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Meet the Environmental Scientist Who Wants to Decolonize Conservation
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Meet the Environmental Scientist Who Wants to Decolonize Conservation

Meet the Environmental Scientist Who Wants to Decolonize Conservation

Indigenous communities “are seen as research subjects rather than researchers.”

Originally published onNexus Media.
By Kate Wheeling

Jessica Hernandez found her way to conservation science and environmental justice through her grandmother and her knowledge about the natural world, accumulated over generations.

Maria de Jesus, a member of southern Mexicos Zapotec community, showed her granddaughter how to tend the familymilpa, the plot where they harvested beans, corn, squash, medicinal plants and even grasshoppers. She took Hernandez on hikes in the mountains around her house, explaining how animals and plants interact with each other. Hernandez stated that Hernandez instilled in her the kinships that will continue to be a part of our Indigenous culture.

Hernandez was the daughter of Mexican and El Salvadorian immigrants. She grew up in South Central Los Angeles. She visited Oaxaca, her mother’s native Oaxaca as a child. The community we had extended beyond humans to include animals and plants.

Hernandez thought that the wisdom she had received from her ancestors would be an asset when she went to graduate school to study ecology. She wrote a paper about fisheries that included teachings from her father who was a fisherman in El Salvador. To her surprise, she was embarrassed for it.

I was asked by the professor, “Is this Jessicas theory?” Where is your reference? Hernandez recalls inFresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science,out this month.

Hernandez, 31, is an environmental scientist from the University of Washington. She is a strong critic of Western conservation movements that she claims often ignore or co-opt Indigenous science and sideline communities who have created it.

She stated that they were often seen as experts rather than specialists. We were seen as research subjects, rather than researchers. In writingFresh Banana Leaves, Hernandez said she hopes to bring attention to the ways Indigenous science has preserved ecosystems for generations.

Kristiina Volgt, a University of Washington professor and one of Hernandez’s PhD advisers, stated that Western science has always used a narrow lens. What [Hernandez] has always been able to do is look past that.

Environmental Scientist Jessica Hernandez. Credit: University of Washington

The scientific method may be built on data points, but Indigenous knowledge is also built on observations, Vogt said. Its just packaged differently not in academic papers, but in stories. Vogt said that people drown in data but that it doesn’t always translate into practical solutions. Hernandez bridges this gap in her work by combining Indigenous knowledge and Western data.

The conservation movement has a history of ignoring Indigenous peoples and ignoring their ecological expertise. When the United States established its national parks system, ultimately setting aside some 85 million acres of territory, itforced Native American tribesfrom lands theyd stewarded for millennia.

The names of men who advocated the genocide of Indigenous peoples and committed mass murders are still engraved on park monuments. Yellowstones Hayden Valley is named for a surveyor who called forthe extermination of local tribes. Mt. Evans Wilderness in Colorado is named for a territorial governor who wasresponsible forthe massacre of some 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Native groupsare advocatingfor the monuments removal.

Hernandez said that rather than honoring genocide perpetrators, she would like to see monuments to those who have preserved the lands over millennia. There is increasing evidence that Indigenous peoples are the best stewards for the Earth. Though they make up just 5 percent of the global population, they protect some80 percentof its biodiversity, according to the World Bank, and biodiversity on Indigenous-managed landsoften exceedsthat of protected areas. Indigenous peoples with titles to their land tend to have the most success at preserving lands,researchhas found.

Western researchers and companies also have a long history of co-opting Indigenous discoveries like traditional medicines. Some scholars estimate the market value of pharmaceuticals derived from Indigenous medicine to be in thetens of billions.

Hernandez stated that permaculture is another field that draws heavily from Indigenous practices. Bill Mollison coined the term to describe a sustainable farming method he observed among the Aboriginal Palawas in Tasmania in the 1970s. Mollison is often praised for his discovery of sustainable agriculture, when in fact the Palawa and other Indigenous peoples had been using this lens for centuries.

Hernandez wants environmental organizations, governments, and the descendants of settlers to acknowledge their anti-Indigenous history and support Indigenous voices. It’s like peeling onions. Hernandez explained that there are many layers we need to remove. The history that has been hidden or silenced for so many years is the first layer.

Hernandez stated that she is encouraged by recent developments in America. In June, the Department of the Interior (under the direction of Deb Haaland, the departments first Indigenous secretary) returned some18,000 acres in Montana to the control of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. In November, the Biden Administrationissueda memorandum pledging to consider traditional ecological knowledge in its environmental policies.

The Sierra Club, one of the countrys oldest and largest environmental groups, has acknowledged and disavowed its substantial role inperpetuating white supremacy,announcing plans to increase diversity in the clubs leadership, spend more on environmental justice projects and re-evaluate monuments to the clubs former leaders.

For her part, Hernandez is using her credentials and her large social media following to bring Indigenous science and voices into academia. I am always amazed at the knowledge my grandparents and parents have about the environment. I think they are more knowledgeable than any professor I have had in my professional career. To be able to use their knowledge, Indigenous people do not necessarily need a bachelor’s or doctoral degree.

Last fall, Hernandeztaughtan Introduction to Climate Change course that included lessons on Indigenous land stewardship and discussions on the ways that Indigenous women are impacted by climate change.

She hopes she can bring a new generation of Indigenous thinkers into the conservation field while reminding students to look beyond the ivory tower for climate solutions.

Featured photo by Vincius Henrique Photography on Unsplash


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