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CRUCIAL NATIVE ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE (3) – Caring for our home

July 30, 2021

Robaird O’Cearbhaill

As Laudato si declares: Care for our common home, the planet, is our duty. Native people have been doing that for aeons, using traditional knowledge all over the world, before colonialism and large-scale intensive farming replaced native practices, except in isolated places. The research in studies into native environment skills has become more important as another way to halt global warming, including maintenance, or restoring crucial ecosystems and biodiversity.

Beneficial indigenous environmental practices have not been studied enough for two reasons. Firstly, indigenous knowledge was passed on generation after generation by oral communication, with little written down. Secondly, there was little scientific interest in knowledge from people considered from primitive cultures. Academically, oral history or knowledge was not considered reliable or scientific. But with environmental concerns looming as the Earth warms up and multiple necessary eco-systems at risk, native knowledge of surviving and maintaining environments can be a crucial part of the solution.

As shown in part 1 and 2, ancient wisdom of beneficial landscape gardening by the native Aboriginals in Australia not just maintained ecosystems but dramatically improved them. However colonial, vast, intensive cattle and sheep grazing farms destroyed to a large part the indigenous land management that previously had worked well for millennia. But forest management practised there had been shown in recent decades to have been practised by settled farming and semi-settled hunter gatherer cultures, in other natural environments.

In the Philippines there is a good example of well-balanced ecology of mountain and forest farming by the Kalanguya indigenous rice farmers, the Ikalahan (meaning “people of the forest”) in Northern Luzon province who were profiled in a report at the 2009 Asia Summit on Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in Bali.

“In terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change, the Ikalahan continue to do their traditional and innovative agroforestry management systems which includes the use of gen-gen (organic fertilizers), day-og, pangomis (inter-cropping and fallow periods) and gaik (firelines). They devised their own Forest Improvement Technology (FIT).”

They blend in the mountainous rice terraces with mixed vegetables and fruits planted near the terraces – intercropping  – and regularly rest land to restore fertility. Like the Australian aborigines they create fire safe breaks in the forest and divide areas there for particular purposes. According to Indigenous action group Intercontinentalcry.org (IC) for the Kalanguya “Some areas are for wood gathering another is for other forest products, another is for environmental services (carbon exchange).”

Unfortunately, little had been studied before environmental concerns and global warming, Traditional Ecology Knowledge is now being looked at academically in all the continents. A major issue is how soil is maintained or boosted and keeps more, or less, carbon for climate change. Declining soil fertility is a major concern for agriculture, and pollution, and global warming, due to overuse of chemical fertilizers, and over farming which leads to poor soil and serious water pollution. Recent studies on the Amazon basin Africa and Australia are focussing in indigenous people-produced ecologically beneficial, more fertile ‘dark’ soil, Anthropogenic Dark Earths. In an American Geophysical Union, AGU Fall Meeting abstracts, 2014, stated that “African Dark Earths (AfDE) are black, highly fertile and carbon-rich soils formed through and extant but ancient soil management system.”

From those very hot areas of the world to the very cold areas,  indigenous peoples use traditional wisdom, as we can see in the Arctic  with the Sami people, commonly known as the reindeer herders, in Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. How they are adapting to global warming is reported in the Environment 360Yale magazine in “Native Knowledge: What Ecologists Are Learning from Indigenous People.” While climate change has reduced wild salmon harvest the Sami have used their traditional knowledge to adapt, restore spawning grounds, using less nets, fishing more spikes which prey on young salmon. This ecology scheme was co-managed by Sami and the government of Finland. This official cooperation not only improved salmon numbers, but the indigenous people tellingly warned, because of global warming,  of the northward invasion of the very damaging scarabaeid beetles pest, whose swarms attack crops roots and forests. 

(Final part of Caring for our home:  America – where most TEK research is done – a native traditional ecology success.) (Photo: Kalanguya costume in Northern Philippines, by Jun Delim in Flickr)