Indigenous Knowledge and the Persistence of the “Wilderness” Myth

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wilderness is defined as:

A region or expanse of wild or uncultivated land, uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals; “A land of solitude and savagery”.

The aborigines of Australia regard the wilderness, or what is called the “wild country”, as a sick land that has been neglected and not taken care of. This is the opposite of the romantic conception of the wilderness as pristine and healthy – a vision that underpins many non-indigenous conservation efforts.

In a recent article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, we demonstrate how many iconic “wild” landscapes – such as the Amazon, the forests of Southeast Asia and the western deserts of Australia, are in. is the product of long-term management and maintenance by indigenous and local peoples.

But this fact is often overlooked – a problem that is at the heart of many pressing environmental issues around the world. Indigenous and local populations are now excluded from many areas considered “wilderness”, resulting in neglect or erasure of these lands.



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The Anthropocene and Indigenous Peoples

“Anthropocene” is the term used by scientists to refer to the period in which we live today, marked by the significant and widespread impact of man on earth systems. Recognition of this impact has prompted efforts to preserve and conserve what are believed to be “intact” and “natural” ecosystems.

However, the concept of the Anthropocene has a problem: it is based on a European vision of the world. This worldview is blind to the ways in which indigenous and local peoples modify and manage landscapes. It is based on the idea that all human activity in these conservation landscapes is negative.

The truth is, most of Earth’s ecosystems have been influenced and shaped by indigenous peoples for thousands of years.

The failure of European efforts to manage and conserve “western” lands to recognize the role of indigenous and local peoples is reflected in recent scientific attempts to define “wilderness”. These attempts establish a strict and narrow set of rules around what “human impact” is and, in so doing, act as gatekeepers for what it is to be human.

The result is a scientific justification for conservation approaches that exclude any human involvement under the pretext of “protecting nature”. Disregard for the deep human heritage in landscape preservation results in inappropriate management approaches.

For example, suppressing fires in landscapes requiring burning can have catastrophic impacts, such as biodiversity loss and catastrophic bushfires.

Our case studies

In the Amazon, forest management by indigenous and local peoples has promoted biodiversity and maintained forest structure for thousands of years. Areas of the Amazon considered “wilderness” contain domestic plant species, anthropogenic soils, and extensive earthworks (such as terraces and geoglyphs), revealing a deep human heritage in the Amazon landscape.

Although they play a key role in maintaining a healthy and diverse Amazon forest system, indigenous and local peoples constantly struggle against wilderness-inspired conservation programs that seek to deny them access to their native lands. and their livelihoods in the forest.



Frontiers of ecology and the environment

Likewise, the forests of Southeast Asia and the Pacific are among the most biodiverse regions on the planet. These forests have been managed for thousands of years using rotational agriculture based on small-scale clearing, burning and fallow. Scientific attempts to define the last remaining “wild places” falsely map these areas as wild areas.

Rather than being wild places, agriculture has actively promoted the biodiversity of landscapes across the region, while supporting the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of indigenous and local peoples.

In the central deserts of Australia, the areas mapped today as “wilderness” are the ancestral homes of many Aboriginal peoples who actively ruled the land for tens of thousands of years.

The removal of traditional owners in the 1960s had catastrophic effects on both people and land, such as uncontrolled forest fires and loss of biodiversity. Unsurprisingly, the return of indigenous management to this region has resulted in reduced forest fires, a significant increase in biodiversity and healthier populations.




Read more:
“Pigs Can Smell Man”: How Decimation of Borneo’s Ancient Rainforests Threatens Hunters and the Hunted


Michael-Shawn Fletcher burning with his students and Otto Campion Bulmaniya.
In central Arnhem Land, Michael-Shawn Fletcher burns with his students and Otto Campion Bulmaniya of the Arafura Swamp Ranger Aboriginal Corporation.
Provided by the author, Author provided (no reuse)

A way forward

By defining the landscapes created and managed by indigenous and local peoples as wilderness, we deny the earth the care it needs. The effects of this neglect are evident in the catastrophic forest fires and environmental degradation that are occurring in Australia, northwestern America, and the Amazon – all lands invaded and colonized by Europeans.

Climate change is now making these problems worse.

Science alone has failed to solve these problems. The imposing land management approaches developed in Europe have failed. The idea of ​​desert is destructive and must be abandoned. We need new ways to engage with the world around us if we are to live sustainably on this planet.

Indigenous and local peoples must be involved in the full range of efforts that affect their lands. This includes the development and implementation of environmental policy and initiatives, the production and execution of research, and environmental management.

There are models that can be followed, such as the development of indigenous and community conservation areas, indigenous protected and conservation areas, or similar rights-based initiatives that merge science and technology with the power of knowledge. indigenous and local.

This is a way forward to effectively decolonize conservation and make the Earth healthy again.




Read more:
Australia, you have unfinished business. It’s time to let our “people of fire” take care of this land



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