Humans are not the enemy of the natural world – they’re part of it

What’s happening? A team of international researchers have said the carbon stocks of boreal forests are increased by intensive, controlled management. Their report to the UN climate convention has indicated that carbon stocks in intensively managed forests rose by 35% from 1990 to 2017 compared to a much lower rise, or even decline, for less intensively-managed areas. The researchers added that intensively-managed forests suffer less fire damage. (Bioenergy International)

Why does this matter? Over the past 150 years, modern societies have damaged the planet to the extent that some argue we have entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. As a result, it seems natural to think that humans are unable to co-exist sustainably with the natural world, and that ecosystems are always better off without them.

Although it’s true that industrialisation and globalisation have led to pollution and the unsustainable use of natural resources, the idea that humans are, and should be, generally separated from the natural world is a myth – and one that has historically caused a lot of harm to native peoples.

The dark history of national parks – The creation of the National Park system in the US has been praised as “America’s greatest idea”, but historians argue it was the starting point for a particularly harmful approach to environmental preservation called “fortress conservation”.

When US officials established Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, they said the new status was necessary to protect its untouched wilderness from human influence. What this ignored, however, was that the place had been inhabited and shaped by Indigenous communities for centuries, who cultivated certain trees and used controlled burning to maintain grasslands, much to the advantage of flora and fauna. Despite this, early environmentalists such as John Muir said native peoples had “no right in the landscape”, which led to the forceful eviction of these communities from the parks.

Even the Amazon was shaped by humans – Indigenous communities have practised sustainable land management for thousands of years, contributing to the evolution of diverse species in many places around the world, including the Amazon.

Despite an abundance in life above ground, the rainforest’s soil is naturally acidic and infertile, which posed a problem to ancient Amazonian cultures looking to cultivate crops. They started using wood, bones, manure and other organic materials to enrich the soil, creating highly fertile patches of dark earth called terra preta that can still be found throughout the Amazon today. It laid the foundation for a highly productive food system based on polyculture and agroforestry, resulting in the domestication of dozens of crops while enhancing the ecological value of the region.

What can we learn from this? To stop the displacement of Indigenous communities in the name of conservation, we must start recognising the value of traditional hunting and farming practices and abandon the false dichotomy of people and planet. This is particularly important in the context of the UN’s proposal to put 30% of the world’s land and oceans under protection by 2030, which some fear could perpetuate the suffering of already marginalised communities.

Apart from the obvious moral obligation to recognise Indigenous cultures and their land rights, there are also practical reasons for a new approach to environmental protection. After the last devastating wildfire season in California, experts called on the authorities to focus on landscape management and controlled burning to reduce the risk of large fires. Local tribes know exactly how to do that.

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