The Case of the Missing Trees

Jo Caraballo, Planet Women’s Speak for the Future Fellow, traces how early experiences with environmental racism led her here.

Artwork: “we need more grass in the city” by Jo Caraballo (2022)

My love for green spaces was cultivated before I was even conscious of it, mostly because they were something I desperately yearned for. My early childhood was shaped by grey cement, grey buildings, grey plumes of smoke emanating from a nearby incinerator. Grey, grey, grey. City infrastructure can be monotonously dull that way.

Grey structures aside, Camden, New Jersey is a beautiful and vibrant city from the murals to the people. But in the early 2000s, we had very few trees. It’s still a problem today, with the city’s canopy coverage only at ten percent in 2016, an unhealthy low. When we started learning about plants at school, my second grade teacher taught us that trees create oxygen through a cool process called photosynthesis. Afterwards, I remember dragging my feet on the school bus to head home, looking down on our bare streets terrified. Trees help us breathe and there were none around. My seven-year-old brain was trying to figure out how I was still alive.

Naturally, I was always excited to travel outside of the city, where everything was less grey and there was more (better smelling) air. These opportunities usually only came my way when it was time for Christian summer camp in the Poconos, or a rare field trip. I never wanted those outings to end. And it wasn’t just about the trees. I enjoyed feeling like I could fall and be caught by the Earth’s cushion: grass. Hitting the concrete slabs we called our playgrounds and front yards were less forgiving.

I picked up on the fact that there was a barrier between myself and nature, something I felt inherently connected to. I didn’t understand why this barrier seemed to only exist in my city, but I could sense the luxuries of nature were reserved for other people. It didn’t take me long to conclude that those ‘other’ people were wealthy and white- something the residents of Camden were not. I grew resentful of those who had this privilege because it seemed to me, they were hoarding all the trees.

Pictured: Seven-year-old Jo and her younger brother Kyle.

Through experience and utilizing my new-found comprehension skills, I began to understand that this wasn’t accidental, it was by design. Little did I know, the case of the missing trees was just a tip of the iceberg. New Jersey is one of the most racially segregated states in America, with Camden being no exception to that rule. It’s a predominantly Black and Latinx town that the state offers up as its industrial dumping ground.

I was so busy worried about where all the trees had gone, I was overlooking the things unseen. I had never even considered if our water was clean. I didn’t realize I was mistaking toxic smog for grey clouds. When the air began to reek of garbage and waste, it never crossed my mind that our city was hosting the entire county’s sewage plant and trash incinerator. In fact, the true severity of the situation didn’t sink in until after I transferred schools to the suburbs. It was at my new school that my hometown became a case study for all things unhealthy.

In my move to Runnemede, a predominantly white town, I got to have trees right outside my door. The excitement wore off quick when I realized the trade off would be exorbitant amounts of in-your-face racism and classism. It turned out I was a bit ahead of my classmates when I transferred, so I was placed into a ‘gifted’ program. The teacher who ran this program was a self-certified tree-hugger, so the focus was all things global warming and animal advocacy. Her weekly classes fed my brain’s insatiable curiosity. And as the new girl who was already worried about the trees, I was eating good. We learned all about different local environmental concerns, and Camden came up frequently. My questions were finally getting answers… some of which I wasn’t ready to hear.

Artwork: Mural in Camden, NJ. “I saw a city invincible” by Cesar Viveros (2003)

When I applied for a position at Planet Women, I was excited for an opportunity to deepen my understanding of the conservation field, while contributing in the best ways I can. I’ve spent so much of my life concerned with the ongoing climate crisis, primarily driven by my love for the Black and Indigenous communities it affects so disproportionately. So stumbling across Planet Women, I was very intrigued by their mission to diversify the conservation landscape by supporting women of color in the field. The stars were aligning!

It never crossed my mind that my deep love for media production, my community and environmental science would all converge in this way. Little ol’ Jo, back when she went by Joce, couldn’t have imagined this possibility. I’m so thrilled to research, explore and cover a wide variety of narratives as Planet Woman’s inaugural Speak For The Future fellow. To kick off my first piece of writing, I couldn’t help but think back to the seeds of thought that led me here. My passion for my community and my love of trees has never wavered. It’s only grown alongside my other interests.

During Black History Month, I’ll be highlighting predominantly Black cities and celebrating Black community organizers for their environmental contributions. Starting with Camden was an easy choice for me, being that it’s my hometown. Their environmental concerns have been ignored and exacerbated for decades, a common reality for Black and Latinx cities in America. My story is only one of millions.

My thirst for answers has never quite been quenched, despite me solving the case of the missing trees. The culprits? Colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and the patriarchy. They are the four horsemen of this apocalypse. We can’t tackle the climate crisis without battling those systems first.

Jo Caraballo is Planet Women’s inaugural Speak for the Future Fellow. Her focus is on environmental issues with an emphasis on how gender, race, class and other marginalizations play a role in conservation. A true lover of this planet and its inhabitants, she recognizes the urgency and passion that’s necessary in cultivating impactful change. Read Jo’s full bio here. Follow her writing about Black History Month and much more on Planet Women’s Instagram and Facebook.

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