Quirks & Quarks

How Indigenous science could help us with our sustainability and diversity crisis

Several recent studies show that history provides examples of how humans can have a positive effect on the landscape — we just need to look to the past to learn how.

Humans can shape our environment in a positive way — and there are lessons to learn from the past

A man in a green shirt walks on a path in a forest.
A recent study found that forests managed by Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest, called forest gardens, are more biologically diverse than unmanaged forests. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Researchers looking at the long history of human impact on natural environments suggest that their work shows integrating historical and Indigenous practices could help us use our landscapes more sustainably.

A recent study found that less than three per cent of the world's land surface is considered "functionally intact," or ecologically unaffected by human activity.

As a result, wildlife numbers have dropped by nearly 70 per cent since the year 1970, according to a 2020 report by the World Wildlife Foundation.

A global assessment suggested one million species — one in eight — are threatened with extinction. Much of that is due to habitat loss, as humans have taken over the landscape. 

"For the rest of life on Earth, recent times have been the worst of times. There's very little space to be a wild species anymore," Erle Ellis, a researcher and professor at the University of Baltimore's department of geography and environmental systems, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

But several recent studies show that it is possible for humans to have a positive effect on the landscape — and we can look to the past to learn how.

When habitats are respected, and their integrity is respected, then everybody flourishes.- Zoe Todd, Métis anthropologist and founder of the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures

Ellis recently led a study that showed humans have been shaping the global landscape for 12,000 years, and that until just a few hundred years ago, most of it was done in a sustainable manner.

"The idea that most of nature has been this kind of untouched wilderness until very recently is absolutely not correct," said Ellis. 

"Human societies did shape their landscapes. They hunted, used fire, they moved species around the landscape and basically managed ecosystems in various ways."

Lessons from the past to build a better future

Another recent study by researchers from Simon Fraser University shows that Indigenous-managed forests, called forest gardens, are more biologically and functionally diverse than even "untouched" forests. 

"Forest gardens are just these supermarkets for animals and pollinators. And so it adds to the overall diversity of the landscape in the Northwest by increasing these functions for various wildlife," said Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, who led the study. "This research shows how humans can have an impact on the environment without necessarily being a negative one."

She pointed to other recent work showing that one-third of the ecologically intact forests that remain on Earth are managed by Indigenous people. "Indigenous people by definition have a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, a lot of expertise in managing ecosystems," she said.

Results like these are no surprise to Indigenous scientists like Zoe Todd.

"For thousands of years, since time immemorial, peoples in what is currently known as Canada governed their lands, waters and atmospheres in ways that allowed them to continue to relate to the environment sustainably," said Todd. "The really crucial part is understanding that when habitats are respected, and their integrity is respected, then everybody flourishes."

Indigenous scientist Zoe Todd is the co-founder of the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures which seeks to restore fish habitat through a 're-storying' approach. (Zoe Todd)

Todd is a Métis anthropologist and associate professor of sociology at Carleton University. She is the founder of the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures, which seeks to restore populations of bull trout in Alberta by incorporating stories and traditional knowledge into conservation efforts. 

"The people who are closest to the watershed, who have lived with those fish since time immemorial, really have the most to guide us with in terms of what the fish need, and also understanding the dynamic nature of habitats," said Todd.

"We're really trying to shift the conversation away from integrating Indigenous knowledge into science, but actually helping non-Indigenous peoples to understand we all occupy storied landscapes that are governed by Indigenous law."

Indigenous law as a guideline through hardships

Todd cautions, however, that we shouldn't romanticize Indigenous science and expect it to solve all of our problems. But she said it can contribute to solutions to our current sustainability crisis.

"The stories that have been passed on talk about many of those challenges. And then the laws that are coded in those stories have really direct guidance about how to minimize risk in that way," she said. "My Indigenous ancestors survived so much, and I'm here because of because of them." 

Todd adds that it's not just about incorporating Indigenous knowledge, but also the cultures and the laws and the people tied to that knowledge.

Ellis agrees.

"When you're thinking about conserving and restoring nature, that's a cultural nature. It needs not just experts and practices. It needs the people. It needs those traditional cultures and Indigenous cultures and people to manage those places sustainably," he said.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.