By Madronna Holden
Note: this essay appears in Green Politics, An A to Z Guide, ed. Dustin R. Mulvaney (Sage Publications) and is copyright by Madronna Holden and Sage Publications, with the exception of the update edit as noted at the end.
This essay presents an overview of the environmental values, knowledge, and subsistence strategies of indigenous peoples both in their traditional contexts and in the contexts of colonialism and globalization. It discusses the current status of indigenous peoples in line with the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It outlines indigenous environmental activism and precedent-setting legal cases. Finally, it discusses the model of biocultural diversity illustrated in Indigenous Conservation Areas which indigenous peoples manage and protect in line with traditional human-nature partnerships.
Historical Placement of Indigenous Peoples in the Human Timeline
The Industrial Revolution took place approximately seven generations ago. By contrast, the tenure on earth of non-industrialized peoples represented by today’s indigenous cultures is an estimated 36,000 generations. Indigenous hunting and gathering peoples represent 99 per cent of historic human cultures; in 2009 indigenous peoples still represent 90 per cent of global cultural diversity.
Indigenous cultures are intimately tied to their geographic homelands. Whatever the archeological evidence for the length of continuous residence for some on their lands-up to 100,000 years- indigenous peoples characteristically see themselves, their ways of life, and their lands as created in concert with one another.
Many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, and Africa were hunters and gatherers. Others were farmers, like the dry land farmers of the American Southwest who still live in villages thousands of years old, or the rice farmers of Asia. Others were fisherman like the Coast Salish of Puget Sound who lived in multi-family cedar longhouses that might cover an acre of ground. Still others practiced shifting horticulture like the Kayapó of Brazil who took more than one generation to move over their traditional territory, seeding wild gardens as they went. And some lived as island fisherman and yam gardeners in the Pacific or nomadic herders in the Middle East and Africa. Altogether, subsistence strategies of indigenous peoples entail some combination of hunting, gathering, fishing, herding, agriculture and shifting horticulture in a context of ongoing flexibility and adaptation.
Today many indigenous peoples are bi-cultural as they both adhere to their ancient values and ways of life and respond to the pressures of the modern world.
Colonialism, Development, and Indigenous Subsistence Strategies
The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples defines indigenous peoples as cultural communities having prior residence on lands within modern nation states. It affirms the rights of these peoples both to cultural self-determination and to control their traditional lands and natural resources. It also points out the current marginalization of these peoples, resulting from a colonial legacy of disease, poverty, violence, starvation, slavery, and forced sterilization. Though indigenous peoples traditionally stabilized their populations by various child spacing methods, many have a higher birth rate today as they attempt to replace populations stressed to the brink of extinction. To set the re-population of indigenous communities in the context of environmental impact, on a daily basis a person living in a modern industrialized nation uses as much as two dozen times the natural resources as does an individual living in an indigenous community.
Colonialism propagated stereotypes that continue to hamper the entry of indigenous peoples into the modern global arena as equal partners. According to the colonial paradigm, higher placement on the ladder of progress gave nation states the right to take over the lands of others-and homogenize the cultures they encountered to their own. However, the predominant distinction between industrial and indigenous technologies lies not in their comparative placement on an evolutionary scale, but in the fact that indigenous technologies adapt human activities to particular lands in a framework of dynamic mutualism, whereas industrial technologies adapt lands to human activities in a hierarchical framework of human control.
Botanist M. Kat Anderson’s research with diverse peoples of native California reveals the sophisticated botanical methods used to increase particular plants and catalyze the diversity and abundance of traditional landscapes. A recent UNESCO report on indigenous knowledge uses the parallel co-development of human cultures and ecological systems in the Amazon to counter the misperception that either indigenous peoples ravaged their lands-or had no effect on them whatsoever.
Both of these misperceptions are linked to the faulty assumption that indigenous peoples lack the technical knowledge with which to make key subsistence choices. However, hunting and gathering populations depend for their survival on detailed environmental knowledge that gives them the option of practicing agriculture-though they may choose not to do so. Danish agro-economist Ester Boserup’s research into the institution of intensive agriculture exposes a reason for the choice not to take up this subsistence strategy: whereas it may increase the carrying capacity of the land, it is also likely to raise the workload of local populations.
Further, intensive agriculture that colonial authorities see as a sign of advanced societies is not suitable to all landscapes, as indicated by the failure of the “green revolution” that imposed modern farming techniques on third world lands in a generalized fashion. Tens of thousands of families in the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh are currently reclaiming their lands in the wake of the devastation caused by the “green revolution”, using traditional methods combining diverse wild cropping, multi-cropping and animal husbandry. In Oaxaca, indigenous Mixteca farmer Jesus Leon Santos won the Goldman Prize for his use of pre-Hispanic farming techniques to restore farmlands left barren by industrial farming. As in the case of the New Agricultural Movement, Santos’ methods have not only restored the fertility of local lands but spurred the recovery of local water tables.
Vandana Shiva documents the mismatch between generalized technologies and particular lands-and the impoverishment of local populations through the extraction of material and cultural resources in development projects. Along with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, Shiva proposes a model of development that follows the “subsistence perspective” of indigenous peoples to counter what she terms “mal-development”.
Climate change is another serious threat to indigenous peoples posed by the activities of industrialized nations. This especially affects island nations (some of whom have already begun to evacuate their homelands as ocean waters rise and salinate their water tables); those living on polluted mountaintops and in circumpolar regions where permafrost is melting and game animals and reindeer herds are under stress; and those in drought-ravaged areas around the globe.
Indigenous knowledge and modern science
Though indigenous populations are among the poorest of the world’s poor, this is not an artifact of their traditional lifestyles. Richard Lee quantifies the results of the subsistence strategies of the San people of the Kalahari Desert in a seminal study that indicates their longevity, health, and nutritional well-being-as well as the minimal labor required to sustain their way of life. Such well being is reliant on environmental knowledge kept in oral tradition in narrative form. Modern studies have compared indigenous knowledge with that of modern science, indicating their comparable validity-even though their methods and emphases differ.
The predictive efficacy of indigenous knowledge is illustrated by the case of the Moken in the Surin Islands, Thailand; the Ong and Jarawa in the Andaman Islands, India; and the Simeulue Island peoples in Indonesia, who forecast the massive 2004 tsunami-and prepared accordingly. They survived unscathed as that tsunami took hundreds of thousands of lives in neighboring developed nations. Though they went unheeded, fishermen in south India tried to warn local authorities of the coming tsunami a few days before it struck.
Problems arise in the patenting of aspects of traditional knowledge-pharmaceuticals, for instance. Patents are problematic not only when they fail to fairly compensate communities of origin, but also when they assume private ownership of community knowledge, which by cultural tradition belongs to future as well as current generations.
Indigenous Worldviews and Values
Indigenous cultures exhibit striking diversity not only between peoples living in distinct landscapes, but between peoples who share the same lands-as in the case of the Mapuche who resisted incorporation into the Incan Empire and the San peoples of the Kalahari who shared their lands with Bantu pastoralists while maintaining a hunting and gathering lifestyle. Yet for all their diversity, communities living in intimate connection with the natural world share similar worldviews along the following dimensions:
– The sense of the intrinsic value and spiritual authority of natural life and the systems that sustain it.
– The sense of nature as teacher: the idea that humans become human by means of their embededness in the natural world, as expressed in the quote with which Deborah Rose titles her book on Australian Aborigines: “Dingo makes us human”.
– The sense of the unique value of individual persons, other natural life, and particular lands such that none of these can be replaced by or exchanged for any another.
– The sense of the fundamental interdependence of natural life in the earthly family in which all life is kin.
– The sense of responsibility for one’s actions flowing from honoring the unique value of others in an interdependent world.
Connected with this worldview, indigenous cultures characteristically maintain these values:
Gratitude and reverence
These worldviews and values have substantial environmental impact. The fishing practices of the Columbia River peoples in the US Pacific Northwest derived from their respect for salmon nations as equal spiritual partners with humans. During their thousands of years on the Columbia River, those with this stance harvested an annual salmon take seven times the modern one without harming the sustainability of the runs. Their worldview also led them to careful preservation of salmon habitat-as expressed to an Indian Agent in an 1851 protest of the denigration of salmon habitat created by sawmills at the mouth of the Columbia.
The Bemidji Statement of Seventh Generation Guardianship, drawn up jointly by the Indigenous Environmental Network and The Science and Environmental Health Network, is a model of the responsibility entailed in values that make those who hold them, “Guardians of the Future”.
Detailed contrasts between indigenous and industrial worldviews and values can be found here.
Indigenous environmental activism
Though the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has no provisions for enforcement, it lends moral weight to struggles to protect indigenous lands from encroachment and destruction, such as the Igorot (Philippines) battle against giant dams, the battle against drilling in the Arctic National Refuge to which the Gwich’in have contributed substantial leadership, the indigenous campaigns in Ecuador and Nigeria against oil drilling by Chevron, and the struggle that reversed the forced removal of the San from their ancestral Kalahari Desert, where they opposed diamond mining.
In South America indigenous peoples have fought the ravages of globalization-and protected their biotically rich lands in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. In Mesoamerica the Mayangna and Mistiko have protected their rainforest against illegal logging through successful land claims and peaceful patrol of the boundaries of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.
Native American legal battles have set important precedents in protecting the environmental commons, as in water rights cases pressed by several tribes in the American West beginning in the 1970s, which resulted in the adoption of cumulative assessment in setting water quality standards for the Colorado River. A suit pressed by the Onondaga Nation of central New York excludes re-possession of traditional property now held by non-Indians. Instead it pursues the Onondaga Nation’s right to assume environmental trusteeship over traditional lands and thus set standards for the cleanup of toxins deposited by industrial activity.
In Ecuador, Pachamama is an indigenous term for the sacred life-giving qualities of nature. This is also a key term in the Ecuadorian Constitution, which asserts the legal rights of Pachamama-and gives legal standing to those who sue in her behalf. The “Pachamama” organization formed at the request of indigenous elders lobbied for the inclusion of the rights of Pachamama in the Ecuadoran constitution.
In that indigenous stewardship of traditional lands challenges corrupt governmental regimes, as well as multinational timber and oil companies; uranium, gold, coal and diamond mining companies; endangered species black markets; and drug cartels; indigenous environmental leaders have been subject to considerable violence. In the early stages of founding the Greenbelt Movement which won her the Nobel Prize, Wangari Maathai suffered persecution by the Kenyan government which included being arrested and beaten. In the Sierra de Petatlán of Mexico, Felipe Arreaga Sanchez, his wife Celsa Valdovinos Rios and Albertano Peñaloza, whose work earned them the Chico Mendes award for environmental heroism, have endured imprisonment, family murders and continual threats in retaliation for their work protecting local forests. In the Amazon, violence inherited from the colonial period prevails against indigenous peoples like the Suri who work to protect their traditional forests against illegal logging. Organizations such as Survival International and Amnesty International seek to protect indigenous environmentalists through global publicity on their behalf.
Over 95% of the world’s high-biodiversity areas overlap with lands claimed by indigenous peoples, partly because biodiversity is central to indigenous subsistence and ecological management strategies, and partly because indigenous lands have not been subject to the intensive development and industrialization that has destroyed biodiversity elsewhere. As a result, today indigenous peoples are traditional stewards of 80% of the earth’s remaining biodiversity even as they comprise 90% of its cultural diversity.
In this context, the UN Programme on the Environment stresses the importance of biocultural diversity, recognizing the co-evolution of human cultures and ecological systems. The Willamette Valley in Oregon, which European explorers nicknamed the “gourmand’s paradise” for the diversity and abundance of its natural food resources, was a prime example of biocultural diversity. It evolved in concert with thousands of years of indigenous activity geared to increasing local plant and animal habitat.
Given the co-evolution of human cultures and natural landscapes, the “Convention on Biological Diversity” has a stated goal of preserving indigenous knowledge in order to preserve global biodiversity. This model is an alternative to contention between indigenous populations and conservation agencies that prioritized their goals over human rights-or wilderness and national park set asides that cut off indigenous access to traditional areas. The cooperative model is taken up today by agencies which work to protect biodiversity on indigenous lands by enlisting indigenous leadership and designing ways to relieve crushing poverty that subjects local peoples to pressure to participate in black markets for endangered species. In Northern California and Washington, indigenous peoples who initiated or joined legal battles to protect roadless areas retain access to these areas for the purposes of ceremony and the collection of materials necessary to cultural practices. This is a distinct change from policies that formerly excluded peoples from areas that co-evolved in concert with the activities of their ancestors.
Indigenous Community Conserved Areas
In their recent Resurgence article, Ashish Kothari and Neema Pathak detail the importance of “Indigenous Community Conservation Areas” (ICCAs) that replicate traditional human-nature partnerships in the Amazon and Australia, in the lands of the Qashqai in Iran and the Borana in Ethiopia and Kenya, in thousands of sacred groves in India and sacred crocodile ponds in Mali; in managed community forests in Africa, South Asia, and North America; in critical habitats of wild animals in southern India; and in ecosystems overseen by farming or mixed rural-urban communities, such as the Potato Park in the Andean highlands of Peru and the rice terraces in the Philippines.
ICCAs cover an estimated 12 per cent of earth’s surface and provide connectivity across areas crucial for migration of people, wildlife, and gene pools of both plants and animals. In an era of climate change ICAAs protect natural areas such as rainforests which sequester carbon and harbor reservoirs of biological and cultural diversity to help sustain the resilience of living systems that face the challenge of climate change.
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For further reading:
Alcorn, Janis. “Beauty and the Beast”, in Resurgence 250 (2008).
Anderson M. Kat, Tending the Wild. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika and Mies, Maria, The Subsistence Perspective. London: Zed Books, 1999.
Boserup, Ester. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth.(Chicago, Aldine: 1965.
Boserup. Ester. Economic and Demographic Relationships in Development, essays ed. T. Paul Schultz. Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Davis, Shelton H. Victims of the Miracle, Development and the Indians of Brazil. London: Cambridge University Press, 1977 .
Diamond, Stanley. In Search of the Primitive. New Brunswick, NJ.: Transaction Books: 1974.
Holden, Madronna, “Re-storying the World: Reviving the Language of Life”, Australian Humanities Review, no. 47 (2009).
Hove, Chenjerai, and Trojanow, Ilija. Guardians of the Soil.Munich, Germany: Frederking & Thaler Verlag: 1996.
Kothari, Ashish, and Neema Pathak. “Defenders of Diversity”, in Resurgence no 250 (2008).
Keller, Robert H. and Michael F. Turek. American Indians and National Parks. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998.
Kimmerer, Robin. “The Rights of the Land”, in Orion (November-December 2008).
Lee, Richard, and Irven DeVore, eds. Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine: 1968.
Maffi, Luisa. “Cultural Vitality”, in Resurgence 250 (2008).
Mander, Jerry. “Declaration of Dignity”, in Resurgence 250 (2008).
Martin, Gary. “Restoring Resilience”, in Resurgence 250 (2008).
Mathaai, Wangari. Unbowed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Mathaai, Wangari. Replenishing the Earth. New York: Douibleday, 2010.
Mander, Jerry, and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, eds. Paradigm Wars, Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Globalization. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2006
Rose, Deborah Bird. Dingo Makes us Human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Salick, Jan and Anja Byg, eds. Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. Oxford: Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research: 2007.
Schaefer, Carol. Grandmothers Counsel the World. Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2006.
Shiva, Vandana et.al, Biodiversity: Social & Ecological Perspectives. London; Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1991.
Vandana Shiva. Biopiracy : The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Boston, MA : South End Press: 1997.
Suzuki, David and Knudtson, Peter, eds. Wisdom of the Elders. New York: Bantam, 1992.
Turner, Nancy J. “Lessons of the Birch”, in Resurgence no. 250 (2008).
Turner, Nancy J. The Earth’s Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2005.
UNESCO LINKS Programme, “Indigenous Knowledge and Changing Environments”, International Experts Meeting, Cairns, Australia (2007).
Wilson, Ken. “Guides and Gatherers”, in Resurgence no. 250 (2008).
Update: This essay as published in Green Politics listed the work of the World Wildlife Fund as an example of cooperation between conservation groups and indigenous peoples. However, recent news has brought to light some putative WWF abuses in this regard. WWF’s situation indicates the problems with the strategies of partnership with large corporations who have only economic interests at heart. Recent WWF support for selective ivory harvest in Africa indicates that organizations with corporate partnerships are liable to have problems prioritizing interests not only of indigenous peoples but of wildlife. (The issue concerning ivory is brought up in the National Geographic Magazine essay, “Vanishing Elephants”).
The “suggested readings” section was updated 10.22.2013.