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In the Spotlight: Kerry Bowman

Bioethicist talks to The Varsity about conservation efforts, Amazon forest fires, Indigenous rights
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Bowman’s research spans from issues of human rights to environmental concerns. courtesy of U OF T NEWS/KERRY BOWMAN
Bowman’s research spans from issues of human rights to environmental concerns. courtesy of U OF T NEWS/KERRY BOWMAN

“Moved and horrified” is how Dr. Kerry Bowman described himself when he found that he was the only Canadian able to report from the Amazon rainforest fires in August. Now, he is trying to raise awareness for the situation with his research, arguing for protecting Indigenous land to promote both human rights and climate protection. Currently, Bowman teaches in the human biology department at U of T, though he is also cross-appointed at the School of the Environment.

Bowman’s work has seemingly pulled him in all directions, from Toronto to the Amazon to the Congo, and his research has attempted to put human well-being at the forefront of various issues, whether the backdrop is a Toronto hospital or the Amazon rainforest.

Along with his environmental work, Bowman worked for many years as a clinical bioethicist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and he still consults as a bioethicist.

Bowman wrote his PhD on cultural differences in bioethics, focusing on Chinese-Canadian attitudes toward end-of-life treatment. “We all acknowledge them, and then we tend to ignore them,” Bowman said of the prevailing attitude about cultural differences.

A lot has changed throughout Bowman’s career in bioethics. “I really watched the whole movement of the care of dying people move from completely supportive care to now being in a position where people, if they meet the criteria, could say, ‘in fact, I want to hasten my death’ and they would be allowed to do it. So in my working life, I’ve seen that. I’ve been a part of it.”

But before he was bioethicist or social worker, Bowman started his environmental work studying the behaviour of the orangutan, a project he volunteered on while traveling around the world in his twenties. He said that he learned through his work with great apes that “none of this is relevant if you do not factor in the human realities of the environments that any animals or ecosystems live within. And that the key to [a] healthy environment is almost always human-based.”

Bowman cites renowned primatologist Jane Goodall as an inspiration and a friend. “She really, really taught me just how much an individual can do.” Goodall also taught him that when dealing with global issues like the climate crisis, “you’ve actually really got to get out and talk to everybody… you’ve got to go way beyond academic journals.”

The connection between environmental and human rights is the line of Bowman’s work in the Amazon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During the most recent war in the DRC, Bowman witnessed how the guards at Kahuzi Biega National Park remained dedicated to protecting the land. “I was very moved by the fact that people really, really stuck to the protection of the park, knowing that it matters to their survival as well as everything else. Even in war conditions.”

Now, the Canadian Ape Alliance, founded by Bowman, works to fund an environmentally-focused school for children in the region. Many of these children will follow in their parents’ footsteps and work in the park themselves, on the front lines of protecting the critically-endangered eastern lowland gorilla.

Bowman had to consider the ethics of cultural differences as he worked to ensure equitable access to the environmental school for three groups that are often excluded: girls, those with albinism, and the subjugated Pygmy people.

Indigenous people are also at the centre of Bowman’s work in the Amazon. For the past eight years, he has been studying the benefits of protecting Indigenous land in the Amazon region. Protecting this land deters deforestation and promotes biodiversity. “What I’m really interested in is the fact that you can create essentially a climate shield and again, climate health, by protecting large areas of the Amazon forest [and] by protecting Indigenous people.”

Currently, he wants to raise awareness of the “profound human rights issue” occurring in Brazil, with Indigenous people and environmental activists being targeted. Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a protector of Indigenous land and a colleague of Dr. Bowman’s, was assassinated earlier this month.

Explaining that much of the rise of Brazil’s exploitative attitude toward the Amazon is due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Bowman called for greater intervention of the international community. “He’s really creating a climate where the laws of the nation — the nation being in Brazil — are not being adhered to,” said Bowman.

For combatting a problem such as the climate crisis, Bowman criticized the lack of a global infrastructure for decision-making. Bowman argued that “we have a heightened responsibility in wealthy Western nations like Canada to do something,” as those who are the most disadvantaged will continue to experience the worst effects of the climate crisis. Fires are set every year to clear land for other uses, although 2019 saw the highest number of Amazon fires in the past couple of years. The fires are a risk to the whole ecosystem, but the Indigenous people who live in the Amazon are particularly at risk.

“I would say as Canadians, we’re struggling in this country to figure out our own very dark history with Indigenous people,” Bowman said. “But what we have now going on in Brazil is this massive violation. And so for us to be silent on something like this, I would argue we’ve made no progress since colonial times because what’s happening in Brazil is no different than what occurred here.”

Looking into the future, Bowman said that he is inspired by the current climate strikes, calling it “just the beginning.”

“I think the university really has to set policies that are environmentally sound with consultation with its students and with the public. The time is here.”

What he’s learned from his own often-multidisciplinary work is that there is no single approach to any subject. “I would say to students that nobody should be leaning away from doing, things like environmental work or even bioethical work because they don’t think they have the right qualifications. These are complex problems and everyone is needed.”