Indigenous knowledge and the persistence of the wilderness myth

Credit: Wolfram Dressler, Author provided
Credit: Wolfram Dressler, Author provided

Aboriginal people in Australia view wilderness, or what is called wild country, as sick land that's been neglected and not cared for. This is the opposite of the romantic understanding of wilderness as pristine and healthy a view that underpins many non-Indigenous conservation efforts.

In a recent paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers demonstrate how many iconic wilderness landscapes such as the Amazon, forests of Southeast Asia, and the western deserts of Australia, are actually the product of long-term management and maintenance by Indigenous and local peoples. But this fact has often overlooked a problem that lies at the heart of many of the world's pressing environmental problems. Indigenous and local people are now excluded from many areas deemed wilderness leading to the neglect or erasure of these lands.

Anthropocene is the term scientists use to refer to the time period we live in today, marked by the significant and widespread impact of people on Earth's systems. Recognition of this impact has sparked efforts to preserve and conserve what is believed to be intact and natural ecosystems. Yet, the Anthropocene concept has a problem: it is based on a European way of viewing the world. This worldview is blind to the ways Indigenous and local peoples modify and manage landscapes. It is based on the idea that all human activity in these conservation landscapes is negative. The truth is, most of Earth's ecosystems have been influenced and shaped by Indigenous peoples for many thousands of years.

The failure of European-based western land management and conservation efforts to acknowledge the role of Indigenous and local peoples is reflected in recent scientific attempts to define wilderness. These attempts layout a strict and narrow set of rules around what human impact is, and in so doing, act as gatekeepers for what it is to be human.

The result is a scientific justification for conservation approaches that exclude all human involvement under the pretense of wilderness protection. The disregard for the deep human legacy in landscape preservation results in inappropriate management approaches. For example, fire suppression in landscapes that require burning can have catastrophic impacts, such as biodiversity loss and catastrophic bushfires. In the Amazon, forest management by Indigenous and local peoples has promoted biodiversity and maintained forest structure for thousands of years. Areas of the Amazon considered wilderness contain domestic plant species, anthropogenic soils, and significant earthworks (such as terraces and geoglyphs), revealing a deep human legacy in the Amazon landscape.

Despite playing a key role in maintaining a healthy and diverse Amazon forest system, Indigenous and local peoples struggle constantly against wilderness-inspired conservation agendas that seek to deny them access to their homelands and livelihoods in the forest. Similarly, the forests of Southeast Asia and the Pacific are some of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. These forests have been managed for thousands of years using rotational agriculture based on small-scale forest clearing, burning, and fallowing. Scientific attempts to define the last remaining wild places falsely map these areas as wilderness.

Rather than being wild places, agriculture has actively promoted landscape biodiversity across the region, while supporting the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of Indigenous and local peoples. In the central deserts of Australia, areas mapped today as wilderness are the ancestral homes of many Aboriginal peoples who have actively managed the land for tens of thousands of years.

Removal of Traditional Owners in the 1960s had catastrophic effects on both the people and the land, such as uncontrolled wildfires and biodiversity loss. Unsurprisingly, a return of Aboriginal management to this region has seen a reduction in wildfires, a significant increase in biodiversity, and healthier people.

By framing landscapes created and managed by Indigenous and local peoples as wilderness, we are denying the land the care it requires. The effects of this neglect are evident in the catastrophic wildfires and environmental degradation occurring in Australia, northwest America, and the Amazon all lands invaded and colonized by Europeans.

Science alone has failed to solve these problems. Imposing land management approaches developed in Europe has failed. The idea of wilderness is destructive and must be abandoned. We need new ways of engaging with the world around us if we're to live sustainably on this planet. Indigenous and local peoples must be engaged in the full range of efforts that affect their lands. This includes developing and implementing environmental initiatives and policymaking, the production and execution of research, and environmental management.

There are models that can be followed, such as developing Indigenous and community-conserved areas, Indigenous-protected and -conserved areas, or similar rights-based initiatives that merge the science and technology with the power of Indigenous and local knowledge. This is one way forward in effectively decolonizing conservation and making the Earth healthy again.

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