A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal claims the introduction of European diseases to Indigenous populations in the 17th century not only exacted an enormous human toll, but also significantly damaged the ecology of the American continent.
Harvard Anthropology professor Matt Leibmann and his team used new advances in laser technology to survey the 17th century population of 18 villages in Jemez, New Mexico, based on the number and size of buildings that the inhabitants had constructed. They found that the Native population of this area fell from 6,500 to 900 in the 60 years after prolonged contact with Franciscan missionaries between 1620 and 1680, a reduction of 87%.
The social and cultural impact of this devastation is obvious, but the team also noticed significant ecological changes that followed the drop in population. “Forest fires also take off during this period”, explained Liebmann. “When people are living in these villages, they need timber for their roofs, and for heating and cooking. In addition, they’re clearing the land for farming, so trees weren’t growing there when these archaeological sites were inhabited. But as people died off, the forests started re-growing and we start to see more forest fires.”
Leibmann and his team concluded that the Indigenous populations in Jemez had reduced forest fires by regularly harvesting wood for heat, cooking and buildings, as well as clearing some land for agriculture. The removal of dry, dead wood and introduction of farmland gaps in the forest had a significant impact in the overall health of the local ecology. The terrible epidemic in this area led to a direct increase in forest fires, as fewer people were left to care for the forest.
The protective relationship between Indigenous peoples and the land is still very evident today in the form of environmental activism from groups like Idle No More. A movement started in 2012 by First Nations women in Canada to champion Indigenous sovereignty and a more integrative approach to the environment, Idle No More has taken off with millions of supporters across the US and Canada, and a huge following on social media. They have pulled off teach ins, hunger strikes and direct action to halt resource exploitation and industrial damage to the environment, like the now defunct Shell Arctic drilling project and Keystone XL pipeline.
The conflict between Indigenous peoples and the resource extraction industry continues unabated in places like the Amazon rainforest. Known as the “lungs” of the planet, this South American rainforest removes more carbon from the atmosphere than any other ecosystem, but remains threatened by illegal logging, oil drilling, and slash-and-burn deforestation for industrial agriculture.
Communities such as the Achuar in eastern Ecuador have fought for years to keep oil drilling out of their territory, even under the threat of violence from private corporate armies that seek to intimidate and dispossess them of their land. The Achuar have successfully protected their corner of Ecuador, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, partially through activism. The Pachamama alliance, a non-profit founded by Achuar leaders and their allies to protect the rainforest and the Achuar way of life, educates millions of people each year in the importance of protecting the environment and Indigenous sovereignty, and directly challenges the incursion of oil companies through legal and political action.
Matt Leibmann and his team’s discovery that Native ways of life protected the forest and their disappearance hurt ecosystems is is significant validation of contemporary Indigenous attempts to defend the earth from extraction industries, which if left unchecked will render our planet uninhabitable.
It is also important to note that the struggle of these modern activists against greed is not a new fight. Indigenous people have been fighting for control of their lands and sacred way of life since the 15th century, when Pope Alexander VI initiated a series of Papal bulls now known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” that authorized any European power to attack, conquer and enslave any non-Christian community in the new world and exploit their natural resources. The colonial abuse explicitly advocated in the Doctrine of Discovery led directly to the depopulation and environmental problems described by Matt Leibmann in his study.
This cruel and archaic doctrine has served as a weapon for those who seek to steal the land from its rightful owners for hundreds of years, and is STILL being cited as a reason to dispossess Indigenous peoples from Arizona to Brazil. The Romero Institute calls upon our allies to sign the petition urging Pope Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, and support the proven and sacred connection between Indigenous communities and their ancestral homes.