Recovering Indigenous knowledge: Towards an alternative development model in the Anthropocene

'The Factory' sourced via Pixabay.com, CC0 License.

The Anthropocene is the current geological epoch, where massive species extinction, climate change and several other environmental disasters are transversally present in the world. The changes in the earth’s biospheric and geospheric systems are supported by scientific evidence that places human impact as their main cause.1

Because of the latter, it is imperative to question what kind of impact really caused the irreversible damage, specifically by whom and within which ideology, in order to find new ways of development that can potentially make a shift in the current environmental, political and economic context. The concept of ‘the Anthropocene’ and the traditional way in which it is addressed, continues to be human-centric, and it does not only ignore other species, but it also neglects power imbalances and heterogeneity among humanity. It fails to recognise that not only the environment is threatened, but vulnerable people all over the world are also being damaged within the same logic that caused the problem in the first place: colonialism. According to the Canadian researchers Davis and Todd, the Anthropocene continues to be addressed as a universalising concept that reinforces Eurocentric narratives of violence, dispossession and domination.2 The environmental crisis we find ourselves in is unsurprising when considering that human development exploits the environment and some of its people for economic and political purposes. The consequences we inherited from such ideology is what we today call the Anthropocene.

Colonialism, extractivism and capitalism have drastically reshaped entire ecosystems, and are the cause of the crisis we are living in today. As stated by Todd and Davis, “colonialism it was always about changing the land, transforming the earth itself, including the creatures, the plants, the soil composition and the atmosphere”.3  Today, we are facing climate change, but as Haraway describes, it also includes toxic chemistry, mining, genocides and collapse.4  What colonialism did, and now through what capitalism continues to do, is to separate humans from their environment, to dominate every non-human species to their own advantage; to separate land, animals, plants and humans.

The invitation relies then on how to think of new development schemes with a different sense of belonging to the Anthropocene and the role of human beings. While many organisations are now focussed on grassroots development projects and environmentally friendly economic schemes, the next question is: is this enough? To follow a green agenda within the same capitalist standard does not change much, as capitalism itself is not sustainable for the environment. It is not enough to just take care of the environment but to truly contest the dominant structures that destroy the earth. Furthermore, it is needed to address the binary relationship between humankind and nature, the heterogeneity within humankind and the different power imbalances and the dominative relationship among countries and communities. The development sector continues to explore capitalism and economic development as the main path to achieve wellbeing. Although many environmental sustainability projects offer fair wealth distribution, what is still missing is a further analysis through ecofeminism lenses, which can offer “critical insight into the ways that sexism, heteronormativity, racism, colonialism, ableism, speciesism, and environmental degradation all participate in an interlocking logic of domination”.5

Indigenous knowledge and community-based movements have given great examples on how to find a balance between human livelihood and the environment as an intrinsically interrelated connection. The emblematic case of the Chipko movement is an example of how a grassroots movement was capable of contesting the extractive, colonial, capitalist and dominant white supremacy of the British empire, and opened up space to ecological thinking. To contest the current ideology, it is important to not only decolonise the Anthropocene but also to think through other lenses as ecofeminism and ecological thinking. Instone and Taylor invite us to make a change by thinking from where we “think through, think from and from whom we think with”.6

Indigenous peoples over the world experienced once before the inevitable result of an ideology of colonialism, exploitation and dispossession that has been affecting all living species since before the Anthropocene was coined. However, despite Western narratives, Indigenous peoples already had notions of sustainability and land management. What we are inheriting is a dominant and human-centric environment, but through Indigenous knowledge, it can be shifted into more inclusive and collective ways of thinking, and work to reconnect humanity with the non-human world.

The ecological thinking presented in green capitalism is not enough when we are trying to contest the current global behaviours focused on the traditional paradigm of economic growth as the only path to development. Resistance and resilience from Indigenous people are a key point to start thinking of more ecological and sustainable ways of development. Examples of Indigenous knowledge across the world reflect consistent ways of livelihood that are not only sustainable, but that also consider all species as part of the ecosystem. By including the experiences of people that are intrinsically connected with their environments in environmental decision making, perhaps we can start to understand that the world is part of assemblages that connect different species, in which humans are just a part of the puzzle.


1. Affrica Taylor and Lesley Instone (2015) ‘Thinking Inheritance Through the Figure of the Anthropocene’, Environmental Humanities, 7(1), p.138.
2. Zoe Todd and Heather Davis (2017), ‘Decolonizing the Anthropocene’, ACME, 16(4), 761-780.
3. Ibid., p.770.
4. Donna Haraway (2015), ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene Chthulucene’, Environmental Humanities, 6(1), p.159.
5. Astrida Neimanis (2015). Ecofeminism: Feminist Intersections with Other Animals and the Earth edited by Carol J. Adams and Lori Gruen [review]. The Goose, 14(1), Article 20, p.1.
6. Taylor and Instone (2015) ‘Thinking Inheritance’.

Maria Soruco is a Chilean student in her last semester of the Master of Development Studies from the Department of Anthropology, School of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. Her ongoing thesis talks about the shifting notions of nature and the land in Rapa Nui, the problem of environmental colonialism and future prospects in decolonising the biocultural heritage of the Island.

This blog post is a part of the SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.