Towards an Ecological Economy

The words “ecology” and “economy” come from the same root—the Greek oikos—meaning “home” or “household.” This system built on relationships and the exchange of goods and services, not only keeps us alive, but keeps us grounded.

Climate change is a product of an extractive economy and consumptive lifestyles. World Wildlife Fund’s 2022 edition of the Living Planet Report reveals that we are overusing our planet’s resources by at least 75 percent, the equivalent of living off 1.75 Earths. Land-use change remains the biggest current threat to nature, destroying or fragmenting the natural habitats of many plant and animal species on land, in freshwater and in the sea. According to the IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, more than one-third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75 percent of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Agricultural production is responsible for 70 percent of biodiversity loss, and food systems account for between 21 and 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Our planet’s biocapacity is the ability of its ecosystems to regenerate; it is the underlying currency of all living systems. Earth’s resources are finite, and thus, require a creative and community-based approach to conserving them. Imagine what the world could look like if human economies were inspired by ecological systems.

Nat Hab Expedition Leader teaching travelers about rain forest species in Costa Rica

Nat Hab Expedition Leader teaching travelers about rain forest species in Costa Rica © Patrick Endres

Ecological economists ask how we might create an economy that provides for a just and sustainable future in which both human life and nonhuman life can flourish. Indigenous communities share traditional ecological knowledge practices, known as TEK. They construct regenerative economies based on a system of reciprocity between people and the planet. Citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer illustrates what an ecological economy looks like in her essay, “Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System.” For Indigenous communities, the necessity for food justice and sovereignty is centered on restoring Indigenous agricultural practices that were displaced by colonization.

The scientific name for corn is Zea mays, “mays” referring to the Taino name that Columbus recorded in his journal when first tasting “a sort of grain which they call mahiz, which very well tasted when boiled, roasted, or made into porridge.” Mahiz, meaning the “Bringer of Life,” became the word maize in English. By 6500 BC, corn was cultivated more widely across the Americas than any other plant. Today, 70 percent of processed foods contain corn in some form (corn syrup, corn oil, corn starch). Corn is a keystone species to both Indigenous and agro-industrial societies throughout the Americas. English settlers popularized the generalized use of the word corn, but the Indigenous names honor maize as a totem of culture and reflect a symbiotic bond between the planter and the plant.

Mexican Corn, maize dried blue corn cobs on hands in Mexico

Within the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) mythology, corn, beans and squash hold special significance. In their creation story, these plants grew from the body of Sky Woman’s daughter after she died giving birth. They covered her body with mounds of earth and from her breasts sprouted stalks of corn, squash from her navel and beans and tobacco from her feet. “Mother Earth” was born. Drawing on this history, a team of Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) researchers from Quebec, Canada, explored how they could bolster food security in their local community. They reasoned that from an agronomic perspective, the “Three Sisters” mound system exemplifies complex knowledge systems and abilities upon which the Haudenosaunee developed a sustainable and productive polyculture system. The researchers stated: “The corn’s tall sturdy stalk supports climbing bean vines. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil, a nutrient required by corn. Squash has large leaves and grows low to the ground, maintaining moisture, discouraging pests, and reducing unwanted plant growth. The mound structure enriches the physical, biological, and chemical environment of the soil. The mutually supportive relationship represents sisterhood and reflects the Haudenosaunee philosophy that a strong society depends upon a complementarity of supporting relationships.”

Food sovereignty two Indigenous girls laughing and playing in family grocery store Latin America produce fruit farming agriculture

Reverence for maize is particularly strong among the Onondaga Nation, member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. “These seeds are our ancestors,” says farmer Angie Ferguson. “Each seed carries the knowledge of the gift it was given. It knows what to do. It’s a miracle to put a seed in the ground and watch what happens.” Angie is a leader in the Braiding the Sacred movement, which is revitalizing Indigenous agriculture, farmer by farmer, seed by seed and song by song. Robin Wall Kimmerer reflects on the importance of traditional seed keepers through the following words: “Unsustainable industrial agriculture needs philosophical gene flow from Indigenous knowledge, a cross-pollination of respectful relationship to breed a new agriculture that honors the plants as well as the people. Together we can remember our covenant with corn, that she will care for the people, if we will care for her. Corn tastes better on the honor system.”

The Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance preserves cultural identity by collecting and growing heirloom seeds through the national Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN). Educating future generations about shared responsibility and empowering them to build lifelong relationships with each other and the land is at the heart of this movement. Food sovereignty is an alternative paradigm that emerged in 1996 in response to the damages caused by market-driven, industrial agriculture and settler colonial practices. La Via Campesina, a global activist group focused on the rights of Indigenous farmers declare, it is “the right of Peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems.” For many, harvesting is a radical act of reclamation and self-determination, and it positions Indigenous members at the forefront of policy-making decisions.

Smiling African Woman Farmer Working In A Maize Field

We Are Where We Eat

“We are what we eat, but we are also where we eat as people who are Indigenous to this place,” writes Haudenosaunee member, Kaya Hill from Six Nations of the Grand River territory in Canada. Indigenous Peoples’ food systems express sophisticated people-place relationships and ecological place-based knowledge, acquired across generations through language, story, ceremony, practice and law.

In Canada, Brazil and Australia, vertebrate biodiversity in Indigenous territories equals or surpasses that found within formally protected areas. Fishing, for example, not only embodies legal traditions but enables the monitoring of waterways and facilitates knowledge and language transfer. The disappearance of fish as a result of habitat destruction and biodiversity loss means a loss of food, but more significantly, a loss of cultural identity. Elders across British Columbia, Canada have reported a mounting scarcity in salmon (an 83 percent decline in their lifetimes). These elders advocate for Etuaptmumk, or “two-eyed seeing”—that is, using one eye to see the world through TEK and the other through Western tech (mainstream scientific knowledge).

Native fish salmon waters food security food justice food sovereignty fishing aquaculture fresh mountain stream Sockeye Salmon

In the case of Australia, Indigenous Peoples have cared for and managed surface and groundwater for many generations—stretching back more than 65,000 years. Water is not only an integral life source on a dry continent but a source of identity, language, gender and law. Marginalized people, such as small-scale aquaculture farmers in lower-income countries, are often overlooked and are not represented at a governance level. The National Cultural Flows Research Project seeks to elevate the voices of northern Basin First Nations. They developed an assessment of Aboriginal cultural values; methodologies for ecological, socioeconomic and health outcomes; and recommended policy and institutional changes to prevent the misappropriation of water.

Aquaculture Marine fishery in tropical sea plastic reuse sustainable fishing

Aquaculture making use of ocean plastic pollution

Along the coast of eastern Australia, the Pacific Coast of North America and the Gulf of Mexico, mariculture practices, such as cultivating intertidal clam gardens, have been sustainably managed by Indigenous communities for 5-10,000 years or more. Using millennial-scale archaeological data and sea level rise histories, a team of anthropologists and biologists evaluated 28 oyster fisheries and determined that they thrived better in these regions than under the European settlers’ management of capitalist commercial fisheries. Oyster middens serve as important dietary, economic, ceremonial and symbolic sites.

Oyster farm fields at a beach in Changhua, Taiwan

Oyster farm

“What’s really powerful [about studying Indigenous practices] is that these coastal ecologies, which have been sleeping or dormant, are being reawakened,” says Dr. Marco Hatch, marine ecologist and member of the Samish Indian Nation. “A community I’m working with now is creating the first clam garden in the modern era. Clam gardens are vibrant ecosystems because people have modified them, tended them and harvested them. All of that has created positive feedback where the environment is in fact more abundant—there are more clams and they grow faster.” This study teaches us that effective stewardship of oyster reefs, marine fisheries and large-scale aquaculture projects must center Indigenous histories and include Indigenous community members to co-develop more inclusive, just and sustainable strategies.

In North America, or the Indigenous Turtle Island, land use and wildlife management is gradually returning to the hands of the Native Peoples. Senior Vice President for Freshwater and Food at WWF-US, Melissa D. Ho visited leaders and members of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, also called the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. They celebrated the return of bison to their ancestral lands in what is today known as South Dakota. The decimation of buffalo (“iinniiwa”: Blackfoot, “tatanka”: Lakota, “ivanbito”: Navajo, “kuts”: Paiute) by early white settlers left Native American communities without their primary food source, negatively impacting their health and culture, while degrading the ecosystem. Five dozen bison were released onto the tribe’s Wolakota Buffalo Range—28,000 acres of native grassland that is home to North America’s largest herd owned and managed by Indigenous Peoples.

Bison adult parent and baby calf Yellowstone National park

© Sean Becket

Ho writes: “It was humbling to be part of this bison homecoming event, which was especially meaningful because the herd had been transferred from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The Lakota creation story says its people originated there, together with the buffalo, which the Sicangu Lakota consider to be their ancestor. It was also inspiring to see how today this community has aligned its values, heritage, identity, and resources to build toward a future that safeguards their food sovereignty, livelihoods, and the grasslands ecosystem—and restores the spiritual and cultural relationship between the bison and people.”

WWF recognizes that conserving large herds is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. That is why they partner with the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Sicangu Lakota Nation. In addition, WWF supports the Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance, a Native-led initiative that provides technical and financial resources to sustain traditional lands and waters within the Northern Great Plains. Over the past five years, WWF has invested around $3 million in restoring bison to Tribal territories and they are working to restore five herds of at least 1,000 bison each by 2025.

Forest Stewardship Leads to Food Security 

Human-induced climate change has contributed to malnutrition and disease susceptibility in many regions, and women, children, Indigenous Peoples and low-income households are disproportionately impacted. Today, one in four Indigenous Peoples living on reservations experience periods of food insecurity. Systemic inequity and lack of access to traditional diets began as far back as 1851, when the reservation system was enacted. Indigenous Peoples were displaced from their ancestral lands and forced to subsist on colonizer foods provided by the United States government. White flour, lard, sugar and canned meats quickly replaced the unprocessed, wild foods they were used to. This continues to have a devastating affect on Native Nations as many reservations have become food deserts in the absence of arable land and clean water. A 2018 National Health Institute Survey found that 48 percent of Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. were obese. Additionally, Native Americans have the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes.

Native American Indigenous Peoples sharing and harvesting potato crops farming food sovereignty

Intensive, single-crop and industrial agricultural and food system practices have a high environmental footprint. These exploitive practices include: clearing forests for crop cultivation and animal grazing; the release of carbon from tilling the soil; and the use of fossil fuel-based inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. Consequently, crop and grassland quality and harvest stability has suffered. Furthermore, ocean acidification and warming increases toxigenic fungi and harmful algal blooms and water-borne diseases, which threaten aquatic food crops as well as the economy and the livelihoods of many coastal communities.

Daughter and mother separate grain farming in Asia buffalo

The Sixth Assessment Report developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “sea level rise and coastal erosion reduces ecosystem services to a point where either subsidies are used to enable human populations to remain in their place of attachment, or ultimately to displace coastal residents, thereby removing connections to places of intrinsic value.” For example, the United Houma Nation in Louisiana is experiencing loss of Tribal identity as a result of forced relocation from coastal land loss, sea level rise and volatile Gulf hurricanes. Alaska Natives are experiencing similar hardships, which are further compounded by projects like Pebble Mine, which threatens to poison Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest wild salmon fishery.

Alaska Bear Coast Brooks Falls Katmai National Park grizzly bear brown bear fishing salmon sockeye salmon runs

Alaskan grizzly bear fishes for salmon in Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park © Court Whelan

The global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050; this implies an increase in food demand of 35–56 percent. Lands and waters will face increased extraction pressures and Indigenous communities will undoubtedly endure the brunt of this environmental degradation. Approximately 750 million people—including 60 million Indigenous people—live in forests and the Amazon alone is home to 350 Indigenous groups. Indigenous Peoples manage about 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact ecosystems worldwide. Deforestation rates tend to be lower on Indigenous Peoples’ lands than in surrounding forests (including in protected areas). In fact, 91 percent of Indigenous Peoples’ and local community lands have zero to low levels of human modification. The State of Indigenous Peoples’ and Local Communities’ Lands and Territories report, which was co-created by WWF stated: “Achieving the ambitious goals and targets in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will not be possible without the lands and territories recognized, sustained, protected and restored by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.”