Conservation & Indigenous Peoples

In Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez we read chapter 3, “Birth of Western Conservation” and chapter 4, “Indigenous Science.”

This was for Cultural Ecology 2024, after reading the first two chapters. After that, we read chapters 4 and 5.

Here is the class summary:

Reconsidering Conservation & Indigenous Peoples: Insights from Hernandez

Challenging the “Nation of Immigrants” Narrative

The statement that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” is often used with inclusive intentions. However, Jessica Hernandez argues that it is an “anti-Indigenous statement” (70). It is crucial to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples inhabited the Americas thousands of years before the continents were named after Amerigo Vespucci. The term “Native American,” while an improvement over other terms, still fails to recognize that people were present before the naming of the Americas. The colonization process in many parts of the Americas involved the enslavement of Africans, adding another layer to the complex history of the region. Confronting the realities of racism and settler colonialism can be uncomfortable, but it is necessary for understanding the development of the United States and other countries in the Americas. (See my course on Colonial Latin America for more discussion of these issues.)

The Impact of European Colonization

European colonizers sought resources in the Americas, often at the expense of the natural world and Indigenous inhabitants. They imposed plantation agriculture, initially attempting to exploit Indigenous labor before importing African laborers, particularly for sugar cane cultivation. Indigenous peoples faced oppression, disease, and displacement. The widespread deforestation and population changes resulting from inter-oceanic colonization may have contributed to global climate change as early as 1610, just a century after the first voyages.

The Western Construct of Conservation

Hernandez argues that “conservation is a Western construct” (72), emerging as a proposed solution to the environmental destruction caused by European colonization. Many Indigenous languages lack a word for conservation (75), instead using terms related to “taking care of or healing” (76). The idea of conservation was founded and promoted by individuals with racist views, such as John Muir, who expressed contempt for black and Indigenous people despite his reputation as an environmentalist. The global model of national parks (80) often involved the displacement of Indigenous inhabitants, perpetuating a problematic approach to conservation.

Stereotypes and Misconceptions about Indigenous Peoples

The stereotype of the “ecological noble savage” (91) and the concept of pan-Indigeneity (93) are harmful oversimplifications that portray Indigenous peoples as monolithic, locked in the past, and innocent children of nature. These romanticized stereotypes were used to justify the removal and displacement of Indigenous peoples, based on the false notion that they were not working the land in the same way as Europeans. In reality, Indigenous peoples actively managed the land through practices like controlled burning and constructed impressive structures such as the Maya cities and pyramids (100) and the mounds of North America. They also developed written systems, such as the Maya hieroglyphic codices (101), many of which were destroyed by Europeans or are now held in distant museums (102-104).

The Importance of Recognizing Indigenous Diversity & Survival

Hernandez cautions against using the word “extinct” to describe Indigenous communities, as it is oppressive and incorrect. “It is important to note that using the word extinct toward an Indigenous community is oppressive given that people cannot go extinct unless the entire species of humans does” (106). Despite severe oppression and the spread of European diseases, Indigenous peoples have survived through intermixture and resilience.

Hernandez notes that the concept of permaculture (108), popularized in organic agriculture, has roots in the practices of Indigenous peoples in Tasmania, although the researchers who popularized it often failed to credit the Indigenous sources adequately. Hernandez highlights the work of scholars like Dr. Enrique Salmón, who wrote about Kincentric Ecology (115), and emphasizes the importance of Indigenous holistic thinking (122), which does not separate the world into distinct systems.

Ethical Approaches to Research, Engagement, Conservation

Hernandez critiques the top-down approach to research, which can lead to the exploitation of Indigenous knowledge without reciprocal benefits (82). She advocates for a bottom-up approach (87) that prioritizes the needs and perspectives of Indigenous communities, such as Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) modified to respect tribal sovereignty and Indigenous autonomy (88-91). Non-Indigenous researchers and individuals should strive to be respectful, give credit where due, offer compensation for shared wisdom and knowledge, and recognize the heterogeneity within and between Indigenous groups. It is crucial to be aware of and avoid perpetuating stereotypes, whether they depict Indigenous peoples as entirely evil or noble.

When traveling and exploring the natural world, it is essential to consider the presence and histories of Indigenous peoples, questioning the presentation of landscapes as untouched wilderness and acknowledging the human stories that shape these places.


In Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez we read chapter 3, “Birth of Western Conservation” and chapter 4, “Indigenous Science.”

This was for Cultural Ecology 2024, after reading the first two chapters. After that, we read chapters 4 and 5.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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