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  • Pratika Talegaonkar

3 indigenous land management techniques that are reviving our planet

Climate and disaster-risk adaptation is not complete without the knowledge and involvement of indigenous communities and ancient practices that have sustainably protected their land for tens of thousands of years. For our ancestors, looking after the outwardly 'land' meant looking inwards, into inner worlds, and deep into the spiritual connection between life and the environment. Reviving these land management practices today means that their sacred and cultural aspects also deserve our much needed attention, respect and acknowledgement. By drawing holistically on the oldest living land management knowledge systems; the design and restoration of land has the potential to not only build climate resilience but also facilitate healing at all levels - natural, generational, and spiritual.

The Sea and the Sky, 1948, bark painting by Indigenous Australian Yolngu artist Munggerawuy Yunuping showing ancestral totemic reference of stingray breeding during monsoon season in Arnhem Land (Photo: the Art Gallery of South Australia)

Indigenous and ancient traditional lens of connection to land is deeply intertwined with spiritual, ethical and reciprocal ways of living with nature. Aboriginal Australians hold various animal 'totems' dear to all aspects of their life, which they vow not to consume as a practice for living more sustainably with the land. These individual 'totems' or animals are protected and prevented from overconsumption and in return, the unique totems provide them with spiritual guidance. Similarly, various Indic religions and cultures originating from India such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, which spread out to other parts of Asia, worshiped and revered whole ecological systems consisting of sacred groves, flora, fauna, rivers, lakes, plains and mountains. Mount Kailash located in modern-day Tibet is considered to be the home of the divine gods Shiva and Parvati, which many believe to be the birthplace of lifegiving rivers, Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali. The animals and sacred forests rooted within in the entire network of ecosystems near Mount Kailash have always been considered sacred and therefore, protected by various Indic civilizations for thousands of years.

An illustration showing the significance of Mount Kailash with the holy family of the Hindu god, Shiva

Such intricately deep relationship between the land and our inner-worlds facilitated a kinship between humans and their immediate environment. The idea of taking only what is needed and not the whole ecosystem out seems to have been the primary motive behind these complex land and human relationships that protected the planet for thousands of years.

The following highlights three such types of ancient sustainable and integrated land management practices stemming from a balanced, land and human relationship. These practices protected habitats, reduced disaster-risks, increased biodiversity, food production yields, and sustained entire populations. Through colonialism and industrial revolution, these became redundant, overtaken by monocultures, mass-production fields, and reserves for non-renewable natural resource extractions.

1. Cultural burning - fire-stick farming practice by Aboriginal people of Australia

cultural burning
Cultural burning in the Top End region of Australia's Nothern territory by Aboriginal traditional custodians of land. Image by CSIRO

Indigenous Australians used country fire or djandak wii to fight bush fires as a sustainable way of shaping and managing the land for over 60,000 years. This practice had been verbally passed down for generations and became discontinued through colonial settlement. Overtime, this resulted in increased threat of bush fires as vegetation with high fuel loads became ignited during extreme summer months. Australia experienced one of worst bushfire seasons between 2019–2020. Complex risks associated with forest fires had a trickle down effect on wildlife and water systems, taking out entire ecosystems. Heavy rains that followed washed away burnt ash, plants and soil into the river systems causing the water quality and drinkability to deteriorate.

Aboriginal Australians using fire to hunt kangaroos, 1817, illustrated by Joseph Lycett (source: the trove)

Since then, a country-wide appeal to reintroduce indigenous leadership and cultural burning as a land management practice became a critical step towards preventing catastrophic bushfires. Today, cultural burns are carried out with permission and guidance from aboriginal experts and rangers. These fires are considered 'cold' as they are low-intensity, controlled and maintained to slowly clear-off invasive weed species, dense foliage and fire-prone vegetation. The process involves burning patches or mosaic of groundcover grass at different intervals during cooler months. These patchwork fires provide space for animals to escape if needed. The main goal is to reduce the risk of larger, more extreme fires by creating breaks in the landscape, and preventing fires from reaching established trees and canopies which are precious habitats for native fauna. Through cultural burns, not only is the fire-risk mitigated and habitats protected, but the land is regenerated, making it more productive and biodiverse.

An indigenous ranger carrying out cultural burning for the Savanna carbon project (source: Kimberly Land Council)

For indigenous Australians, these are not merely fire prevention strategies but also hold spiritual and ethical values. There are interconnected acts of ceremony, protecting totems, ancient lore and storytelling associated with the practice. Given the ecosystem-specific, historical, and spiritual nature of this technique, understanding and using it as a mainstream land management practice cannot be done without the leadership, permission, alliance, and mentorship of indigenous Australians. A revival is occurring through organisations such as the Firesticks Alliance, an indigenous-led network carrying out the practice, training and monitoring of cultural burns and it's effect on the ecosystem.

2. Chinampas - the floating gardens of the Aztecs

Sea-level rise, frequent earthquakes, tsunamis and intermittent flooding are some of the biggest challenges the world has always grappled with, but these have become more frequent due to climate change. Akin to fire, water has been an equal frontier for our ancestors and like the indigenous Australians who used fire to fight fire, the Mesoamericans used the sponginess of soil to overcome flooding.

Chinampas in 1912 by Karl Weule
Illustration of Aztec chinamps

The Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico not only shaped the land to become resilient to flooding but also created ingenious techniques to mold these wet landscapes into food-producing floating gardens. In the pre-colonial Mexico, chinampas dominated the landscapes. Similar floating gardens called Waru Waru, also appeared in the high-altitude floodplains of the Andes between Bolivia and Ecuador around 300 BC.

Chinampas were a system of floating, rectangular agricultural garden beds with high-yielding crops planted in fertile soils found alongside freshwater lakes, swamps and floodplains. These constructed islands were made of woven reed mats and walls staked into the waterbeds filled with nutrient-rich soil dredged from the bottom of the lake mixed with manure. Canals wide enough to fit a canoe were dug at intervals to allow aquatic habitats to thrive and provide avenues for chinamperos to harvest and maintain these high-yielding floating farms. Native willow trees, ahuejote, were planted at the corners to secure the farms from soil erosion, wind, pests, and provide habitats for to native birds. These floating farms were self-sustaining ecosystems as the soil was continuously enriched by the nutrients from the lake and animal excreta.

Current state of canals and chinampas of Xochimilco (photo: City of Mexico)

The overall drainage potential of chinampas not only mitigated effects of flooding and soil erosion but also provided the Aztecs and other native civilizations with a steady supply of maize, beans, tomatoes, chili pepper, potatoes and squash to name a few. A large system of chinampas around a city was seen as a sign of strength, advancement and power. At the peak of their popularity, the Aztecs grew seven different crops a year, a dozen times more than the yields from dry land farms. These floating edible gardens were widely cultivated and revered until the Spanish conquistadors condemned the practice, deeming it primitive and too labour-intensive. The lakes were eventually drained of their water to build cities, reducing not only their agricultural capacity but also further increasing the imminent flood-risk. Currently, a grassroots organisation, Arca Tierra, along with local indigenous farmers of Xochimilco and Chalco lake basins have restored more than five hectares of chinampas over the last 12 years.

The biggest benefit of reviving chinampas today, especially in urban settings, is the obvious application these have in not just flood-risk mitigation but also in carbon sequestration and urban food production. When built alongside constructed wetlands, they have the potential to create productive waterscapes whilst bolstering the system's overall capacity to manage and filter stormwater run-off. While floating raingardens have already become mainstreamed in major cities to address water pollution and sea-level rise, the use of chinampas to create hybrid circular ecosystems that are productive in urban settings has the potential to combat multiple crisis of our times.

3. Ahupua'a - ancient Hawaiian watershed farming practice

Like the Aztecs, ancient Hawaii's created one the world's self-sufficient and sophisticated integrated farming practice called Ahupua'a. This ancient watershed encompassed a complex network of natural and constructed ecosystems; starting from the pristine mountain peaks, through the built-up habitable terraces and cultivation pools, finally ending up in the oceanic reef flats, all connected by the natural downward streams of freshwater.

Remnants of pond walls with Taro plantation at Limahuli reserve (Photo: Ron Cogswell)

Each Ahupua'a were large swathes of triangular shaped areas, mostly 10km long and 20km wide corridors, running from the peak of the mountains mauka, spreading to the ocean makai, forming a shoreline of fishing ponds. The top of the volcanic mountain peaks, woa akua was considered to be the realms of the gods, and remained untouched; revered by indigenous Hawaiians as the the sacred source, covered with dense native species. The nutrient-rich freshwater streams from atop would flow downstream, towards the habitation and cultivate zones called wao kanaka. Here these nutrient-rich water networks would enrich the productive taro fields planted alongside varying types of fish ponds (loko i'a). Soaked taro plants and herbaceous fish like mullets and milk fish would filter and neutralise the water. Further down the coastline, this freshwater streams would continue towards highly advanced seawater fish ponds loko kuapa built on reef flats and bounded by pervious volcanic rock walls, with intricate gates that allowed fishes to swim through. When the freshwater that circulated taro and fish ponds met seawater through tidal flows, ideal conditions were created to attract and fatten captured fish. Mullets, milkfish, prawns, silver perch, and other varieties of fishes were farmed.

Remnants of Ai'opio fish pond (photo: Brian Hoffman)

For indigenous Hawaiians, the management of freshwater was considered to be the foundation of their civilization, forming a large part of their philosophy, language, spirituality and community life. Their word for water, wa'i resonates with the word for wealth, wa'i wa'i . Hawaiians believed that if they lived within a thriving ecosystem with abundance nourished by water, then they were all wealthy. Perhaps caring for their land meant that the waterways would be healthier. With this land-water-self connectedness in mind, they created ingenious synergies between agricultural farms and oceanic aquacultural fishing ponds. The average food productive yields of the integrated farms were five times higher than only dry land farming. The Ahupua'as were not only energy-efficient but also advanced enough to sustainably accommodate human co-habitation. This unique integrated farming system is considered to have had a small ecological footprint compared to the size of populations it sustained. Perhaps the prevalent socio-cultural and spiritual factors may have had something to do with it's success.

Remnants of Kūki‘o pond (photo: Rosa Say)
Illustration of an Ahupua'a

Seawater farming originated in Hawaii 1500 years ago, a successor to parallel types of aquaculture practices found in China and Egypt. The socio-cultural systems that existed pre-colonial Hawaii had a large part to play in the successful management of land. A complex barter and subsistence economy formed the skeleton from which the integrated farming networks thrived comprising of aquaculture, agriculture and animal rearing. The labour-intensive construction and management of the pond systems was made possible through a well-organised society with a stratified class structure managed by chiefdoms, who were also the custodians of various Ahupua'a divided across the island; all dictated by a king at the top.

Cattle grazing in 1973 (Photo: Charles O'Rear)

Eventually, post-colonial contact with the islands of Hawaii introduced money, disease, and the industrialisation of food production. The disruption of the socio-cultural system of ancient Hawaiians also made the integrated farming practice of Ahupua'a redundant. The traditional practices were replaced by monocultures of pineapple plantations and animal grazing. Loss of forest cover increased the risk of flooding and water pollution. The polluted stormwater run-off from extreme weather events destroyed biodiversity and water habitats, ultimately affecting the entire food chain.

Pineapple fields in Mililani town harvested on 'surplus land' since 1958 (Source: U.S. National Archives, 1973)

Recently, the practice of Ahupua'a has made a come-back. A revival of this ancient integrated farming practice has not only mitigated some of the climate change related risks but has also brought about a re-awakening in the spiritual and philosophical aspect of what it means to live with nature as its custodians. The reinstatement of the original native habitats in various islands of Hawaii that form a large part of the Ahupua'a are not only addressing the polluting effects of stormwater run-off, but are also bringing wa'i wa'i back into the lives of the modern-day Hawaiians. Hui Maka'āinana o Makana, an indigenous grassroots community group made up of lineal descendants of Hāʻena land is actively rebuilding this practice. The Limahuli Garden & Preserve is one such project, considered to be the most biodiverse valleys in Hawaii, contains 600 acres of restored Ahupua'a agricultural terracing, and is a refuge for dozens of endangered species of plants and birds.

Remnants of pond walls with Taro plantation at Limahuli reserve (Photo: Ron Cogswell)

For our ancestors, caring for land meant caring for oceans and vice versa. The large-scale application of these time-tested, traditional, and indigenous land management technologies for disaster-risk mitigation should not only be considered as a key strategy to build climate resilience but should also be seen are source of inspiration for how to co-habit with nature. The ecological footprints of these ingenious systems was low to none. They were self-sustaining, efficient, provided high-yielding crops, increased biodiversity and managed to sustain entire societies. But fundamentally, they were also reflections of our inner-worlds, transpiring into spiritual, cultural, artistic, and social connections. If we are revive these age-old practices, one must learn to also revive our 'inner' relationships with nature.

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