Indigenous Ecosystem Management


Rice terraces in the Sayan valley, Bali. Photo by JB Hardy.

In 2013, I attended a talk by Julia Watson of Studio REDE on indigenous landscapes and traditional ecological knowledge, and it has percolated in the back of my mind ever since. The talk was fascinating, and raised a lot of questions that I don’t see often explored in the sustainability discourse. The mainstream environmental movement generally treats humans as a self-loathing, predator-parasite on the Earth, sucking resources beyond our capacity to renew, woefully out of tune with the ecosystem around us. If humankind disappeared, the thinking goes, the Earth would rebalance itself. This perception has always left me cold. What problem would extracting us from the equation solve? Apart from the vulnerable poster-animals like polar bears and snow leopards, the species most widely affected by climate change is humans. A changing climate threatens our place-based way of life; it washes away lands, bringing the ocean into beachfront communities; it tosses the sky down on towns where tornadoes had never landed before; it evaporates riverbeds, growing land out of the water that nourishes desert cities. Humans can’t be extracted from the equation; we are the denominator the equation is built around. That humans are a threat to their environment is only a very new historical fact.

Indigenous cultures intuit this in a way that contemporary environmentalists do not. Watson discussed the shaman as ecosystem manager, regulating human behavior vis-à-vis environmental feedbacks, through taboo. Regional taboos and ceremonies are manifestations of a reverence for the sacred, and intuitively establish our place within the larger ecosystem by setting limits on resource use, protecting their boundaries as beyond our reach (off-limits). Contemporary environmentalists, perhaps in an attempt to polarize themselves from climate deniers on the right, have placed their faith solely in science, effectively marginalizing traditional ‘ways of knowing’ as superstitious, if not invalid. Meanwhile, the hyperlocal indigenous knowledge-practice-belief archetype of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ that evolved over generations within specific microclimates is logically more suited to preserve humans’ role within an ecosystem, since that is the function it was developed to serve. It is now a question of whether it can be scaled up to meet global demand in comparable biomes where such practice has been lost. Stripping the traditional shaman of power in essence privatizes the ownership of generational collective knowledge, forcing the environmental movement to act within the corporate paradigm it pays lip service to overturning. Instead, environmentalists would be better served by re-establishing humans as complicated players within the climate drama, both predators and protectors.

One of Watson’s projects created design concepts for Bali’s World Heritage Cultural Landscape, the cooperative subak  system of rice terraces and water temples. Subak have been in use for over a thousand years, integrating watershed ecosystem management, religion, and culture into a closed-loop, functional, sustainable food system.  I have been to Bali many times; one thing that makes it a magical place is not simply its natural landscape, but the very fact that it has been shaped—used, managed—by humans for millennia. Ecosystems do not exist without the organisms that inhabit them, and humans are one of those organisms. Even in the seemingly pristine forest one might stumble upon a decaying temple or long-forgotten irrigation system. In this case, “pristine” doesn’t mean untouched by humans; it means stewarded by humans to preserve both its function in perpetuity, and our place within it.

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