The Value of Indigenous Wisdom in Protecting the Environment

Share this story

With an early bushfire season that’s seen Australia’s bushland ablaze like we’ve never seen before, there’s been discussion about using aboriginal burning practices to control the fires. This is but one example of how indigenous wisdom is being called upon to help restore the land destroyed by global warming.

Words by Ella Liascos

Photography by Maximillian Williams

In his 2014 book Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe argued that Aboriginal Australians weren’t hunter-gatherers, but astute land managers. He backs up his standpoint with evidence from old texts and paintings, depicting a manicured Australian scene of open grassland. He believes his ancestors were sowing, harvesting and storing, as well as burning the land to stave off catastrophic fires. In modern Australia, we’ve left the landscape wild. Indigenous leaders have been warning for years that failing to manage the land properly, will put the country at risk of unmanageable fires that result in a mass loss of wildlife and lowered air quality like we’ve seen in Sydney. 

Among the leaders that warned of catastrophe is ‘fire practitioner’ Victor Steffenson, who predicted the early fire season a year before while teaching a fire workshop in Queensland. With an unprecedented bushfire season that’s cloaked Sydney in hazardous smoke, this ancient knowledge has begun making its way into political discussion. Indigenous leaders like Victor are calling on a new workforce of ‘fire practitioners,’ to manage the land and reduce the risk of fires. “Traditional fire practice is the answer to preparing our land and our community for climate change,” Steffenson told the ABC. “When traditional fire practice is applied properly, native plants return and flourish,  while weeds and pests are naturally decreased. The ecosystem becomes balanced, beautiful, and most importantly — a safe place to live.” 

“The ability to read intricate cues in nature can predict transitions in the seasons where meteorologists can’t.”

An intimate knowledge of the natural world and a sense of stewardship, is a trait shared by most indigenous cultures. Environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, has spent the last decade convincing international climate change policymakers, to pay attention to this wisdom. While working with meteorological experts in her community in Chad, she recalls that the local women predicted heavy rainfall after seeing insects carry their eggs down to their nests. The meteorologists looked at the cloudless sky in disbelief, until a few hours later it was bucketing rain. This encounter led to a dialogue between the meteorologists and locals to discuss ways they could exchange their knowledge. 

By observing trees, flowers and animal behaviour, Hindou’s community are able to predict which season it is, informing how best to plant crops. “In Chad, our calendars have different seasons that are based on the ecosystem” shares Hindou. “Those living in drier areas, near the desert, have five seasons. Greener areas have seven seasons.” This ability to read intricate cues in nature can predict transitions in the seasons where meteorologists can’t. “We found the science alone can sometimes be limited because they only consider physical aspects, like clouds, but at the community level we observe physical and ecological indicators.”

While Chad designed their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Hindou successfully argued for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in Chad’s final agenda.  Her community is now working with meteorologists from the state, combining traditional and scientific knowledge to make climate policy change at a national level. 

With many indigenous communities still surviving directly off the land, they’re among the first to face the impacts of climate change. Already tending to be marginalised economically and politically, this makes them ever more vulnerable to the increasing loss of land to natural disasters. In the Arctic region, the Circumpolar community rely on the increasingly depleting populations of polar bears, walrus and seals for their food source. As the ice they hunt on melts and the weather becomes harder to predict, food security and safety is becoming an increasing challenge. The same situation is happening in the Amazon. Deforestation is contributing to climate change, making it harder for indigenous tribes to predict the weather to maintain a reliable food source. 

The marginalisation of indigenous communities and their strong connection to the land, has resulted in more Indigenous-lead climate change initiatives around the world. The Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network in Australia and Earth Guardians in the United States, are two organisations spreading the message that Indigenous people need to be at the helm of this movement; not only because they’re more vulnerable to climate change, but because they’ve successfully safeguarded the planet for over 40,000 years. 

Youth director of the Earth Guardians Xiutezcatl Martinez, has been spreading this message since he was 6 years old. He tells YP Exclusive that “We see things differently. [Greta], coming from a wealthy European country, there are a lot of things missing from her language, like how [the climate crisis] unequally affects different people, predominantly people of colour,” he says. From the Nahuatl speaking Mexican people of the Valley of Mexico, Xiutezcatl attributes his drive to protect the environment with his Indigenous background and their innate sense of responsibility and respect for the land. “I am this way because of my ancestors” he says. “We honour them and future generations by thinking of more than just ourselves.” 

“Indigenous communities can teach us a lot about resilience.”

Surviving and adapting through natural disasters and droughts for millenia, indigenous communities can teach us a lot about resilience. Already displaying creative solutions to the rapidly changing climate, villagers in Bangladesh have created floating vegetable gardens to provide sustenance during floods, while communities in Vietnam are planting dense mangroves to help diffuse tropical storm waves. 

Combining traditional knowledge and new technologies, Indigenous groups are also beginning to focus on renewable energy as an economic opportunity. The Kayenta Solar Project on the Navajo Nation is the largest tribally owned renewable power plant, generating enough power for 18,000 homes on Navajo Lands. Many indigenous territories have a tremendous capacity for providing wind and solar resources. If well executed, renewable energy projects can create economic opportunities for indigenous people, addressing both social and environmental issues. 

“Policy makers are looking at a small piece of the puzzle.”

With their holistic view towards restoration, indigenous wisdom is an invaluable asset to help revitalise lost landscapes. Author of The Archipeligo of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change, Gleb Raygorodetsky has spent two decades working on environmental projects with Indigenous people from the tropics. He gives the example of reforestation, which he says often results in “a really simplified forest structure: just one age class and little biodiversity.” He tells The Revelator that many projects do more harm than good at a local level. He says the reason for this is that “decision-makers, policy makers and even the researchers are looking at a small piece of the puzzle compared to how Indigenous people look at that relationship with the forest.” 

With eighty percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity on the territories of indigenous people, these communities are more than a source of wisdom, but a source of hope. Since keeping carbon in the ground is key to keeping the planet’s temperature increase levels below 2 degrees celsius, their role in safeguarding earth’s remaining untouched natural areas, is an important part of addressing the climate emergency. There are many communities around the world that have been lobbying for years to keep their indigenous land sacred.

“They’re not trapped in the past but rooted in that generations-long relationship with the land.”

In Ecuador, The Sapara community have rights in their country, but they still have to battle to protect their territory. “They have to fight off the government and corporations having their own agenda to get access to their territory,” says Gleb. “Those fights about the rights to the land and the resources are an ongoing battle. But without it, it’d just be a green light for development to go in and do whatever they want. If the majority of our collective wealth and natural capital would be in the hands of corporations, then I’d be worried.” 

If indigenous land was owned by private and government-run companies, then there wouldn’t be a fight at all. Corporations would have full access to mining oil and other natural resources from the world’s remaining biodiversity. And although battles for land continue across the world, indigenous communities remain determined to uphold their close relationship with the land, Gleb says. “There’s resilience in how they see themselves on the land now, and how they think about the future. They’re not trapped in the past but rooted in that generations-long relationship with the land, and the responsibility of maintaining it for future generations.”

Share this story

Ella Liascos

Ella Liascos is an Australian writer based in Byron Bay, specialising in writing for sustainable and creative businesses. Recently she's founded Sun Juju, a business focused on creating plastic free, reef-safe sunscreen and donating a portion of profits to the Climate Foundation's marine permaculture project.

2020-01-13T05:16:07+00:00Categories: Conservation|Tags: , , |