Saturday, May 01, 2021

Indigenous Land Stewardship And Forest Gardening Across Two Continents

nationalgeographic |  For hundreds of years, Indigenous communities in what is now British Columbia cleared small patches amid dense conifer forest. They planted and tended food and medicine-bearing trees and plants—sometimes including species from hundreds of miles away—to yield a bounty of nuts, fruits, and berries. A wave of European disease devastated Indigenous communities in the late 1700s, and in the 1800s, colonizers displaced the Indigenous people and seized the land. The lush, diverse forest gardens were abandoned and forgotten.

A few years ago, Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, an ethnobotanist at Simon Fraser University, was invited by First Nation elders to investigate why hazelnut trees were growing at abandoned village sites near the coast. The plants were far from their native habitat in the dry interior and seemingly lost among towering cedars and hemlocks. Armstrong began to suspect she was studying human-created ecosystems—and they were thriving, even with no one caring for them. She brought her suspicions to community elders, who confirmed them by sharing memories of ancestors cultivating edible and medicinal plants.

Armstrong gathered colleagues to study these ancient gardens’ ecology. In a new paper published this week in the journal Ecology and Society, the team reports a striking finding: After more than a century on their own, Indigenous-created forest gardens of the Pacific Northwest support more pollinators, more seed-eating animals and more plant species than the supposedly “natural” conifer forests surrounding them.

“When we look at forest gardens, they’re actually enhancing what nature does, making it much more resilient, much more biodiverse—and, oh yeah, they feed people too,” says Armstrong.

The paper may be the first to quantify how Indigenous land stewardship can enhance what ecologists call functional diversity—a measure of how many goods an ecosystem provides. It joins a growing scientific literature revealing that Indigenous people—both historically and today—often outperform government agencies and conservation organizations at supporting biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and generating other ecological benefits on their land. Leaving nature alone is not always the right course, scientists are finding—and the original land stewards often do it best.

This is, of course, a claim that Indigenous groups have long made. Western scientists, by contrast, have often written Native people out of forests and other ecosystems they helped create. An increasing number of scientists are now questioning this practice—and in the process, forcing ecology and conservation to undergo what some would say is a long-overdue reckoning.

“Western science for too long has embraced the idea of primordial wilderness,” says Jesse Miller, an ecologist at Stanford and Armstrong’s coauthor. “We’re seeing this paradigm shift to recognizing how much of what was thought of as primordial wilderness were actually landscapes shaped by humans.”