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'Fresh Banana Leaves' spotlights Indigenous science for a warming planet

A banana perennial is pictured at the plantation of the SCA Blondinière fruit production company in Capesterre Belle-Eau, Fond Cacao, in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. (Helene Valenzuela/AFP via Getty Images)
A banana perennial is pictured at the plantation of the SCA Blondinière fruit production company in Capesterre Belle-Eau, Fond Cacao, in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. (Helene Valenzuela/AFP via Getty Images)

As the world looks for ways to slow and adapt to climate change, solution-seekers need to turn to the insights and lived experiences of Indigenous people.

Jessica Hernandez makes that argument in the new book “Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science.”

Hernandez, a University of Washington postdoctoral fellow from the Maya Ch’ortí and Zapotec nations, says Indigenous people are often viewed as research subjects, not experts in their own right.

“Indigenous peoples hold on to the knowledge that can holistically protect our environments, especially as we continue to see how climate change impacts are drastically shifting our weather patterns,” she says.

Hernandez titled her book after her father’s experience as a child soldier during the Central American civil wars.

At 11 years old, her father was forced to fight. In his spare time, he sought refuge under a nearby banana tree, to which he fled one day during a bombardment.

“He decided to do was to go under this banana tree that he had built a reciprocal relationship with … and he saw a bomb drop on the tree,” says Hernandez. “And the leaves kind of wrapped themselves to prevent the bomb from igniting. So my father says, ‘As long as we protect nature, nature will protect us.’ ”

Interview Highlights

On how Indigenous sciences prioritize collaboration over competition.

“One of the things about being an Indigenous scientist is that we understand the impacts colonialism had and continues to have on our people. And also… the climate change impacts. That it’s exacerbating our community disparities. And as Indigenous scientists, we work together to collaborate on ways that we can find solutions that will holistically heal our planet as well as our people.”

On how urban environments are often Indigenous spaces.

“We forget that … there are indigenous communities that are considered urban communities now because their environments have gone through these drastic changes. When we talk about Seattle, we can even talk about the history of how it was named after Chief Si’ahl, a Duwamish tribal leader, and how the Duwamish tribe is still fighting to kind of get federal recognition.

“I think that because we tend to always connect Indigenous peoples to more rural places, we forget that urban cities are also built on indigenous lands. And that goes throughout the United States … Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and these major cities that hold political and economic power in our country.”

On dealing with patronizing and condescending views toward Indigenous scientists 

“Fortunately for us, the narrative is starting to shift. But oftentimes [Indigenous scientists] are asked, ‘How is this science? Where is the data, the numerical data to support these claims?’ And I think that for Indigenous ways of knowing, not everything is translated into numerical datasets. Not everything is published in the peer review process.

“And I think that oftentimes because in sciences we still continue to exclude lived experiences or personal narratives, it kind of continues to invalidate communities and ways of knowing that are centered on storytelling … lived experiences … traditions.”

On the role of the patriarchy in climate science and Indigenous history

“In the book, I talk about the Zapatista movement and how the Zapatista movement, which reclaimed land for many Maya communities in southern Mexico, continues to paint the man, [Subcomandante] Marcos, as the leader, when in reality it was the Indigenous women … who were leading the communities to reclaim their lands. And I think that oftentimes when we talk about environmental justice or climate justice, the men in our communities are continued to [be given] the front and center and the leadership of those movements when in reality is Indigenous women who are leading those efforts.”

On what she wishes she had known when she entered scientific study

“I wish I would have known that there was going to be a constant battle, especially when talking about Western sciences, when trying to bring in my entire self. Because I think that one of the premises of our Indigenous knowledge is that it centers our spirituality. But in the Western sciences, in the name of objectivity, we have to remove ourselves from the science that we practice.”

On why more farmers should adopt the Indigenous practice of milpas

“One of the Indigenous practices that I think people should use is our milpas, which are these holistic agricultural ecosystems that are very different from Western agriculture, that tends to focus more on just one crop … With the milpas, it embodies the three sisters, as we consider them in the southwest region of the United States: our corn, our beans and our squash. Because they’re relatives and they kind of take care of one another, they grow faster. It doesn’t require as much human labor as Western agricultural practices.

“And through [the] milpas, we’re able to also have that intergenerational teaching where our elders are teaching our youth and everyone participates. It’s like a communal harvest where we are taught to take what we need and not necessarily what we want to take.”


Devan Schwartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtFrancesca Paris adapted it for the web.

Book excerpt: “Fresh Banana Leaves”

By Jessica Hernandez

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2017, 71.1 percent of doctoral degrees in the sciences were awarded to whites in comparison to the 0.4 percent awarded to Indigenous students. 9 Thus the uncomfortableness of these conversations that acknowledge how settler colonialism is rooted in the sciences impacts mostly whites. However, it is important to realize that for Indigenous peoples, settler colonialism and its impacts continue to be our everyday experiences. While white scientists can choose to ignore these conversations, as Indigenous peoples we are reminded every day of how our culture, identity, lands, and other parts of our lives continue to be threatened and impacted. We see how white scientists continue to be oblivious to settler colonialism and how deeply rooted it is in the environmental sciences, physics, medicine, and other science fields. There is a failure to reflect on the founding history of these fields and how these founding histories continue to play a major role within the fields and disciplines that have been created from within.

Settler colonialism grants certain scientists from wealthy countries such as the United States permission to go to other impoverished countries throughout Latin America and create their own research projects, centers, and other endeavors while further displacing the Indigenous peoples of those areas. Ecological and conservation research is often conducted by scientists from the United States, Canada, and other European countries that have the resources and autonomy to decide where they want to do research. In higher academia, we are taught that we can create a research grant proposal for “anywhere in the world.” I have come to learn that most of the time this statement refers to impoverished countries, and in the Americas that is Mexico and Central and South America (Latin America). This perpetuates the cycle of helicopter research where researchers from wealthy countries go to an impoverished country, conduct their research studies, and then return to their countries to analyze the data they collected and publish it, oftentimes not even including or consulting the local people of those countries. In Latin America, oftentimes this helicopter research leads to having white and Westerner researchers from countries that have a long history of colonization write our stories instead of supporting Indigenous peoples so that we can write our own stories.

I remember my visits to Oaxaca when my grandmother was still alive. Oftentimes I would go to the local shops or outdoor markets to help her purchase fresh fish and other produce. We would sometimes see white men and women with fancy cameras and equipment coming down from their trucks. My grandmother would always roll her eyes and tell me to keep on walking and not to engage or talk to any of them. I did not understand why she despised them, because I thought they were journalists or newscasters, similar to what we had in the United States. Oftentimes many of the people in our pueblo ignored them and their Spanish interpreter as well. Under her breath my grandmother whispered to me, “M’ija, these are people similar to anthropologists. They are here to collect our stories and statements because they say they are conducting ‘research.’ However, they have offered so many people stipends for their stories and interviews but did not pay them anything. On top of that, they are working on a book to write our stories. What do you think about that?” At such a young age I replied to my grandmother, “Why don’t they help everyone in the pueblo instead to learn how to read and write so that our people could write their own stories instead?”

Obviously, researchers who conduct helicopter research are not interested in what they can offer or what the community might benefit from, as their main goal is to collect data and then publish it to advance their careers. Helicopter research is the most common form of this top-down approach that the sciences continue to teach and amplify in academic institutions. Determining what kind of research is helpful without consulting the community or asking them what might benefit them is a top-down approach that can further harm the community, especially Indigenous peoples. In conservation, scientists are also taught that if something worked in one country, it might work in another one. This creates this mentality of one- size-fits-all.

Utilizing the top-down approach promotes the creation of one-size-fits-all conservation solutions and practices that may not necessarily work for all Indigenous communities because Indigenous communities are not monolithic and their way of life is place based. Given that coastal communities are different from inland communities, the same conservation approaches will not work as they have to be adapted to meet the community’s needs. This is why it is best to center the community first, which derives from the opposite spectrum, following the bottom-up approach.

I recall in my graduate school that a professor was very mad that his potential research project was cancelled because the local federally recognized tribes of the state of Washington were not interested in creating marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea. For him this was a great way to protect salmon because he had done other research projects in other developing countries to create MPAs for conservation purposes. MPAs are the conservation frameworks that have been applied to many impoverished and global south countries. He mentioned how he had “wasted” a lot of money trying to get this project started just for the tribes to say no to his proposal. This is an example of the combination of different top-down approaches I have discussed. He thought he knew what was best for the community as opposed to the communities, in this case tribes, knowing what was best for them. This is the settler colonialism that is embedded in conservation, where non-Indigenous scientists have not developed the same relationships with the local environment as tribes who have been cherishing these relationships for generations. He wanted to apply the one-size-fits-all model to tribes in the state of Washington because he had done similar projects on MPAs with other Indigenous communities in other countries.

In conservation, we are taught that practices and approaches that were successful should be what we apply to different regions, places, and communities. This tends to ignore that every community holds a different set of values and relationships with their environments. Also the success of conservation practices and approaches is often determined by the scientists, not the local communities. Lastly, he had already decided his research project, because he was the scientist, instead of asking the tribes what kind of conservation projects they wanted to do in regard to their marine resources.

We need to start discussing this top-down approach that is embedded in the sciences, in particular anything related to our environment, where scientists believe their academic credentials and experience can outweigh lived experiences and local knowledge. This is why reversing this topdown approach to become a bottom-up approach is crucial and essential to benefit local environments and communities.

From “Fresh Banana Leaves” by Jessica Hernandez, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2022 by Jessica Hernandez. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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