Jessica Hernandez on Why Western Environmentalism Won’t Save Us

The Indigenous scientist's new book models a holistic approach to conservation that centers Indigenous worldviews.

When Jessica Hernandez wrote her new book, Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, the title came to her naturally.

Banana trees have made many appearances throughout the life of the Indigenous scholar, scientist, and community advocate. It began before she was born: When her father was forced to be a child soldier in El Salvador’s civil war, he credited the trees with providing him food and protection from bombs. Banana leaves are important ingredients in her family’s ancestral foods, like tamales. And, central to the book, the plants are thematically significant to Hernandez, because they expose nuances that Western notions of conservation often miss. 

Banana trees were introduced in Latin America in the 16th through 19th centuries, grown in plantations under colonialism. “Under the lens of Western environmentalism, banana trees are an invasive species to my ancestral native lands,” Hernandez writes. But she sees it differently. “Like me and many Indigenous peoples in the diaspora, banana trees have also been displaced . . . forced to adapt to our new environments and form new kinships with our new land.” 

In Fresh Banana Leaves, published January 18 by North Atlantic Books, Hernandez shares her personal history as a Maya Ch'orti' & Binnizá woman and her lived experience as a lifelong learner of Indigenous science. She weaves stories from her family and fellow Indigenous organizers, the history of Indigenous and Western environmentalism, and her own experiences as an Indigenous woman navigating Western academia, to tell a story of how Indigenous science has survived through centuries of colonialism and what we can learn from it now. The book centers the voices of Indigenous people from Latin America as it highlights resilience in the face of difficult and often unjust circumstances—and envisions a future in which Indigenous people are given more autonomy over their lands and are treated as prominent leaders in the fight against environmental justices and climate change. 

Hernandez has extensive experience in both Indigenous and Western environmental thought. Her parents both come from Indigenous communities in Mexico and El Salvador, and Hernandez is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the division of physical sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. In many ways, she’s merged the two sets of knowledge: she’s published research papers on restoring an urban park using Indigenous frameworks, and she guest edited a special edition of the journal Human Biology in which all of the papers included were authored first by an Indigenous scholar. She also taught a climate science course that incorporates, for example, lessons on how Indigenous communities are impacted by climate change. But it hasn’t always been easy in the world of academia. “Whenever I shared knowledge that had been passed down to me, like my lived experiences, I have always been asked to cite it,” she says. 


Among the most important ideas for Hernandez is that of nature as kin.


Fresh Banana Leaves shares just a fraction of the Indigenous knowledge Hernandez has gained through her personal experiences and information passed down by her family and community. (Including all of it, she says, would “require one book per year of life.”) But she takes care to explain the complex thinking required to honor that knowledge. It’s important, as a starting point, to appreciate the holistic view of Indigenous knowledge systems. The practice of agroecology, or the stewardship of self-sustaining agricultural ecosystems, stands in contrast to common Western practices of separating agricultural tracts and controlling growth by fighting nature, like with the use of pesticides. 

Hernandez also explains that Indigenous science varies based on tribe and geographic location and also extends beyond natural resources. For example, gender, language, and culture—topics usually considered separate from Western environmental science—sustain Indigenous science in ways that include passing along knowledge, honoring the past, and preserving spiritual and artistic traditions that deepen connections to the environment. 

Among the most important ideas for Hernandez is that of nature as kin—which would preclude the utilitarian approach common in Western environmentalism, with its foundations in preserving nature’s usefulness to humans or a perceived purity of wilderness. The name of her people, Binnizá, embodies the alternative: It means “cloud people” to acknowledge “that our role on earth does not end when we are gone, as we are continuing to provide water to our plant and animal relatives in the form of rain.” Humans and nature sustain each other, during and after life. 

These notions often stand in contrast with how Western environmentalists have gone about conserving nature over the centuries. “Not many practitioners in conservation know how the field was founded,” Hernandez says. “And I think that when you learn that true history, you can start finding ways that you can bring justice to those communities or lands that have faced injustice.” She writes that Western notions of environmentalism are insufficient to heal the lands and communities that have been disproportionately affected by colonization, extractive industries, and natural disasters worsened by climate change. And she says that organizations built on those ideas—including Audubon—must grapple with their own role in that history. Many organizations and conservation policies, such as the creation of national parks and other preserved areas, have displaced Indigenous people and continue to prioritize Western science and values, ignoring Indigenous knowledge about stewarding nature. There’s such a large gulf between Western concepts of preservation and Indigenous science, Hernandez writes, that in many Indigenous languages there isn’t even a word that translates to conservation. The need for conservation runs so counter to Indigenous values of mutual protection that, Hernandez writes, the word hadn’t been necessary in Indigenous languages before colonization.  


Reading, she says, is a way of listening.


The book outlines the interaction between Western and Indigenous environmentalism over thousands of years of history. Hernandez also demonstrates that Indigenous communities have always continued working outside Western ideas of conservation with great success, offering case studies of Indigenous-led environmental efforts, such as community-based forest management in the Santiago Xiacuí community. One of her main goals in gathering information for the book was simply to listen. “Especially when we talk about environmental justice, it's hard to make time to listen to the people who are experiencing those injustices the most,” she says. In academic settings, specifically, Hernandez says that a lot of research summarizes or speaks for affected communities instead of uplifting their voices. Reading, she says, is a way of listening, since a reader is just taking in the words of the people presented on the page. “I think that part of the purpose of the book is to finally sit down and listen to some of the stories, to hear them instead of responding.”

In that interest, she speaks with a variety of artisans and community organizers in Latin America for her book about their relationship with the environment, offering transcripts of conversations that are deliberately free of her own editorializing or summarizing. “I wanted to include those testimonies and give them a platform to include their voices, because I'm somebody who has the ability to write a book, and having a Ph.D. kind of grants me that privilege,” she says. The conversations tend to demonstrate the power of mutual aid and labor representation as tools of decolonization. Beatriz Montesinos Fernández, a representative of the Colectivo Telar Triki that supports Indigenous women who weave huipiles, tells Hernandez about removing intermediaries so they can be fairly paid for their textiles. Ana Laura Palacios Cepeda, founder of the artisan collective Manos del Mar Oaxaca, talks about supporting elders in the Ikoots community with canastas Ikoots, baskets filled with traditional foods. (Hernandez herself leads Piña Soul, a business that provides mutual aid and micro-grants to Black and Indigenous-led conservation and environmental projects.) 

Toward the end of Fresh Banana Leaves, Hernandez compares her book-writing process to peeling off the layers of an onion—one layer of which, for example, meant dismantling the idea that she had to cite her ways of knowing. Finding that personal healing, joy, and decolonization of thought through writing was something she had to be deliberate about, partly by letting go of the idea that she could write to make every single reader happy. 

In that spirit, though, she hopes readers approach the book with the same sense of nuance that the story of banana leaves illustrates so well. Non-Indigenous readers shouldn’t crack open Fresh Banana Leaves hoping for a how-to guide on being an ally to Indigenous people, or an all-encompassing treatise that flattens Indigenous peoples’ approach to land knowledge into a monolith. “At the end of the day, the main message is that in order for us to heal our Indigenous lands as Indigenous peoples, we have to heal ourselves,” Hernandez says. “As readers, it's a self-reflection journey that everyone has to take."

Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, by Jessica Hernandez, 256 pages, $17. Buy it on