Decolonizing Conservation: Native Communities Know How to Protect Nature

This piece originally appeared in Nexus Media. It is republished here with permission.

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 Mexico’s Zapotec community, showed her granddaughter how to tend the family milpa, where they harvested beans, corn, squash, medicinal plants and even grasshoppers. She led Hernandez on hikes through the mountains surrounding her house, explaining how plants and animals interact in the local ecosystem. “She instilled in me the kinships that we carry on as Indigenous peoples,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the daughter of Indigenous immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador. As a child, she frequently visited her mother’s native Oaxaca. “The community that we had that went beyond humans, to include the animals and the plants.” 

When Hernandez went to graduate school to study ecology, she thought the wisdom passed on from her ancestors would be seen as an asset. She wrote a paper on fisheries that weaved in teachings from her father, who had been a fisherman in his native El Salvador. But to her surprise, she was humiliated for it. 

Jessica Hernandez

University of Washington

“The professor asked me, ‘Is this Jessica’s theory? Where is your citation?” Hernandez recalls in Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, out this month.

Hernandez, 31, is an environmental scientist at the University of Washington and an outspoken critic of Western conservation movements, which she says often ignore or co-opts Indigenous science and sideline the communities who have produced that knowledge.  

“We’re often seen as areas of expertise rather than experts ourselves,” she said. “We’re seen as research subjects rather than researchers.” In writing Fresh Banana Leaves, Hernandez said she hopes to bring attention to the ways Indigenous science has preserved ecosystems for generations. 

Western science has always had a narrow lens, said Kristiina Vogt, a professor at the University of Washington and one of Hernandez’s PhD advisors. “What [Hernandez] has always been able to do is look past that.” 

The scientific method may be built on data points, but Indigenous knowledge is also built on observations, Vogt said. It’s just packaged differently—not in academic papers, but in stories. “People are drowning in the data,” Vogt said, but that data doesn’t always translate to practical solutions. Hernandez bridges this divide in her work, she said, weaving together Western data and Indigenous knowledge.

The conservation movement has a long history of sidelining Indigenous peoples and discounting their ecological expertise. When the United States established its national parks system, ultimately setting aside some 85 million acres of territory, it forced Native American tribes from lands they’d stewarded for millennia.

Park monuments still bear the names of men who advocated for the genocide of Indigenous peoples or carried out massacres themselves. Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley is named for a  surveyor who called for the extermination of local tribes. Mt. Evans Wilderness in Colorado is named for a territorial governor who was responsible for the massacre of some 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people. Native groups are advocating for the monuments’ removal.

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