Indigenous Knowhow to Fight Climate Chaos

December 23, 2021

Washington Post:

 Indigenous peoples have known for millennia to plant under the shade of the mesquite and paloverde trees that mark the Sonoran Desert here, shielding their crops from the intense sun and reducing the amount of water needed.

The modern-day version of this can be seen in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, where a canopy of elevated solar panels helps to protect rows of squash, tomatoes and onions. Even on a November afternoon, with the temperature climbing into the 80s, the air under the panels stays comfortably cool.

Such adaptation is central to the research underway at Biosphere 2, a unique center affiliated with the University of Arizona that’s part of a movement aimed at reimagining and remaking agriculture in a warming world. In the Southwest, projects are looking to plants and farming practices that Native Americans have long used as potential solutions to growing worries over future food supplies. At the same time, they are seeking to build energy resilience.

Learning from and incorporating Indigenous knowledge is important, believes Greg Barron-Gafford, a professor who studies the intersection of plant biology and environmental and human factors. But instead of relying on tree shade, “we’re underneath an energy producer that’s not competing for water.”

On both sides of the Arizona border with Mexico, scientists are planting experimental gardens and pushing the potential of an “agrivoltaic” approach. Thirsty crops such as fruits, nuts and leafy greens — which require elaborate irrigation systems that have pulled vast quantities of water from underground aquifers and the Colorado and other rivers — are nowhere to be found.

“We’ve had 5,000 years of farmers trying out different strategies for dealing with heat, drought and water scarcity,” said Gary Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and agrarian activist who focuses on plants and cultures of the Southwest. Collectively, he added, “we need to begin to translate that.”

Some of the methods at Biosphere 2 — a facility marked by the largest closed ecological system in the world — are being applied in fishing villages on the parched Sonoran coast of Mexico. A multiyear effort there will help ensure water, energy and food sources for some 1,500 members of the Comcaac (or Seri) community.

Other researchers are creating a sustainability model for urban settings.

The University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill will break ground next spring on Tumamoc Resilience Gardens, an initiative to be located at the base of a saguaro-studded hill within an 860-acre ecological preserve in the heart of Tucson. It will show how people can feed themselves in a much hotter, drier future.

The core of the project’s design will be passive rainwater harvesting to support a variety of edible, arid-adapted plants. Some of those will be planted under solar panels, said lab director Benjamin Wilder, while others will benefit from centuries-old strategies such as rock berms and rock piles to increase moisture.

Southern Arizona is an epicenter of the movement not just because of the intense environmental pressures that the region faces but because of the presence of the Tohono O’odham Nation southwest of Tucson.

The Tohono O’odham have farmed in the Sonoran Desert for several thousand years. Like many Indigenous groups, they now are on the front lines of climate change, with food security a paramount concern. Their expansive reservation, nearly the size of Connecticut, has just a few grocery stores. It is a food desert in a desert where conditions are only getting more extreme.

Since the early 1970s, a group of Nation members have run the San Xavier Cooperative Farm and grown “traditional desert cultivars” in accordance with their ancestral values — particularly respect for land, water and plants.

Sterling Johnson, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, has worked for the past decade to share that expertise broadly. His partner, Nina Sajovec, directs the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a Native American-governed food justice organization that several years ago founded its own seed bank and already has distributed over 10,000 seeds to farmers.

“We’re all about using what is out there,” Sajovec said. Among the center’s heirloom varieties: 60-day corn, a fast-maturing desert-adapted vegetable, and the tepary bean, a high-protein legume particularly suited to the climate because of leaves that can fold to withstand direct sunlight during the peak of summer.

Johnson captures precipitation during the Arizona monsoon season to sustain crops on his field in the desert lowlands. “It’s using the rainwater,” he explained, “using the contour lines, using your environment and nature to grow food.”

This once common dryland farming practice was all but erased by this country’s Indian boarding school system, which “ripped” children away from their families and severed the transfer of knowledge, he noted. The increasing interest in Native ways is generally welcome, yet it can feel once again like “Anglo society taking when they need something. We really would like to see these crops and techniques … still used to serve the Native community.”

Not just agriculture. Native people have a long history and deep knowledge of living with, using, and cooperating with fire, across the west – seriously important for today’s Forest Service:

US Forest Service:

Centuries ago, indigenous people inhabited the land from coast to coast. They knew what scientists confirm today:  Frequent, low intensity fires on the landscape are not just important to reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire, but also essential to forest health.

“Fire is part of nature,” said John Waconda, a member of Isleta Pueblo and the Indigenous Partnerships Program Director with The Nature Conservancy. “It’s just like the rain, the sunrise each day. It’s a natural occurrence, a part of nature necessary to complete lifecycles of different plants and animals.”

Like any demographic of people, Tribal beliefs and tradition cannot be generalized across all Tribes. However, there is one common theme that could be considered a foundational difference between beliefs of indigenous peoples and those that came with Europeans during colonialism—a balance between humans and nature.

“When it comes to balance and fire, there can be too much, and there can be too little,” said Waconda, who also worked in the Forest Service’s Southwest Region, strengthening partnerships between the agency and Tribes. “Many of today’s extreme fires have sprung from the attitudes that people have had towards fire over the last century. That fire was bad, not good for the landscape, and that it needed to be extinguished.”

A lack of understanding of fire’s ecological role led to those attitudes, said Waconda.

“If you remove fire or try to change its natural cycle, you’re creating an unnatural environment with dense, overstocked forests that will cause repercussions later,” said Waconda. “Fire can be good. If it is practiced appropriately under the right conditions and at the right time. It can provide a wealth of benefits.”

Today, land managers and communities living in fire prone environments across the country are devising strategies to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire, by reintroducing these low intensity fires to the landscape.

Fire is no longer the problem. It’s part of the solution.

This shift in attitude more closely resembles what indigenous people practiced centuries ago-and desire to implement again today. They learned not only to live with and manage fire, but to use it in ways to enrich their communities.

One misconception that Lake highlighted was that many areas such as Wilderness are seen as natural landscapes completely void of human interference, with natural fire regimes. But in many cases, those areas evolved with indigenous people over millennia.

“Indigenous people had been managing those lands for a long time,” said Frank. “They are actually cultural fire regimes, because they didn’t just live in harmony with fire, they learned to utilize it to create habitat for gain and support sustainable, healthy forests using cultural burns.”

Cultural burns are lower intensity-controlled fires much like the prescribed burns implemented by land managers today. The major difference is that cultural fire was and is still used by Tribes as an essential part of culture, to cultivate materials and food essential to centuries-long traditions.

Cultural fire is used to clear overstocked and thick foliage and open areas in the canopy. Open areas in the canopy allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, allowing understory plants to grow. These areas of greater biodiversity are often referred to as habitat mosaics, because of the resemblance to a mosaic.

Habitat mosaics provide Tribe’s access to traditional foods, rich sprouts, fruit, seed, and nut producing plants that would otherwise be shaded by denser canopy cover. Habitat Mosaics also support an abundance of forage for wildlife and game which are used for food, tools, and clothing.

The Karuk Tribe in the Klamath River Basin, northern California and Oregon, for example, engages in cultural burning as a means to acquire basket weaving material, such as Hazel. The Hazel plant naturally grows in tangled bushes, making it difficult to weave. However, after a cultural burn, the hazel shrub will grow back with straight, long shoots ideal for basket weaving.

“Considering Tribal cultures and their attitudes and use of fire to manage land is essential to how we manage fire sheds today and will be important to our work going forward,” said Lake, “There’s a sense of intergenerational responsibility among indigenous people to do so,” said Lake.


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