Indigenous People: To Protect the Environment, We Would Need a
How our common way of thinking about Mother Nature is not only wrong, but detrimental.
In the 1960s, India experienced a Green revolution that transformed a historically fraught country with famine into an industrialized agricultural centrepiece. Adopting modern farming technology and sophisticated irrigation systems, the soaring productivity yield led Punjab — the country’s breadbasket — to gain food self-sufficiency in India. This achievement was responded with international fanfare, for which other countries vied to imitate India’s success. Norman Borlaug, the eminent scientist who introduced hybrid high yield crops into India along with its concomitant mechanization methods (using machines for most of the agriculture activity), triggering the namesake revolution worldwide during that period, received the Nobel Peace Prize for steering developing countries away from the Malthusian crisis (the race between population size and food supply).
Things took an invidious turn reaching the end of the 20th century. The intensive use of synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and fungicides started to manifest a cacophony of issues: shrinking water sources, polluted waterways, health problems, near extinction of nutritious native crops, pest infestation, indebted farmers and the ensuing surge of suicide case in those areas. As funny as it sounds, facing such a fiasco, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, following Brolaug’s footsteps, announced heralding a second Green revolution. If this bill is initiated, India’s illusionment would parlay greater social and ecological risk to their farmers and citizens.
Behind the relatively palpable local socioeconomic, health and environmental vicissitudes, the overuse of these artificial agrochemicals reveals a more formidable problem in modern agriculture. All of these essential inputs are made of the same material that is used to manufacture plastics and steel — — fossil fuels.
Well, fossil fuels emit excessive carbon dioxide. That’s bad. But things get worse if we apprehend the magnitude of fossil fuel consumption using these fertilizers and agrochemicals. En masse, the amount of reactive nitrogen (nitrogen that supports growth directly or indirectly) manufactured in our factories is four-tenths of natural production of those by the biosphere. To churn up such amounts of agrochemicals and fertilizers, which is formed through the Haber-Bosch process — an extremely inefficient chemical process — consumes 1% of world energy production. In the meantime, the annual production of fertilizers alone requires 3% of the world’s extracted natural gas and contributes 3% of carbon emissions. It doesn’t stop there. Since the overuse of synthetic fertilizers depletes soil’s nitrogen storing capacity, farmers have to inject more fertilizers just to maintain crop yield. As the population continues to soar, and more crops are needed to feed more people, a vicious cycle perpetuates. As a whole, Brolaug’s good intention is actually barreling us into a climate disaster.
And that is just fertilizers and agrochemicals. If you exclude the fossil fuels extracted to power machines and indirectly build them, develop new crop varieties, transport and process crops, and most recently to energize the electronics used in many functions that now support precision farming, it is still not radical to say that, oil and natural gas are the true staples of human beings, as an ecologist, Howard Odum, famously puts it:
“ A whole generation of citizens thought that the carrying capacity of the earth was proportional to the amount of land under cultivation and that higher efficiencies in using the energy of the sun had arrived. This is a sad hoax, for industrial man no longer eats potatoes made from solar energy, now he eats potatoes partly made of oil.”
— Environment, Power and Society for the 21st Century, Howard Odum
Our subservience to fossil fuels is just a microcosm of humankind’s unsustainable husbandry. Besides depending on a resource with its own numbered days, water is wasted extravagantly in irrigation, sanitation, and wastewater treatment. Thousands of litres of water are needed to produce the meat and chocolate we relish.
Other than water, owing to extremely unhygienic conditions in factory farms- a breeding ground for zoonotic diseases like the Spanish flu, swine flu and indeed, Covid-19-, most of our antibiotics are channelled to livestock. This is a downplayed problem of its own. Prevalent antibiotic overdose can lead to antibiotic resistance, incapacitating the cornerstone of modern medicine. If not urgently addressed and ordinary diseases become immune to antibiotics, as WHO explains, common infections and minor injuries can kill.
Paying such an immense cost to feed our bellies, 30% of those daily victuals are squandered. Some reasons are more substantial than others depending on the country in question. In developing countries in Africa, where storage facilities are lacking, food rots easier before it gets to commercial stores. For developed counterparts on the other hand, where food successfully passes the first stage, are dumped by restaurants and hotel buffet managers. Perfectly nutritious foods are also discarded due to cosmetic reasons; and of course, we are the direct contributors too.
I haven’t even mentioned the deforestation of Latin American and SouthEast Asian tropical forests yet. Now, the Amazon Forest is being abused for soy cultivation and cattle grazing. Due to loose enforcement during the pandemic, freewheeling farmers and loggers are further devastating “the Lungs of the Earth’s” irreparable pneumonic condition. Under aberrant policies and lax enforcement, Malaysia is stripping ancient forests for valuable wood and palm oil, while Indonesia and India practise slash-and-burn techniques, the former two to deepen the pockets of multinationals while the latter to struggle for economic security.
Who can we learn from?
After all these rantings, you might wonder, what is the possible recourse to avert this precarious climate condition? To answer that, let’s go further back in time, to the 1930s, when European colonizers and explorers first encountered millions of Native denizens within the New Guinean highlands. At first sight, these highlanders looked “primitive”: they didn’t have metal tools, they had no kings and chiefs, they wore little clothing even during cold weather, and they fought incessant battles with wooden spears and bamboo knives.
However, when it comes to agriculture, the Native’s farming knowledge methods were far more sophisticated than their European counterparts.
“[…] European agronomists still don’t understand today in some cases the reasons why New Guineans’ methods work and why well-intentioned European farming innovations failed there. For instance, one European agricultural advisor was horrified to notice that a New Guinean sweet potato garden on a steep slope in a wet area had vertical drainage ditches running straight down the slope. He convinced the villagers to correct their awful mistake, and instead to put in drains running horizontally along contours, according to good European practices. Awed by him, the villagers reoriented their drains, with the result that the water built up behind the drains, and in the next heavy rains a landslide carried the entire garden down the slope into the river below. To avoid exactly that outcome, New Guinea farmers long before the arrival of Europeans learned the virtues of vertical drains under highland rain and soil conditions.”
— Collapse, Jared Diamond
Further down the book, the author wrote that European agronomists were even startled to see New Guinea highlanders practising silviculture — growing trees instead of crops as in conventional agriculture. In particular, they planted Casuarina oligodon, fast-growing trees that not only used for timber and fuel, reduce infestation but also to recover soil fertility through nitrogen fixation — bizarre functions that are unheard-of in contemporaneous European farming practices.
These otherworldly practices are not constrained to an unprepossessing island in the Pacific. They are traditional practises that have been taught and refined by Native ancestors across the globe, maintaining sustainable life for millennia. Take note that no fossil fuels are used, no precious resources are squandered. So how does New Guinea highland cultivate such intricate methods of sustainable farming?
Well, it all comes down to their philosophy.
People tend to think that philosophy is an esoteric intellectual callisthenic that only stirs the insular clique. In our society that apotheosizes knowledge that serves practical utility, philosophers are scorned as bright individuals who frittered their enviable faculties in metaphysical postulations. But in fact, philosophy is a way of thinking, the principles that unconsciously direct our bearing, and those means of thoughts colour our behaviour: how we treat our loved ones, the hoi polloi, and indeed, the environment.
The situation we are currently experiencing is the product of our prevailing philosophy- capitalism. Economics students can see its doctrines carved on every introductory textbook: environmental problems are just an “externality” (afterthought after considering revenue and investment returns, a thing out there that don’t actually affect our lives); GDP and material consumption must always go up, ignoring that Earth has finite resources; the land was property commodified in arbitrary values, excoriated by absurd borders to be bought and sold. In the free-market world, we, as a seemingly advanced society, declare ourselves as the tyrants of Nature, but the loyal slaves of cash. This human-centric solipsism fortifies our rightful authority to take anything we want from Nature for granted, squeeze any profits from it, and blithely abandon it by disregarding the long-term consequences.
These are the reasons why modern agriculture is so unsustainable. In pre-industrial agriculture, farmers use legumes (beans) and manure to restore fertilizers. When populations inflate, scientists try to create new types of crops and force farmers to buy expensive alien seeds and fertilizers from large corporations. When crops fail, farmers are told to dump more fertilizers, not knowing cheaper sustainable alternatives obtain superior harvest. Countries toy around trade resources to showboat political power. Trade balances and stock prices reached our target, but no one bothers how the environment suffered during the game. Not to mention, 45% of crops are sent to animals so we could eat the animals. While we, disconnected from the agricultural process, are deluded by the apparent abundance of food, don’t understand the environmental atrocity we are economically contributing to that sector.
And also, because of that, many of our current responses to those challenges wouldn’t work. We want to replant trees, but we do that with only one species planted — if pests slink within, all trees die and everyone’s money and effort are squandered; We build huge wind turbines, so haphazardly that windless areas also invited climate alarmists to erect some of them. Because manufacturing the wind turbines requires fossil fuel as a considerable resource of production, although it might satisfy profit margins of manufacturers, yet such production would contribute to carbon emission, not the reverse; We celebrate green consumerism, but it doesn’t curb our chronic purchasing habits. All is done so lazily and simplistically, as if we expect Nature to do the hard work, while we snug under the duvet of arrogance, quick to absolve ourselves from the damnation of ecocide.
On the other hand, from generation to generation, the aborigines surrender their lives to the jungle. The forest is their pharmacy, their grocery store, their playground, their shrine, and their cemetery. From cradle to grave, their expansive and instinctual understanding of their environment makes them appreciate the trees that shelter them and the animals that feed them, and they return what they have utilized. They don’t subjugate Nature, they harmonize with it. This symbiotic existence is so inextricably enmeshed in their being to the extent that they see themselves as a part of the jungle, and the jungle part of them. They are a single entity. In other words, their deference to the environment is in their blood.
“ In indigenous worldviews, there is no separation between people and land, between people and other life forms, or between people and their ancient ancestors whose bones are infused in the land they inhabit and whose spirits permeate place[…] the Indigenous world is a world of relationships built on reciprocity, respect, and responsibility, not just between humans but also extending to the entire natural world.”
— As Long As Grass Grows, Dina Gilio-Whitaker
In brief, they deify Nature, we objectify it. If juxtaposed with the incumbent ideology sanctified in the “civilized” world, the contrast is stark. Take California for example. When Non-natives first settled in the Yosemite Valley, they saw that the land looked like a meticulously tended garden. A diverse variety of Native plants living cheek-by-jowl, small animals acted as co-farmers, distributing nutrients and seeds around the orchard, and crops are perennial, meaning that Native don’t have to excavate the whole crop and replant the seeds — this prevents destroying the intricate microbial ecosystems that hold fertility within the soil. Although their delicate way of agriculture remotely resembles modern farming, some academics believe that Native agricultural productivity 300 years ago could outcompete modern European crop production.
Further back in history, the Spanish explorers noticed that the Natives lit the Californian forest on fire from time to time. The Spanish didn’t know why they deliberately burned the forest until modern landscape ecologists realised that it was an ingenious measure to pre-empt overgrown shrubs inducing worse wildfires.
Look at California now. The spectacular mismanagement and negligence ring the death knell of the Golden State: Sinking lands due to over-exploitation of underground water, failing agriculture, Satanic wildfires, the decimation of local species, air pollution due to traffic congestion and the recent exodus from the state is besetting residents and its international reputation. I’m sorry to tell Elon Musk that underground tunnels and electric cars are not-good-enough solutions. Instead, we must rewire our way of thinking about Nature.
The stories we constantly tell ourselves are killing the planet. We must wake up from the disillusionment and say, “The Natives have the answer”.
What we should do
Recognizing the indispensable wisdom of indigenous peoples, we must start taking initiatives protecting these communities that had been belittled and oppressed for hundreds of years around the globe, including Malaysia. In Malaysia, Orang Asli (indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia before the Malay Sultanate) has been prejudiced and mistreated until today, especially during Dr Mahathir’s incumbency in the 1970s and 1980s, when sacred lands were bulldozed on the guise of industrialization and land development.
“The first thing to do is that land rights must be protected,” says Siti Kasim — lawyer, activist and the chairperson of the Malaysia Bar Council Committee on Orang Asli Rights, “[Now,]Most of their ancestral lands are currently under the state government. If the site is lucrative, their lands and farms were expropriated and the opinions of Orang Asli are blithely unheeded during the process. Every time this happens, the Orang Asli would have to take matters to the court, which is not right.”
Besides affirming the inherent land rights of indigenous tribes, appropriate legal amendments in Malaysia can stem new ways of eco-friendly development. A meritorious example can be found in, again, Papua New Guinea. Chevron Corporation, an oil company, which was disadvantaged with a weaker centralized government that is harder to lobby and pressured by strong Native communities that can disrupt the project and challenge their bottom-line through legal processes, ensured sustainable development operating in a fundamentally dirty enterprise.
Considerable engagement of Natives in resource-profiting projects can also be found in Malaysia too. In this video, Dr Colin Nicholas implies that economic development and environmental conservation are, through skilful legal and policy making, not necessarily mutually exclusive. Sarawak aborigines are legally asserted to be co-owners of the forest reserves so that firms can earn revenue while maintaining the vitality of the aborigines’ forest. These tangible cases hopefully can ensure “modernized” people to jettison pejorative assumptions of Native’s tradition and respect their spiritual way of living.
Some might think, rather than just preserving it in the woods, why not spread this virtuous philosophy to the urban landscape? In the US, Indian native activists are advocating precisely this to its wider political sphere. For example, facing crippling economic inequality and impending climate calamity, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey spearheaded the Green New Deal, to hit two birds with one stone. While heavy technological investments and government financial inducements might do the trick, there was a groundswell of advocacy allowing Native Americans greater power in directing the trajectory of this bill. The purpose of “indigenizing” the proposal not only entrusts them with what they do best — being in the frontlines protecting Mother Nature, but also opens a social opportunity for historical oppressors to repent the environmental injustice that has tormented and decimated the Native nations for 500 years.
Activism of such vitality is still dormant, or to be more trenchant, wantonly sterilized in Malaysia. So Malaysian politicians had to start from the basics. For Siti Kasim, it is “provid[ing] them basic necessities and facilities like access to education, welfare and healthcare.” Other initiatives are also worth considering, namely the education of Native history in official textbooks, opposing forced religious and cultural assimilation, and providing competent teachers to cultivate self-esteem among Native children.
It is never enough to rely on drastic upheavals from the top. Grassroots organizations and the youth are critical in remedying obstinate prejudices against aboriginal groups. In Malaysia, Shaq Koyok is the epitome of this endeavour. In an online panel discussion, Shaq Koyok and other artists agreed that mural paintings of Native people show the Natives that they are recognized, that they are worthy living beings. Even though the education system might wipe out their existence, and the political system belittle them as a nuisance against development (whatever development means), the simple visuals on the wall can cut through all preconceptions and heal the pride of their identity, while neutralizing race superiority among non-Native groups. Seeing each other as equal, the conversation on environmental protection would be less acrimonious and self-defensive.
What particularly interests me is the potential diffusion of indigenous influence into the ivory tower. Remember the anecdote between Native Papua New Guinea highlanders and European agronomists mentioned earlier? That complex knowledge developed over hundreds of thousands of years is called Traditional Knowledge or Indigenous Knowledge (IK). These knowledge are inherited through oral history, metaphors or attentive empiricism under proximity with nature. Compared to reductionist Western science, which tries to distil observations into universal, elegant models and equations, Indigenous Knowledge sees local phenomena in a holistic manner; the big picture is as important as the details consisting it. The amalgamation between the two attitudes towards scientific enquiry allows the conventional scientific community to explore novel ideas solving food insecurity, environmental degradation and climate change.
The marriage of the two sciences gestates a new discipline called Biomimicry. The term, coined by Janine Benyus in her eponymous book, urges scientists and the public to see Nature not as a source of material extraction, but a source of scientific knowledge and technological breakthrough by mimicking the successful engineering of Mother Nature after 3.8 billion years of research and development. In her eloquent words,
“ In that time [3.8 billion years], life has learned to fly, circumnavigate the globe, live in the depths of the ocean and atop the highest peaks, craft miracle materials, light up the night, lasso the sun’s energy, and build a self-reflective brain. Collectively, organisms have managed to turn rock and sea into a life-friendly home, with steady temperatures and smoothing percolating cycles. In short, living things have done everything we want to do, without guzzling fossil fuel, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future. What better models would there be?”
— Biomimicry, Janine M. Benyus
Reading this, I start to ask myself, “Why don’t we, like the Natives, tame our human ego and submit ignorance to Mother Nature?” If we humans are humble enough to see Nature as a mentor, don’t you think that we could unleash the hidden genius of It?
Some responded to this question, and they could probably revolutionise how the reigning capitalist system works. A hotchpotch of intelligentsia and policymakers from the US, Denmark, Japan and Belgium independently tried fitting an ecological model for the economic system we live in; they called this process Industrial Ecology. Compared to the current state of capitalism where consumed goods are sent to landfill, pollution management trivialised in business operations, and rival firms vie to outcompete market shares; Industrial Ecology attempts to imitate the structure of an ecosystem: recycle every waste and chemical byproducts into new marketable goods, prioritise energy and material efficiency over mass production and GDP growth, acknowledge rival firms as symbiotic partners in stabilizing the economic and natural situation. To put it succinctly, natural systems act as the modus operandi in modern civilization for attaining true sustainability and collective happiness. If implemented worldwide, it will change the vocabulary in economics, politics, and ultimately, the philosophy of living a prosperous life. Inadvertently, the future universities would effuse the spiritual psyche of Native pedagogy.
So where do we go from here?
Till now, the recognition of Native people’s philosophy is still abysmal. In the free world, progress is gaining momentum, but the powerful elites still hold firm afront the bulwark of the status quo; in developing countries, most of them are hankering after the wealth and prosperity of the Global North, adopting their own Industrial Revolution. In Malaysia, racial discrimination, environmental neglect, and harrowing levels of immiseration are the triple whammy driving Orang Asals to extinction. Most of their sentiments are smothered in the public.
That’s why I’m here to voice up. If I can’t propel others into action, at least I can change minds. Hopefully, those minds could spark a silent spring.
This article doesn’t do justice in explaining the nuances of argumentation. For details, please see my interview with Siti Kasim.
[Written by: Yew Jun Hao]
Sutton, M. A. et al. Our Nutrient World: the Challenge to Produce More Food and Energy With Less Pollution. (Centre for Ecology & Hydrology on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management (GPNM) and the International Nitrogen Initiative (INI), (2013). (link)
Mulvaney RL, Khan SA, Ellsworth TR. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers deplete soil nitrogen: a global dilemma for sustainable cereal production. J Environ Qual. 2009 Oct 29;38(6):2295–314. doi: 10.2134/jeq2008.0527. PMID: 19875786. (link)
Collapse, Jared Diamond
As Long As Grass Grows, Dina Dilio-Whitalker
Energy and Civilization, Vaclav Smil
A Handbook for Industrial Ecology, Robert Ayres and Leslie Ayres
Environment, Power and Society for the 21st Century, Howard Odum
Biomimicry, Janine M. Benyus
Tending the Wild documentary (link)
Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, Kenneth Boulding