Indigenous Knowledge Is Central To Climate Solutions

17:12 minutes

a lush illustration of banana leaves on a white background
Credit: Shutterstock

As the United States observes Earth Day this year, many will be thinking about their personal relationship with—and responsibility to—the planet. But in an era of multiple planetary crises, including extinctions, global warming, and contaminated water, what about the Indigenous peoples whose millennia-old relationship with their land has been disrupted and sometimes severed by colonialism and other displacements? 

Indigenous environmental scientist and author Jessica Hernandez talks to Ira about the harms the Western science has perpetuated against colonized people, as white environmentalists created national parks on Indigenous lands and “helicopter scientists” continue to do research in the global south while using the wealth of Western institutions. 

And she explains why greater recognition of Indigenous science, and partnerships that center Indigenous peoples and their research questions, is good for the entire planet.

Read an excerpt of Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science.

Further Reading

  • Read about how Indigenous land stewardship helps protect biodiversity at National Geographic.
  • Learn about the global importance of Indigenous lands for global conservation at Nature.
  • Explore how traditional agricultural systems in Mexico can improve food security and nutrition at PLOS.
  • Consider the impact that national parks have had on Indigenous communities in Time.
  • Read about how collaborations between research and local communities can improve Nature.
  • Dive into how climate change is driving Central American migration.

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Segment Guests

Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez is author of Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. On Earth Day, people around the world are taking time to think about their relationship with the planet.

Consider, though, when your entire culture is built on your relationship with the environment you live in. That’s the case of Indigenous people, many of whom have been displaced from their ancestral lands, first, by colonization. And now, increasingly, by climate change.

That’s part of the story of my next guest, Dr. Jessica Hernandez, an Indigenous Environmental Scientist, community advocate, and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. And she’s the author of a book about how environmental science, as practiced in Western institutions, should be paying more attention to the knowledge of Indigenous people if we want to solve environmental crises. The book is Fresh Banana Leaves, Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science. Jessica, Welcome to Science Friday.



Thank you for having me here today. And it’s an honor to have this conversation on Earth Day.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Do you think Indigenous people view Earth differently from settlers in the US?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: I think so. And I think that when we trace that back, it kind of is traced back to the separation from humans from nature. When we look at conservation, when we look at how we practice environmental sciences, we are always told to kind of remove humans from the equation. And I think that, yeah, as a result of that, Indigenous communities, we see our plants and our animals as our relatives as opposed to economic resources or something that we can extract from.

IRA FLATOW: So what you’re saying is that Western conservation views people as the enemy of nature. Where you’re saying that we should be living in harmony with nature.

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yes, especially when we look back at our creation stories, our history since Time Immemorial. We have always had a close relationship with nature. But because colonization and all the organizations and frameworks that introduce, we have been taught to extract from nature. So as a result, yes, we have become the enemy of nature. But we need to kind of reclaim those relationships so that we can holistically steward and care take for our lands and our landscapes in this world.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go back to the title of your book, Fresh Banana Leaves. You start this book with the story of your father, who grew up in El Salvador, and his connection to the banana trees. Why is this story important to this question of Indigenous peoples relationship with land?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I think the story is very important because oftentimes, right, as Indigenous peoples, we are told to get over our past histories, especially when we talk about genocide. And for my people, especially Indigenous Mayan nations across Central America, genocide can be traced back to our parents or our grandparents’ generation. Because genocide occurred during the Civil War that targeted Indigenous communities, that killed a lot of our children.

And I think that tying it back to his story, he taught me that if we protect nature, nature protects us. And I lay the foundation of historian how a banana tree actually saved his life when his guerilla encampment was bombarded, he saw a bomb drop on this banana tree. And instead of the bomb igniting, he saw how the banana leaves kind of wrapped themselves to prevent the bomb from igniting.

And I think that oftentimes we talk about our ancestors pray for us, but sometimes those ancestors are our plant and animal relatives. That was the story he always told me as a young girl. And I think that as I grew older, I started to comprehend the importance and the message behind that story and how it’s manifested in my life today as an Indigenous woman in the environmental sciences.

IRA FLATOW: And that message is if we protect nature, nature protects us?


IRA FLATOW: Dr. Hernandez when I introduced you, I gave a list of things you’re up to. But how do you describe yourself and the work you do as an Indigenous scientist who is also working with Western institutions?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, so why I use a persona of an Indigenous scientist is because I use the Western sciences, the training that I have in the physical and environmental sciences to advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous ways of knowing that I refer to as Indigenous science. And I think that oftentimes the term that we use a lot is traditional ecological knowledge. But when I have seen that being introduced into the environmental sciences, a lot of scientists kind of focus more on the traditional and they continue to speak about Indigenous peoples, our ways of knowing in the past tense.

And the reason why I use the word science is because our knowledge has adapted. We have survived colonization. We’re still surviving climate change impacts. As we know, right, climate change is already impacting our Indigenous communities.

And I see it as a science. Especially the way that science is formulated, we are still making questions, we’re still making observations. It’s just that the methods or the ways that we passed on our knowledge is very different than it’s done in Western science where you publish peer-review articles, where you collect numerical data. And I think that is different, but in the same way it’s kind of still ongoing knowledge that adapts and formulates new knowledge as we speak today.

IRA FLATOW: That’s good to know. One example you write about is milpas, which is a method of agriculture that your family in Oaxaca used to grow food, while also taking care of the local ecosystem. How does this work?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, so milpas are more of a holistic agricultural system, right, when we compare it to Western agricultural systems that have introduced monoculture farming. So milpas have a diversity about diversity in terms of plant species that are integrated into that system. And because it’s very holistic and the plants have built a relationship with one another, it doesn’t require much human labor. The only human labor that we have is tending it and caring for it, but with minimal human physical labor.

And I think that milpas kind of shows the nuances of Indigenous science, right? Because it’s our elders teaching us since we’re young to kind of talk to the plants, to communicate with the plants, to be in ceremony when we’re harvesting. And I think that it’s an intergenerational experience, right? Because we have our elders and our toddlers working the milpas, and we have our adults.

And that is a communal harvest, right? It’s not a harvest where we take whatever we want. We only take what we need. And I think that has allowed me to see how in Western environmental sciences it’s totally the opposite, right, because we take as much as we want instead of what we actually need.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. And in terms of environmental science, I noticed reading your book that one big difference you talk about is how you relate to species that we call invasive, like the banana tree, which is Native to Southeast Asia. Why aren’t they invasive species as far as you are concerned?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: So I was always taught as a young girl that they’re not invasive species. That they’re actually displaced relatives. And I think that goes back to the first question, right? How as Indigenous peoples we view our environments, where our animals and our plants are also our relatives. And I think that given that these are plants, they still have a spirit. They have become our displaced relatives.

And in this case of banana trees, right, they have started to be incorporated into our traditional diets. Like, we have our tamales. We eat plantains. And I think that it shows the nuances in the relationship that has Indigenous peoples, we embrace our displaced relatives, we don’t use that rhetoric that can be harmful that kind of separates humans from nature.

Because looking at the restoration work that I have done, the conservation work that I have done, invasive species are always painted negatively. But a lot of people who are practicing both restoration and conservation, these are their relatives that they’re talking about negatively, right? Because a lot of invasive species have European displacement. And that’s something that many people also can tie their lineage and connections to as well.

IRA FLATOW: One of the statistics you mention in your book is that Indigenous people steward 80% of the world’s biodiversity on just 25% of the land. And knowing that Indigenous peoples are not all the same, do you think there’s an explanation for why they’re doing so well at taking care of ecosystems?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, when I always say that statistic, right, if we want to validate why it’s important to incorporate Indigenous knowledge or Indigenous science, you know, that’s one of the data sets that can prove that point. And also the fact that in Latin America, we are home for 50% of the world’s biodiversity. So I think that given that our knowledge systems have been integrated or generated since Time Immemorial and we have always looked at our landscapes through a holistic lens, it allows us to kind of steward our lands to understand what are the differences that are taking place. How is climate change impacting them.

And I think that oftentimes when I talk about Indigenous science and how that relates to storing or caretaking of our lands, I like to use the metaphor of looking at a puzzle, right? In Indigenous science and ways of knowing, we’re looking at the entire puzzle completed versus in Western science or Western ways of knowing, we focus only on two or three puzzle pieces. So we miss other things that are important for us to create more holistic frameworks and instill those conservation techniques that will look at the entire landscape as opposed to focusing on one species or one area that’s not the entire landscape in itself.

IRA FLATOW: I want to talk about conservation and national parks. You’re right that this idea that originated in the United States, but spread to countries like El Salvador and has led to even more displacement of Indigenous people from their land. Please, say more about that?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah. So national parks, right, it was a framework created in the United States during Roosevelt’s presidency. And as a result of that, oftentimes we forget the history of national parks, and that that history is embedded in the violent displacement of the Indigenous communities and peoples who were living in those lands. That they were decided that there were so pristine and beautiful that they wanted to package it in a national park.

And when we talk about conservation and the National Parks Movement, it has, like, as you mentioned, it has spread all across the Americas. And in my home country, especially in our Maya Ch’orti territories, we have national parks that are embedded in our rainforests. And yet when we look at our Maya Ch’orti or other Indigenous communities, we don’t have access to those national parks because they’re being operated to generate tourism, to generate economic revenue for the country without supporting the Indigenous communities who have the knowledge of storing and caretaking of those landscapes since Time Immemorial.

So we see, again, in national parks how we’re continuing to separate humans from nature. And hopefully, that’s a history that we see in our lifetime being addressed so that we can actually be creating more just solutions and incorporate Indigenous peoples into that framework.

IRA FLATOW: You also write that instead of the word conservation, we should perhaps be thinking differently about environmental science. That “healing” might be a better word. Tell me why

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, so when I look at my Native languages Zapotec and I talk about conservation, there’s not word that translates to conservation. Most of our words translate to healing. And I think that as a result of that, even as Indigenous peoples, we always knew that post-colonization we had to heal. And I think that going back to the discussion we were having on how humans have been separated from nature, a lot of us have a lot of healing to do, right, to reclaim those relationships, to reclaim living in harmony with nature.

And I think that as a result of that, we had to heal a lot of layers, whether it be from colonization, whether it be layers that were exacerbated during the pandemic. And I think that as a result of that, in order for us to heal our landscapes, to heal climate change devastation that’s taking place today, we also need to center the healing of ourselves, the healing of our communities and nation as we move forward.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Dr. Jessica Hernandez, Indigenous Environmental Scientist, postdoctoral fellow University of Washington, Author of Fresh Banana Leaves, Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science. So much to talk about here, so little time.

I’m interested in learning a little bit more about what does healing Indigenous landscapes look like in terms of practical steps?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Practical steps will be like when we look at our relationship with invasive species, many of us have to reclaim those relationships with nature. So instead of just removing the invasive species very aggressively, we have to pray to it, we have to talk to it so that species is OK with being removed. It’s also having that intergenerational relationships, right? Because a lot of us are separated from our elders, we’re separated from our cultures.

So having the elders teach the young people is also a way to heal. And also having discussions, conversations, being in healing circles when we’re doing the restoration work is also very helpful. And I think that through my work, I have been able to implement that. And you may be working eight hours of physical labor, removing our displaced relatives, those invasive species. But at the end of the day you feel really relaxed because there was those healing components that were integrated into that physical labor work that was done.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You feel satisfied.


IRA FLATOW: You feel like you’ve made a contribution.

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yes. And sometimes there’s crying, right? You know especially when I have done restoration work with Indigenous communities and my relatives, there’s a lot of crying because there has been a lot of loss during the pandemic. And I think that we’re able to be in nature and be with our environments when we’re doing that healing, right? It’s like peeling those layers while being in nature as well.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Climate change is reaching what many scientists are describing as crisis levels. We call it a climate crisis, right? There is this consensus that action must happen soon if it is to be successful. Do you think world leaders are ready to take the time that might be necessary to also embark on this healing that you describe?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: I think a lot of our world leaders are not ready. And I think that one of the discussions that I always bring to the forefront is how climate change is actually displacing Indigenous peoples and is displacing them externally, right? And when we look at the immigration discourses, especially from world leaders that actually have power, the leaders of global, dominant countries, immigration is very forceful, right? Like the immigration policies enacted are very harmful.

We see how a lot of Afro-Indigenous relatives from Haiti were actually treated when they had been displaced into the United States. And I think that because climate change is interconnected with displacement and displacement is negatively seen as immigration, our world leaders are not necessarily equipped or ready to address the climate change impacts it’s having on the global South especially.

IRA FLATOW: As we’ve been talking about this hour, today is Earth Day, a day when many people around the world, the United States are considering their relationship with the Earth. What do you think we should be sure to be thinking of or doing on holidays like this one?

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I think that today if you’re looking for a motivation, it’s important to learn who’s Indigenous lands you’re currently living on. And then doing that research, right? Because we know that Indigenous histories, Indigenous movements are often neglected, ignored or silenced in mainstream discourses. And Earth day would be a great way to start learning more about the Indigenous histories of the lands we’re occupying or settled on.

And then researching how we can support those Indigenous communities directly. And that would be like amazing reciprocal relationships being built with not just Indigenous lands, but also the Indigenous peoples of those lands.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Hernandez, thank you for taking time to talk with us today.

JESSICA HERNANDEZ: Yeah, thank you for having me. And you know, it’s an honor to speak with you.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Jessica Hernandez is an Indigenous Environmental Scientist and community activist. Her book is Fresh Banana Leaves, Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science. And if you want to read an excerpt of the book, we’ve got it for you. Go to sciencefriday.com/healing to take a look. Sciencefriday.com/healing.

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