A South American Indian protests over land rights in Brazil.
Traditional farming strategies could protect humanity against global warming and prevent deadly wildfires. Yet scientists seem determined to ignore them. Prejudice against indigenous people is visible and ingrained in cultures everywhere, from US football team names (the Washington Redskins for example) to Hindu folk tales where the forest peoples are rakshasas, or demons.
But it’s arguable that these prejudices also influence our science and policy. Take, for example, the specialised method of rotational farming used by many indigenous farmers all over the world but particularly in the global south. Farmers use seasonal fires to clear and farm parcels of natural landscapes and rotate their crops while the previously farmed parcel is allowed to regain fertility and natural vegetation – a method known as swidden agriculture. This technique helps preserve the soil quality and creates variation that helps counter the dominance of a few species and promotes biodiversity. It also helps prevent larger wildfires of the type that ravaged California recently, leaving 41 people dead and causing financial losses worth $30bn (£22.7bn). After decades of neglect, the US Forest Service is now embracing the Native American methods of fire management.
And yet, despite these potential benefits to the environment, and its crucial role in the wellbeing of many millions of indigenous families throughout the global south, swidden is neglected in science and policy research related to landscape conservation.
The huge internationally financed programme of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (Redd) encourages governments in developing countries to plant new forests on “barren” lands to offset carbon emissions responsible for global climate change. Swidden landscapes, which are left fallow for several years before they are farmed again, are an easy target for governments and “carbon cowboys” looking to profit from Redd, who may sow fast-growing and ecologically harmful commercial plantations in swidden lands.
A high-profile international project focused on researching biodiversity in Cameroon, Madagascar, Tanzania, Indonesia and Laos offers a case in point. Even though swidden was the dominant land use in these research sites, scientists from the Centre for International Forestry Research ignored it altogether, thereby missing an opportunity to learn about its potential to aid biodiversity conservation. Such neglect reinforces the stigmatisation of swidden and other indigenous farming methods. Government agencies and environmental NGOs seek to ban, restrict, or phase out swidden, without any provisions for viable alternatives. This is unfortunate because if swidden landscapes are allowed sufficient fallow period and are protected against commercial exploitation, they help nurture biodiversity and contribute to the food security of some of the poorest people on earth.
This year, as we celebrate the completion of a decade of the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, we would do well to incorporate indigenous wisdom in our science and policy. Respecting indigenous rights will also give humanity better protection against catastrophic climate change.