Indigenous wisdom can heal the planet


For many, the recent celebration of Mother’s Day was a chance to reconnect with our love for life and reflect on that which binds us together as human beings. And now more than ever before in human history, we need to take moments such as Mother’s Day and the upcoming World Environment Day on June 5 to express our gratitude to our collective mother: Mother Earth. 

“Mother Earth is crying for her human children… she has lived for billions of years, and she’ll live for more. It’s a question of whether or not we human beings are going to live,” says “Kuuyux” Merculieff, Alaskan Unangan leader.

For thousands of years, Indigenous communities have referred to Earth as our “mother” because the Earth nurtures life. They have based their stewardship of, and heartfelt connection to, the natural world on the idea that if you take care of the Earth, the Earth will take care of you.

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For example, the Kogi tribe from the Sierra Nevada region in Colombia refers to humankind as “the younger brothers,” and they say that “the younger brothers are abusing Mother.” What was previously a reciprocal relationship advanced by all Indigenous Peoples has turned one-sided, leading to the rapid deterioration of our natural world. Today, there is no better evidence of this disastrous shift than the pandemic we’re currently facing. 

COVID-19 has highlighted the huge risk the exploitation and destruction of Mother Nature poses to our health — and how climate change compounds that risk. The wild animal trade that led to the pandemic is just one element of a far bigger problem: our devastating assault on biodiversity. According to new research, infectious diseases that originate from animals and infect people now comprise the majority of recurrent and emerging infectious disease threats.

We also know that biodiversity loss and the rise in global temperatures are deeply intertwined; however, more often than not, they have separate narratives. In fact, the destruction of biodiversity is not simply a consequence of climate change — it is a driver of climate change.

Recently published research from the Harvard School T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that when we destroy biodiverse ecosystems, they are no longer able to regulate the dispersion of pathogens, and we contribute to the climate crisis because natural carbon sinks are no longer available. Additionally, if the destruction of those ecosystems is due to fires, then the release of carbon into the atmosphere makes the climate crisis even more severe. Scientists predict that the climate crisis itself will increase the likelihood of these pandemics, with zoonotic and vector-borne diseases like malaria rising, for example, as mosquitoes and ticks expand their range. We’ve already been listening to the scientific community, and some of us have been respecting their findings, but not enough of us are acting.

So how can we solve the crisis in nature and save the Earth’s most biodiverse places? Indigenous Peoples have taken care of the planet for thousands of years, and it is time to embed their philosophies into our daily lives, be it in urban or rural settings.

Indigenous Peoples make up less than 5 percent of the global population, yet they inhabit 80 percent of the most biodiverse regions. They have long practiced land management and conservation methods that scientists now say are crucial for tackling the climate crisis and enriching biodiversity. Innovative technologies alone are not enough to address the climate crisis, and we cannot reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set by the Paris Agreement without the inclusion of Indigenous conservation methods, as well as an intergenerational and holistic understanding of the natural world. Nature’s own systems offer the greatest climate solution because they draw down atmospheric greenhouse gases. It is a tried-and-tested method from Mother Nature herself that, when coupled with Indigenous ways of preserving ecosystems like forests, wetlands or savannas, can greatly contribute to solving the climate crisis.

A 2016 study by the Rights and Resources Initiative, the Woods Hole Research Center, and the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that, “Titled Indigenous lands in three Amazon countries had two to three times lower deforestation rates over a period of more than a decade than lands the state hadn’t formally recognized as Indigenous forests.” 

But while the tide has been turning toward greater recognition of Indigenous knowledge for a couple of decades, it isn’t happening fast enough — or at the scale we need. By listening to the leadership of these communities and integrating their methods of protecting vital carbon sinks and biodiverse regions, as well as by learning from their experience of managing forests and agro-ecological systems, we can greatly improve our chances of warding off infectious diseases and run-away climate change.

Initiatives such as the Global Landscapes Forum are considering Indigenous communities in forest conservation and management, but only because long term investors need their involvement based on corporate terms and interests. This is problematic because the Indigenous way of life in the forest may become surveilled and discouraged, and because forest composition may be forced to change to accelerate carbon sequestration. Agendas based on carbon markets, lack of transparency among stakeholders, and lack of involvement of local governments and industries can produce much greater stress on ecosystems than if, instead, incentives were to be given to national, local and traditional governments, allowing ecosystems to naturally regenerate.

Ultimately, if we fail to act quickly enough on the climate crisis and ignore Indigenous knowledge to protect biodiversity, we will not only destroy nature — which includes ourselves — but we’ll also unleash many more public health nightmares.

The response to COVID-19 has shown how many individual actions put together can amount to systemic change. As climate activists mobilize online through actions such as The Re-Earth Initiative, we remain optimistic that our generation can help create a less destructive global society. However, as we work to achieve a more harmonious relationship with Mother Earth, we must start by recognizing that Indigenous Peoples are the best guardians of not only their own lands but of all nature. Their wisdom is essential to reestablishing a reciprocal relationship with our planet. A failure to understand this fact will lead to the eventual destruction of humanity — simply put, we cannot take the natural world’s consideration for humanity for granted.

As we reflect during this pandemic, the words of Mindahi Bastida, director of the Original Caretakers program at the Center for Earth Ethics and General Coordinator of the Otomi-Toltec Regional Council in Mexico, are more important than ever: “We need to remind everyone to live with Mother Earth, not from Mother Earth, to live in peace, harmony and dignity. We need to remember that we are the little ones; we are her children and we need to behave.”

Protecting our Mother’s biodiversity and taking the lead from Indigenous communities as her caregivers should not be seen as altruistic. Our active involvement in the recovery of Mother Earth’s diverse ecosystems and Indigenous communities inhabiting them is essential to ensure a livable planet for at least seven multiples of seven generations. The questions are, how do we understand active involvement and how do we make sure that our actions are indeed enabling the regeneration of Mother Earth.

Mother Earth has been here for 4.5 billion years and will continue to exist. The question is, will we continue being her little ones?  

Xiye Bastida is an 18-year-old indigenous climate activist based in New York. She is a recipient of the Spirit of the United Nations Award, a lead organizer of Fridays for the Future, and a member of Peoples Climate Movement-NY’s core committee.

Julia Jackson is the founder of Grounded.org, a non-profit organization working to identify and accelerate the most impactful solutions to ensure a livable planet. Grounded convenes scientists, policymakers, world leaders, investors and front-line organizations to share transformative ideas and co-invest in innovative solutions to address the climate crisis.