Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science

By Jessica Hernandez. North Atlantic Books, 2022. 256 pages. $17.95/paperback; $12.99/eBook.By

We often hear the anti-Indigenous statement that the “United States is a nation of immigrants.” This statement ignores the colonization the Americas underwent and the genocide Indigenous peoples faced and continue to face under settler colonialism.

According to Jessica Hernandez, despite the fact that Indigenous communities are among the most affected by climate devastation, Indigenous science is nowhere to be found in mainstream environmental policy or discourse. She describes the challenges she faced during her work on her multiple degrees (a dual bachelor’s, a dual master’s, and a doctorate) from scientists who discounted her intention to include Indigenous science as a resource.

Hernandez’s father is Mayan Ch’orti’ from El Salvador, and her mother is Zapotec from Mexico. Although Hernandez grew up in the United States, her parents’ understanding of Indigenous wisdom and knowledge of the natural world had a strong influence in her life. She is a founder of the environmental agency Piña Soul, an Indigenous-led, environmental consulting business. According to its website, the nonprofit supports Afro-Indigenous and Indigenous-led conservation and environmental projects through community mutual aid and sustainability.

This book will challenge any reader who is non-Indigenous or White. Hernandez is very direct in helping the reader understand the failures of Western conservationism. As she points out, “Settler colonialism is the systems that continue to grant settlers the power to lead political regimes, government institutions, and natural resource allocation over the Indigenous peoples who used to coexist with the lands that are now colonized.”

I appreciate the inclusion of the author’s stories from her family, particularly from her grandmother, mother, and her father. Her father was a child-recruit in the civil war in El Salvador. Bombs were dropping, and he hid under a banana tree, a non-native tree but one that has provided nutrition for centuries and become essential to the local diet. The story goes that a bomb was stopped by the tree where he took shelter, and it saved him. He always told Hernandez that when we take care of nature, nature takes care of us. After surviving the bombing, he slowly made his way to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he met her mother, and they eventually emigrated to the United States. So, the title of the book is very personal.

The author is tough on the term “conservation,” and describes it as a Western construct that was created as a result of settlers exploiting natural resources in Indigenous lands and depleting entire ecosystems. She goes on to expose the Whiteness of Western conservation, listing people such as John Muir; Gifford Pinchot; Theodore Roosevelt; and George Bird Grinnell, among others. They gave no thought to the fact that Indigenous people had been living for a long time with the natural resources available to them, and they did not learn how the Indigenous people had lived and managed the land.

Hernandez emphasizes the importance of community-based participatory research (CBPR) that moves away from the top-down approach to research. The six CBPR principles include the following:

  • Follow and create fluid and dynamic approaches that do not follow the linear research method.
  • Respect tribal sovereignty and Indigenous autonomy.
  • Follow Indigenous protocols and their way of being and doing things in their communities.

On a personal note, my husband and I had the extraordinary privilege of visiting and learning about a modern-day Mayan women’s collective in Guatemala. They were guided by an elder who was teaching the old ways of harvesting natural resources for medicines. We came to the realization that this ancient knowledge is important for the wider world as well as for the preservation of Mayan culture.

This book is important because it helps unwrap many of the White settler colonialism myths of the history of environmentalism and conservationism in the Americas. It’s a book to be read with others in order to explore and understand its implications for a future where Indigenous knowledge is respected and embraced.

Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Middlebury (Vt.) Meeting, where she serves as co-clerk and on the Earthcare Committee. She is a homesteader and activist for all that lives on Earth.

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