.

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