The Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples Can Help Us Weather Our Current Crises

Sandra Folzer, Weavers Way Environment Committee

During these trying times of political unrest, racism and a pandemic, we are often tempted to look to new ideas and technology for answers. However, sometimes looking back might offer the most viable means of moving forward. New is not always better. Instead, we should listen to the wisdom of indigenous peoples, who have historically been ignored.

Throughout American history, beginning with colonization, agricultural systems based on cooperation and shared resources have been overtaken by ones of individualism and personal profit. Large scale factory farms have ultimately come to dominate farming. Federal policy has played a role in this trend, providing greater assistance and subsidies to large monocrop, industrialized farms growing lucrative crops like soybeans and corn versus smaller farms growing fruits and vegetables, which are deemed “specialty crops” under the Farm Bill. Consequently, less than five percent of farmland used to grow food is devoted to fruits and vegetables, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In times of crisis like the pandemic, factory farms are not able to be flexible. Since they tend to grow one crop in large quantities, they struggle when they can’t get their products to distributors. The New York Times reported in April that a farmer in Idaho buried one million pounds of good onions while others in Wisconsin and Ohio dumped thousands of gallons of fresh milk. In May, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Thom Petersen, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that an estimated 10,000 hogs were being slaughtered each day during the pandemic. 

Smaller farms are more resilient because they can deliver locally. Borrowing from techniques used by indigenous peoples, smaller farmers tend to grow diverse crops side by side, providing more natural pest control. Instead of clearing the land for miles, as factory farms do, many smaller farms plant trees along with crops to control the temperature and reduce susceptibility to wind and rain—a practice developed by indigenous peoples. The trees improve the soil, reduce erosion and store carbon.

As climate change accelerates, the agriculture industry needs to learn from indigenous farmers how to survive in harsh environments. Worldwide, indigenous people found unique ways of farming — from terraced gardens in mountain areas, which prevent soil erosion, to floating gardens in flooded fields. 

These effective practices have been developed over thousands of years: Grow native crops, which adapt to local conditions and thus are less susceptible to drought and flooding. Do not till the soil after harvest, leaving the ground naked, causing erosion. Instead, leave some plants in place to protect the soil. Grow crops following the contour of the land, which reduces water runoff, prevents soil erosion, and increases crop production. Practice crop rotation to preserve the soil and minimize the need for pesticides. 

In the United States, the Traditional Native American Farmers Association provides training in natural farming and earth restoration. Elsewhere, the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute, an NGO in Guatemala, empowers indigenous farmers through a native seed bank and by promoting traditional methods of growing food.

At the start of this year during the Australian wildfires, National Public Radio interviewed Aboriginal elder Noel Butler, who said that Aboriginal people have knowledge of managing the land that goes back generations, but that their expertise is generally ignored by government officials. Aboriginal people traditionally prevented destructive forest fires by setting preventative fires, first reducing underbrush to lessen the intensity and factoring in temperature, humidity and wind conditions to keep fires under control. Biased beliefs that new technology and methods are inherently better have, in part, prevented widespread adoption of this practice.

I wish we all could adopt the Māori idea of “kaitiakitanga” and be guardians and protectors of nature, showing our respect for future generations. Hopefully in this time of crisis, we can all learn to view nature as sacred, as so many indigenous people do.