This excellent op-ed piece by ʻOhu Gon needs to be shared with many.
By Sam ‘Ohu Gon
September 4, 2016
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently unveiled a groundbreaking map of Central America that illustrates the critical role indigenous people play as caretakers of the region’s natural resources.
The map depicts Central America’s forest and marine ecosystems, along with the names, populations and locations of its indigenous peoples, who occupy almost 40 percent of the land and water area. And what the map clearly shows is telling: The best preserved natural resources are found where indigenous people live.
“You cannot talk about conservation without speaking of indigenous peoples and their role as the guardians of our most delicate lands and waters,” said Grethel Aguilar, a regional IUCN official. “They depend on those natural resources to survive, and the rest of society depends on their role in safeguarding those resources for the well-being of us all.”
The IUCN has made previous motions acknowledging indigenous people in conservation. But at this year’s World Conservation Congress, now underway in Honolulu, members will vote on a motion drafted by the cultural committee of the Hawai‘i Conservation Alliance that asks them to take additional steps toward integrating indigenous values, knowledge and approaches into efforts to address the world’s conservation challenges.
Why look to indigenous peoples?
Renowned philosopher Noam Chomsky says indigenous peoples have not commodified their relationship with the natural world. Their relationship is reciprocal: they care for their resources because their survival depends on it. Such a philosophy is desperately needed in Western societies today.
Prior to Western contact, Hawaiians embraced a reciprocal relationship with all elements of the natural world, regarding them as elders and physical manifestations of ancestors and gods.
Living on islands, with finite natural resources, they developed a mountains-to-sea system of resource management.
Within each ahupua‘a, or land division, there was an individual — the konohiki — trained from childhood to know the ahupuaa resources intimately, and who had the authority to set kapu — restrictions — when those resources were threatened, thereby bringing the resources back into balance.
The konohiki knew when each mountain tree was fruiting, when the birds of land or sea were nesting and when runs of fish were moving through the ahupua‘a — events that were extremely important to daily life.
Western approaches supplanted old relationships, disrupted ecological processes, commodified natural resources and essentially destroyed self-sufficiency.
Today, 85 to 90 percent of our food and other goods are imported from elsewhere, and the average citizen in Hawaii has little connection to the resources around them, much less a sense of kuleana — responsibility — for their care.
While we can’t easily return to the ancient ahupua‘a system, we can work to re-establish meaningful connections between people, places and resources that were its foundation. When people know and love their place and its resources, everyone benefits. The movement toward community-based marine management in Hawaii is all about this.
In rural areas like Haena on Kauai, Moomomi on Molokai, Kipahulu on Maui, and Kaupulehu on Hawaii island, indigenous communities, many of them lineal descendants of the land, are combining traditional Hawaiian approaches and modern science to restore their near-shore reefs and fisheries.
The idea is that if you engage the people of a place, who know the resources best, align them with the best of modern science and offer them an active and meaningful role in the conservation of those resources, good things happen.
Throughout the world, there is growing recognition that a new model of resource use and management is needed.
How do we achieve a more sustainable future for the planet?
The answer may lie in the caring, reciprocal relationship that indigenous people have with their resources and the natural world around them.
Sam ‘Ohu Gon, Ph.D., is a senior scientist and cultural adviser with The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii. He also is chairman of the Hawai‘i Conservation Alliance, whose cultural committee drafted IUCN Motion 83, affirming the role of indigenous cultures in conservation globally.