Conservation Heritage/History

Fostering Indigenous Knowledge to Help Mitigate Climate Change

Sampson, Crowe and Walker discuss cultivating traditional crops during an OGS workshop.

By Agatha Hannah

We’ve all seen it in the news—global warming, sea levels rising, wildfires raging. Many of us have personally experienced tangible evidence of climate change: fewer insects on our windshields as we drive, less predictable rainfall for our gardens and crops, increased frequency of floods and hurricanes. These rapid changes in our climate are caused by dangerous levels of carbon in our atmosphere, and while we give a nod to factories and cars as major polluters, often agriculture is painted as the ultimate villain. Unfortunately, this rhetoric misses the crux of the problem: it’s not cows that emit too much methane; it’s the feedlot confinement system that forces those cows to eat grain rather than grass. It’s not the crops that require millions of pounds of chemical fertilizers; it’s the monoculture system that forces these plants into an industrial paradigm. It’s not even the tractors that turn our soil to dust; it’s the overuse of tillage and the underuse of cover crops.

When we peel away the layers of our modern industrial agriculture system, we can see that the culprit is our reliance on systems of modern globalization. As we do so, we discover that, in fact, agriculture has the unique capacity not only to contribute less to climate change but to reverse it through regenerative practices. Our legacy load of carbon in the atmosphere is so great that simply reducing—or even eliminating—emissions is not enough. “The industrial complex has abused our Mother Earth and disrupted the natural balance of the ecosystems around the world,” says Mary Crowe of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Crowe is a climate and community activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network and founder of the Eastern Cherokee Defense League.

We must draw down carbon to put it back where it belongs: right under our feet, into the soil, the building block for all life. And doing so is as simple as growing food.

Since the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, we can look to indigenous cultures both here and around the world to integrate their regenerative farming practices into our modern system. None of these traditional techniques should sound unfamiliar to those with knowledge of sustainable farming practices. Crop rotations preserve production capacity in the soil to maximize yields, minimize pest and disease pressure and keep the soil covered and protected. Intercropping involves the sowing of more than two crops together to maximize land use while increasing resilience through biodiversity. Agroforestry blends agriculture with forestry techniques to help control temperature, sunlight and susceptibility to weather. Livestock integration adds a natural cycle of fertility, stimulates root growth, increases biodiversity and produces food on land that cannot be tilled for crops. All of these methods reintegrate carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, where it ultimately confers ecological resilience and regeneration.

While traditional indigenous agriculture creates ecosystems that are harmonious, sustainable and productive, industrial agriculture is literally based on warfare and destruction. Few people realize that modern “conventional” agriculture exists as a direct result of war. At the end of WWI, in order to stay in production, factories producing chemicals for bombs and chemical warfare repackaged these chemicals as agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, selling them as a fast track to production and profit.

Tyson Sampson, Charles E. Taylor, Mary Crowe and Amy Walker demonstrate traditional food preparation methods during a recent Cherokee Foods workshop

Meanwhile, modern pioneers in sustainable agriculture such as George Washington Carver recognized early the soil degradation caused by using synthetic fertilizers in a monocrop system. Though Carver focused his instruction on the relationships between plants, he also looked specifically at how people interact with nature. Defining agriculture as “the cultivation or the manipulation of the soil in such a way as to bring about the greatest possible yield of products useful to man with the least injury to the soil and at the least expense,” Carver sought to put the culture back into agriculture to effect systemic change. To Carver, preservation of the natural world and sustainable farming practices were one and the same.

Clearly, these concepts were not considered mutually exclusive until modern times. Indigenous agriculture is the product of indigenous cultures that are deeply connected to a particular place. Vena A-dae Romero is a Cochiti Puebloan/Kiowa farmer and co-founder of Cochiti Youth Experience, Inc., an organization engaging Cochiti youth in traditional Pueblo farming. “Indigenous people are as much part of the land as the land is part of us,” she says. “We cultivate the land while the land cultivates us. This relationship that has supported my people since time immemorial is remembered daily when we place our fingers in the dirt, pull the weeds from our fields or plant our seeds with water, prayer and hope, cook the food which we grow, and ingest the world with each bite of food we eat.”

This connection between people and soil has shaped indigenous agriculture by developing farming practices that are adapted to specific, local environments and that work with, rather than against, natural processes. Traditional Native American farming practices exemplify this relationship. Throughout what we now call North America, indigenous peoples grew the Three Sisters. A sophisticated practice of companion planting that is at least 3,000 years old, the Three Sisters intercrops corn, beans and squash to create a polyculture that feeds and protects the soil and mitigates pest pressure. In wet regions, farmers grew the Three Sisters on elevated mounds to improve drainage, while in the arid West, they planted in depressed, bordered gardens to capture the rain.

Unfortunately, indigenous agriculture is generally perceived as a method of farming for poor or undeveloped regions. At best, we’ve reframed these methods with modern terms such as “permaculture,” a repackaged catchy phrase and ideology that is offered up to privileged growers through expensive certification courses.

At Organic Growers School, we have been inspiring people to farm, garden and live organically for 28 years. Our audience has been historically white back-to-the-lander types who are often multiple generations removed from their most recent farming ancestors. Our classes buzz with terms like permaculture, homesteading and sustainability.

Here in the mountainous region of Western North Carolina, we live on native S’atsoyaha (Yuchi) and Tsalaguwetiyi, (Eastern Cherokee) land. We’ve recently had the honor of creating a relationship with members from three generations of the Eastern Band, and are working to document their food sovereignty practices in the form of online educational offerings. These methods aren’t unfamiliar, but the notion that we can use these practices to grow food on a global scale is often disregarded. The irony is that while we label traditional farming methods as rustic, it is modern conventional farming that has resulted in poor soils, poor water, poor nutrition and poor communities.

Find more information, including recordings from Organic Growers School’s fall Cherokee Foods workshops, at Agatha Hannah is director of communications and programs at Organic Growers School.

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