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Indigenous Peoples Can Help to Expand Urban Biodiversity

Like so many of us, the majority of indigenous peoples all over the world now live in urban settings, and that proportion is increasing. This growing trend has implications for indigenous peoples, from lifestyles and culture, and includes risks of alienation and loss of traditional knowledge. Urban indigenous peoples often find it hard to pass on valued cultural practices to younger generations.

indigenous peoples

Christophe Lalande, leader of the UN-Habitat Housing Unit, notes:

“Some indigenous peoples arrive in cities compelled to leave their ancestral lands due to necessity. Escaping natural disasters, conflict or dispossession, caused by large-scale development projects, engulfed in urban extension, indigenous peoples find themselves deprived of their resources and unable to carry out their traditional occupations and livelihood.”

Yet indigenous peoples can contribute to our urban environments, too.  Their insights about sustainable forms of urban land-use and ecosystem management may help us to achieve sustainable urbanization at a time when cities around the world are facing loss of biodiversity.

All we have to do is ask.

And sometimes that’s the problem.  How fully do scientific and development constituents value indigenous knowledge? Do they really want to include indigenous peoples in conversations that may detour away from current acceptable ways of doing?

Tensions between Traditional Indigenous and Contemporary Urban Knowledge and Practices

Indigenous knowledge systems are “complex arrays of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations that guide human societies in their innumerable interactions with the natural milieu,” according to biodiversity researchers Nakashima and Roue. Some of these areas include agriculture and animal husbandry; hunting, fishing and gathering; struggles against disease and injury; naming and explaining natural phenomena; and strategies for coping with changing environments.

In 1962, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss acknowledged that the breadth of indigenous taxonomic knowledge is impressive. But embedded Eurocentric worldviews and pervasive messages about indigenous peoples as the Other reinforce doubts about the credibility of pre-European knowledge or its place in contemporary society. Disagreements about approaches to global change have not helped us to filter out misconceptions, either. Is indigenous knowledge really just mythology, or does it have environmental efficacy? Do the forces of industrialization take precedence over indigenous local food production and health care? Even reductionism as an authentic paradigm gets convoluted when power brokers consider indigenous knowledge.

One thing is certain: science is a social construction. Those in Eurocentric positions of power value some types of knowledges over others. If, for example, science defines itself as experimental and universal, then other forms of interaction with the environment come to be seen as somehow lesser, somewhat tangential, or even legendary. It also means that any language that we use to describe indigenous peoples and their urban scientific knowledge must necessarily arise from our own ethnocentrism, which contains an inability to extricate ourselves from our own culturally-embedded points of view.

Creating Common Ground around What is Valued as Knowledge

A call for co-existence of different types of knowledge, including urban eco-design, requires legitimating and validating non-Eurocentric knowing. We can begin to gain common ground by looking at cities as centers where indigenous peoples have offered substantial innovations. Here are two examples of urban practices from the Sustainable Cities Collective— one historical, one contemporary– that can help us to integrate Eurocentric and indigenous scientific knowledge.

  • Machu Picchu, Peru: Terraces were used chiefly to drain and siphon the water from rain, as well as to hold the mountain in place. Each terrace was multi-layered. On top was soil. Next came dirt. Then sand. Finally, stone chips. Water which sat on the terraces would shift downward into the mountain rather than run down and erode the mountain.  
  • Cahokia Summit, Cape Town: Open-access street gardens contain 80-90% indigenous plants, many of which are medicinal. Located in low income areas, these gardens strengthen biocultural ecosystem resilience. They also build communication and collaboration spaces for indigenous people and conservation stakeholders. The gardens contribute aesthetic, biodiversity, and direct use value to residential areas that lack funds for continual maintenance and improvement.


Government Actions that Involve Indigenous Peoples

Governments and businesses are starting to seek out the best practices from indigenous peoples as a way to help traditional communities urbanize with nature, to incorporate biodiversity into the urban fabric, and to offer more sustainable forms of socio-ecological production. A report by Mercer, Figueroa, Mader and Hillel offers several examples of urban governments seeking the voices and expertise of indigenous peoples.

  • Auckland, New Zealand shares its essential identity from shared experiences of Maori and European peoples. Maori see themselves as belonging to the land, as opposed to the land belonging to them. Thus, the natural environment plays a significant role in defining the Maori sense of place. The city council includes Maori views in decision making and delineates a Maori priority list of issues. Many driving issues are environmental.
  • Baguio City, the Philippines has 60% of its population comprised of indigenous peoples and an indigenous mayor. It is currently in the process of updating its Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) and intends to include an indigenous peoples sector in the CLUP.
  • Edmonton and Whistler, Canada brings indigenous perspectives on the environment to city projects through the Edmonton Urban Affairs Committee and an Aboriginal Relations Office. Among its initiatives is a land use review of a portion of Whitemud Park. An indigenous organization proposed that a portion of the park become a farm site and a permanent licensed area for indigenous activities. Another redesign from an indigenous perspective is a bridge located near a traditional burial ground. 
  • Tapukai Park in Cairns, Australia is a cultural rainforest setting that enables guests to immerse themselves in traditional Tjapukai culture with authentic music, dance, and indigenous storytelling. This is the world’s oldest living culture brought to life in an architectural environment which coalesces biodiversity and ancestral culture. The Park has injected in excess of $35 million to the local indigenous community in wages, royalties, and through the purchase and commissioning of art and artifacts.

Embracing Indigenous Peoples Strengthens Urban Biodiversity for Everybody

When we listen to indigenous peoples, we gain insights into new ways of knowing our contemporary worlds, especially our urban spaces. Indigenous people often possess the richest customary knowledge but have the least formal education. They also have limited bargaining power in our urban-industrial society. As indigenous knowledge fades with each generation, ethnobiologists and anthropologists play an essential role in preventing this loss, with multiple goals. We have an opportunity to engage indigenous peoples; respect and realize the rights to their territories, culture, and spirituality; enhance their environment and development; and satisfy their aspirations contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to the UN:   

“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social, and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the State.”

Organizations like UN-Habitat have advocated for indigenous communication about and participation in urban migration, housing, traditional building knowledge, and the construction industry. So, too, with almost 20 years experience in working with indigenous people to secure and protect their land and resource rights, has the organization Cultural Survival. A pressing goal of theirs is to design and implement an intellectual property rights project for indigenous peoples. And the prevailing trend to discontinue Columbus Day commemorations in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day, as reported on Ecoprenteurist, infuses respect and new cultural knowledge to our society.

Urbanization of indigenous peoples does not necessarily mean only loss. New medicines, insecticides, sustainable architecture, and other byproducts may emerge. We can reexamine landscapes and seascapes as part of a contemporary urban fabric with the guidance of indigenous peoples.  

Photo credit: jurvetson via Foter.com / CC BY