Looking over the history of the planet and humanity, the vast majority of human environmental damage has been in the past century. As the population continues to grow and we struggle to agree on the most effective actions to take, perhaps we should be looking deep into the practices of one of the land’s first caretakers in order to understand what sustainability truly looks like.
Reports by notable researchers like those at the United Nations, the World Wildlife Federation, British Columbia University and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) shed light on the situation, showing an average two-thirds of global populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have been lost since 1970. The same reports show, however, that lands managed by Indigenous people suffered significantly less impact and, in some cases, no impact at all. That’s a massive variation between astounding loss of animals and conservation of the entire ecosystem in a balance that benefits every living creature.
The largest diversity and health of wildlife was overwhelmingly found in native-managed lands, specifically those studied in Australia, Canada and Brazil. The success in those regions comes from a variety of approaches rather than a single, overarching policy.
Indigenous people share a connection with each other, the animals and the land. They understand it’s a delicate system that is all interdependent. Through their natural interaction with their surroundings, Indigenous populations have been a reliable source of information about where the trouble spots are, especially in regions like the Arctic and the Amazon where their eyes-on-the-ground are essential to the survival of the environment.
In their role as land stewards, they not only witness land degradation and notable decline in specific wildlife species, but they adapt their lifestyle to cater to those deficiencies. With this extensive knowledge handed down through the generations, Indigenous people are an essential resource in the battle against human-caused climate issues.
For example, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest have contributed to the protection and management of salmon. Knowledge of ethnobotany can, and has, influenced decisions about native plant species and forest management throughout several continents and crop development. For all of these reasons, leadership groups are calling for help from Indigenous communities around the globe to act as consultants for areas in need of their deeply-entrenched knowledge.
Science has its limits in understanding how to best manage resources. It lacks historical information in the most extreme locations of the planet. These are the same locations Indigenous people have managed the land and sourced food for generations. It also fails to see connections between the deterioration of the land and the erosion of traditional land management by native people. The research bringing this connection to light puts a new emphasis on embracing what’s old as new again in the fight for the environment.
Yuria Celidwen, Ph.D. explained it in terms of native language, citing there are around 7,000 spoken languages in the world and that more than half of them are Indigenous languages. However, the language is being lost, with around 3,500 of those languages being spoken by less than 1,000 people. She said, “every two weeks, a language is lost.” This loss is mirrored in the erosion of other cultural aspects, such as land stewardship.
She says that Indigenous people occupy around 20% of the world’s land area, yet protect an estimated 80% of the remaining forest biodiversity. That means not only do we need to spread their knowledge across the planet, but we need to protect the Indigenous lifestyle. In short, we need to help them so they can help us all.
“We can clearly see what interdependence truly means,” Celidwen said.
In witnessing how Native groups interact with the land, it’s obvious the central focus shifted somewhere along the way from a belief the land will provide for us if we care for it, to thinking we can control the land to provide for our needs. In other words, we need to adopt a “planet first” attitude instead of a “human first” mindset.
In the end, supporting the environment benefits us all. Shifting that focus to an emphasis on healthy ecosystems rewards us with prolific plant and animal life, rich soil, limited waste, clean and ample water and a natural cycle that meets the needs of all the planet’s inhabitants.
Every field that is turned into a parking lot or mall, the stripping of natural resources, the continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels, pollution of air and water, waste piling up beyond the boundaries of the landfills, overfishing, endangered coral and other marine life, degrading soil into dirt and countless other actions show we’re in a human first mentality that if not reversed, will put humans last. But the original stewards of the land can show us the change, if we’re willing. Native American Heritage Month is the perfect time to start before it’s too late.
Lead image via Pexels