Biodiversity, Indigenous Peoples, and the Future


view of mountains Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway Cherokee, NC, Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Donna L Long.

Years ago I read western scientists were baffled at the state of national parks and other government protected areas. After removal of indigenous peoples from their lands (not just in the U.S. but all over the world) the seized lands were no longer as abundant or as diverse as when the indigenous peoples managed them.

Following the western concept that humans can only ruin land, governments and NGOs (non-governmental agencies) worked together to take land and forcibly remove indigenous peoples.

The indigenous land management methods of controlled burning, selective harvesting, native plant plantings, forest gardens, human seasonal migrations (nomadic lifestyles), and sacred places were no longer acceptable.


red berries. Photo by Donna L. Long. red berries. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Empty Places, Biodiversity, and Abundance

The first national park in the United States was Yellowstone. It was territory jointly used by indigenous peoples of Shoshone, Lakota, Crow, Blackfeet and other nations. The traditional ways of living in the land were deemed primitive and unacceptable.

No longer could the people continue the practices they had done for thousands of years. Sure, the land was unbelievably abundant. The rivers full of fish and freshwater crustaceans. The forest and plains were teeming with fur and food animals. Food gardens and park-like lands full of fruits, nuts, berries, and other foodstuff surrounded the villages. Yes, there were homegardens and communal fields, but so what.

To western eyes, the abundance of the lands were the result of empty places where no human interfered. But everywhere they went in the new found lands were humans in villages and trails from one end of the land to another. And these abundant lands existed not just in the Americas but in Polynesia, Africa, Asia, and other territories. The presence of humans everywhere and the abundance of the lands should have given them a cause to pause and ponder: how could this be?


Dead Fraser Fir Trees over 6000 feet above sea level in the Smoky Mountains Dead Fraser Fir Trees over 6000 feet above sea level in the Smoky Mountains. Photo by Donna L. Long.

The Ecological Understanding 500 Years in the Making

It has taken over five hundred and twenty years, but now western science has begun to understand and appreciate indigenous environmental knowledge and land management. Scientists from the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Asia now state in research paper after paper that humans have shaped Earth’s ecology for as least 12,000 years mostly sustainably. 

The reason for today’s biodiversity crisis is not destruction of uninhabited “wild” lands but “rather the appropriation, colonization, and intensified use of lands previously managed sustainably”.

Indigenous peoples still exercise some level of management of about 5% of the world’s lands, upon which 80% of the world’s biodiversity exists. Indigenous lands are a haven for animals who are hard pressed to survive in “developed” lands.

And the indigenous land management research says loud and clear the traditional western conservation methods haven’t worked. They must be desperate.


Our vacation to Cherokee, NC, Smoky Mountain National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway

Save Us from Ourselves

There was a study done in the last several years which found that women were given CEO positions when the company was in the worst shape and the board of directors were ready to try anything to save the company. Women managers are often expected to work magic. I found myself in a management position where the department I was hired to manage could not get any worse, so I got the job.

Now, they call for indigenous people to be included in management decision making.  Indigenous peoples didn’t create the situation but they are now called on to clean up the giant mess of others. Using practices that were outlawed, banned, and forbidden by the people who took the majority of their lands. I guess the scientists are glad the systematic and long-term program to wipe out indigenous identity and spirituality didn’t work.

Now, like women hired to save sinking ships, the indigenous are basically asked to save us. Is there time to save the planet and ourselves? Can the indigenous land management strategies be put into practice and become commonplace to repair the extensive damage that has been done? Can we convince the hard-core western superiority believers among us to use what they still see as” primitive methods”?

What do you think and what are you doing for our uncertain future?

The Article:

“People have shaped Earth’s ecology for at least 12,000 years, mostly sustainably” by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County

More Posts on Biodiversity

The Smoky Mountains and the threats to its biodiversity

Colonialism vs. Conservation: National Parks and Indigenous Peoples

My Trip to the Smoky Mountains 

They Need Us: Environmentalists Save the World

Miscegenation for Plants and Animals



  1. I am glad that we have understood this hopefully in time. The audacity of colonialists to think that they understood better than these people who lived with the land for 12,000 + years. Silly really. The book 1491 speaks a great deal about the land management of indigenous people across the Western Hemisphere prior to Europeans getting here. It amazing what they did with ‘low tech’ compared to the mess we have made with ‘high tech’. I appreciate your thoughtful approach here and reminder, sometimes others know more than we do, we should listen on occasion.

    • Hi, Ron
      Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree with you 100%. We have to start now, even if the future looks bleak. In a hundred years, things could look much better. We can look toward the seven generations that come after us and give them a better future.

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