How Indigenous Communities Have Protected the Earth

Indigenous Communities Save the Earth BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of seattletimes.com

Indigenous communities are Earth’s wisest guardians. This is true because the land is more than just the ground beneath their feet, and it’s certainly not for sale. To them, the land is the very soul of a higher being and must be protected. For tribes across our planet, rivers and forests have rights like any other person. 

In the United States, Native American land-based religions view the lands around them as sacred sites, church-like places of great healing. Thanks to this belief, ecosystems from North America to Australia are as rich as they are today because indigenous traditions have taught them to live in harmony with nature. There’s scientific proof to show this.

According to a report published in Environmental Science & Policy, the Earth is healthier on more than a quarter of the world’s lands that Indigenous people manage or own. In fact, Indigenous-managed lands in places like Australia, Brazil, and Canada have more biodiversity than lands set aside for conservation by governments.  Research shows Indigenous property rights in the tropical rainforest are crucial to reducing illegal deforestation in the Amazon, which helps regulate Earth’s climate.

Unfortunately, the other three-quarters of the world is in grave danger. Paige West, an anthropologist at Columbia University, said in a New York Times interview: “What we’re seeing now with the biodiversity collapse and with climate change is the final stage of the effects of colonialism.” Because capital interests have made the world’s inhabitants ignorant about what it means to have a relationship with the land, the Earth’s future lies in learning and applying indigenous ways of living. 

Leading by example: Indigenous communities’ ways of protecting and not destroying

Today, as nature is under assault by the same colonial historical forces that have extracted its resources for hundreds of years, there are things that we can learn from its indigenous. Their success has come by simply allowing space for the animals and plants within their own habitats to thrive. Though they have made a small living from the land for generations, the key to their success has been not extracting too much, but just enough. 

Take, for example, an indigenous-owned business in the Guatemalan village of Uaxactún. Its indigenous people understand that although Mahogany is plentiful and lucrative, they must only take a small amount of it. 

Within the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, a forest of two million hectares that local communities have managed for 30 years, there are endangered jaguars, spider monkeys, and 535 species of butterflies thriving there, as reported. It turns out these Indigenous community-managed forests have fewer fires and a near-zero rate of deforestation, too. 

What’s their strategy? They use only about one or two trees per hectare per year, and they leave the seed-producing trees alone. Their goal is to sustain themselves with a small amount while always taking care of the forest. 

Indigenous communities have mastered the art of living on Earth by knowing what to take from it and how to restore it.  From the restoration of eelgrass beds in the Bainbridge Islands and fishponds in Hawaii to salmon recovery by the Samish Nation and bison reintroduction by the Kainai Nation.

Dying to protect their lands

Sadly the stakes are dangerously high to protect the Earth’s lands, and many indigenous come under attack by the authorities and by interest groups who want them out of the way. Some want them dead.

While in the United States, thousands of Native people from scores of tribes have protested the Dakota Access pipeline that threatens sites that are sacred to the Sioux people, in the Amazon, Indigenous people put their bodies on the line to protect native lands threatened by loggers and ranchers. 

Indigenous land defenders are also being murdered across the Amazon. In 2019, at least 46 were murdered across Latin America.

“If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the Indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction,” José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal told the New York Times, who leads an umbrella group, the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin. “We’re one ecosystem.” 

Nature has rights, too

Indigenous communities’ traditions are beginning to shape new environmental laws. Thanks to this community, nature is gaining a foothold in mainstream legal systems and earning its own rights. In the past, conventional environmental laws have been about regulating how we use nature which has done only damage. 

Having earned the reputation of being the most reliable custodians of our planet, politicians and environmental NGOs alike are considering giving nature rights like this community has always believed was necessary. It’s a necessary approach we hope will be adopted by broader society.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the rights of nature in its constitution, personified as Pachamama, the Andean earth goddess. The governments of Bolivia and Uganda also enshrined the rights of nature in their constitutions, and Sweden approved a nature’s rights amendment as well. 

This debate with capitalists and colonialists is nothing new for the indigenous community. As this tug of war continues and governments slowly give nature and its indigenous people custody of what was naturally given to them, let’s remember the words of the legendary Chief Crowfoot, who once said to a white man who spread dollar bills on the ground trying to buy their land circa 1885:

“Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animal. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore, we cannot sell this land. It was put there for us by the Great Spirit, and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us. You can count your money and burn it within the nod of a buffalo’s head, but only the Great Spirit can count the grains of sand and the blades of grass of these plains. As a present to you, we will give you anything we have that you can take with you, but the land, never.”