(23) BeautifulPlanet: The True Stewards

Listen to the episode HERE.

Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash

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INTRO: Hello deep thinkers, this is your host Agrita, and welcome to Mind Full of Everything, the podcast that questions the deeper and bigger things in life, from intersectional environmentalism to self-development and everything else in between. 

We have now come to the end of the Beautiful Planet series. I began this series during the Coronavirus lock down as a way for us to remember and celebrate the beautiful planet we will soon be returning to as we begin to return to a new normal. Today’s episode discusses the importance of indigenous stewardship, a form of conservation and protection of the natural environment that is unparalleled. It is indigenous that hold a significant amount of knowledge of their homeland, and it’s the indigenous who are able to transform their emotional and cultural connections to the land to protect it in the most sustainable and natural ways possible, something that we all should learn from.

Our planet is wonderful some of its beauties I’ve already discussed in this short series. The environment gives us so much and we’re able to learn so much through the phenomena and the species that exist here. However, I don’t think it’ll be right to end the series without celebrating the power of the original stewards of the land. The true stewards that aid and managing the beautiful landscapes that we get to experience and see across the world and landscapes we all also heavily depend on. These stewards that is able to do so much using indigenous practices, yet they aren’t given much or any credit for their hard work. 

The power of the indigenous is evident through the long-term health of many ecosystems. For example, the Amazon forest has at least 10% of the world’s known biodiversity. Many species are endemic to the Amazon and the rivers of the rain forest account for 15-16% of the world’s total discharge into oceans. This is symbolic of the potential of indigenous communities in maintaining ecosystems on a big scale. Indigenous people make up fewer than 5% of the human population as of 2018, but they manage at least 25% of the world’s land surface, 11% of the world’s forests therefore supporting up to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. This is so essential seeing that we are in the sixth mass extinction, where a million known species are now at threat of extinction. The IPBES Global Assessment Report backed by the UN shows that the rate of biodiversity loss is much lower on indigenous lands compared to non-native lands. The report concluded that we should both learn the indigenous ways of conservation AND these indigenous methods should be implemented by scientific and governing bodies so that we can support these degraded systems in essentially the right and sustainable way. The lead author of the report Pamela McEwlee mentioned that indigenous communities on average are doing far better in managing natural resources and their lands. They’re able to manage the threats to biodiversity to their ecosystems because of the ways in which they carry out this conservation, conservation that modern day science is clearly not able to carry out. 

There are many, many ways that indigenous communities are able to preserve biodiversity, to preserve their land. For example, many indigenous groups create gardens within ecosystems, so essentially microcosms, that contain both wild and domestic species. In a single garden, you can find up to 500 species and this results in highly diverse habitats within major habitats. Many indigenous communities also manage lands for controlled fires, which enhances biodiversity, and they also use traditional practices to restore degraded lands and increase declining populations. Their traditional methods tend to be resilient to climate change because they are well adapted to extreme weather, for example, you’ll find many indigenous communities in the Arctic, in extremely hot places. Indigenous agricultural practices are also extremely important for the food industry that is facing high demand as the human population continues to increase. Native crops like quinoa and moringa are very nutritious and are cultivated by indigenous farmers. A lot of these native crops are also very adaptable to extreme weather conditions, which is of course of high value seeing we are in a climate crisis. 

The Tonga indigenous community of southern Zambia are the largest agricultural ethnic group of Zambia and have extensive conservation measures put into place. For example, every single household has their own toilet, so no one defecates outdoors. This community strongly believes in “going back to Eden” in terms of conservation. In terms of medicinal treatments, the Tonga always try to opt to natural medical treatments where possible (please do check out the healing power of nature episode for more on this). they essentially make sure that any section of nature is not harmed because of their management or their use of natural resources. For example, for plant-based medicines they always use parts of roots or some of the leaves, they will never uproot the entire plant, they see that as essentially calling for the death of the patient that they are taking the medicinal properties of the plant from. For firewood, they only use naturally dried parts of wood and they ensure that certain trees are avoided, fruit trees are also excluded. For animal conservation, each clan has a specific animal or bird that is their totem. Therefore, they are forbidden to eat their own totem and they also protect their totem from other clans, therefore, a massive reduction in hunting is seen within the Tonga community. This also explains why one of the largest national parks in the world is within Tongaland, as well as the fact that the Tonga own more than 3/4 of the livestock of Zambia. What’s even more special about totemism is that totems tend to be vulnerable species that are at risk of being hunted the most, so this respect of the totem of each clan has proven to be so important for conservation of species within Zambia. The Tonga also believe in sustainable agriculture, for example, they use crop rotation to maintain the quality of their soils. So, if they’re growing maize in the same field for example three years, they will ensure that after three years another crop is planted there. This is so beneficial because this ensures that the same nutrients don’t get depleted in the soils and this also breaks up disease cycles for specific crops. They also carry out intercropping, which is growing a few different crops within the same soils to ensure that the communities receive a balanced amount of nutrients and it acts as a mitigation strategy for crop failure, as well as decreasing pest damage up to 80%. The Tonga use livestock manure as natural fertilisers and any crop residue are mixed into the manure and not burned. Water conservation comes naturally to the Tonga community because they see water sources as the habitat of gods so essentially shrines, and they ensure that no crops are grown along water sources and water courses to prevent any damage to the shrines. It’s not just the Tonga that believe in sustainable practices, it’s essentially all African communities that generally have this very rich environmental culture, mainly because they associate nature and elements of nature to spirits and religion. They see nature as pious so they’re very strict about destroying and polluting nature. However, of course, we’ve all seen the widespread issue of poaching within Africa, degradation of land and most of these issues do occur in non-native lands or are occurring as a result of people having no other choice but to overexploit their resources because of financial reasons. 

A recurring pattern that can be seen on indigenous land that is very successful in carrying out sustainable practices to conserve their land is that many indigenous communities live in inaccessible areas, in remote areas that scientific organisations, bodies, governmental bodies can’t reach to. Those communities are able to manage that land that is mostly untouched because they’re living in these remote areas, so for example, the Arctic or the Amazon rainforest. What’s very vital for scientists is collaborating with these communities so that they can feed back their data collection to the scientific bodies. There are many platforms are now do this. One such platform is the Local Environmental Observer Network, which was launched in 2012, that connects local observers and scientists together for sharing knowledge and data on either their website or the app. The Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas Registry is another form of collaboration between indigenous communities and scientists; it’s a voluntary register where indigenous communities can register on and this can help scientists to recognise areas of indigenous populations and also the conservation of values of these areas. LandMark is another platform; tt’s mapped out land owned by indigenous people across the world (do check out the interactive map that’s linked on my website). 

Partnership with indigenous communities is vital, but using these traditional methods is as important. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), or ethnography is a range of indigenous methods for conservation that researchers are now starting to implement in their conservation studies. Essentially, it’s the act of immersing into the daily lives and culture of indigenous communities so that these methods can be understood in everything single aspect. Some of the methods that researchers can and should use are: 

  1. Literature reviews on indigenous communities: so this includes story collections, myths, clans, ceremonies, songs, and even dictionaries
  2. Semi directed interviews: so this is mostly using open ended questions to ask people that perhaps have the most amount of knowledge within that indigenous community that you’re looking at to let you know about the practices that they use
  3. Focus groups is another method that is recommended. It’s very important for locating people that have the most knowledge about the land or people that keep the records about these methods, but focus groups is a method that should be combined with other methods. 
  4. Participation observation is another method, which is observing how community members carry out practices, so literally just observing how they are able to maintain their lands to a high standard and picking up the common patterns that different indigenous communities use to go about essentially conserving the same sort of land 
  5. Linguistics: many indigenous languages now have dictionaries, which is great, but if you appoint a native speaker, that will perhaps give you more insight into these practices. 
  6. And last but not least, mapping. Mapping is majorly helpful in locating the most sacred, the most protected areas and informing governments and informing scientific bodies to prioritise these areas as they will usually be of high conservation value, as well as cultural and historic value. 

It is important to remember that all these methods don’t have to be used, but the more of these methods are used, the more scientists can find out about how to use these traditional practices in modern conservation projects. 

What’s highly concerning and perhaps everybody is familiar of this issue is that scientific and government organisations have always, most of the time, ignored or not recognised the conservation efforts of the indigenous. For example, in Hungary, indigenous herders had always allowed their livestock to graze grasslands, and this maintained biodiversity of plant species. But as soon as national parks became established in Hungary, of course, grazing was restricted and also banned, and only recently have the government and scientists finally understood the major benefits of grazing in management of grasslands, and now this practice is allowed within the national parks. 

I think now scientists have understood their mistakes made in the past in terms of conservation and not looking at indigenous practices to conserve habitats in a sustainable and better way. As advances in geographical data presentation and collection improve, combining indigenous knowledge and western science is seemingly possible and easier to do. For example, using remote sensing to monitor regions such as the Arctic, as well as recording local observations of permafrost melt and changes animal migration patterns significantly improves the way in which scientists can take beneficial actions to these changes. Just remote sensing an area of the Arctic is not going to be telling you what’s happening on ground level. It’s the indigenous living in the Arctic that can tell you about changes in animal migrations changes in the way in which the ice is melting. That is something that the indigenous can tell you and while remote sensing cannot. 

A lot of natural hazards can be controlled and prevented using indigenous knowledge. For example, Australia is victim to frequent and intense wildfires that occur on a large scale. So, land management teams are now using Aboriginal practices of controlled fires as well as partnering up with locals to manage fire-prone areas better. Before colonisation, Aboriginal people would manage their land by using methods like “firestick farming” which essentially is lighting up areas, grassland areas, using burning sticks, and this would help them in herding animals, but also promoting growth of new grasses. This then allows for a control of overpopulation in specific areas, where the new grasses will only attract animals, grazing animals, that are attracted to these new grasses to ensure that overgrazing doesn’t occur. This burning then allows for a mosaic of grasslands and that has shown to improve different species populations, for example the monitor lizard and the kangaroos.

We all know the conservational benefits of indigenous communities and their practices. Governments know that, scientific bodies know that, yet indigenous communities are still so marginalised, tortured, abused, neglected, even to this date, despite the fact that they bring so much to the world, so much that we need to learn from. I had a very open, honest, yet difficult but a very eye opening and inspiring talk with Desiree Kanethat I will be releasing soon, about the issues on the trauma, the pain, the experiences of the indigenous communities in America. I don’t want to go into too much information about it, I want you to listen to Desiree herself, but the problems and the struggles on the indigenous communities across the world are so intense, something that you can’t go on the internet and search up, you need to actually listen to talk to a native person, an indigenous person. 

In terms of the environment, indigenous communities are displaced in the name of “conservation”. They are mistreated horribly, and you can see that by the fact that 15% of the world’s extreme poor are indigenous people, just because they’re marginalised and discriminated upon by legal systems. So many are restricted to basic access to resources, they are cut off from what we call the “modern world”. The Sápara community in Ecuador used to have 30,000 members and had more than 200 tribes. Now they only have 200 people in their community because of the decimation of this community during Spanish rule in the 16th century, where disease outbreaks killed a lot of their population. Once the Ecuadorian government recognised them, recognised their sacred land, they were only granted 8% of the historical land, land that is already there’s, only 8% of that. The Sápara essentially are seen as obstacles to “economic growth”. For example, in 2018, under the indigenous pressure of the Sápara, the government of Ecuador was forced to reduce their plan for oil mining within the historical Naku region, going from the planned 16 oil blocks down to two, and the two blocks that they chose supposedly didn’t cause an issue because no indigenous people lived in that region, but it did overlap their territories in many indigenous communities of the Sápara, Shiwiar and Kichwa. According to Global Witness, in 2015 185 indigenous people were killed across 16 countries just because they were protecting their own land against major companies. In the Amazon, from 2000-2012, areas tenured by indigenous communities saw 2-3 times reduction in deforestation rates compared to Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil, yet these same indigenous people that are doing so much for the natural environment are only given a fraction of their own homeland, they are only given ownership of a fraction of that land that is already theirs.This displacement has always been in the name of conservation and as a result, there have been many conservation refugees. These indigenous communities already managed the land so well, yet they’re being forced to move, they’re being evicted in the name of “conservation”. The same conservation that is not sustainable, not ethical, that has taken a massive toll on the planet already. The true stewards are being evicted from their own land, that they know exactly how to manage and conserve. 

Indigenous people are now protected legally, through documents such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people that was launched in 2007. These documents are used across governmental bodies and conservation organisations as well to ensure that large-scale management that is enforced is done in line with indigenous rights. But these rights are not considered everywhere. In fact, they’re violated time and time again. For example, the indigenous Kenyan communities of Sengwer and Ogiek still being evicted from their historical lands of the Embobut forest and Mount Elgon, respectively, because the Kenyan government still is using outdated conservation models that don’t take the UN indigenous rights documents into account. The Kenyan Forest Service, which is run by the government, has in fact caused greater destruction in these protected areas, for example mass deforestation and demolition of water towers. Sengwer members have reported that officials of this forest service have torn down their houses, stolen up to US$1000, as well as their personal possessions. These evictions clearly are not peaceful. Amnesty International reported in 2018, that deadly and violent force is constantly used against Sengwer people, and these evictions have fully violated the human rights of both the Sengwer and Ogiek communities, by their own government, by the Kenyan government, because they fail to understand why these indigenous communities and their lands are so important. They fail to understand that these communities hold the answers to true stewardship of the landthat they are destroying. 

Because of this constant threat, violation of human rights, violence against their communities, so many indigenous people have just abandoned their ancestral lands for the cities. They think that’s just the safest way forward for themselves, for their family, for their community. This gentrification of indigenous territories is causing an extinction of the true stewards of our world. The stewards that the world needs, especially during this climate crisis, this ecological crisis we are in. If we don’t have these communities to learn from, to support our ecosystems that we survive on, how can we manage and conserve our natural resources sustainably conserve them for future generations? 

There have been some very successful examples where indigenous rights have been protected by governments and large organisations. For instance, the Australian government has extended their support for indigenous protected areas by creating new protected areas and protecting existing ones. This has been very beneficial in terms of biodiversity; the 75 protected areas that already exist cover up to 68 million hectares, which represents over 45% Australia’s natural reserve. Passage of Nature Conservation Amendments Act of 1996 in Namibia has resulted in 20% of the country’s surface to be of high conservation value. Canada has an Indigenous Guardian programme, which is led by indigenous people themselves, to protect communities in managing their territories in the traditional way, and not to be stopped by modern day conservationists that say, for example, “grazing is not a good way to manage grasslands”. This programme allows indigenous people to carry out conservation practices, how they want and how they please. The Canadian government included an initial investment of $25 million in the 2017-2018 budget and now over 40 indigenous communities in Canada have launched the programme, over 40 communities and are protected by this governmental programme. In Finland, the Havukkavaara forest has now been recognised as an indigenous territory by the Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas Registry that I mentioned before. It’s now being labelled as a region of community-based conservation that sustains traditional ways of living and protects some of the most ancient forests in the Arctic Circle within Finland. 

A lot has been done, but a lot more needs to be done. Since this is the Beautiful Planet series, I want to keep this focused on the beauty of indigenous stewardship, and the ways in which people can help the indigenous. On my website, I’m going to be listing ways in which you as an individual can help these indigenous communities. But the reality is much darker. Indigenous communities are still not respected or not protected enough, and I discussed this with Desiree in an episode that I’m going to be releasing soon. So do listen up for that. 

It’s important for us to understand and to respect is that the indigenous have a very special connection to their land, a connection that runs deep down generations, their culture, their history. This connection has allowed them to see landscapes, not as separate units but as a massive system full of complex connections, and how managing single habitats within ecosystems boost overall ecosystem health in the long term. They know each and every bit about their lands, what their land requires and when. They know much more about how to respond to environmental issues than any scientific body can know, because they’ve lived in these areas for so long, and they have that deep connection with those areas, and they actively record the techniques they use to maintain their land. 

But I think the main thing that allows the indigenous to maintain their land and to manage their land better than scientists, governments and non-natives, is that they view themselves as existing solely to take care of the nature that they are in, rather than nature solely existing to serve humans, as what is seen by western countries. That is what allows them to be the true stewards of the planet. They see themselves as just segments of nature. When you bring emotion into conservation and protection of land, when you interact with species directly, when you are directly seeing the positive impact of your conservation efforts, you automatically respect each and every aspect of the environment. You begin to see yourself, the human race, as part of nature, and not nature being at the hands of humans. You begin to see yourself as stewards of natural environments instead of owners. The only way this stewardship, true stewardship, can be perpetuated is through two things, and that is 1) protection of indigenous rights and land through ally ship of governments and scientists and 2) incorporation of indigenous practices into large-scale conservation projects. Only then can we all transform into the stewards that we should have all been from the very beginning, to protect the beauty of this beautiful planet. 

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