“Today let’s start a new decade, one in which we finally make peace with nature and secure a better future for all” declared António Gutteres, the UN Secretary General, on June 5 during the virtual opening event of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
With environmental degradation already affecting almost half of humanity, and with every major scientific body declaring the next 10 years as critical to confront the climate crises, the urgency to restore the health of our landscapes has never been greater.
We learned about restoration efforts around the world that involved massive community efforts, such as the million-tree initiative in Pakistan and the ambitious project called Green Wall of Africa. Touted as the “largest human-made living structure on earth,” this eco-friendly wall, we are told, will contain the sand dunes of the Sahara and support local livelihoods.
Although containing the Sahara desert with any wall seems questionable, or that building another wall, even the green kind, seems like the last thing us humans need to do, at least there is a clear mandate that restoration has to collaborate with and support the local Indigenous communities.
Several weeks after the UN event, on June 21st, Dr. Robin Kimmerer, the well-known Potawatomi restoration ecologist, gave a deeper perspective on this mandate to work with Indigenous communities during the opening plenary talk of the 9th World Conference of the Society of Ecological Restoration: “This idea of mutual healing, of cultures and land, is the practice under the really big idea of how do we enact land justice. Justice for the more-than-human beings, justice for the people who are so often dispossessed from their homelands, to return people and their practices to the land as part of that sacred moral responsibility to care for the land.”
Mention of ‘cultures and land’, however, was surprisingly absent from the televised UN event. This glaring omission, however, became ridiculously blinding during the finale world premier music video by Ty Dolla and Don Diablo called “Too Much to Ask” tailored to appeal to the #generation restoration.
None of what I am about to explain was provided to the viewer. The music video contained high-quality panoramic footage taken by drone showing hundreds of Maasai people in Kenya, spread out over hundreds of acres of barren red land, constructing half-moon shaped structures called bunds, about 15-feet long with shovels, hoes and lots of sweat.
Thanks to this earth-shaping community work, which saved water and fertile top-soil from being washed away after a storm, the barren land became covered with vegetation. Importantly, this community bund-making event is one of many old Indigenous practices across Africa to harvest rainwater, promote plant growth, and take care of the land.
While there was hardly a peep about cultural practices on the land, it was all over the music video! There is a tendency to describe restoration work as a ‘new relationship’ to nature, as based on a ‘very young’ science, but actually, it is a very old human relationship to the land, a very old community-based science, albeit maybe a forgotten one.
Stimulated by the climate crises, examples of this old land-human relationship are popping up everywhere. Just beneath the cloud-piercing mountains surrounding Lima, Peru, about a hundred communities are removing 500-years worth of mud and rock that have filled in a network of stone ditches constructed during the Incan civilization and abandoned after the arrival of the Spanish.
This network of ditches, known as amuna in Quechua, are designed to harvest and store rainwater underground so that water is available during dry periods. Just reviving 10 miles of the amuna, a small sample of the existing infrastructure, the nearby communities are already seeing more water flowing out of their domestic wells regardless of the changing climate.
In a time of plummeting fisheries and shellfish production worldwide, ancient clam gardens, an old ocean gardening practice by First Nations along the northwest coast of North America, is a shining star. These ancient clam gardens involves constructing rock terraces along the shoreline when the ocean is at low-tide.
Another amazing example of how important culture is to cultivating food along the edge of the ocean comes from Hawaii, where applying old Indigenous land management practices at the He‘eia National Estuarine Research Reserve not only increases food for both people and animals, but has also brought back endangered shorebirds that even the oldest of elders have never seen before.
Then there is the example of Indigenous fire, which has rightfully received lots of press lately. Only when faced with the threat of megafires these last couple of years do forest-managing agencies finally want to listen and learn from Indigenous people who have been practicing this on almost every continent. “We are fortunate here”, says Marianne Ignace who has been reviving cultural fire practices on her traditional territory of the Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia, “that some of that [cultural fire] knowledge still exists in the older generations although it has been undermined and outlawed for over a hundred years.”
These cultural fires have brought back important plants not seen since Indigenous culture was outlawed. All this is taking place not far from where the remains of 215 children were recently found buried next to the old Kamloops Indian Residential School, reminding us how all connected it is: restoring justice, healing, and the land.
Another example comes from my home state of New Mexico. As hotter temperatures melt the mountain snow much earlier than before, the nourishing waters are passing by the farmlands before the farmer has even planted.
Consequently, Federal land agencies are in discussions right now with local farming organizations to build micro-dams in order to store this water in the mountains for when the farming is ready.
It turns out, this same idea and concept was practiced by Pueblo communities for millennia. They built water harvesting structures and ancient gardens out of local rock and earth and almost everywhere water could be collected, “inviting the rain to stay” as one scholar put it.
When you put these examples of cultural revival, land restoration, and community healing together, it shows us that restoration is not so much about “finally making peace with nature”, as it is about finally making peace with our cultural past. As my mentor would say we are living in a time when “all the old is new again.”
The global call to heal the earth’s wounds is a powerful moment of cultural recognition for everyone. As Dr. Kimmerer explained, every person is Indigenous to some place, and every place is the homeland to someone.
But, especially for Indigenous communities across the continents of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, whom for generations have been denied their rightful place at the table of humanity, it is a time of reconciliation and of pride, where their cultural practices are recognized as a means to heal a wounded earth and a wounded people. As the young poet, Jordan Sanchez, said during the UN conference, “resilience, we stand on our own two feet, I’ll tell you, reimagining the future has never tasted so sweet…The promise of restoration lives within us.”
It does indeed.