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Want to know how to save nature? Ask Indigenous scientists.

Nature conservation needs a transformation, according to a new book by environmental scientist Jessica Hernandez.

Banana trees in a forest.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Victor Manuel Hernandez believes he wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for a banana tree. As a 14-year-old resistance fighter during the civil war in 1970s El Salvador, he hid beneath the tree’s lush, green fronds when the military attacked his encampment. He’d been shot and a bomb fell directly overhead. But as he recalls, the bomb landed in the leaves of the banana tree, which he believes prevented it from igniting — shielding him from death.

After the attack ended, he mustered the strength to break off a branch from the tree, which he used as a crutch to walk into neighboring Guatemala to find help. “Nature not only protected me,” he recounts in Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, a new book written by his daughter Jessica Hernandez, a Maya Ch’orti and Binnizá-Zapotec Indigenous environmental scientist. “It saved my life.”

“Nature protects us as long as we protect nature,” writes Hernandez, who is now a 31-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Washington. “Ancestral knowledge has been sustained in our communities,” she added in an interview. “It’s a valid form of knowledge that isn’t necessarily validated through the Western ways, like publications and books.” This kind of knowledge forms the basis of Indigenous science, Hernandez says, that is crucial to caring for the Earth.

Indigenous peoples and local communities steward far more of the planet than protected areas like national parks, and around 80 percent of the diversity of species known to be living on Earth are found on lands owned or managed by these groups. That’s despite centuries of genocide, racism, and what Hernandez and other academics and activists refer to as settler colonialism — the intentional displacement and erasure of Indigenous peoples by outsiders.

“Conservation continues to teach scientists that scientific knowledge is more valuable than Indigenous knowledge,” Hernandez writes. This attitude ignores a staggering variety of insights in Indigenous communities, from medicinal knowledge of plants and animals in the Amazon to coral reef conservation in Australia to the prescribed burning practices in the West.

I recently spoke with Hernandez about the potential for Indigenous science to shift how we think about — and carry out — conservation, and the work that Western conservationists need to do to address inequalities and discrimination in the field. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How conservation excludes Indigenous science

Sarah Sax

When did you first realize the way you perceive your relationship with the environment was different from the dominant Western view?

Jessica Hernandez

As early as elementary school. When I would sit down with my parents, they would tell me stories about plants as though they were our relatives. We’re taught [in school] about the plant cycle, the water cycle, all these life cycles that never integrate humans into the picture. Look at the life cycle of a fish and you see the eggs all the way to an adult fish, but never the interconnections with humans. The way Western science is taught, even in K through 12, is that we’re still separated from nature and nature is its own thing.

Sarah Sax

As you point out early in the book, many Indigenous languages don’t have a word for conservation, and instead use words like “healing” or “caring.” How do those differences play out in practice?

Jessica Hernandez

When we look at conservation, we’re always trying to save one thing. We’re trying to save a tree, and then we’re missing the whole forest.

In reality, conservation should be more holistic. Often the reason why we have endangered species, and continue to see ecosystem loss, is that there’s so many driving factors that are destroying those landscapes. Conservation should start focusing on seeing the bigger picture, which is healing.

Sarah Sax

You talk about the difficulties of trying to incorporate Indigenous science in academia. What are some of the tensions that exist in having more Indigenous scholarship included in Western conservation science?

Jessica Hernandez

When you’re the first Indigenous person in certain areas [of study], you have to experience those things to start breaking those glass ceilings that are preventing Indigenous science from being integrated.

The history that is written about us is not necessarily from a positive lens. It’s from the anthropological lens. Anthropology can provide a positive lens, but anthropology back in the day was more like, “We’re studying these people who are uncivilized, who are kind of savages.” It carries that stereotype of the “ecological noble savage,” where Indigenous peoples are these mythical creatures in tune with nature — not necessarily people who hold knowledge or who can also adapt to their environments like we’re doing today.

Sarah Sax

You devote a chapter to the idea of “eco-colonialism” and how that’s created this sustained, negative impact on our environment. What does this term mean, and how does it connect to the ways in which Indigenous science has continued to be devalued?

A group of people stands with rifles beside a dirt road where there are signs that read “Road closed,” “This is Indian land,” and “Indian power.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, Native Americans joined in the political activism inspired by the African American civil rights movement. This protest was over violations of tribal fishing rights along the Columbia River, in Washington state.
Corbis via Getty Images

Jessica Hernandez

We’re always focusing on the impacts settler colonialism has had on Indigenous peoples, but not necessarily on the impacts it also has had on our animal or plant species.

Look at the state of Washington and salmon. We know that tribes had to fight for their right to fish. [In a 1970s court case, United States v. Washington, Judge George Boldt ruled that tribes were entitled to half of harvestable salmon under 19th-century treaties. The decision sparked a backlash from non-Native fishers.] Eco-colonialism is forgetting to include that Indigenous science, or traditional ecological knowledge, that the Washington state tribes have to protect the salmon, and continuing to focus on the Western conservation lens that ignores the bigger picture.

What is actually impacting salmon from the holistic lens? [Western conservation scientists] are focusing on urbanization, which is one of the factors that impacts salmon, but we’re not focusing on how to mitigate those impacts. They are focusing on culverts [tunnels that drain water from one side of a road to the other and can be difficult for salmon to navigate], but we’re not necessarily focusing on things like ocean acidification and other toxins that are being released into the oceans.

The salmon is like a spiritual relative to the coastal tribes. It is a cultural keystone species as opposed to what recreational fishing teaches us: We catch fish to consume it, but we don’t really have that special connection or that ceremony to catch the fish. So in a way, eco-colonialism also kind of pits Indigenous fishermen against recreational fishermen.

Charting a path forward for Indigenous science

Sarah Sax

How do you start to make room for taking Indigenous knowledge seriously and acting upon it, within the constraints that do exist in conservation science today?

Jessica Hernandez

Grappling with true history is a way that Western conservationists can start dismantling those layers. For instance, the Sierra Club is beginning to reckon with the history on which it was founded. There’s a lot of anti-Blackness and racism embedded in it. [“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote in a 2020 blog post outlining the group’s racist roots.]

As Western conservationists start to understand the true history, which is sometimes uncomfortable because we’re part of a system that has this really harmful, violent history — especially against people of color and, in this case, Indigenous peoples — then we can start understanding what actions we can take.

Sarah Sax

Your book reminds me of Braiding Sweetgrass by Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, in that your own lived experience — and that of your community — is very present. Why is it important to include that when talking about Indigenous sciences and conservation?

Jessica Hernandez

When we look at how to do conservation or how to heal our environments, we tend to forget that Indigenous peoples have been adapting to all these changes. Our communities adapted to colonization. We are adapting to climate change because climate is already impacting our communities.

One of the things I wanted to include was the lived experiences from Indigenous peoples from different settler borders. Settler colonialism in the United States is different from the settler colonialism that’s embedded in Mexico or in Central America. We tend to forget that a lot of Indigenous peoples, even within the United States, are internally displaced from their reservations or to the cities. They also have to adapt their relationship with their environments.

I wanted to also share that banana trees are not native species to our lands [in the Americas]. I have been taught by elders that invasive species are displaced relatives in the sense that they have been displaced from their ancestral lands. But they’re still relatives because they still have a spirit.

Sarah Sax

How do you see Indigenous science fitting into bigger initiatives to heal the planet?

Jessica Hernandez

One of the things that I’m noticing is that the Biden-Harris administration is trying to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge within environmental policies. [In November 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum that recognized Indigenous science and formed an interagency working group that aims to build on it.] Obviously, a presidential memorandum doesn’t have that much legal power. So hopefully that builds a discourse where it can be passed into bills through the Senate or through the House, and go through that judicial process so that it has more weight.

I’m also seeing more Native Americans or Indigenous people in this administration, like Deb Haaland as Secretary of Interior. And then we have the first Indigenous director of national parks [Charles “Chuck” Sams III, a Umatilla leader].

One of the ways that we can start addressing the invalidation of Indigenous science is to integrate it in the curriculum. I was able to teach an introduction to climate science this past quarter and I also integrated Indigenous science. So students were not necessarily just learning Western science; they were also learning Indigenous science.

We talked about the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic that’s happening and how that’s connected to our environment. We read case studies showing that when Indigenous women are given a piece of land, their whole community thrives more than when a man is given the land.

It’s like peeling those layers from the onion to get to the root cause. We are actually healing our landscapes, and healing ourselves as people.

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