Indigenous Environmental Justice

In Fresh Banana Leaves by Jessica Hernandez we read chapter 5, “Ecowars” and chapter 6, “Tierra Madre.”

This was for Cultural Ecology 2024, after reading Chapters 3 and 4. Then we finished the book.

Summary: Indigenous Environmental Justice

The Importance of Indigenous Peoples in Sustaining Biodiversity

Most people do not reflect on the fact that “80% of the world’s biodiversity is sustained by indigenous peoples” (128). Despite this significant contribution, “there is little acknowledgment of what happens to our indigenous leaders who advocate for land and Indigenous rights in Latin America” (128). This lack of recognition persists today, often due to attitudes in certain places where scientists believe they can conduct their work without engaging with local communities. When researchers enter these areas, they may think, “I am just here to do my science and collect specimens.” There is also a deeply embedded idea that conservation means keeping people away, as if human presence will inherently damage the environment. This notion extends to the belief that people living in their environments are a threat to those environments, particularly when some Indigenous peoples have adopted practices that involve selling market products.

Avoiding the “Indigenous Culture Expert” Trap

One way to avoid this problematic approach is to recognize that “there is no correct way to be Indigenous and this is the beauty that is embedded in our cultures and Indigeneities” (126). Every individual has a unique perspective, and it is misguided to rely on a single spokesperson to represent an entire community. Asking one person to speak for everyone is a flawed approach.

Xenophobia & Nationalism in Indigenous Communities

Hernandez points out that “nationalism has created a domino effect that recycles xenophobia” (139), which can even divide Indigenous communities (140-141). People who consider themselves Indigenous may also harbor nationalistic attitudes. This is evident in her interactions with people in Mexico and El Salvador, where her mother and father are from.

The Limitations of Bilingual Education

There is an assumption that anyone from Latin America should speak Spanish, and progressive individuals often advocate for bilingual education. However, Hernandez argues that even bilingual education often centers on two colonial languages: English and Spanish (142). In places like New Mexico, Indigenous peoples were likely pressured to speak Spanish before being told to speak English, highlighting the impact of two colonizing languages.

Gender Violence & Environmental Justice

Xenophobia and gender violence are often left out of environmental justice discourse, and Hernandez emphasizes that sexism coupled with anti-Indigeneity creates unique challenges for Indigenous women, who must fight for their rights both outside and within their communities (160). She shares a personal experience: “However, when I go back home and am subjected to mistreatment by non-Indigenous peoples or Indigenous men, they become uncomfortable upon finding out that I hold a doctoral degree in the sciences because the sciences are deemed hard due to how exclusive they are to those who come from better educational backgrounds and are not Indigenous or youth of color” (157).

Muxes & the Protection of Gender Diversity

Hernandez discusses “muxes” (131), individuals who are born with both spirits and are often identified during childhood. “Muxes are mostly identified during their childhood, and this is how the community has been able to protect them” (147). This concept is particularly interesting given the current controversy surrounding transgender issues in childhood.

Ecofeminism as an Integral Component of Indigeneity

While some may consider ecofeminism a Western idea, Hernandez takes a different perspective, stating, “For me, ecofeminism is an integral component of my Indigeneity” (180-181). She embraces various movements, such as Black people’s movements, feminism, and the fight against racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia, both in dominant society and within Indigenous communities. This inclusive approach is refreshing, although it may not be without controversy or universally accepted.

Shifting the Responsibility to the Privileged

Hernandez challenges the notion of asking oppressed communities to solve the problems they face, instead placing the responsibility on those with power and privilege. She poses important questions: “What am I willing to do to help Indigenous communities across the Americas that continue to face the Ecowars? What role do I play in the xenophobia, gender rights violations, and anti-Blackness that are present throughout the Americas?” (152). Ultimately, she argues that “we need folks who will be willing to give up the power and privilege that they are granted within this system based solely on their race and socioeconomic status” (151). This is a difficult task, as giving up power and privilege is not easy, but it is necessary for true progress and equity.

Previous & Links for Indigenous Environmental Justice

I also taught this material for a Cultural Ecology 2023 class with the YouTube lecture:


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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