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Indigenous science: ancestral knowledge could help protect the planet

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Victor Manuel Hernandez thinks he wouldn’t be alive today without a banana tree. As a 14-year-old resistance fighter during the civil war in the 1970s El Salvador, he hid under the lush green fronds of the tree when the army attacked his camp. He had been shot and a bomb fell directly over his head. But as he remembers, the bomb landed in the leaves of the banana tree, which he believes kept him from igniting – protecting him from death.

Once the attack was over, he gathered the strength to break a branch of the tree, which he used as a crutch to travel to neighboring Guatemala for help. “Nature has not only protected me, he says in Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, a new book written by her daughter Jessica Hernandez, an indigenous Maya Ch’orti and Binnizá-Zapotec environmental scientist. “It saved my life”

“Nature protects us as long as we protect nature”, writes Hernandez, who is now a 31-year-old postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington. “Ancestral knowledge has been maintained in our communities,†she added during an interview. “It is a valid form of knowledge which is not necessarily validated by Western channels, such as publications and books.” This kind of knowledge forms the basis of Indigenous science, says Hernandez, which is crucial in caring for the Earth.

Indigenous peoples and local communities manage much more of the planet than protected areas such as national parks, and around 80 percent of the diversity of species known to live on Earth are found on lands owned or managed by these groups. This is despite centuries of genocide, racism, and what Hernandez and other academics and activists call settler colonialism – the intentional displacement and erasure of indigenous peoples by outsiders.

“Conservation continues to teach scientists that scientific knowledge is more valuable than indigenous knowledge,†writes Hernandez. This attitude ignores a staggering variety of ideas in Indigenous communities, medicinal knowledge of plants and animals in the Amazon for coral reef conservation in Australia prescribed burning practices in the West.

I recently spoke with Hernandez about the potential of Indigenous science to change the way we think about – and do – conservation, and the work Western conservationists need to do to tackle inequality and discrimination on the ground. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How Conservation Excludes Indigenous Science

Sarah sax

When did you first realize that the way you perceive your relationship with the environment was different from the mainstream western view?

Jessica hernandez

From elementary school. When I sat with my parents, they told me stories about plants as if they were our parents. we are taught [in school] on the plant cycle, the water cycle, all these life cycles which never include humans in the picture. Look at the life cycle of a fish and you see the eggs all the way to an adult fish, but never the interconnections with humans. The way Western science is taught, even from Kindergarten to Grade 12, is that we are always separate from nature and nature is its own thing.

Sarah sax

As you pointed out at the beginning of the book, many indigenous languages ​​do not have a word for conservation and instead use words like “healing†or “care for themâ€. How do these differences manifest themselves in practice?

Jessica hernandez

When we look at conservation, we are always trying to save one thing. We try to save a tree, and then we miss the whole forest.

In reality, conservation should be more holistic. Often times the reason we have endangered species and continue to see the loss of ecosystems is that there are so many driving factors that destroy these landscapes. Conservation should start to focus on the big picture, which is healing.

Sarah sax

You talk about the difficulties of trying to integrate aboriginal science into academia. What are some of the tensions that exist in including more indigenous studies in Western conservation science?

Jessica hernandez

When you are the first Aboriginal in certain areas [of study], you have to experience these things to start breaking those glass ceilings that prevent the integration of Indigenous science.

The story that is written about us is not necessarily from a positive point of view. It comes from the anthropological prism. Anthropology can provide a positive perspective, but anthropology at the time was more like “We study these people who are not civilized, who are kind of savages.” He carries this stereotype of the ‘good ecological savage’, where indigenous peoples are these mythical creatures in harmony with nature – not necessarily people who hold knowledge or who can also adapt to their surroundings as we do today. .

Sarah sax

You devote a chapter to the idea of ​​”eco-colonialism” and how it created this lasting negative impact on our environment. What does this term mean and how does it relate to the ways in which Indigenous science has continued to be devalued?

During the 1960s and 1970s, Native Americans joined in political activism inspired by the African American civil rights movement. The protest was about violations of tribal fishing rights along the Columbia River in Washington state.
Corbis via Getty Images

Jessica hernandez

We always focus on the impacts colonialism had on indigenous peoples, but not necessarily on the impacts it also had on our animal or plant species.

Look at Washington state and the salmon. We know that the tribes had to fight for their right to fish. [In a 1970s court case, United States v. Washington, Judge George Boldt ruled that tribes were entitled to half of harvestable salmon under 19th-century treaties. The decision sparked a backlash from non-Native fishers.] Ecocolonialism forgets to include that indigenous science, or traditional ecological knowledge, that the tribes of Washington state have to protect salmon, and continues to focus on the western conservation lens that ignores the situation in its own right. together.

What really impacts salmon holistically? [Western conservation scientists] we focus on urbanization, which is one of the factors that affect salmon, but we don’t focus on how to mitigate those impacts. They focus on culverts [tunnels that drain water from one side of a road to the other and can be difficult for salmon to navigate], but we don’t necessarily focus on things like ocean acidification and other toxins that are released into the oceans.

Salmon are like a spiritual parent of the coastal tribes. It’s a key cultural species as opposed to what recreational fishing teaches us: we catch fish for consumption, but we don’t really have that special connection or that. ceremony to catch the fish. So, in a way, ecocolonialism also somewhat pits native fishermen against recreational fishermen.

Charting the way forward for Indigenous science

Sarah sax

How do you start to make room to take indigenous knowledge seriously and act on it, within the constraints that exist in conservation science today?

Jessica hernandez

Tackling the real story is one way for Western environmentalists to begin to dismantle these layers. For example, the The Sierra Club starts to count with the story on which it was founded. There is a lot of anti-Blackness and racism in her. [“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,†Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote in a 2020 blog post outlining the group’s racist roots.]

As Western environmentalists begin to understand the real story, which is sometimes uncomfortable because we are part of a system that has this really harmful and violent story – especially against people of color and, in this case, people. indigenous people – then we can begin to understand what actions we can take.

Sarah sax

Your book reminds me Sweetgrass braiding by Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, in that your own lived experience – and that of your community – is very much present. Why is it important to include this when talking about indigenous science and conservation?

Jessica hernandez

When we look at how to do conservation or how to heal our environments, we tend to forget that indigenous peoples have adapt to all these changes. Our communities have adapted to colonization. We are adapting to climate change because the climate is already having an impact on our communities.

One of the things I wanted to include was the lived experiences of indigenous peoples from different frontiers of colonization. Settlement colonialism in the United States is different from the settlement colonialism rooted in Mexico or Central America. We tend to forget that many indigenous peoples, even in the United States, are displaced within their reserves or to cities. They must also adapt their relationship to their environment.

I also wanted to share that bananas are not native species of our lands [in the Americas]. The elders taught me that invasive species are displaced relatives in the sense that they have been displaced from their ancestral lands. But they are still parents because they still have a spirit.

Sarah sax

How do you see Indigenous science fitting into larger initiatives to heal the planet?

Jessica hernandez

One of the things I notice is that the Biden-Harris administration is trying to integrate traditional ecological knowledge into environmental policies. [In November 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum that recognized Indigenous science and formed an interagency working group that aims to build on it.] Obviously, a presidential memorandum does not have as much legal power. So I hope that this builds a discourse where it can be passed into bills by the Senate or the House, and go through this judicial process so that it has more weight.

I also see more Native Americans or Aboriginals in this administration, like Deb Haaland as Home Secretary. And then we have the First Indigenous Director of National Parks [Charles “Chuck†Sams III, a Umatilla leader].

One of the ways we can begin to fight the invalidation of Indigenous science is to integrate it into the curriculum. I was able to teach an Introduction to Climate Science in the last term and I also integrated Indigenous Science. So, students were not necessarily just learning Western science; they were also learning native science.

We talked about Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women it goes and how it goes connected to our environment. We read case studies showing that when Indigenous women are given land, their whole community thrives more than when a man receives the land.

It’s like peeling off those layers of the onion to get to the root. In fact, we heal our landscapes and we heal ourselves as people.

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