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Climate Crisis: What We Can Learn From Indigenous Traditions

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Climate Crisis: What We Can Learn From Indigenous Traditions
Konso dwellings are seen near the town of Konso, Ethiopia. Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

Indigenous people around the world have lived in concert with nature for centuries, practicing responsible land management, regenerative farming practices and water conservation.


But as Indigenous populations continue to be pushed off of their lands by development, it's more important than ever to learn how their practices can counter the climate crisis.

"By ignoring what Indigenous people know about how to protect their forests, we lose potential solutions to the climate crisis. We lose time and we lose money. It is unstrategic and unethical," Marcia Nunes Macedo and Valéria Paye Pereira wrote in The New York Times.

Controlled Fires

From the Americas to the Amazon to Australia, culturally significant controlled burns have been an integral part of proactive fire management that prevents forest fires from spreading.

In one example, Karuk tribal traditions in Northern California use frequent, low-intensity fires to help restore and maintain the region's flora and fauna, according to researchers in The Conversation. More specifically, the fires help restore grassland for elk and for making basketry. Meanwhile, smoke from summer fires provides cool temperatures for river fish.

"[Cultural burning] links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine," Frank Kanawha Lake, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, firefighter and Karuk descendent, told the The History Channel. "When you prescribe it, you're getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture."

Aboriginal Australians monitor controlled fires to prevent them from damaging seedlings or soil nutrients. They also avoid burning logs or trees that house insects and animals. Furthermore, the controlled burns help to restore growth and strengthen ecosystems, Yes! Magazine reported.

Over in the Amazon, the Kuikuro people in the Xingu Indigenous Territory use an elaborate system of ditches, dikes and roads to create a break that controls the spread of wildfires, according to The New York Times.

Water Management

Australia has been under a severe drought for years, threatening Sydney's water supply. As a result, the regional governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have teamed up with Aboriginal tribes to learn Indigenous water management techniques. For example, the Ngarrindjeri Nation in South Australia helped implement innovative environmental solutions during the Millennium Drought that lasted from 2001-2009.

"When Indigenous nations become sovereign partners in environmental management, the power structures and worldviews that underlie decision-making can be productively challenged... creating new solutions to pressing environmental issues," Dr. Samantha Muller, lead author of Indigenous sovereignties: relational ontologies and environmental management, said in Science Daily.

"Indigenous agency and governance is driving innovations in land management worldwide that provide more equitable solutions and strategic approaches to looking after the lands, waters and all living things, particularly in the face of climate change," she added.

To increase respect for water usage, Western Australia has issued lesson plans and instructional videos about water's role in Aboriginal culture.

Farming and Land Management  


The efficient use of water often goes hand-in-hand with farming practices. The Konso people in East Africa have used water and land so effectively that their community is officially recognized and protected by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site. For example, one study noted, "They work together to build attractive terracing landscapes and complex village compounds in addition to construction and protection of water systems. To strengthen their togetherness, they frequently use the proverb 'Living together means sharing resources.' This social cohesion is the basic underlying factor in achieving sustainability even in modern management."

Indigenous communities also use fire to clear small plots of land and strengthen their harvest. In the Amazon, communities grow cassava and then let the land lie fallow for years while farming another section. The fallow period allows the vegetation to improve and helps to prevent soil erosion. The restored land is again burned, with the ashes fertilizing the soil, Mongabay reported.

The idea of Indigenous land control is reinforced by Greenpeace campaigners in Al-Jazeera. The authors explain how this transfer away from the industrial world would help meet climate goals and reduce pollution. For example, "In Mexico's Cabo Pulmo, local communities secured legal protection and are reviving marine life and livelihoods," they write.

"There is a lot of potential in providing people with the means to resist industrial expansion that is contributing to species loss, climate breakdown and deepening inequalities," they add.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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